I firmly believe when dealing with subjects that are as divisive as they are broad, one should read material reflecting a wide variety of opinions. It’s perhaps the best way to get a deeper understanding of not just your particular beliefs, but those of others. So, with that in mind, you might remember the subject of my previous When Science and Faith Collide post was a book written by a scientist who happens to be a Christian. This time I’m featuring a book by a scientist who happens to be an atheist. Published in 2009, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason by Victor Stenger could be considered one of those books that doesn’t break any new ground as much as it summarizes and comments on the work of others. Therefore, The New Atheism should serve nicely as both an introduction to those who might be new to the subject matter, as well as kind of “refresher course” for more seasoned readers. But if you are wondering if I enjoyed it, I’d probably answer for the most part that I did.
Keeping in mind the introductory nature of Stenger’s book, I found it was surprisingly well researched. As one would expect, Stenger covers the writings of new atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the Daniel Dennettt. Keeping in mind one can always learn from ones adversaries, I liked how Stenger tackled the views of new atheism’s critics as he discussed and refuted the opinions of writers like Keith Ward, Alister McGrath and Dinesh D’Souza. Fortunately, for any readers who would like to use Stenger’s book as a springboard for additional study, The New Atheism is well footnoted and blessed with a comprehensive bibliography.
It also inspired me to read more when it came to two specific areas. First of all, I was intrigued by his materialist take on human consciousness and with it his rejection of not only the existence of a soul or other animating spirit, but any mind/body dualism. (Keep in mind, according to Stenger, many creationists and intelligent design advocates are starting to stake claims in this field in order to promote their theistic worldviews.) Second of all, much like Sam Harris, Stenger speaks approvingly of some aspects of eastern religion, especially concerning its emphasis on virturous behavior without having to embrace a belief in the supernatural or the acknowledgement of a personal deity.
But as much as I like Stenger the scientist and philosopher, I’m not sure I like Stenger the historian. In tackling the claims by the new atheists’ critics that atheists over the last hundred years have killed more people than theists, I think he skirts the issue a bit. I’d probably agree with him that based on the historical record, Hitler was not an atheist, (although I’ve always thought of him as some sort of demented lapsed Catholic with strong neo-pagan and racialist tendencies). I’d also probably agree with Stenger that despots such as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, while still officially atheists, were motivated by Communist ideology, paranoia and nationalism and not by any belief in the tenets of atheism when it came to their murderous actions. But when he equates the crimes of those modern monsters with the religiously motivated genocides committed by Christian Popes and monarchs from the middle ages, he fails to fully comprehend the magnitude of those more recent horrors, and with it the undeniable fact that the 20th century was by far the bloodiest century in all history. But this is a minor quibble I have Stenger and a forgivable offense.
In the coming months I hope to feature additional books as part of this feature. Some will be by Christians and some by atheists. By doing so I hope to explore the many dimensions of the age-old argument. Who knows, in the process of doing so I might even learn something.