Understanding the New Atheism, an Interview with Victor Stenger

Welcome to The Promethean's exclusive Q&A with Victor J. Stenger, author of the New York Times bestseller God: The Failed Hypothesis. Even believers can appreciate Stenger's fervent discussion of an emerging atheist movement, as he explains in his newest book, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.

PB: What is the "New Atheism" and who is this book written for?

VS: The "New Atheism" is the harder line against faith and organized religion being taken by certain bestselling authors and others in the atheist community. I would hope that believers read the book, realize that the case against God is strong, and begin to develop doubts. I would hope that agnostics read the book, realize we can be sure that God does not exist, and become new atheists. I would hope that old atheists read the book, realize that for the good of society irrational faith should hot be tolerated, and become new atheists.

PB: How does the "New Atheism" differ from the concept of atheism that we know?

VS: Many atheists and agnostics take a benign view of religion and think it provides some useful benefits to society. They also seek to find common ground with moderate believers in order to obtain their support for science, especially in the battle between evolutionists and creationists. New atheists view the battle between reason and superstition to be more important. They regard all faith as folly since it is not based on evidence, and the irrational faith of moderate churchgoers provide support for more fanatical believers.

PB: In your opinion, what is the most criticized aspect of atheism? Which aspect is easiest to embrace?

VS: The most common charge is that atheism is immoral. This is easy to counter by looking at the facts. Atheists have higher moral standards than believers, who do not hesitate to force their beliefs on others. Freedom of thought is the easiest aspect of atheism to embrace.

PB: You note that the Bible -- trusted as divine revelation by millions -- fails as a basis for morality and is unable to account for the problem of unnecessary suffering throughout the world. What is some of the evidence supporting this?

VS: New atheists do not see scriptures as the source of morality. In fact, we see them as teaching much that is immoral, such as slavery and the subjugation of women. There are no original moral teachings in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures. Theologians have never been able to solve the problem of how an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-beneficent God can exist with all the gratuitous suffering in the world. The Bible claims that God punishes only the guilty, which is obviously untrue.

PB: Atheism has grown in popularity in recent years, to what do you attribute its resurgence?

VS: People are beginning to see that religion does not solve the problems of the world but rather exacerbates them. They have been turned off by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fanaticism. 9/11 helped, but I think that science is also beginning to provide plausible natural explanations for observations. Once people learn about them they are able to free themselves from the argument from design. This has happened in cosmology, physics, biology, and neuroscience.

PB: In the preface of The New Atheism, you quote author and atheist Christopher Hitchens, who says, "There are ... atheists who say they wish the fable were true but are unable to suspend the requisite disbelief, or who have relinquished belief only with regret...." What is your opinion on this? Are non-atheists ever able to truly "let go" of theist beliefs to fully realize atheism?

VS: Sure, non-atheists can let go of theist beliefs, as Hitchens concludes, "How happy we ought to be, at the reflection that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence for such a horrible hypothesis [permanent, unalterable, celestial despotism]."

35 comments:

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

I can relate to wishing it were true but not being able to suspend belief. After I left my parents' faith, I searched and searched for *something* to believe in, but nothing I explored made any more sense than the religion I'd been raised with and I came to the conclusion that there really isn't anything out there, and that's okay.

For a time I thought of religion as misguided but benign, but not anymore. I've seen it wreck too much to any longer keep quiet and idly stand by and let people believe their lies. It's deeply ingrained, but I'm proof that minds can be changed, and that's what give me hope for the future.

Great interview.

Chris said...

"Once people learn about them they are able to free themselves from the argument from design. This has happened in cosmology, physics, biology, and neuroscience."

Really? Victor Stenger seems to be totally ignorant of scientists that have firm religious beliefs in all sectors of science.

Leah

"I came to the conclusion that there really isn't anything out there, and that's okay."

So just because you struggle with organized religion, that some how leads you to nihilism. Thats pretty extreme...

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

Um, no. I struggled with organized religion, yes, but I explored various "spiritual but not religious" routes too, and my path did not lead me to nihilism; it lead me to atheism. When I said that there really isn't anything out there, perhaps I should have been more specific and said that there's no god out there.

Chris said...

You seem pretty certain...

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

That there's no god? Yeah, pretty sure. It would be nice if there was and I tried for a very long time to believe that there was, but the evidence just doesn't stack up.

Not sure if you're implying that that makes me nihilistic. If so, let me introduce you to a site called dictionary.com. Nihilism and atheism are two very different things.

Chris said...

"Nihilism and atheism are two very different things."


I'll agree that their not exactly the same thing but they are similar. I guess I don't understand how one can be an atheist and believe in purpose,truth and the like. And i don't appreciate the sarcasm...

Chris said...

I should have been more specific and said that there's no god out there.

Its one thing to say I don't believe in God. But to say I am almost certain that God doesn't exist is truly a faith statement. You have been reading too much of Victor Stenger.

Patrick said...

Stenger says it's easy to see that atheists are as moral as believers. Maybe. Maybe not. As an agnostic I wrote a book review of his work "God: The Failed Hypothesis." I gave the book very high praise except for one thing: I said his idea that nothingness is unstable and therefore the universe could have come from this unstable nothingness was absurd--which it obviously is if we truly understand what nothingnessness is. It's nothing. No thing on any kind. No matter. No energy. No time. No space. There is nothing in nothing to be unstable. The very kindly Dr. Stenger called me ignorant and stupid. Yes, Dr. Stenger is a man of the highest morality indeed...

mike c. said...

There was a time when I wished I could believe, but I now realize what I was really hoping for was the truth about how and why we exist. Religion claims to have the answers, but the answers given never made any sense to me. Some answers are also apparently only known to their god. That was not good enough for me.

Mark Plus said...

The social-scientific evidence shows that atheists and nonbelievers do tend to cluster around certain moral positions which distinguish them from theists. Phil Zuckerman cites the relevant studies in his paper, "Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being":

http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/atheism_secularity.pdf

Specifically, Zuckerman writes:

I would argue that a strong case could be made that atheists and secular people actually posses a stronger or more ethical sense of social justice than their religious peers. After all, when it comes to such issues as the governmental use of torture or the death penalty, we see that atheists
and secular people are far more merciful and humane. When it comes to protecting the environment, women’s rights, and gay rights, the non-religious again distinguish themselves as being the most supportive. And as stated earlier, atheists and secular people are also the least likely to harbor ethnocentric, racist, or nationalistic attitudes. Strange then, that so many people assume that atheists and nonreligious people lack strong values or ethical beliefs – a truly groundless and unsupportable assumption.

Gandolf said...

Chris said..."And i don't appreciate the sarcasm."

I have the feeling Chris that most likely you already did know the huge difference there is between nihilism and atheism.If you really didnt know,then you would need to be ignorant to suggest such things as "Thats pretty extreme" to somebody who then obviously gives things much more thought than you seem to have.

You say you " don't appreciate the sarcasm",but it seems to me you like dishing it out plenty!.Did you happen to read in your sweet lil bible, about the sow and reap bit?.If not,i suggest maybe you should really have a quick wee gander! at it.

Why is it you claim Leah Elliott Hauge was being sarcastic in suggesting you might need to visit a dictionary?...If you didnt know the huge difference between belief of nihilism and atheism,id say Leah only made a very correct observation.You maybe need to be introduced to the dictionary to learn the difference.

I might have been inclined to also suggest a psychologist, as it seems to me you have some very strange weird mixed up thoughts of who atheist are.A psychologist may help you Chris in some deprograming, of the stupid religious bullshit propaganda you seem you have swallowed hook line and sinker like some hungry wide mouthed grouper.

Chris says.."I'll agree that their not exactly the same thing but they are similar"

Not eactly the same?..Pffffft! ..They are really not so simular at all.

Atheism is simply belief that there is "no God".

Nihilism is anarchy total rejection of established laws and institutions.Total and absolute destructiveness, esp. toward the world at large and including oneself.An extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence.A doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.

Chris i think Leah really most likely deserves more of a desent apology for your wrongful insinuation.It seems very ignorant of you to suggest she may have through atheism become a total lawless destructive revolutionary type person with no values,and then not even seem to have the decency or guts to atleast offer a better apology than you have.

Chris in my opinion, you are a fine example of why there maybe is actually a great need for the "new athiests"

Anthony said...

Chris, you wrote on your blog in a post called "New Views":

Recently I have had a change of heart. For a long time I have struggled with belief in God/Christianity. I have read numerous books on Christianity hoping my faith would grow stronger. The more I read the more I question my particular beliefs and realize how little I actually know.

And then you conclude:

If I had to label myself I would say I am an agnostic/theist. By that I mean I don't know if there is a God but I hope there is.

Chris, you may not like some of the responses you are getting here but to be honest you have come across like a fundamentalist, which is something we see quite often. Maybe you are bothered that some of us no longer believe that the Christian god exists and seem to be quite certain. For many of us, we find the evidence very persuasive that no such deity probably exists. If you are interested in reading it, I tell my story of why I left Christianity here.

Chris said...

Gandalf

It seems you need a dictionary...

"Nihilism is anarchy total rejection of established laws and institutions.Total and absolute destructiveness, esp. toward the world at large and including oneself."

What type of Nihilism is this? I am not saying someone who is destructive but someone who doesn't believe in purpose...

Chris said...

To be more specific, I was talking about existential nihilism. Sorry Leah if I offended you... I don't know where Gandolf got the idea that to be an existential nihilist means your destructive.

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

Oh, my. Gandolf, appreciate you coming to my defense, but no need. I wasn't offended.

Chris, I don't think you were intentionally being insulting and I do apologize for the sarcasm. I just sometimes get exasperated with people not understanding what atheism is, or having a stereotypical picture of what I must be like because I'm an atheist. Nihilism is the denial of ALL existence. I exist. My house exists. Our planet and our universe exists. Atheism is a lack of belief that a god exists. That's all. I don't see everything else ceasing to exist just because a god is out of the picture. And actually I haven't read any Victor Stenger. In fact, I had never heard of him until I came across this post, and this interview is the extent of my knowledge of him.

It seems you're genuinely curious as to how life can have purpose without a god. You wonder how I can be an atheist and still have happiness and meaning in my life, still have values. Is that right? Well, I don't believe that my life has any predetermined purpose, but I have defined my own. It is to enjoy my life and to do what I can to help others to do the same. I don't have a lot of specific rules for myself, but I think my sense of ethics could be summed up with: Love is good; hate is bad. Alleviating suffering is good; inflicting it is bad. That's why I don't steal or vandalize or perpetrate violence. That's why I speak out about my views so that those who are miserable in religion and feel trapped know that they can get out.

I love music. Performing and listening brings joy into my life, and hopefully into the lives of those with whom I share it. I have a spouse. Conversing with him, planning our future together, creating a bond together gives my life meaning. I have two children. Watching them learn and grow gives me joy. Wanting to make the world a better place for them to live give me purpose.

My life is full, and more importantly, my life is my own. I'm under no obligation to fulfill some divine destiny. No one is looking over my shoulder or whispering in my thoughts. I don't miss God. I'm too happy reveling in everything around me that actually exists.

Gandolf said...

Chris here it is in a dictionary.

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nihilism+

From understanding New Atheism an interview with Victor Stenger.

"PB: In your opinion, what is the most criticized aspect of atheism? Which aspect is easiest to embrace?

VS: The most common charge is that atheism is immoral. "

Sure is and we hear it time and time again like a stuck record.Pure Propaganda...Folks of faith hear some other folk of faith suggesting atheist lack morals or equals nihilism,or something.Then its simply parroted onwards.

Its bullshit.Its ignorance.

There is good reason for the new Atheists like Victor J Stenger suggests, because the bullshit and propaganda needs to be sorted A.S.A.P.

Leah Elliott Hauge said... "Oh, my. Gandolf, appreciate you coming to my defense, but no need. I wasn't offended."

Well even so in my opinion its even offensive to agnostics and non believers alike in general.It offended me and so i will say so anyway,specially on this post which is about the reasons we have new atheists.Personally im sick to death of this crap also.Faith folks basically suggesting we are supposedly into some sort of anarchy.That we cannot ever likely have morals.Supposedly we are into total and absolute destructiveness etc.Connecting us to shit thats also about terrorism and assassination etc.

Its dishonest.Its a rip off.Its ignorant.It sucks !!

If there is one thing faith folks need to be taught in a hurry,i think its they need to learn real quick they sure dont hold any right to be claiming the high road when talking about morals etc.

This post of Johns was about Victor Stenger and understanding New Atheism.

Stenger .."I would hope that old atheists read the book, realize that for the good of society irrational faith should hot be tolerated, and become new atheists."

Yeah and i can see very good reasons why too,when we still stupidly get called shit like nihilists.

Simply just for having no belief in god/s.

Chris said...

Leah

I do understand atheism and I never meant that atheism and nihilism were eactly the same thing. I think they go together a lot however. But thats not to say that I think atheists are immoral and have no values. Nihilism or the way I am using it at least, does not refer to existence, it just the denial of objective meaning and/or purpose.

Chris said...

Anthony

Even though I have stepped away from Christianity, I am still sympathetic to religious beliefs. I get offended when it seems like some atheists belittle religious believers and think they are stupid. I don't think I have been acting like a fundamentalist... I just like to have reasoned discussions of the topics at hand.

Chris said...

Gandolf

Thats not the definition of nihilsm that I was using. I should have been more specific. I was using the philosophical brand.

Mark Plus said...

Chris writes: "Nihilism or the way I am using it at least, does not refer to existence, it just the denial of objective meaning and/or purpose."

A god doesn't necessarily solve that problem for you. A god could, without logical contradiction, have created humanity without any "objective meaning and/or purpose." In fact, a plain-vanilla, parsimonious theism could assert just that while remaining silent on whether this god had to throw in the psychological bonuses theists fantasize about. In other words, theism doesn't imply that a god had to create us in a way which we find convenient or emotionally satisfying.

Chris said...

"In other words, theism doesn't imply that a god had to create us in a way which we find convenient or emotionally satisfying."

Your right...however I wouldn't want to worship a God like that.

Gandolf said...

Chris said... "Gandolf

Thats not the definition of nihilsm that I was using. I should have been more specific. I was using the philosophical brand."

Chris all im asking for is a little more honesty and fairness and thought etc,when folks of faith think about and discuss matters about non believers.

Us non believers dont often delegate a postion in hell for people we disagree with,we are most often reasonably forgiving types really.So dont stress over it,whats said is said.

I accept you may have not considered quite what you were saying or the special definition it was to be used in context with.But the point remains,all to often there is to many folks of faith branding non believers willy nilly with this nihilism word etc.

Its wrong.(Its deceitful).Its simply ugly stinking worthless propaganda.It does little to help close any gap between us!.

Please next time you hear it yourself Chris,make sure you remind the faithful person involved of his/her wrong judgment,and that non believers are not just uncaring anarchists etc.

And just one final thing Chris even using the Philosophy excuse you used,i still cant see how you can really use it.At best you can try and suggest non belief ammounts to the "extreme form of skepticism" bit, which yes is a part of nihilism.

But i doubt you can prove non belief as anything "extreme" really.Or the skepticism of faith as being extemely wrong or not worthwhile.

So to just simply be quite honest, i still dont see that much connection between "non belief" and "nihilism" at all.

Even the fact that im willing to move on from disagreements, i hope proves i as a non believer still have some "moral values".

"Nihilism" and "moral values" dont compare so easy.

There is next to nothing that actually connects non belief to nihilism..

Only propaganda thats all.

Chris said...

"And just one final thing Chris even using the Philosophy excuse you used,i still cant see how you can really use it"

What excuse?

Gandolf said...

Chris said... "What excuse?"

Chris, fair enough.Sorry maybe its not a excuse.

If its no excuse,then explain to us how you suppose your "philosophical brand definition" for "nihilsm" , is very valid in actually honestly connecting to atheism?.

Chris said...

I was connecting them because if one is an atheist than that seems to lead to existential nihilism. If there is no God than doesn't that mean our world has no objective purpose or value?

unkle e said...

VS said: "They regard all faith as folly since it is not based on evidence"

If you so misunderstand your "enemy", you are unlikely to succeed in your aims!

Leah Elliott Hauge said...

@ Chris, why would we need a god before we can have value and purpose? We determine our own value. We create our own purpose.

Gandolf said...

Yeah Dan, like Leah said...God is far from the only purpose of anyone in this worlds actual whole lifes purpose we hope!.I hope folks of faith have lots of purposes,like for instance loving their kids and family.And enjoying nature,and lots and lots of purposes.One purpose now (might) be considering if global warming is factual,why? well for one thing its our kids whom it might maybe effect the most in future when we oldies all dead and gone.

And we dont need any god/s to soon realize there is value in not killing folk (for instance),specially not for absolutely no good reason at all.

This value of not killing folk for absolutely no reason at all, soon becomes thought pretty much objective too.Everyone soon starts to think so..Why? well most folk soon get the idea that not killing folk for no good reason is something most folk mostly tend to agree with.Experience.Past mistakes made.Learning from others.Knowledge and intelligence gained over the years,that sort of thing.

You maybe just been fed some real deceitful propaganda by somebody, about non believers i think Chris.

It happens.

Chris said...

"We determine our own value. We create our own purpose."

Thats kind of scary to think about. Humans determining their own values and purposes.

Gandolf said...

Chris said...
"We determine our own value. We create our own purpose."

Thats kind of scary to think about. Humans determining their own values and purposes."

Chris how else do you really think it all happens anyway?.

God did it?

Do you really think some god/s turn up to determine if it ok for some dumb religious git! in some mad religious cult somewhere to do crazy shit if they happen to feel like it.Or God suddenly turns up and say hey mr Freeflow the Dollar,you going to get wealthy teaching bible study.Do you think some god/s really determine what we all do and who we all become etc.Do you really think it is some god who determine, who going to become a truck driver a medic a astronaut a pro wrestler a mother or father,thoughtless,caring,uncaring, bad or good or who become a rapist who going to become a theif or a murderer etc.

Chris you think humans groups dont determine many of our values and purposes etc already?...You dont think we already been doing so since as far back in time as we can even remember.

Whats so extra scary.Why need to start worrying now.

unkle e said...

Can anyone spot the inconsistency here?

1. Victor Stenger said: ".... for the good of society irrational faith should not be tolerated".

2. Victor Stenger said: "Atheists have higher moral standards than believers, who do not hesitate to force their beliefs on others. Freedom of thought is the easiest aspect of atheism to embrace."

Chris said...

When I am talking about purpose I don't mean occupation. I mean how we are supposed to live and treat others. I just prefer to believe in a cosmic purpose.

Al Moritz said...

Patrick said:

Stenger says it's easy to see that atheists are as moral as believers. Maybe. Maybe not. As an agnostic I wrote a book review of his work "God: The Failed Hypothesis." I gave the book very high praise except for one thing: I said his idea that nothingness is unstable and therefore the universe could have come from this unstable nothingness was absurd--which it obviously is if we truly understand what nothingnessness is. It's nothing. No thing on any kind. No matter. No energy. No time. No space. There is nothing in nothing to be unstable. The very kindly Dr. Stenger called me ignorant and stupid. Yes, Dr. Stenger is a man of the highest morality indeed...

Yes, Stengers arguments about 'nothing' are absurd indeed, and interesting to hear his reaction. It does not surprise me in the sense that his views are very idiosyncratic, and thus he probably must feel quite frustrated by now in defending what really cannot be defended at all. I would be interested in a link to your book review.

I thoroughly debunk Stenger on fine-tuning at:

http://home.earthlink.net/~almoritz/cosmological-arguments-god.htm

Here is a devastating (and at times amusing, 'milli hitlers') review of Stenger's God -- The Failed Hypothesis by eminent cosmologist George Ellis:

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/27736

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Anthony said...

Al,

When do you think your updated "Origin of Life" article will be published? Or it is published someplace other than the Talkorigins site?

Thanks

Al Moritz said...

Hi Anthony,

it will be published at Talkorigins.org, I was promised. However, the person preparing the article for the web has been very busy lately. I guess it is time for a reminder. I will keep you posted on the publication.

Al