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God and the Folly of Faith

By Victor J. Stenger

Prometheus Books

April 2012

Victor Stenger has written a wickedly powerful book, so sharp and heretical that had it been published four centuries ago, the author would have been extra-crispy by the time the nearest bishop was done reading the preface. God and the Folly of Faith, with its straightforward argumentation and encyclopedic scope, is a veritable handbook on the fundamental incompatibility of modern science and religion. In the context of the new atheism movement, Stenger’s book serves as the prosecutor’s closing argument in their collective case against religion. The book’s ambitious agenda, with the simultaneous grinding of many axes (from near death experiences and quantum consciousness to intelligent design and cosmic fine-tuning), takes a toll on the reader. The dissection of the multiple arguments and counterarguments that are currently used to support and refute faith makes this no light reading for a lazy spring afternoon. Albeit peppered with zingers, the work as a whole comes across as what it is: a thick and serious discourse on one of the most important intellectual conflicts in history, very much alive to this day.

At least four threads can be identified in the book’s narrative:

Firstly, there is a historical summary of the increasingly uneasy relationship of science and religion. Stenger argues that, albeit with a common origin in prehistoric thought, science, and religion developed over millennia into two unblendable worldviews, with irreconcilable epistemologies.

Secondly, Stenger offers a primer on the current scientific understanding of reality, including evolution, quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the nature of consciousness, as well as a brief description of the methods science uses to differentiate the ice cream from the bologna.

Thirdly, Stenger rejects the idea of a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God as an utterly failed hypothesis with no predictive power, of religion as a bankrupt worldview with no basis on evidence, and of faith as detrimental folly with increasingly deleterious effects as its influence widens in scope from the individual to society and mankind at large.

Finally, Stenger makes a call to secular thinkers everywhere to stand up against religious nonsense and to fight back the encroachment of faith in high-stake policy issues — such as global warming — that should be addressed largely through science and reason. The book delivers nicely in these four fronts, but I do fear it may be preaching to the choir.

Stengers conclusion is searing: “Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion,” which it is not. In the last chapter of his book, Stenger illustrates this point in the context of the global warming debate by presenting evidence of a correlation between religion and the denial of climate change. Stenger argues that “many who deny the dangers of global warming do so out of religious conviction,” adding that this “denialism is a part of a growing distrust of science in America,” prominent in, but not limited to, evangelicals or conservatives.

He also sees a sinister element — corporate greed — behind this phenomenon: “Antiscience, fueled by religion, is being exploited to prevent the U.S. government from taking actions that might be essential for everyone’s welfare.” Stenger argues this is nothing new: “From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line.” It may be an old trick, but it remains a perilous one.

A magnificent example (cited by Stenger) of how religion has come to shape the debate, and possibly also the policies, regarding global warming in the U.S. is found in a March 2009 hearing of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Congressman John Shimkus, speaking about the role carbon emissions play in global warming, described CO­2 as “plant food,” and then quoted from the Bible God’s promise to Noah not to destroy the Earth by a flood. He meant it as evidence that mankind need not worry about rising sea levels as a result of climate change: “I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it is going to be for his creation.” Shimkus even went as far as to state that “there is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet.” Astoundingly, Shimkus went on to become the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, with a central role in shaping the climate change policy of the world’s second largest energy-related CO2 emitter.

In light of such an Alice in Wonderland scenario, there are two calls I hope Americans would heed. The first is Stenger’s request to keep religious faith out of the debate on global warming and other high-stake policy issues. Given the Bible-thumping Shimkuses and Santorums of the world, Stenger’s Catilinarian against the “folly of faith” is timely, welcome and fully justified. The second is the plea that Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, delivered during his visit to The Daily Show: “I’m afraid politicians only do the things that their people tell them to do, and I’m afraid the people of the United States are not telling their politicians to be concerned about climate change.” When it comes to global change, Nasheed advised, “be concerned.” And above all, “just don’t be so silly.”