Quotes by the author: "Science flies us to the moon....religion flies us into buildings"...."The problem is that people think faith is something to be admired. If fact, faith means you believe in something for which you have no evidence"...."From the very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line."
Stenger takes us on a quick and lively ride. Each chapter briefly covers data that volumes have been written about. Those familiar with the history of science and familiar with the perennial conflicts between science and religion will see familiar names and will have read many of the books in his bibliography.
Preface: From the beginning, all religions have been concerned with keeping the status quo. Science, on the other hand, is continuously being fine-tuned, as new evidence is found and studied. Religion is based on things supernatural that have proven to be undetectable by scientific methods. Science is based on things observable and testable. Although many have tried to demonstrate otherwise, science and religion are incompatible. Scientists who are religious, when they enter their churches, usually check their scientific hats at the door.
Chapter 1 Introduction: Despite efforts to rewrite history, science was effectively squelched by religion from the last days of the Roman Empire until shortly before the Enlightenment. "All the great pioneers of science - Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton - were believers, although they hardly had a choice in the matter. Open nonbelief was nonexistent in the West at that time."
Chapter 2 The Earliest Skirmishes: Stenger begins with cavemen, their extreme superstitions, their attribution of agency to any life events they couldn't explain (everything), and their highly developed and overactive "agent detection device". If they were in the jungle and heard a noise, it was safer to assume that represented danger. Stenger then moves to the earliest Greek philosophers who came remarkably close to some hypotheses of science that have stood the test of time.
Chapter 3 The Rebirth and Triumph of Science: Greek learning was almost completely lost to Western Europe from 500CE to 1500CE. Arabic science flourished, however, but before the scientific revolution hit Europe, science began to flounder in that world for unknown reasons. There is evidence that the printing press in Europe was frowned upon in Arab countries because calligraphy was an art form. For whatever reason, the Arab world lost their scientific impetus and never regained it. In this chapter, Stenger briefly visits our friends Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton, Hume, Locke, and Kant. He visits the Enlightenment and deism and then quotes Richard Carrier: "Had Christianity not interrupted the intellectual advance of mankind and put the progress of science on hold for a thousand years, the Scientific Revolution might have occurred a thousand years ago, and our technology today would be a thousand years more advanced."
Chapter 4 Darwin, Design, and Deity: Unlike Newton's ideas, Darwin's ideas were seen to directly threaten the existence of God. This chapter covers that history, Paley's argument from design, natural selection, and evolutionary politics that continue to this day. It closes with arguments comparing religion to being infected by a virus.
Chapters 5, 6, & 7 These are the science chapters, well-written for the lay person who is somewhat familiar with particle physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology. It is heavily endowed with criticism of pseudoscientists who would misuse scientific terminology, especially the word "quantum". I particularly enjoyed the discussion of particle/wave duality and now understand that it is all particles. When enough particles are measured together, they can then assume the characteristics of a wave, but they are always particles.
Chapter 8 Purpose: Reductionism, among scientists, particularly physicists, is the view that there is nothing more to the makeup of the universe, or any part of it, than its parts, and the interaction of these parts. "Although comprising only 5% of the total mass and energy of the universe; up and down quarks, electrons, and photons are all that are needed as ingredients of conventional matter in a working model for those observable phenomenon that are of direct concern to most humans...only elemental particle physicists and cosmologists worry about the other 95%." Nothing further emerges from this. Even consciousness is a direct manifestation of complex interactions among quarks and electrons. Stenger's view about purpose is well-described by this chapter's opening quote from David Hume: "Nature has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold, or to drought above moisture, or to light above heavy."
Chapter 9 Transcendence: The afterlife and the notion that something exists beyond the world that addresses our senses...studies on intercessory prayer...spiritual energy and chi...near-death experiences...reincarnation. Our hyperactive caveman agency detectors are hard at work but the search for good evidence for anything supernatural is sadly lacking.
Chapter 10 Beyond Evolution: Many years ago a good Christian friend of mine asserted that if it weren't for religion he would be completely antisocial and out of control. I was shocked and a little offended. I knew many nonbelievers and as far as I could tell, they acted in as moral a manner as anyone else. As a matter of fact, I eventually found out that good behavior is more correlated with nonreligious societies, such as certain Scandinavian countries, than it is with religious societies. This chapter covers matters of morality and whether belief in God needs to be a factor. He doesn't.
Chapter 11 Matter and Mind: "Considerable evidence exists that the phenomena we call mind and consciousness result from natural mechanisms in a purely material brain. If we have disembodied souls that are responsible for our thoughts, decisions, dreams, personalities, and emotions, then these should not be effected by drugs. But they are. They should not be affected by disease. But they are....why would that happen if consciousness arises from an immaterial soul?" Counterpoints by D'Souza and others.
Chapter 12 Metaphor, Atheist Spirituality, and Immanence: Many people who have studied religion lose their religion. Some lose their zeal for the dogma but still enjoy or want the spiritual experience. This chapter is about those who continue to try to find a place for spirituality, even though they have given up on the traditional view of a personal God, and their search to find rationale for this spirituality - heavy on Ian Barbour and others.
Chapter 13 From Conflict to Incompatibility: The state of religion today (nationally and worldwide), whether or not religion is good for you, assets vs. liabilities of belief in an afterlife, and a summary of the conflicts covered in earlier chapters. Finally, whether a confrontational approach or the accommodative approach is more reasonable for today's nonbeliever. About this I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, as T. Jefferson said, (he actually stole it from Voltaire) another person's beliefs "neither pick my pocket nor break my leg". On the other hand, evangelicals are heavily influencing legislative action nowadays and I disagree with most of their positions.
Chapter 14 Why Does It Matter: A concise dissertation on the disinformation spread by religious groups about science and important political issues for the nation. The drastically different worldview caused by religion, complete with ridiculous position statements from The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, as just one example of religious idiocy. Stenger's closing remarks include, "We need to focus our attention on one goal...the eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet."
Sorry to say, I don't see that happening, but I couldn't agree more.