Scotland’s Cryptic Evangelist

Many years ago it was now, on a Victoria Day bank holiday weekend, my wife and I were on a camping trip with friends in the Scottish highlands. Pitching our tents on the banks of Loch Ness, we joked about the potential danger—after all, Nessie had reputedly attached St. Columba, therefore even the pious had no refuge. Early the next morning, our party still intact, we drove to Urquhart Castle, arriving before it opened. Out on the loch we saw something moving through the water, leaving a wake. It was breaking the surface but was too small to be a boat and it was not a bird. It moved at constant speed until it was out of sight. This was in the days of actual film, and slide processing was “dear” as the Scots say, but I snapped off a photo anyway. The slide is too indistinct to make a diagnosis, but our friends, who had a better camera, came to the conclusion that it was a small boat. After looking at their enlargement, I still have my doubts. I’ve always sat on the fence for the Loch Ness monster. Certainly it seems improbable, but we have only a cursory knowledge of sea creatures and Loch Ness is deep and long and isolated. Is there a Loch Ness monster? Maybe yes and maybe no.

Of course, Nessie has been in the news, as my wife pointed out, backed by the considerable creativity of the creationist camp. Seizing a living dinosaur as the death knell of evolution, Fundamentalist schools in several states are using textbooks that argue Nessie’s existence proves that dinosaurs didn’t evolve and that they still walk (or at least swim) among us. An excellent corrective to this “either evolution or special creation” is Victor Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis, that I reported on a few weeks back. With apologies to the late Stephen Jay Gould, this tactic puts an entirely new spin on the concept of the hopeful monster theory.

Religion and monsters are thoroughly intermeshed. Often this intermingling comes as the result of revulsion against the unclean or impure aspects of life that monstrosity represents. Numerous analysts have shown that monsters tend to be unholy mixes of elements that religions prefer to keep widely separated—animals that would never have made it onto the ark, yet somehow have arisen since the deluge. Human fear at contamination has an excellent basis in evolution; those who never developed the sense to stay away from the sources of contamination grew sick and died off. Monsters, in this sense, serve as useful reminders for avoiding the “strange fire” that so displeases the Lord. Reading how good Christians are now reaching out the right hand of fellowship to their monstrous brethren, I wonder if a long-held belief is being imperiled. Those who would swim with monsters must be very cautious indeed, for above all things, monsters are notoriously unpredictable.

Holy Hypothesis

The angry atheists have been center stage in the God debates over the last few years. Many of them have become household names. Often giving sweeping generalizations about what God is, they tear apart this highly improbable image with aplomb. Not that I like to get in the way of somebody’s innocent fun, but their approach to the question only antagonizes the opposition without converting them. I just finished Victor J. Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. Like many who argue for atheism, Stenger is a highly regarded scientist. Unlike many, he offers a systematic, even-keeled account of his reasons for rejecting the divine. Indeed, the sub-title is straightforward—prosaic even—How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. As befits a physicist, Stenger is careful to define his terms and is cordial enough to state that his book doesn’t cover the non-existence of deities per se, but the interventionist God of yore in particular.

Although I can’t agree on every single point Stenger makes, he does a compelling job of laying out logically how, if God is taken as an hypothesis (theory is a little too strong a category, implying substantial scientific concurrence), there should be some measurable result in the universe that God created. Choosing to differ from many theologians and scientists, Stenger argues that science can say something about God, given that God reputedly acts in a physical world. Outside these parameters something one may choose to call God may exist, but that kind of God does not answer prayers or oversee evolution.

Like many scientists, Stenger feels compelled to undertake this argumentation at least partially because of the weary insistence that evolution is “just a theory.” Creationists have tried to distort science for nearly a century now and have been successful really only in the United States. As Stenger shows, their method is often science, but wrong science. Just because an idea is scientific does not made it valid science. Stenger also points out that the premises of creationism, no matter how measured, are just plain wrong. Throughout, however, there is no belittling of those who believe in God. What is offered in this little volume is a rational, non-hysterical account of why a physicist who follows the law of the kingdom finds there is no God above it. And like a true scientist, Stenger leaves open the possibility that new evidence could overturn his verdict. Nevertheless, if his work is taken seriously, such a turn of events appears highly improbable.