The God Hypothesis?

The God Hypothesis‘ by Victor Stenger argues that “the existence, or not, of God is very much a question science can address”. It is one of the articles in The New Scientist’s ‘God Issue‘ (subscription required), which I’ve already blogged about. Unfortunately, I don’t think that he does a very convincing job…

Stenger starts by arguing that both believers and non-believers agree that science and religion do not have anything to say about each other. He cites Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, which although accepted by some, has also been regularly critiqued.

Alistair McGrath’s major three volume work A Scientific Theology strongly defends the alternative, that both science and religion can and should be in dialogue. Polkinghorne in an article in Zygon (vol. 40; 2005) strongly critiques Gould’s approach as being “neither experientially substantiated nor rationally supportable … [it is] contrary to actual experience; its approach is rationally flawed … [and] needs to appeal to highly dubious dichotomies”.

Stenger argues that it is possible to consider the existence of God to be a scientific hypothesis and to test it as such. He states that no experiments have shown the existence of God, but discusses a number of areas where this might have been expected.

1. Intercessory prayer.
Stenger argues that prayers for the sick could demonstrate that there is a God, but that medical trials of intercessory prayer  have failed to show that healing takes place. Of course, the insight that God does not always answer prayers for healing in this way is one that is shared by Christian theology. So, whatever these trials were testing it is not a Christian understanding of God. (You can of course argue that this is a cop-out on the behalf of Christian theology, but that’s a rather different point).

2. Near-death experiences.
Stenger argues that trials could demonstrate the real existence of near-death experiences, but have failed to do so. This point rather illustrates his scatter-gun approach to the concept of ‘god’. He has not chosen to systematically test a coherent concept of God (whether derived from Christian theology or otherwise). Rather, he has selected a few points that are to do with the ‘spiritual’ and discussed those. This of course raises the question, what were the criteria for inclusion? That they support Stenger’s hypothesis perhaps?

3. Intelligent Design.
This question is rather strengthened by Stenger’s next point. He caveats it by noting that “we are not talking about evidence against any and all conceivable gods.” He then goes on to dismiss the Intelligent Design movement. In this, he has my support and the support of many theologians. Moreover, he ignores the intriguing arguments of Simon Conway Morris, and his work on convergence in evolution, which I’ve blogged about. His book Life’s Solution is subtitled Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. If this understanding is correct then it is perhaps rather easier to explain using ‘The God Hypothesis’ than not? This also critiques his later argument over whether the universe is fine-tuned for us or us for the universe.

4. Souls.
Stenger argues that “most religions claim that humans possess immaterial souls that control much of our mental processing”. Whilst most of the major religions hold a belief in the continuity of self which can loosely be described as a ‘soul’, his argument that this ‘soul’ controls “much of our mental processing” in ways that our “independent of brain chemistry” is not one that is widely held. Wikipedia gives a good introduction to the complexity of the concept of ‘soul’. I’ve blogged about a Christian understanding of the soul, which again is rather different to what Stenger argues.

5. Source of morality.
Stenger argues that “moral behaviour appears to have evolved socially” and “did not originate with the monotheistic religions”. I’d very much like to see the evidence that allows him to state that; I wouldn’t have thought it was that clear-cut. However, even if that is true, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise for Christian theology. The belief in humanity as made in the image of God means that Christians believe that humanity as a whole will reflect something of God’s nature, including morality.

6. Prayers and revelation.
Stenger argues that the results of prayers and revelations of truths should be testable and argues that they are not. Without any citations this is a bit problematic; there are numerous Christian books which state the opposite: Jackie Pullinger’s Chasing the Dragon being perhaps the best known. As for intercessory prayer, there is also the awareness that our prayers are not always answered in the way or timing that we expect.

7. Creation.
Stenger argues there should be evidence for God in physics, but that “the origin of our universe required no miracles.” Whatever the origin of the universe (Big bang or on-going multiverse) this argument ignores the fact that science has to make the assumptions about why and how there is something rather than nothing. Keith Ward in God, Chance and Necessity argues that there are three options: no explanation, necessity, or that “the universe was created by God for a particular purpose.” He argues that the third of these is “by far the best explanation for the existence of the universe” whilst of the other two  “neither is very plausible”. Ward defends this conclusion at some length; the book is well worth reading.

Finally, Stenger comments on what he describes as the “folly of faith”. He argues that “When faith rules over facts, magical thinking becomes deeply ingrained and warps all areas of life.” To characterise scientist-theologians such as Polkinghorne and McGrath, and philosopher-theologians such as Ward as having “blind faith” who have a “frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence” strongly indicates that Stenger has not engaged with their work. I hope I have shown that his arguments are flawed and superficial, not least because he has not engaged with such thinkers and because he frequently fails to cite the evidence that he seems to rely on.

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