The Devil’s Delusion, so says author David Berlinski, was a book written for those who feel that “the scientific community holds them in contempt.” This fall’s paperback edition would make a provocative stocking-stuffer for that snooty uncle who’s always touting the superiority of fact-based science to religious superstition.
Composed with characteristic panache, Berlinski’s intellectual exposé targets an audience with a fair degree of scientific and philosophical sophistication. Richard Dawkins, chief priest of the Church of Darwin and author of The God Delusion, comes in for the lion’s share of Berlinski’s fire. Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) are among other atheistic oracles whose “scientific pretensions” are delightfully deconstructed by Berlinski’s wide scholarship and rapier wit.
For starters, Berlinski notes that atheism, far from being a philosophical conclusion supported by an impressive pyramid of scientific facts, is actually “an ideology with no truly distinct center and the fuzziest of boundaries.” Berlinski supports that assertion with a number of poignant philosophical and scientific observations. In the former case he shows that Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence can’t be dismissed as cavalierly as they are by Richard Dawkins—with sophomoric protests about the creator’s creator. In the latter case Berlinski lays bare, with unflagging gusto, ad hoc scientific creations largely designed to circumvent inconvenient cosmic singularities, non-compliant fossil records, and head-spinning biological complexities that make a mockery of Darwin’s quaint conjecture that life might have arisen spontaneously in a “warm little pond.”
Berlinski claims that these scientific theories are motivated as much by a fervent desire to counter arguments for divine causation as they are by sober assessments of relevant data. In terms of logic and evidence, for example, it’s hardly less reasonable to posit an intelligent designer as the final cause for biological development, human complexity, and the universe’s finely tuned physical laws than it is to assert that a bubbly, creative, god-free “Landscape” exists somewhere beyond our own universe from which an infinite number of universes randomly emerge—each with its own idiosyncratic physical laws.
Ever the skeptic and seeker, Berlinski doesn’t commit himself to any particular conclusion in this God vs. Hyper-Nature argument—except to say that science most certainly has not demonstrated that religious explanations are false. Other negative conclusions embraced by the author are that biology has little, if any, idea how life actually began on earth and that the sciences can say nothing of interest about the human soul (i.e. human consciousness, moral and aesthetic sensibilities, aspirations, etc.).
Berlinski’s pen is sharpest when eviscerating preposterous statements promulgated by members of the atheist hierarchy. Responding to the “shockingly happy picture” that Steven Pinker sees painted by an increasingly secular twentieth century, Berlinski counters with a litany of “excess deaths” during that same hundred year period, a litany that includes two world wars, Mao’s and Stalin’s victims, Khmer Rouge brutalities, and dozens of miscellaneous killing fields—categories that collectively approach 200 million “excess deaths.”
Rather than validating Pinker’s rosy historical scenario, these appalling figures seem to confirm Ivan Karamazov’s assertion that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. They also make mincemeat of physicist Steven Weinberg’s warmly received declaration that it takes religion, and religion in particular, “for good people to do evil things.” Berlinski responds to this dogmatic assertion by noting that the Nazi soldier who forced an Hasidic Jew to dig his own grave did not appear phased by his victim’s final malediction, “God is watching what you are doing.” “As far as we can tell,” Berlinski writes, “very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing…. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.”
Berlinski’s tone and approach is generally more lighthearted—as it is when taking on scientists who essentially equate the mind with the brain. Berlinski notes wryly that the reduction of other people’s passions, dreams, and sacrifices to various chemical inter-actions isn’t an analytical approach employed by scientists when focusing on their own motivations. Thus, to Dean Hamer’s conjecture that God-beliefs are connected to certain brain chemicals Berlinski responds, “Why not (the) urine?” The author modestly refrains from linking Hamer’s own interest in genetics to correlative bodily secretions.
Throughout this intellectual and literary romp, Berlinski repeatedly observes that it isn’t compelling scientific data but rather an atheistic “faith” that stands behind the pretentious declarations put forward by Dawkins and his cohorts—a faith that’s blind to the horrors perpetrated by its political comrades and obsessively eager to link poisonous effects to “everything” religious (cf. Christopher Hitchens). At times, however, this naturalistic faith is honestly admitted, as it is with geneticist Richard Lewontin: “We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories.” Lewontin explains in The New York Review of Books why this is so: “…we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Berlinski ends his work with an intriguing historical allegory that provides a mirror-image of the dilemma facing pensive church officials at the time of Galileo’s inquisition. Today’s steely Cardinal works within the Cathedral of science—and has done so for the last four hundred years. Yet the impressive edifice constructed by the faithful remains unfinished. Indeed, it seems destined to remain that way—its various sections aesthetically at odds with each other. Berlinski confesses that he has labored within this Cathedral his whole life, but “if science in the twentieth century has demonstrated anything, it is that there are limits to what we can know.”
In an earlier chapter, after lampooning a prominent physicist’s misbegotten foray into philosophical cosmology, Berlinski paraphrases a famous movie line spoken by Clint Eastwood: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” The modern Cathedral of science stands as a testament to that cinematic aphorism. It’s a state of affairs that suits Berlinski’s skeptical temperament as much as it rankles true believers from the church of scientific atheism.