Monday, June 04, 2012

7th Worst Review: Victor Stenger, the New Atheism

We continue our off-again, on-again series of popular and unpopular reviews I've posted over the past 14 years on Amazon.  Today we come to one with a personal connection: Victor Stenger's The New Atheism.

Victor Stenger, The New Atheism "Shakes my faith . . . in Skeptics"

(** ; Amazon votes: - 68 / + 54)

I am one of Stenger's targets in this book. Stenger quotes and tries to refute my book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism, extensively, especially in his key second chapter on faith.

I welcome the response; I only wish it were better.

First of all, large stretches of The New Atheism read more like notes jotted down in the margins of other books, then put in consecutive order, than a coherent argument.

Second, his sources are often really poor. Earl Doherty on the New Testament? Sorry, but Doherty is not a serious scholar. (Ehrman is better, but better still would be to read BOTH sides of the argument.) Michelle Goldberg and Chris Hedges on American Christianity? It would be hard to find two people in the United States who know less about the subject. Hector Avalos on communism? Again, not his field.

Strangely, Stenger takes novelist Vox Day as his "debate partner" on communism, skipping my chapter on the subject. But I know Marxism pretty well -- I speak Russian and Chinese, have lived in and researched both societies, and have been intimately involved with religion in communist countries for decades. John Lennox, Alister McGrath, and especially David Aikman, also know a great deal about atheism and Marxism -- Aikman having a doctorate in precisely that subject. Yet Stenger simply ignores our arguments. He therefore says some quite silly things about communism, which are refuted in one part of my book he missed.

On Chinese religions, Stenger picks Karen Armstrong, of all people, as his "expert witness." He says Lao Zi hoped to end the violence of "what Karen Armstrong called the Warring States" period -- apparently thinking Armstrong came up with the phrase. (The title comes from a book written in the early Han, before Christ.)

One must admire Stenger for branching out in his retirement years, but all this garage-sale scholarship comes at a high cost to the facts. Confucius opposed animal sacrifice? Nonsense -- one of the best-known phrases from the Analects is "you care for the sheep -- I care for the rites." Jesus encouraged masters to beat their slaves? Baloney. Read the whole passage Stenger borrows from Dan Barker (his mistake), Luke 12, and it's clear that is not at all what Jesus is doing. In the 1400s "the Inquisition changed its focus to witchcraft?" In fact, for all its sins, the Inquisition actually opposed witch-hunts in Spain. The Gnostic writings are examples of "selflessnes?" In fact, they are among the most ego-centric religious texts one can find. (See my Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.') "Religious liberty and diversity were core values of classical polytheism?" Here Stenger is borrowing from Jonathan Kirsch. But read his history rather than his simplistic generalizations, and even Kirsch admits things were more complicated than that. Christians "don't read the Bible . . . If they did, they wouldn't be Christians?" Poppycock. Millions of Christians are serious students of the Bible. Those I know who study it assiduously (I grew up in such a home), are generally the most committed.

Stenger criticizes me in chapter 2, on "the Folly of Faith." I wrote a response to a preliminary version of his critique . . . Here I'll just add a couple of observations.

First, Stenger ought to read the chapter "Have Christians Lost Their Minds?," from which he quotes ten times here, more carefully. He claims, in agreement with Dawkins and Harris, that faith "is belief in the absense of supportive evidence and even in light of contrary evidence." He needs to distinguish between (a) the claim that Christians define faith that way, and (b) the claim that whatever we mean by faith, in fact the Christian faith lacks supportive evidence . . .

The real dispute is over (b). Of course, Christians think we have good evidence for our faith, and atheists deny it -- but that doesn't mean faith means (to us) what Stenger repeatedly says it does. His bogus definition is not only false, Stenger holds to it "in the absense of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence," to use his Dawkinesque phrase.

Second, having quoted chapter 1 of my book repeatedly, though without I think reading it carefully, Stenger then skips ahead to the last chapter of the book, and quotes as follows:

The New Atheism reveals its simplistic grasp on reality in many ways. First, the most cocky atheists often fail to recognize the limits of science. Second, their theories leave too many facts out. Third, they refuse to ask certain obviously important questions. Fourth, to obscure the failure of their theory, some are driven to play a game of 'let's pretend.'

Stenger comments, in response:

I don't have the faintest idea what Marshall is talking about in leaving facts out, refusing to ask important questions, and playing 'let's pretend.' He gives no examples.

Yet all Stenger needed to do, was read the next eight pages of the book, to find numerous examples. (Not to mention the rest of the book.)

If he had read the whole book, he might also begin to develop a more positive understanding of what the Gospel has done for the world.

Stenger seems a nice enough fellow. I was touched by what he says about his life and family, and wish him happiness. I find his defense of the New Atheism remarkably sloppy and lacking in self-criticism -- he even shares his views on politics at great length. Stenger would do better, I think, to write about issues he knows well, and not try to be all things to all people. He might also be more credible if he admitted when critics have a point, and not simply jump in the nearest foxhole and start firing back without looking at what he's shooting at, or trying to shoot with.


Chris said...

My apologies but I didn't see a single rebuttal to anything in the book; only dismissing other scholar's work and saying he needed to read your book more carefully and fully. Can you please elaborate on the points on which you disagree? This may have been why your review was so poorly received.

I've read his book and found it a bit disjointed but overall I thought it was good.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: The review wasn't "poorly received," it raked in a remarkable 54 "helps" votes, which for a full-throated dress-down of a Gnu of Stenger's character is remarkably good -- and only 68 "doesn't help" votes. I am personally surprised the review has done so well: Gnu readers are seldom so generous with critical reviews from Christians. My hypothesis is, this may be because (a) Stenger readers are nicer than, say, Dawkins readers, and (b) some are honest enough to admit that Stenger's book has, in fact, been effectively critiqued.

If you didn't see a "single rebuttal" in my review, you must have closed your eyes while reading it. I point out EIGHT specific errors, even before I get to Stenger's fumbling response to my book. Aside from those factual errors, I say, Stenger cites "experts" who aren't experts (giving several more examples), ignores strong debate partners for weak ones (giving another example), and writes disjointed arguments. And then I critique his rather batty response to my book.

So I'm a little nonplussed. Try reading the review again -- this time maybe try drinking a little coffee, first.

Chris said...

I did read it carefully. You complain about a few very minor issues in his section on eastern religions (definitely not a major theme in the book) and argue he is wrong about a few things but you fail to give any reasons why for most of your claims. One example is your complaint about Jesus's parable about beating a slave. You say Barker misreads the passage but how? You left this completely unexplained. Please forgive me if I am not impressed with either your review or your response. The people he cites ARE experts. Because you disagree with them doesn't magically transform them into know-nothings, like yourself. All of your so-called rebuttals you claim are elsewhere but you don't elaborate where. I don't blame the bad ratings you received for this review.

Doug said...

This "faith is belief without evidence" is an odd one.
There is no evidence that "belief without evidence" exists.
But Dawkins, Harris and Stenger appear to believe in it.
Does this mean that the Gnus have faith in... (their own definition of) faith?

David B Marshall said...

If you read it carefully and saw that I do rebut a dozen or so specific claims in Stenger's book, why did you say that you "didn't see a single rebuttal to anything in the book?" Now you admit that you did see such rebuttals. Try to be more accurate in what you say to begin with, next time.

Neither is it true that everything I dispute is both trivial, and about eastern religions. Again, you are making assertions that are patently, and visibly, untrue. Either you are being incredibly sloppy, or you don't care much about the difference between truth and falsehood.

No, Earl Doherty is not a recognized expert on the New Testament. Thousands of scholars have PhDs in the subject: Doherty doesn't even have an MA, I don't think, and is not taken seriously by many recognized scholars. When a scientist buttresses his argument in another field by citing so fringe an "expert," he undermines his own credibility. That is not the way to make a convincing argument. It's shoddy, and it's amateurish. The same with Goldberg, Hedges, and Avalos, perhaps to a lesser degree with the latter. If you think I am wrong, and these folks do have reocgnized expertise in THE SUBJECT THEY ARE CITED ON (more so than Aikman, McGrath, or myself), rather than shoot a bunch of psychobabble at me, you should explain what that expertise is!

As for Luke 12, I encourage anyone following, who has doubts about my interpretation, to simply read the passage, and see for himself or herself that I am telling the truth. I don't mean to be insulting, but you have not shown yourself to be a careful reader, in this thread.

Chris said...

There was no contradiction between my first and second comments. I said that you provided no rebuttals, which was true. You claimed Vic Stenger was wrong but failed to provide any evidence for nearly every accusation of an error. I'm sorry but the only sloppy one I see here is you. I kindly asked you for evidence for your claims and you respond with this snippy attitude? What's wrong? Your PMS getting to you? Sheesh! All I did was ask you to provide evidence for your assertions. There was no need to get an attitude.

Someone's credentials – or lack thereof – not an argument make. Either someone is right or wrong regardless of their credentials and you didn't provide an ounce of evidence why Earl Doherty was wrong. I believe that's a logical fallacy: attacking the man, rather than the argument.

“As for Luke 12, I encourage anyone following, who has doubts about my interpretation, to simply read the passage, and see for himself or herself that I am telling the truth.”

Well, I would if you'd 1: Quote Stenger so I can see what he says, or at least give a page number; and 2. Actually provide your reasoning about why Jesus isn't condoning slavery in that passage.

Doug: I fear trying to get answers from this Marshall fellow will be like trying to get blood from a stone. Don't waste your bandwidth.

If I am wrong please David Marshall provide a little more substance than “He is wrong!” or “He doesn't have the required credentials!” Why? That's what's missing from your responses. I wouldn't mind a dialogue but I don't see the point if all you're going to give me is an attitude for nothing more than asking a simple, harmless question.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: The following is, in fact, a rebuttal:

"Confucius opposed animal sacrifice? Nonsense -- one of the best-known phrases from the Analects is 'you care for the sheep -- I care for the rites.'"

This well-known saying is evidence that Stenger's claim that Confucius opposed animal sacrifice is wrong. The act of offering such contrary evidence is, by definition, a rebuttal (weak or strong) of Stenger's argument.

Some of my responses can be construed as mere assertions rather than full rebuttals, if you want to be technical. But it is plainly false that even in this technical sense, I offered no rebuttals. And even the assertions are abbreviated rebuttals, in that they point to primary sources, or other full and effective rebuttals. This is far more than is usually given in an Amazon review. So you are wrong both in letter and in spirit.

Nor is it a "logical fallacy" to criticize a writer for appealing to fringe scholars, who lack scholarly credentials. I'm not reviewing Doherty's book, here, I'm reviewing Stengers. Citing uncredentialed "scholars" whose expertise is denied by most accepted scholars to make a controversial argument, undermines the strength of that argument. Whatever anyone told you, judicious appeals to recognized authorities who have demonstrated their expertise has been an important part of rational argument since the time of Aristotle and before. Which is why I don't criticize Stenger for appealing to authorities, but for appealing to weak ones.

I'm not going to do an exegesis of Luke 12. If you are fool enough to read the passage, and actually buy the idea that "Jesus encouraged the beating of slaves," feel free to delude yourself, along with Stenger. It's called a parable.

Chris said...

So you admit to making mere assertion and not rebuttals as you said previously. You then try to defend this by appealing to the fact that this is an Amazon review and not a detailed rebuttal. I don't see why you couldn't have been more specific.I must say that this appears to be standard practice for you to refuse to give specifics with your arguments. The internet is a wonderful thing. You can find just about anything including information about obscure Christian apologists like yourself. I have looked over your blog and I found some of your “debates” with other skeptics and you're as vague here as you were in previous discussions. I found your refusals to give any evidence at PZ Meyer's blog and one of the first links to come up when I typed your name was a blog that contained several rebuttals to your book and blog posts. It was very interesting reading.

Re: Jesus and slavery. It doesn't matter that it's a parable what matter is that Jesus refuses to condemn slavery anywhere in the bible and because he uses the beating of a slave in his parable it appears that slavery and abusing slaves does not bother him. I don't see why he couldn't have used a different analogy for whatever he was talking about.

Re: Confucius and animal sacrifice. I couldn't find this argument by Vic S. Page number please?

Similar to the other examples I've seen of your discussions with others I've yet to see you consistently provide evidence for your claims. When you do it looks to me like you have to be goaded into it and eventually you do so grudgingly. I don't know why you feel you must resort to petty personal attacks against anyone who asks you simple questions but I suggest you step off your high horse and engage in civil dialogue because many atheists sincerely do want to discuss issues with you and other Christians but you won't gain much of a following if you are consistently rude to everyone who offers the slightest bit of criticism. Just my two cents.

Chris said...

I am not sure why my comment was not allowed but if this wasn't an accident it certainly confirms what I already suspected: you can't handle criticism and despite your pronouncements to the contrary you do not care for open and frank dialogue with people who disagree with you. I suppose I can't blame you. That blogger tore your arguments to shreds and then some.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: It does matter that it's a parable. Because Stenger's point is that Jesus is supposedly teaching us to beat our slaves. But he is not: that is not at all the point of the parable, any more than the point of The Good Samaritan is that we should mug people along the road to Jericho. And I am reviewing Stenger's book, got that yet?

No, I don't admit to making "mere assertions." I admit to stating the facts, of which I am aware, referring readers to sources which will make those open to learning those facts, aware. And in a couple cases, contrary to your original claim, I offered rebuttals in the full sense that evidence was added to support my statement of those facts. Can you admit that, yet?

There is a time and a place for giving detailed evidence. In a short Amazon review, it's usually better to state the facts, and maybe point out where details can be found, than to try to support every point in detail, with references.

If you claim I never give detailed evidence, then you would not be telling the truth. In many forums, I have given more detailed evidence than anyone else present. The same is true of my books -- they are full of evidence, detailed at the level appropriate for the style of book. Of course, on PZ Myer's hate site, when you have dozens of people cursing you and wishing sexual tortures on you, only a fool would treat that as a straightforward and open-minded scholarly conversation about the facts.

I take it you have visited one of Arizona Atheist's many pages attacking me. I have, on occasion, rebutted his attacks, with ease -- there are a couple such threads on Amazon, and one here. I do NOT follow all his rather obsessive and sloppy critiques of me. He has posted like 75 times on me, on his own site alone, plus on other sites -- more than almost any other topic. I have read almost none of that, because I did not find what I did read, worth reading. I have posted once on him here, and I think that may be enough.

Nor is it true that I'm "consistently rude" to skeptical conversation partners. If you look over this site, you'll find that several atheists have consistently posted here, and consistently been treated with respect and friendliness. I try to treat people fairly. If you are yourself reasonably polite and honest, you can generally expect a similiar or greater level of courtesy from me. If I fail at that, and recognize the failure, I hope I will apologize.

Sorry you've had trouble posting here. As soon as I noticed the comments had been blocked, I moved them to "post." Hopefully the software will eventually learn.

Chris said...

David I'm sorry I did not realize your blog can stop posts from being posted. The question remains why you'd argue that “In many forums, I have given more detailed evidence than anyone else present.” I'm sorry but I have not seen this on any forums I've found after Googling your name or in your correspondence with others, myself included. You're often very vague and flippant with your responses and I find that troubling since you seem to pride yourself on “detailed” rebuttals. I haven't seen any such thing from you I'm afraid. From what I've read you don't seem to ever deal with the meat and potatoes of someone's arguments. You seem seem to tend to pick around the edges at a few minor arguments, which don't begin to touch the main subject under discussion. I could be wrong and I'd be happy to change my mind if you can show me examples proving otherwise.

Yes, as a matter of fact I did come across Arizona Atheist's blog. Yes, he has many posts about you. Many of them are of your past debates and rebuttals to your book. I'm sorry to report that after looking through the posts from Amazon on Az Atheist's blog I see how you respond with a similar pattern to most people whom you converse with. You are often guilty of giving a lot of lip and you're light on the evidence just as you are here. I linked to his response to your blog post in my last comment btw. I thought it was a cognizant and well-thought out response.

But let's get back to Stenger's book.

Re. Jesus and slavery. OK. Let's say it's a parable. Then what? What is this parable trying to teach man?

Re: Confucius and animal sacrifice. I still could not find any such claim in his book. Will you please provide me with a page number?

Chris said...

No response yet? OK I'll wait longer...

Anonymous said...

And, David, what does the parable that says bring my enemies before me and slay them?
I Googled that and found interesting comments.

David B Marshall said...

Hume/ etc: Get a grip. Demonstrate that (at a minimum) you're coherent, and have something to say, before you start posting a bunch of links.

David B Marshall said...

Chris: "The question remains why you'd argue that “In many forums, I have given more detailed evidence than anyone else present.”"

The answer remains, because it is so.

"I'm sorry but I have not seen this on any forums I've found after Googling your name or in your correspondence with others, myself included."

Perhaps the most relevant post to point you to, then, is "Does Google Make Atheists?" Ironically, this is a post that details the mistakes some Internet skeptics fall into by thinking a google search can tell you not only what is, but what is not. I think there are a fair number of details in that post, as in many other posts, here, on Amazon, and on

"You're often very vague and flippant with your responses and I find that troubling since you seem to pride yourself on “detailed” rebuttals."

There's a time and a place for everything. It would be a waste of time to answer glib, nasty, or arrogantly ignorant comments with detailed arguments, nor would it be fitting. But when it seems appropriate, and I have time, I also give detailed arguments. Some of them are easy enough to find: see below for another example, along with the "How Jesus Liberates Women" series.

Compared to, say, PZ Myers or John Loftus, my blog tends to be far more substantial and filled with details.

"You seem seem to tend to pick around the edges at a few minor arguments, which don't begin to touch the main subject under discussion."

Stenger's critique of the Christian view of faith is in some ways the cornerstone of this entire book. What did I say about that, that you can show is wrong?

If you want detail on "faith and reason," see my anthology of that title, at I cite more relevant authorities in that one article, than I think do Harris, Dawkins, and Stenger combined, in all their frequent discussions of the subject. See also my second chapter in True Reason (it's cheap) or Chapter One in The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Again, I'll be happy to compare the detail in my arguments, to that in the arguments of the Gnus I'm criticizing.

"Yes, as a matter of fact I did come across Arizona Atheist's blog. Yes, he has many posts about you. Many of them are of your past debates and rebuttals to your book."

If you think any of Ken's criticisms hit the mark, feel free to borrow one or two of the best and see how far they get you.

"But let's get back to Stenger's book.

"Jesus and slavery. OK. Let's say it's a parable."

What do you mean, "say it is a parable?" It IS a parable. That's not a concession, except to reality.

"Then what? What is this parable trying to teach man?"

Be responsible servants of God, for he will judge you one day, maybe soon.

"Re: Confucius and animal sacrifice. I still could not find any such claim in his book. Will you please provide me with a page number?"

I'm out of my office right now. If I remember, I'll look it up some time after I get home.

Anonymous said...

Chris, why is it so hard for you to comprehend that you are simply another neck bearded Hitchens-Dawkins parroting basement dwelling megadouche? And this sort of combox highjacking illustrates plainly why atheism cannot possibly flow from any sort of rational inquiry. It is purely an emotional reaction