Monday, June 23, 2014

A Critique of Victor J. Stenger's "The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason"

This critique is in response to the book description found on
In recent years a number of bestselling books have forcefully argued that belief in God can no longer be defended on rational or empirical grounds, and that the scientific worldview has rendered obsolete the traditional beliefs held by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The authors of these books--Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger--have come to be known as the "New Atheists." Predictably, their works have been controversial and attracted a good deal of critical reaction.
I completely agree with the statement in regard to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. However, this is not a refutation of belief in God. It merely refutes the (Western) Judaeo-Christian-Isalamic religious tradition. The fact that the authors of those books – all of them Westerners – deem this to be equivalent to a refutation of belief in God merely reflects their own cultural arrogance, their irrational sociosentiment.
In this new book, Victor J. Stenger, whose God: The Failed Hypothesis was on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007, reviews and expands upon the principles of New Atheism and answers many of its critics. He demonstrates in detail that naturalism--the view that all of reality is reducible to matter and nothing else--is sufficient to explain everything we observe in the universe, from the most distant galaxies to the inner workings of the brain that result in the phenomenon of mind.
This statement is patently false. We don't have an adequate materialist/naturalist explanation of subjective conscious experiences (qualia). And naturalist/materialist proponents have – like most Western thinkers – only addressed cosmological issues regarding efficient cause, never touching on the subject of material cause. The belief that material science can answer all unanswered questions regarding this universe is a type of faith that is essentially religious in nature. It is merely belief, not science but scientism.
Stenger disputes the claim of many critics that the question of whether God exists is beyond the ken of science. On the contrary, he argues that absence of evidence for God is, indeed, evidence of absence when the evidence should be there and is not.
That dog won't hunt when spiritual people – and even religious people – deem there to be evidence of God's existence all around them. Stenger expresses his own materialist point of view and treats that as if it is the only point of view. In other words, Stenger looks at the universe and sees no evidence of God, whereas the spiritualist looks at the universe and sees everything as evidence of God.
Turning from scientific to historical evidence, Stenger then points out the many examples of evil perpetrated in the name of religion.
In his book, Stenger also acknowledges many examples of evil perpetrated in the name of materialistic notions – German Nazism, Russian Communism, Cambodian Communism, and so on. But then he tries to pooh-pooh it away. "As we saw in chapter 5, believers try to argue that atheism is more evil than theism because twentieth-century atheists such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot killed more people than the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, and the kings of Christendom put together. I showed that this statement is disputable since Hitler was not an atheist and the numbers themselves are arguable." (Section on "Religion and Morality" in Chapter 6 "Religion and Morality")

How does the fact that Hitler might not have been an atheist negate the atrocities of Stalin and Pol Pot? And, hold on a minute... "The numbers themselves are arguable"? And why would anyone want to replace one bad thing with another bad thing? Why not replace the bad thing with something good?

Stenger argues: "Hitler killed six million Jews for at least partially religious reasons. They killed God. In any case, if there had been no religion there would not have been a group so separated from the rest of society that they stood out as different." (Section on "Lessons from Mormonism" in Chapter 5 "Holy Smoke") Once again, hold on a minute... "They killed God"? Who is talking here: Hitler or Stenger? And, just out of curiosity, how does one kill an entity that is posited to be all-powerful and eternal? Furthermore, was Hitler's reason for killing Jews religious, economic, or racial? (Personally, I find it hard to believe anything said by politicians, political people.) But leaving aside these somewhat minor issues, here we find Stenger effectively blaming the victim for the crime. "If there were no Jews, there would have been no Holocaust. If women were not weaker than men, and if they did not look different from men... and if they did not expose themselves by going out on the streets... they would not get raped."
He also notes that the Bible, which is still taken to be divine revelation by millions, fails as a basis for morality and is unable to account for the problem of unnecessary suffering throughout the world.
Certainly I agree that the Bible fails as a basis for morality. But the system of Yama-Niyama found in Tantra/Yoga is far superior to anything contrived by materialists/naturalists.

I find it interesting but not surprising that Stenger never once mentions the ethical code of Yama-Niyama. He talks about the moral codes of Buddhism and Jainism, both of which were based on Yama-Niyama (with focus on the first point of Yama, Ahimsa). But Stenger never even mentions the word Ahimsa either. Instead, he absurdly attempts to fit a square peg into a round hole by asserting that there is a "universal morality" that is somehow embodied in the "Golden Rule" (or a more stringent form of it). Stenger then dogmatically asserts that the Ahimsa of Buddhism and also Jainism is somehow a mere extension of the Golden Rule. This type of preposterous straw-man analysis might fool someone with little or no knowledge of Eastern religion and its ethical roots, but such shoddy intellectualism is not worth a farthing to a serious seeker of truth.

According to Stenger: "The entire philosophy of Jainism... is based on avoiding the suffering of any living thing, a true altruism much more demanding than the Golden Rule." (Section on "Universal Morality" in Chapter 6 "Suffering and Morality") This is utter nonsense. While it is true that Jains take the concept of not hurting other living creatures to be their primary religious duty – a duty that they extend to an extreme and untenable extent, to the point of feeding termites in their own house while employing military force to repel human invaders – it is utterly idiotic to claim that this is "true altruism" and that "the entire philosophy of Jainism is based" on that.
Finally, he discusses the teachings of ancient nontheist sages such as Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius, whose guidelines for coping with the problems of life and death did not depend upon a supernatural metaphysics.
It is rather interesting that when considering existential and ethical issues, the ancient nontheist sages that Stenger considers are mostly Eastern. But let's look a bit closer at the three persons mentioned here, because it is not a given that all of these three philosophers were "nontheist".

Buddha might well have been theistic. The fact that he did not reply to a question asked on this subject is not proof that he did not believe in God. It could simply have been Buddha's way of pointing out that God is ineffable. In any event, Buddha's concept of Ahimsa was taken from the theistic Tantric tradition.

As to Lao Tzu, like Buddha, whether he was theistic or nontheistic is not clear. However, it is clear that he was not materialistic or 'naturalistic'. "The Tao that can be told of is not the Absolute Tao; the Names that can be given are not Absolute Names. The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; the Named is the Mother of All Things... He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know." (From Chapter 1 and 56 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu) Furthermore, Lao Tzu's path of Taoism may be viewed as a Chinese derivative of Tantra. According to Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, over time the Sanskrit word tantra underwent various metamorphoses in China: tantra became taota; taota became taoa; and, in modern Chinese, taoa became tao. (Chapter on "Acoustic Roots" in "Ananda Vacanamrtam Part 14")

Regarding Confucius, he might indeed have developed a secular ethical code. But, in my opinion, that secular ethical code is not significantly better than the ethics found in the Bible, because it tends to entrench the status quo and serve the interest of imperialists.
Stenger argues that this "way of nature" is far superior to the traditional supernatural monotheisms, which history shows can lead to a host of evils.
Once again I would point out that what is referred to here as "traditional supernatural monotheism" is merely the Western religious tradition (which, in fact, is not at all the same as the much older tradition of Tantric monotheism). And, while Western theism has led to a host of evils (as demonstrated by history), undoubtedly Western atheism has also led to a host of evils (as also demonstrated by history). So, instead of replacing Western monotheism with Western atheism or Western materialism or Western naturalism, it makes more sense to look in a different direction – a direction that is non-Western or not exclusively Western.
The New Atheism is a well-argued defense of the atheist position and a strong rebuttal of its critics.
How strong a rebuttal it is would be best demonstrated in the setting of a debate, not a monologue. Personally, I find Stenger's arguments to be weak and sometimes quite objectionable.