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Questions for a New Atheist, Part 1

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The following is the first half of an interview to be published in the Greek weekly newspaper Eleftherotypia. The rest will appear later.

Interview with Professor Victor Stenger

1. You are one of the so-called new atheists. What does the concept refer to?

New atheism was the name attached by others to the phenomenon of multiple bestsellers written by atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and me that appeared from 2004 to 2007. It may also refer to the widely read blogs by nonbelievers P.Z. Meyers, Rebecca Watson, and others.

While often accused of being polemical and militant, the new atheists have mainly argued for other nonbelievers to take a firmer, less compromising stand against the teachings and political actions of religious groups. The new atheists see fundamentalist religion as a grave threat to society that must be challenged at every turn. They feel that religion is given too much leeway by society. They also regard moderate believers as being at least partially responsible for the actions of religious extremists since they hold to many of the same irrational superstitions as the extremists and do no speak out sufficiently against them.

At the same time, it should be understood that the new atheists recognize and personally enjoy the literary and artistic value of scriptures, religious art, and religious music. The quarrel is with those who try to force their supernatural beliefs on the rest of us. We disagree with those beliefs and feel that they are not entitled to respect just because they are religious.

2. People the world over continue to believe that the universe was brought into being by an agent and that this agent often communicates with us. Is this human stupidity or plain human fear and insecurity?

This is probably the result of evolution. Animals will react to unusual movements by assuming it is a threat from a predator and take evasive action even when one is not there. Those without that capability would not survive because occasionally the threat is real. Similarly, early humans would have needed that oversensitivity in order to survive. For example, a caveman walking along a path in the woods might hear a rustling of leaves. If his genes predisposed him to ignore such signs, and a tiger was behind the bush, those genes would quickly die out. But if his genes developed the mechanisms needed to react defensively, even when it is only the wind rustling the leaves, those genes would survive. This healthy overreaction would have lead humans to assume animal-like or human-like agency for many phenomena that were purely benign and natural. Since any distinction between supernatural and natural was beyond early human intellectual capabilities, assigning agency to gods would have also occurred, leading to religion.

3. But how could such a beautiful place like the universe have been created from nothing?

"Beauty" is in the eye of the beholder, but basically you are asking how complex structure developed without design. Most people think you need a causal agent to go from simplicity to complexity. In fact, it is the opposite. The simpler a system, the less stable it is and left alone it will spontaneously change to a more complex system. For example, in the absence of external heat, water vapor will undergo a phase transition to a liquid and then ice, each subsequent stage being more complex than the previous one. A beautiful snowflake forms spontaneously from unstructured water vapor. To go in the opposite direction, from complexity to simplicity, requires an outside agent. You need to provide heat to melt ice and vaporize liquid water.

Similarly, there might have occurred a spontaneous phase transition from "nothing," which is as simple as anything can be, to the more complex "something" that is the universe. A state of nothing would be unstable like a pencil balanced on its eraser.

Scientists have produced natural scenarios for such an origin that are consistent with all existing knowledge. Or, our universe could be part of a larger eternal reality containing many other universes (see question 13 in next post).

Twentieth-century physicists discovered that the most important fundamental laws of physics follow from what are called "symmetry principles." Symmetry and simplicity go hand in hand. A perfect sphere is highly symmetric and easy to describe while a diamond is complex and is much more difficult to describe in detail. The early universe was very hot and highly symmetric. There was no structure, just random chaos. The physics was simple. As the universe expanded and cooled the symmetries were spontaneously broken and structures like galaxies as well as more complex physical laws began to form. All this happened without the need for the guiding hand of a creator.

4. So what is faith?

Faith is belief in something in the absence of empirical evidence or reason for that belief. It provides no information about reality and no basis for human action. Science is not based on faith since it relies on observations and reason.

Why should "people of faith" be deferred to on matters of morals? This deference is based on the false assumption that morals come from God. In fact, a study of history amply demonstrates that morality arises when humans, and even some animals, need to have rules of behavior in order to maintain the cooperative society necessary for survival.

Believers have been led to think that morality comes from God and that it is not possible to be an atheist and be moral. The observed fact is that atheists are at least as moral as believers, perhaps even more so.

While the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim scriptures contain some excellent moral teachings, they are not original with those writings. For example, the Golden Rule taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount goes back thousands of years earlier and can be found in the writings of many ancient sages such as Confucius and Isocrates, and in the Hindu Mahabharata.

Ethics and morality come from humanity, not God. They are rules of behavior needed for a functioning society. Even many animals have a primitive morality, such as altruism.

Those nations without dominant God-belief have far less murder than the God-smitten Unites States and are healthier in many other respects.

Not only can we be good without God, we can be better without God.

5. If religion is based on fundamental untruths, is it necessarily an obstacle to understanding the cosmos?

History is replete with examples of religious beliefs hindering the progress of science, from the Dark Ages to Galileo to the present disputes over evolution and stem cell research. The Bible says the universe is 6,000 years old. Science says it is 13.7 billion years old. The Bible says God created separate "kinds" of life. Science says all life evolved from the same source. Creationists hinder the teaching of evolution, which is not only fundamental to our understanding of life but also basic to medical science.

An obstacle occurs when religious dogma is allowed to discourage scientific investigation. Science had made a good start in ancient Greece, especially with Thales, Democritus, and Aristotle. Their teachings were lost in early Christendom, though saved by the Arabs so we can't blame religion entirely.

It is often pointed out that the great founders of the scientific revolution in Europe -- Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton -- were believers. All except Newton were somewhat restricted in their studies by the Church. However, if you look, at their observations and theories and you will see that God is conspicuously absent, as he has been in all observations and theories since. And even today there is a minority of scientists able to compartmentalize their thinking so that that can leave their science at the Church door on Sunday and resume their work on Monday without the two interacting.

6. If science can speculate, why not religion?

Religion can speculate all it wants, but it still needs some rational basis for its speculation. Relying on papal authority or error-filled scriptures provides no basis whatsoever. This motivates an unhealthy society where overpopulation threatens our very survival. It also leads to religious divisions, since there is no way to determine who is right. Witness the animosity between Christians and Muslims.

Speculation in science must still be consistent with all observations and established theories. It must always be tentative and discarded whenever it is found to disagree with the known facts.

Religious beliefs are metaphysical -- beyond physics. While fundamental discoveries in physics can in principle uncover truths about ultimate reality, we can never know for sure that they are true. In science we carry on as if they are true, but must be careful not to insist that they are.

The incompatibility of science and religion comes from the claim that religion has sure knowledge of metaphysical truth through revelation and mystical experiences. The scientist says: Fine. Let us test those claims. Find some fact obtained by way of revelation or mystical experience that no one knew ahead of time and turns out to be confirmed by later observations. Then scientists would have to believe. So far such evidence has not been provided. Furthermore, the absence of evidence that should be there if the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God really existed can be taken as evidence that this God does not exist.

Read Part 2 here.