A Review of Victor J. Stenger’s book, God: The Failed Hypothesis

A review of Victor J. Stenger’s book, God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Prometheus Books, 2007).

This is the first book ever published by the atheistic Prometheus Books press that ever made it to the New York Times best sellers list, and that’s newsworthy, especially since atheism is a minority viewpoint.

Stenger’s argument is that science has progressed to the point that it can now make “a definitive statement” on the existence of a God who has the attributes “traditionally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God.” (p. 11). His conclusion is that the existence of this God “is not only missing from but also is contradicted by the empirical data.” (p. 231).

In Stenger’s previous book, Has Science Found God? he argued that the evidence for God is “inadequate.” In this book he wants to say something more. Here he claims that the evidence is actually against the existence of God. (p. 17)

Stenger begins by basing his argument "on the contention that God should be detectable by scientific means simply by virtue of the fact that he is supposed to play a central role in the operation of the universe and the lives of humans." (p. 13) To those who disagree with this contention, he refers the reader to Theodore Drange's argument from non-belief, and to John L. Schellenberg's argument with regard to the problem of divine hiddenness. Drange has argued that since God wants people to believe and since he has the power to help them to believe, the reason why a majority of people don't believe in the Christian God is probably because God doesn't exist. Schellenberg has argued that since there are people who are open to believe in God who still don't believe, it means that a perfectly loving God probably doesn't exist.

Both Drange and Schellenberg’s philosophical arguments form the basis of Stenger’s whole argument, and I find them very persuasive. Stenger, however, seems to have a low view of philosophical arguments in general when it comes to solving the debate over the existence of God. He thinks science can step in where philosophical arguments only seem to lead to further debates, as both sides define and redefine the terms used in the arguments themselves. (p. 34). According to Stenger, “Arguments for and against God have been largely confined to philosophy and theology,” while “science has sat on the sidelines and quietly watched this game of words march up and down the field.” (p. 9)

The most charitable way to read Stenger is that scientific evidence is the way to tip the scales in favor of atheism, not that philosophy isn’t useful in doing so, since two philosophical arguments form the basis of his whole argument. But I’m not so sure such a charitable interpretation is justified, given what he said, and given that many scientific minded people eschew philosophical argumentation.

Stenger proceeds from here by arguing there is scientific evidence against the existence of God, in so far as “absence of evidence” is “evidence of absence.” (p. 18) “If we have no evidence or other reason for believing in God, then we can be pretty sure that God does not exist.” (p. 18). He claims that if there is a failure with the evidence, “the argument may be made that a hidden God still may exist,” but only if the believer can adequately deal with Drange and Schellenberg’s arguments.

After this introductory material Stenger argues that “design is an illusion,” simply because “earth and life look just as they can be expected to look if there is no God.” (p. 71). He argues that brain science shows us that “thought processes are accompanied by localized physical activity in the brain.” (p. 83) He argues there is no credible evidence for “out of body experiences,” for psychics who claim to contact the dead, for ESP, or for the efficacy of petitionary prayer.

In his most unique scientific argument he claims that since the existence of “nothing” is fundamentally unstable, “only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something [rather than nothing at all] is just what we would expect if there is no God.” (p. 133).

Stenger moves on to the evidential failures with regard to religious experience, unfulfilled prophecies, Messianic and otherwise, and the lack of archaeological evidence for the Israelite Exodus. With regard to the Exodus, Stenger quotes former believer turned agnostic, William Dever, who said, “Absolutely no trace of Moses, or indeed of an Israelite presence in Egypt, has ever turned up.” (p. 186).

Stenger argues we don’t need the Bible for morality, and that at times the church has used it to justify horrendous things like Southern slavery. He argues: “the hypothesis of a God who provides moral knowledge is falsified by the observable fact that many of the moral teachings found in the scripture that are supposed revelations are not obeyed by even the most pious faithful.” (p. 173). And “the very fact that humans have a common moral conscience can be taken as evidence against the existence of God.” (p. 210).

Lastly Stenger argues that the amount and intensity of evil in this world is evidence against the existence of God. He concludes the book by arguing that religion has a negative impact upon society.

This is a very good book, scientifically speaking, as far as I understand the science that forms the background to his argument as a whole. He’s best when it comes to science, having authored a number of books on science. It should be read and discussed by everyone who is interested in the God question.

I find him lacking, as I do most scientifically minded people, when it comes to the areas of philosophy and theology, though. His arguments with regard to failed prophecies and the problem of evil are too brief, and too simple. There are several objections Christian believers can make against these arguments that he doesn’t show awareness of, or deal with, although, in the end I agree with his analysis. Stenger does provide further references for further reading which does what he doesn’t do, in many cases. Christians can claim there is historical evidence which shows Jesus arose from the dead, which may lead them to believe, despite the other problems Stenger finds with their belief. How does science dispute this claim of theirs? Christians can also argue God isn’t hidden in that the Holy Spirit reveals himself inwardly to everyone, even though I find these arguments unpersuasive.

This biggest problem I have with the book is that it isn’t just science that shows God probably doesn’t exist. It’s always the sciences taken together with philosophy that confirms or denies anything we believe. Without the philosophy, science can’t show much in the area of the existence of God. But in taking them both together this book presents a powerful case against the existence of God. I highly recommend it.