Why Religion Must Be Confronted

Victor J. Stenger

Speaking as a physicist, I would like to give you several examples from my own field where the unwillingness of scientists to engage in serious confrontation with religion results in the public being widely misinformed about what science says about religion and spirituality. Most professional scientific societies have followed the lead of the National Academy of Sciences in publicly stating that science has nothing to say about God or spirituality. This totally ignores the fact that scientists from reputable institutions such as Harvard, Duke, and the Mayo Clinic have done studies on the health effects of intercessory prayer. They have found none, but if they had you can imagine the headlines: “Science Finds Evidence for God.” Science has a lot to say about God and spirituality, and it’s time to stop sweeping that fact under the rug for some small, imagined political gain.

The Academy statement also ignores the fact that theologians, Christian apologists, and New Age gurus have, for decades now, claimed scientific support for their beliefs. These claims are provably wrong, and scientists who work in the applicable fields know they are wrong. However, their unwillingness to engage in the very real war that exists between science and religion is handing victory to religion by default.

Let me begin with creationism, which is much more than simply challenging evolution; it also includes what I will call “cosmic creationism.” I wish organizations such as the National Center for Science Education that do such a great job defending evolution would pay some attention to cosmic creationism.

Many of the growing number of Americans who do not practice any religion and see no merit in traditional God-beliefs still find it hard to be full-fledged atheists. Although not religious in the usual sense, these nonbelievers have not yet completely freed themselves from all religious or metaphysical notions, most of which have no rational foundation. They will tell you they intuitively feel that something still must be “out there”—some power that is responsible for the universe and the laws that govern it. After all, they ask, “How can something come from nothing?”

Cosmologists have an easy answer to this question. The universe is eternal, and so the question is moot. Something did not have to come from anything. Something always existed. And, if the universe always existed, then there was no creation and consequently no creator. This tosses a monkey wrench into most theology, where the existence of a creator God is the primary dogma.

Theologians have come out fighting against the eternal universe, and their arguments are found in many Christian books and frequently heard in debates. In the fall of 2010, I attended a debate in Denver between a local pastor and the leader of a coalition of Colorado atheist and freethinker groups on the existence of God. The pastor’s entire opening statement was almost a word-for-word recital of Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s arguments for the universe having a beginning brought about by a personal creator.

These arguments are based on mathematics and physics. Let me go through a few of them and show why they are wrong.

I will start with the frequently heard claim that an eternal universe can’t exist for mathematical reasons. The argument made is that in an infinite universe, it would take an infinite time to reach from the beginning to the present.

However the eternal universe is not infinite. Time is the number of ticks on a clock. In the eternal universe, that number is endless in the past as well as the future. Counting backward in time, the eternal universe has no beginning—not a beginning an infinite time ago. The time interval from any moment in the past to the present is finite. So an eternal universe is not mathematically impossible.

Now, you may ask, what about the big bang? Wasn’t that the beginning of the universe? Yes; it is now well-established that the big bang was the start of our universe. In the second argument for a cosmic creation that theologians and Christian apologists have been using for decades now, the universe, and time itself, began with a “singularity” identified with the big bang. This singularity is an infinitesimal point in space-time of infinite density. This claim is based on a theorem derived from Einstein’s general relativity and published by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose forty years ago. The theorem concluded that the universe began with a singularity.

However, over twenty years ago, Hawking and Penrose admitted that there was no singularity because their calculation, while not wrong as far as it went, had not taken into account quantum mechanics. I don’t know of a single working cosmologist today who says the universe began with a singularity.

Since our universe did not begin with a singularity, there is no basis for assuming that time itself began at that point. In fact, current cosmological theories suggest that our universe is just one in a “multiverse” of an unlimited number of universes. Models exist that show, with mathematical precision, how our universe may have emerged from an earlier universe by a well-established process known as “quantum tunneling.”

So, our universe need not have had a beginning. But let’s suppose for a moment that it did. That fact alone would not prove it was purposefully created. Another premise must be introduced to show that. The assumption theologians add is that everything that begins has a cause. Once again, this ignores quantum mechanics, in which events commonly occur without cause. This is the case for the atomic transitions that give us light and the nuclear decays that give us nuclear radiation. They all happen spontaneously, without cause. In short, all attempts to prove that the universe had to have a beginning produced by God fail on several fronts.

The third creationist argument, called the “anthropic cosmological principle,” is made by a whole army of Christian theologians and authors. The principle states that the universe is fine-tuned for life—in particular, human life. Here, the story is even more complicated because several notable physicists think such fine-tuning does exist or at least looks like it exists—although they attribute it to natural causes rather than a creator God. I identify with an opposition group of physicists who see no need to invoke the anthropic principle at all. We can show that natural processes determine many of the values of parameters that are supposed to be fine-tuned, and that the values of the remaining parameters can vary over wide ranges and still allow for the possibility of life.

Finally, let me mention another area where science is misused, and most scientists just sit back and let it go by unchallenged. This is a notion promoted for many years by New Age gurus such as Deepak Chopra and more recently exploited in the documentary films What the Bleep Do We Know and The Secret. They assert that quantum mechanics establishes a connection between human consciousness and the cosmos that is similar to ancient Hindu and Buddhist teachings. The claim is that we can make our own reality. We can be rich, healthy, beautiful, and brilliant just by thinking we are.

That’s complete nonsense, as you can see by just looking around you. Not everyone is young and beautiful, are they?

Unfortunately, you also have to know something about quantum mechanics to see how the physics is being misinterpreted. The claim that human consciousness can affect reality is based on the mistaken idea, wrongly attributed to quantum mechanics, that the real nature of an object is not determined until it is observed.

The best example is called the “wave-particle duality.” An object is either a particle or a wave, depending which property you choose to measure. The mistake here is to think that the object must be either a particle or a wave. In fact, these are two complementary properties of the same object. Engineers and scientists know that one can go smoothly from a particle description of an object to a wave description and back the other way with a Fourier transform.

I urge all of you who engage in serious discussions with believers to bone up a little on mathematics, physics, and cosmology so that you are able to challenge these misrepresentations of science that are being widely distributed in the literature. If you don’t believe me, browse the Christian and spirituality sections of a bookstore and look at those books that attempt to give scientific arguments for God or cosmic consciousness.

You may ask, “What harm is there if someone believes in cosmic creationism? Why not let people believe what they want to believe?” What harm is there in believing in biological creationism? Of course, everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs. We are not forcing anyone to believe anything. We are protesting the misuse of science and insisting on not letting that misuse go by unchallenged.

Belief in ancient myths joins with other negative forces in our society to keep most of the world from progressing scientifically, economically, and socially at a time when a rapid advancement in these areas is absolutely essential for the survival of humanity. We are now probably only about a generation or two away from the catastrophic problems that are anticipated from global warming, pollution, and overpopulation. We can expect flooded coastal areas, severe climatic changes, epidemics caused by overcrowding, and starvation for much of humanity. Such disasters are predicted to generate worldwide conflict on a scale that could exceed that of the great twentieth-century wars, possibly with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable nations and terrorist groups.

This is a time, if there ever was one, when science is needed to lead the way. It won’t do so by sitting back and letting irrationality rule the day. And make no mistake about it; the irrationality we see on today’s political scene, as exemplified by the Tea Party, is fueled by the irrationality of religion.

It’s time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians—and Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in or what a human being can do with her (or his) own body. The good news is that young people are joining the rising atheist movement in increasing numbers. I have not met one yet who is an accommodationist. I have great hope that in perhaps another generation, America will have joined Europe and the rest of the developed world in shucking off the rusty chains of ancient superstition.

Religious extremists in America have tried to argue that atheism and secularism would destroy the foundations of society. Televangelist Pat Robertson has asserted that when a society is without religion “the result will be tyranny.” In her book Godless, conservative writer Ann Coulter says that societies that fail to grasp God’s significance are headed toward slavery, genocide, and bestiality. Influential television commentator Bill O’Reilly has said that a society that fails to live “under God” will be a society of “anarchy and crime” where “lawbreakers are allowed to run wild.”

We can see here how Christian apologists ignore the evidence and make up facts to suit their own prejudices. That’s the way faith operates, and that’s why it must not be accommodated. Today we can find any number of societies where the majority has freely abandoned religion and God. Far from being dens of iniquity, these societies are the happiest, safest, and most successful in the world.

Atheists have long been telling us that we can be good without God. The new atheism says that we can be better without God.

In America, “people of faith” are treated with great deference. They are assumed to be persons of the highest moral standards—exemplars of goodness, kindness, and charity. But why should that be? How does faith qualify a person for such high esteem? After all, faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in defiance of contrary evidence. How can such a frame of mind be expected to result in any special insight? How foolish it is to build a society based on faith. And how foolish we are to respect the beliefs of people of faith.

While America remains a nation of believers, their profile is rapidly changing. As I have mentioned, young people especially are moving away from organized religion in large numbers. Proudly identified atheist groups are growing rapidly, especially on college campuses. In 2007, the Secular Student Alliance was composed of 82 groups. Today it has 219. Almost all the members of these groups lean more toward the activism promoted by the new atheism than the passivity and accommodation of previous years.

Now, on to the matter of strategy in our campaign to have atheism and rational thinking become major forces for good in the world. I think there is room, indeed a need, for both the accommodationist and confrontationist approaches.

If you look at the history of every great social movement—the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights—you will see both components. There are people who try to work within the system to make changes. They often succeed but usually at a snail’s pace—too slow to satisfy the millions who are impatient to have their inherent rights recognized by the power structure.

And that’s where the rabble-rousers come in. They confront the system and eventually win the hearts of a majority who become awakened to the basic justice of the cause. They also give more power to those trying to work within the system.

So, the time has come to rise up against the unthinking, immoral acts that are brought about by religious views—to state the case for science, reason, and honest compassion. We need to demonstrate that a nation no longer dominated by religion will be a better nation and that we must work to achieve that goal, no matter how long it takes.

Victor J. Stenger

Victor J. Stenger is professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and the author of Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988) and Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990).

Speaking as a physicist, I would like to give you several examples from my own field where the unwillingness of scientists to engage in serious confrontation with religion results in the public being widely misinformed about what science says about religion and spirituality. Most professional scientific societies have followed the lead of the National Academy …

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