“Absence of evidence where there ought to be evidence is evidence of absence”
Review: The New Atheism â€“ Taking a stand for Science and Reason, by Victor J Stenger. Prometheus Books NY.
Victor Stenger is an American particle physicist, now retired to Colorado University, where he is an adjunct professor of philosophy. This book is the latest of ten or more well-received popular polemics he has written exploring the interface between physics and religion.
In this work he takes as his starting point the series of best-sellers which started with The End of Faith by Sam Harris (2006) and continued with Dawkinsâ€™ The God Delusion, Dennettâ€™s Breaking the Spell, and Christopher Hitchenâ€™s God is not Great. To this group Stenger himself contributed God the failed Hypothesis which reached the New York Times bestseller list in March 2007. It can be said that all these works have a self confident tone which more or less implies that science has settled forever that there is no God (which many of us believe). It should have been foreseen perhaps that this would promote a backlash from the religious and in particular religious scientists anxious to show this view mistaken.
Accordingly, rather than simply re-iterating the arguments of the New Atheists, Stenger concentrates on the books written to refute them. He takes all the significant arguments used to attack atheism and support the existence of God, particularly from scientists, and shows that they are not based on credible evidence and mostly rely on unsupported assertions. His own arguments, on the contrary, are massively bolstered by evidence and copious references to original research. In this sense the book is truly scholarly. But this does not prevent it being highly readable. Take the following succinct paragraph:
â€œIt seems rather obvious to me that as humans began to live closer to one another they were forced to develop codes of behaviour beyond those necessary in a family or tribal setting. Ancient life was violent enough and if everybody lied, robbed and killed with abandon, there would be few people left. Those who were left would have a highly dysfunctional society.â€
Stenger claims one original contribution to the debate. He takes the philosophical tenet (used to argue that the God hypothesis cannot be be disproved) â€œAbsence of evidence is not evidence of absenceâ€ and turns it on its head to say â€œAbsence of evidence where there ought to be evidence is evidence of absenceâ€. Accordingly if there were an all-powerful being who intervened in the Universe to answer prayer or to alleviate suffering there ought to be observable independent evidence of the fact and without it there is no need to posit such a being.
Reading this well argued and enjoyable book I felt it provided me with all the arguments to counter scientific supporters of religion and ample suggestions for further reading.
Though, there is one question that, it occurred to me, no-one has ever asked, which is why a God with the expertise in physics and medicine to create the Universe never revealed to his followers anything useful, such as how to build a steam engine or vaccinate against smallpox â€“ his pronouncements being confined to imposing duties on his followers of precisely the sort that a priesthood seeking to establish its authority would want him to impose.