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God's not dead. But Victor Stenger renowned physicist and best-selling atheist author now is. He died Aug. 27. From natural rather than supernatural causes, one might add.
"Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings," Stenger famously remarked. His epigram concisely captures two major problems with religion: It is both ridiculous and repugnant.
Stenger's first point is self-evident. When it comes to the physical world, science works. Religion doesn't. It's that simple. You can't pray a plane into the air, or the World Trade Center into the ground. You can't pray away someone else's disease, either. But religions throughout the world claim that you can and collect tithings on such grounds. By any standard but religion, that's fraud. But for religion, it's SOP.
The second point that religion is repugnant would be equally self-evident, except that many theists have been so indoctrinated by the "God is great" trope that they can't accept the obvious. God's Noachian flood is fiction, of course fundamentalist Christian and Mormon claims notwithstanding. By any standard but religion, world-wide genocide would be repugnant, not glorified. But for religion, it's SOP.
From a scientific perspective, Stenger forcefully argued that the God hypothesis is just another hypothesis about the natural universe. And it's wrong.
Stenger rightly challenged the all-too-frequent accommodationist mantra that "science can say nothing about the supernatural" and that "science is neutral" about "whether God exists or not" as even the National Academy of Sciences has claimed. Unless God has no measureable impact on the universe, the two explanations the natural and the supernatural are inherently incompatible. And a god with no measurable impact is indistinguishable from no god at all.
Science never provides 100 percent certainty. But as Stenger noted, "Absence of evidence is evidence of absence" if the evidence should be present, but is not. We correctly reject the hypothesis of medicinal effectiveness if a drug repeatedly and reproducibly doesn't work. We correctly reject the Godzilla hypothesis, without any pseudo-philosophical waffling. So, too, we can reject the God hypothesis.
Moderate Christians oft cry that their own sectarian beliefs are unfairly burlesqued. After all, they too regard the flood as myth and accept evolution so long as God's involved. But the fundamental problem with religion isn't its misinterpretation by fundamentalists. The fundamental problem is religion itself. "God-guided" evolution is fundamentally as ridiculous as God-guided lightning bolts to strike the wicked; Christ's resurrection, as silly as a Grade-B zombie flick.
When the fundamentals of a belief system are wrong, the belief system itself is fundamentally wrong.
As Stenger highlighted, religion exalts excuses and sanctifies self-delusion. It must, for that is the only way religion can survive. Parsed against reality, religion is too absurd for even theists to believe. But never too absurd for apologetics.
Stenger wasn't buying it. And he was unabashed about saying so.
Stenger understood the deeply pernicious effects that religious thinking exerts on progress. Religion depends on faith; science on empirical evidence. The two approaches are mutually exclusive. Religion trains people to be satisfied with the empty explanation that God moves in mysterious ways. Science attempts to unravel the mystery. In religion, seeking knowledge is the original sin. In science, it's the explicit goal.
Over and over, the God hypothesis has failed. It provides no useful explanations regarding the natural world. Reduced to special pleadings for a God of the gaps, inherently it cannot. The supernatural can explain anything, and hence explains nothing.
"God's not dead," the movie proclaims. The even simpler truth, as Stenger informed us, is this God never existed at all.
Fortunately for us, Victor Stenger did.
Gregory A. Clark, Ph.D., is an associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah.