Free Inquiry: Isn’t the New Atheism just the same old atheism?
Victor J. Stenger: Yes and no. The New Atheism is more popular now, and I think it takes a harder line. It says that we shouldn’t be treating religion with kid gloves or avoid offending moderate Christians merely because we need their support for various science education battles, such as the fight over evolution being taught in the schools. It says that there are too many evils resulting from religion, requiring that we speak out more forcefully than before.
FI: For many years, you weren’t primarily a critic of religion but of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Recently you have focused more on religion. Why the shift?
Stenger: The one leads to the other. My book Physics and Psychics, for example, while it focuses on the beginnings of the scientific study of psychic powers, examined how various religious beliefs undergirded paranormal beliefs. William Crookes, a famous and important physicist in the nineteenth century, had religious reasons for his psychic research.
FI: Do you mean that the same skepticism that you apply to ghosts, psychics, and spirit communication should be similarly applied to the God question? You are an equal-opportunity skeptic.
Stenger: Definitely. Many of the claims made by religious apologists that science proves religion are exactly the sorts of claims believers in the paranormal make. Of course, those claims are misleading at best, whether they come from religion or paranormal belief.
FI: Another thing that sets the New Atheists apart is that they make scientific arguments for their atheism, as opposed to merely philosophical or theological arguments.
Stenger: Yes, because the atheists have historically been too easy-going on this issue, unwilling to take a strong stand. Carl Sagan, for instance, was reluctant to take a hard line against religion, as was Stephen Jay Gould. Sagan was often quoted as saying “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” There is no scientific evidence for God, but I would argue that in fact, there is scientific evidence against the God claim—absence of evidence is evidence of absence. I think we can make positive statements beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist—not all conceivable gods, mind you, but the God that most people believe in. That God should have been detected by now by science and that he hasn’t is evidence that he does not exist. The New Atheists write more from a scientific perspective, rather than that of theology or philosophy.
FI: You believe there is actually evidence from physics and biology that God doesn’t exist, as opposed to just a lack of evidence that he does exist.
Stenger: Exactly. You could say there is no evidence for God and actually think that is not evidence against God. But the lack of evidence is actually a kind of evidence. If you look at living organisms, there is no sign of design; organisms look like a Rube Goldberg machine, all these leftover parts, enormous waste. Life is a mess, and examples such as using the same hole for eating and breathing is positive evidence for there being no designer. These are not logical deductions; these are presentations of evidence that should be evaluated as in a court of law.
FI: Before Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and you wrote your New Atheism books, two women wrote best-selling books skeptical of God: Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote Doubt and Susan Jacoby wrote Freethinkers. Should these women be considered New Atheists as well?
Stenger: The New Atheism shouldn’t be a boys’ club, of course. I am sorry if they should have been included but weren’t mentioned. In fact, I wasn’t even originally included; people talked about “the Four Horsemen.” I think that what defined the New Atheists was that they got a lot of publicity and awakened people to the idea. These fine books by these women just didn’t get the same amount of attention.