A number of years ago, the late [great?] Stephen J. Gould produced "Rocks of Ages". The work was designed as a peace offering between those relying on reason and those relying on faith to view the cosmos. Gould, like some others of the time, was willing to let "moral" issues remain in the hands of religious leaders. Science, he declared, was a separate "magisterium". Victor Stenger declares that such a separation is false and misleading. He argues that gods, particularly that of the "three great monotheisms" is a fit subject for scientific study. In this captivating and skillful analysis, he does just that. The results, ably presented in fluent language, are devastating to the notion that any supernatural being, especially the Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity, has substance. If such a thing could exist, it would be too remote from human conditions to have any meaning.
Although Stenger credits Galileo and Darwin with significant contributions to pushing a god away from human affairs, it's his own field of physics that provide the most compelling evidence, or lack of it, for any gods. As with any research subject, the author formulates hypotheses explaining why a god should exist, then tests them for valid evidence. To apply scientific methods to examining the evidence for the supernatural, he explains that ideas about the world are observed and models derived to explain their workings. Those models must be tested by valid methods, comprehensive and definitive. His examination of intercessory prayer as a healing mechanism [Chap. 3] demonstrates how flawed methods skew evidence. Ignoring real evidence, as his examination of the "Illusion of Design" demonstrates, has allowed such commentators as Michael Behe and William Dembski to forward untestable concepts of how life's processes work.
Perhaps the most compelling section [Chap. 4 "Cosmic Evidence"] in this book is his discussion of the big bang. How often have we heard the challenge: "What caused the Big Bang?" by believers who need a deity to initiate the cosmos, even if it clearly has no role in it. Stenger takes us back to the first instance of the universe's beginning. He notes that the actual origins may be debated: the universe may recycle itself or have come from another universe, for example. Ours, however, began in chaos, but quickly followed the laws of physics the author has studied for so long. From that point, there's no role for a deity to play - Nature's own rules are in command. Physics, not gods, gave us stars, galaxies, the heavy elements needed to form life and a place where conditions were conducive to that result. As a conclusion to this segment, he even asks why there should be a universe at all - the ancient philosophical question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" His answer clarifies the question from a physicist's empirical stance.
As he progresses through the book, the author postulates questions about what justifies a god - particularly that of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. The roles assigned to the deity, one whose adherents declare it to be "omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent [at least to humans]" fail every empirical test. It is certainly not "all-knowing" or it would prevent some events that go against its own dicta. It is clearly not "completely powerful" since too many phenomena cannot be attributed to it. The "benevolent" argument was destroyed by Charles Darwin, and the history of its own actions belie that contention. A god demanding genocide or acts such as the destruction of the World Trade Center, can hardly claim "benevolence". To attribute to such a deity the origin or definition of "morals" is false, and Stenger rebukes Gould and others for making such an attribution. Morality, as Stenger shows, is widespread across the animal kingdom, a product of natural selection, not divine ordinance or declaration. This fact, he contends, is important for us all to understand in order not to fall prey to leaders who inflict arbitrary decisions on us claiming divine inspiration.
It is difficult to praise this book highly enough. Although there have been many books recently published to show why belief in the supernatural is misplaced, few have taken a hard scientific path to make their case. Stenger's book, although the latest in a string by this author, is his most outstanding effort. Readable and informative, it should be taken up by any who make arguments for faith in deities and who declare religion should guide our lives. Even the dedicated non-theists will find it useful. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]