An interview of Victor Stenger by Robert Johnson, author of Rational Morality.
Victor J Stenger is a particle physicist, philosopher and religious skeptic with over 50 years academic experience. He is the author of 12 books, including the influential rationalist text God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist and his latest work God and the Atom. Perhaps most famously, he is one of the foremost writers in the 'new atheist' movement.
Professor Stenger's research career has spanned work including the establishing of the properties of gluons, quarks, strange particles and neutrinos. He pioneered the emerging research on neutrino astronomy and was also part of the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Japan, which demonstrated that the neutrino has mass (earning a 2002 Nobel Prize for the Japanese leader of the project).
His academic career has widened to areas outside of particle physics, though often using the immense body of knowledge and experience he has gained in the subject. Much of his published work focuses on atheism, skepticism and what we can learn about these subjects from our increasing understanding of the world through physics.
Dr Stenger, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions; perhaps a softer question to ease in. Your work has been influential in the minds of many atheists and physicists alike. What scientists or philosophers do you feel have had the biggest impact on your career, both in physics and atheism?
First I would mention the usual giants like Einstein, Dirac, and Feynman. The only famous classical philosopher I really admire is David Hume, but I can't say that he influenced me very much. Of the people I have known personally, philosopher of science Larry Laudan, whom I knew briefly when he was in Hawaii, had some effect on my thinking in later years. I would also mention Paul Kurtz, who helped me more as my publisher than as a mentor; I did read a lot of his stuff, as I have other contemporaries. But really, no single figure dominated, except maybe Feynman.
Your last book was called God and the Folly of Faith, can you give a brief summary of your findings?
Folly presents my basic thinking about why science and religion are irrevocably incompatible. When a scientific theory disagrees with the data, the theory is discarded. When a religious theory disagrees with the data, the data are discarded. It is foolish to take anything on faith, which is a belief based on no evidence, just wishful thinking.
This leads us to your latest book, God and The Atom, can you sum up the position you explore in this?
I trace the history of the notion called "atomism," in which everything is just material particles and emptiness, from its originators in ancient Greece to the present. The ancients had it basically right, but the idea was suppressed for a thousand years in the Dark Ages when the Catholic Church ruled Europe. In the atomist view, there are no gods who pay any attention to humanity and what we now call the multiverse is infinite and eternal and includes many universes besides our own. Atomism was rediscovered in the Renaissance and helped trigger the scientific revolution. The so-called "standard model of elementary particles" based on atomism has agreed with all observations since the 1970s and has been solidly confirmed by the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson.
'New Atheism' is a subject you've written on quite often; you are said to be one of the major advocates of this position. First thing's first, do you think we even need a term named 'new atheism'?
It's needed because the new atheists make it clear that we should not accommodate religion since even its most moderate manifestations are based on magical thinking and humanity is doomed if we continue down that road.
Would this position not be better captured by the term 'anti-theist'?
Perhaps, but atheism is an already existing, familiar word and really means the same thing.
The 'atheism+' movement is starting to gather momentum and divide opinion - what are your thoughts on this idea?
I think it's a bad idea for the atheist movement to take up other causes, worthy as they may be, which already have plenty of organized support. I have been very disappointed to see this development. It detracts from the mission of fighting against magical thinking and we are still severely limited in resources, especially compared with what religion can throw at us.
Many people claim that science cannot prove God doesn't exist. Given the immense volume of work you have done on this subject, there is perhaps no one better suited to answering it. How would you respond?
While we cannot prove that every conceivable god does not exist, we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a god that plays such an important role in the universe such as the Abrahamic God would have been detected by now. Absence of evidence is evidence of absence when the evidence that should be there is not. For example, if the people who write all these bestsellers about visiting heaven during a near-death experience really entered a supernatural realm, why do they never come back with any verifiable new knowledge? They should, and the fact that they don't is proof it was all in their heads. See my book God: The Failed Hypothesis for other examples.
My own view of religion is that faith is the primary problem, but that religion is the institution in society which primarily upholds the dogma of faith as being a worthwhile and/or necessary mind set. What are your thoughts on the relation of faith and religion itself?
Yes, religion is based on faith and that's why it is not worthwhile despite the false comfort it provides to people who want to live forever. The social life and other amenities such as music, art, and even ritual rites of passage found in churches can all be provided outside a supernatural context. In Scandinavia, where hardly anyone goes to church on Sunday anymore, they still get married and buried in church.
Faith is foolish because it leads people to irrational decisions that pose great dangers to the survival of humanity, such as opposing birth control and thinking that global warming is no problem because God would never let it harm us.
The scientific method is something you've been heavily involved in during your career. You will have also worked through the emergence in popularity of 'social science', and the pitfalls academics have encountered when trying to do science in the realm of the social or psychological. Do you have any thoughts or fears with regards to this emergence?
I think the social sciences can be very useful if they are performed with true scientific method and not corrupted by the notion that they should be directly involved in social change. They should gather and quantify the facts, report them dispassionately, and let other institutions carry out the activity of social change based on that knowledge. I am not saying that science cannot make a contribution to morality and ethics, which after all do involve observable behavior. But scientists have to be very careful about appearing to promote political causes without the evidence to back them up.
The scientific method is not just limited to scientists. It can be applied in many ordinary situations. Basically one makes objective observations and then tries to describe them with some kind of model. Then one uses the model to predict future observations. The key is not to let your personal prejudices keep you from discarding a model you happen to like when the data rules it out.
And that's the case with the God model. It's appealing but it is ruled out by the data.