Several weeks ago, I posted some reflections about Hugh Ross' apologetic of theism based upon cosmological discoveries of the recent decade. In short, Ross argues that there is objective, ascertainable evidence in the cosmos that legitimizes belief in not only God, but more specifically the "God of the Bible." I argued that Ross approaches the discussion with illegitimate categories, as professing belief in naturalistic proof for divinity, IMO, plays directly into the materialist conceptions of origins against which Ross is attempting to argue.

Upon finishing this book, I ran across a submission from Victor J. Stenger entitled "God: The Failed Hypothesis." In this work, Stenger argues that, contra Ross, evidence within the cosmos leads to the inevitable conclusion that God does not, in fact, exist. To develop this thesis, Stenger looks for evidence in creation, asserting that the universe looks exactly like it would were one to eliminate "God" from the discussion of origins. Later in the book, he even dons the philosopher's hat and suggests that considerations of the universality and variability of human morality; the problem of evil; and the materialism of the human person specifically deny the existence of God.

Overall, I had a fairly difficult time taking Stenger's conclusions seriously. Admittedly, he did a fine job of outlining and describing the various advances in understanding that have been made in the last century in re:cosmology. It is not Stenger's scientific acumen, however, with which I take issue. Rather, it is the very loose and inconsistent philosophical filters through which Stenger runs the "evidence" which he asserts rules out the existence of God.

His beginning assumption–the bedrock presupposition upon which the entire work is based–is that science should be able to detect evidence of God's existence or, in the absence therefore, establish the non-existence of said God. Immeditately, however, it is entirely questionable why this position follows: after all, to make such an assumption inevitably creates the desired conclusion–a self-legitimizing argument. That is, if one begins with the proposition that God is transcendant, and yet then believes that God's existence is detectable by science, one has de facto created an entirely non-sequitur hypothesis. By arguing that God's existence is determinable by science, one has necessarily negated the beginning premise of transcendance, for determination requires the prerequisite conditions of manipulation. Therefore, if God's existence is capable of proof or disproof by science, one must unavoidably conclude that God is not transcendant of science, which conclusion 1.) negates the "Godness" of the personage under investigation and/or 2.) reveals that the methodology is completely incorrect.

Of course, Stenger counters this rebut by arguing that even though God may not be robustly determinable (capable of manipulation) by science, we should at least expect to see something of God in creation, for what Creator would not be self-revealed in creation? While more philosophically compelling than the initial conclusion, Stenger's logic here still runs aground, for the criterion for determining that which is "divine" and that which is "natural" is still something inapplicable to scientific methodology, not to mention entirely undefined in Stenger's own hypothesis. To confidently claim that "x" data are "supernatural" as opposed to "natural" is to inject into the investigation a series of criteria to which science has no access. Stenger propogates this categorical error numerous times in arguing that the universe looks exactly as it would were there no God. However, such an assertion begs the tremendously important question of what a universe where the existence of God is presupposed actually looks like. As the precise relation and manifestation of divine activity within creation is something inaccessible to both science and philosophy, one must wonder how Stenger knows what a divinely created universe would look like by which he might make the comparison to ours in which God does not exist.

Stenger's answer to this objection–and the ultimate failure of his book–is to base his criterion on the basis of what religion says a universe created by God would look like. To establish this hypothetical "God-ed" universe, Stenger conjurs the thinking of various lines of religious thinking, including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc. However, his most discussed religious population is Western, evangelical Christianity, and this segment of religious belief garners his most vitriolic attacks.
Interestingly, it is not Stenger's critique of evangelical Christian belief with which I disagree: on many points, I think he makes some valid points, even though they are often made in as offensive ways as possible. In fact, on some of the issues, I found myself agreeing with Stenger's assessments (see especially his mildly thought-provoking section on human morality). However, the problem with Stenger's attack of evangelical conceptions of cosmology, origins, and deity is that evangelicalism is almost the exclusive target. Time and again, Stenger's "proofs" against theism are based on his dismantling of caricatures of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. While there is certainly a place, I suppose, for such a discussion, Stenger's opening thesis about the unlikeliness of the existence of God is shown for what it really is–based almost solely upon exaggerations and generalizations of marginal beliefs that are nonetheless presented as categorically valid assumptions of all theistic belief.

This, then, is why I feel Stenger's argument is loose, inconsistent, and philosophically juvenile. Rather than taking on the strongest arguments against his thesis, he settles for pursuing his conclusions by playing off of silly and often invented caricatures of beliefs and assertions that do not come close to representing a philosophical system that would present serious challenges to Stenger's methodology. Let me give you an example. A favorite illustration of Stenger's is the question of body/soul–is the person a dualism of body and soul (per his characterization of Christian belief) or are humans reducible to their material parts? In blasting his opponents, Stenger criticizes Christian theology (or at least what he understands it to be) which teaches the existence of an immaterial soul which is joined, yet separate from the material body. He concludes that current scientific research conclusively shows that all aspects of human personhood can be reduced to the material, and that no element need be explained by "the soul" (as he understands the ancients to have done in their ignorance of psychology, neurology, etc.). To support this, he points to many modern theologians–especially Nancy Murphy–who advocate a "non-reductive physicalism" (simply put, this is a monistic belief that posits that humans, while not possessing a bifurcated "soul", are nonetheless irreducible merely to the sum of their parts). Stenger then argues that these' theologians' and philosophers' "capitulation" to modern science is itself proof that these "mythological" concepts of "soul" are categorically invalid–after all, even Christian theologians recognize that body/soul dualism is a dead-end. However, this is the extent of Stenger's argument; he does not even attempt to deal directly with the force of Christian monistic thinking. Rather, in keeping with his already established modus operandi, Stenger is content to continue arguing on the shallow level of caricatures of evangelical theology.

Another great examp
of Stenger's unwi
llingness (or inability) to engage with serious questions of his methodology are evident in his discussion of theodicy. To Stenger, theodicy is one of the biggest proofs against the existence of God, for surely if God exists evil would not or, at the very least, God would prevent evil. To support this thesis, Stenger seeks to undermine admittedly weak defenses of theodicy from–surprise, surprise–evangelicalism. He is especially critical of Reformed theology, arguing that if the God of Reformed theology exists, then this God is solely responsible for the evil in the world. Yet beyond these simple attacks of already-recognized philosophically untenable theodicies, Stenger's argument proceeds nowhere. He does not engage the concept of privation whatsoever, even though the notion of evil as "privation of good" is, historically, the theodical model of the Christian faith. Rather, as typical within his already established methodology, Stenger picks and chooses his arguments, highlighting only those traditions of thought which self-evidently invite philosophical attack. To those which would require a seriously developed argument, however, Stenger turns an ink-less pen.
In short, theists should not be too concerned with Stenger's conclusions. The cosmological evidence which he presents is hardly excluding of the existence of God, for as has already been stated, there is no basis–either philosophical or scientific–upon which to determine exactly what divine involvement in creation does or does not look like. Furthermore, thoughtful theists have already engaged the cosmological considerations and have shown them to offer no meaningful threat to theistic belief. Stenger's philosophical conclusions pose even less of a danger, for as shown, his methodology is thoroughly elementary, failing to seriously engage Christian theology (or any other theology, for that matter) on a level beyond that of the marginal, radicalized fringes, yet still insisting that such constitutes philosophical "proof" against the existence of God. On a positive note, this book would be a good resource for evangelical leaders, for it illustrates the weaknesses and dangers of thinking to which evangelical thought is prone and the level on which its antagonists are wont to operate.