Would we be better off without religion?

I’m planning to attend a public debate on religion, organised by Intelligence Squared. The motion is ‘We’d be better off without religion’, and the speakers include Victor Stenger, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist. I checked this out recently.

The blurb about Professor Stenger says:

Stenger maintains that plausible natural explanations exist for for all observable phenomena and there is strong scientific evidence against anything mystical or supernatural in the universe.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God. It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why.

I’m not disagreeing with Stenger. It isn’t that there are two different types of evidence, that used by atheist scientists such as Stenger, and the evidence used by believers. It’s actually all the same. I think Stenger would agree with this. He seems to think the existence of God should be empirically observable as a series of  anomalies in the laws of physics. Many theists would agree with this. For example, miracles, by definition, are things that don’t normally happen, and are not explicable using scientific explanations that exclude the divine. What differs between this kind of believers and non-believers is not the available evidence, but the interpretation. Using a materialist framework of interpretation, Stenger can show how there is nothing supernatural and how the very category is suspect. Using a different framework of interpretation, believers can show how the existence of God is credible, especially if categories such as Faith are considered. So the disagreement is about different approaches to interpretation at least as much as it is about the evidence itself. Stenger seems to be of the opinion that there is only one valid method of interpretation and that is the scientific method. This is clearly untenable, since all sorts of human activity depend on non-scientific frameworks of interpretation (eg love, revenge, ethics, etc).

Although some scientists would probably dispute Stenger’s claims that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God (or of anything supernatural), I am prepared to take his view seriously. Since he has been involved in identifying quarks and gluons, he probably knows something about physics.

I think, though, that his definition of God, while admittedly one used by many believers, is contestable. Is it necessary for God to be doing anything different from the laws of physics? Stenger thinks it is. If God’s existence is a scientific hypothesis then according to Stenger it fails.

But there is a different type of believer/non-believer. This type doesn’t regard God as a scientific hypothesis, but as a human creation, analogous to a work of art or an artistic practice. On this view God exists because humans created him. There are many non-believers in this kind of God, including most theists. It seems Stenger would agree with them, since he, like them, would probably regard this kind of God as no God at all. So Stenger has a great deal in common with the religious believers after all. The more he tries to distance himself from them, the closer they move together.

There’s a summary of Stenger’s argument here.

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