The Devil’s Delusion, Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions
Review of David Berlinski's, "The Devil's Delusion, Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions" by Michael M. Christensen.
David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion, Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Basic Books, 2009. $15.95, paperback. 237 pages. ISBN 13: 9780465019373.
David Berlinski contends that a defense is needed against the recent attacks against religious belief by militant atheists, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. These authors declare that because scientific theories are true, religious beliefs must be false. Harris’ essay, “Science Must Destroy Religion,” almost calls for a jihad against the faithful.
Berlinski seems an odd person to enter this fray—a self-described secular Jew whose “religious education did not take. . . . I cannot pray” (p. xiii). However, his training in mathematics and science constrain him to defend religious ideas that he seems personally uncommitted to. Science, he says, is a hard-to-define discipline that offers no coherent vision of the universe we inhabit. Frankly, it germinates more questions than answers. Scientists do not know how or why the universe (or even life) began and have nothing to expound regarding the human soul or the meaning of life.
Despite science’s limitations, Berlinski uses it to defend religion and he does so with a humorous and biting wit. He begins by tracing a change in the way science and religion interact. They have a history of coexisting and tolerating each other, but the advent of the new “militant atheism” has changed that. Atheistic scientists charge that science and religious belief are in conflict and one of the two must be expunged from the corridors of truth. However, scientific atheism is no less a doctrinal system spouting an ideology than any religion. It has concluded that the earth is an insignificant speck in the cosmos and what counts for the earth counts for humanity—we are nothing exceptional. Atheism takes the side of science because it thinks science will help keep the divine out; atheism doesn’t want to let a “Divine Foot” in the door. This new science demands something of its adherents that any militant church would—a vow to have no other gods before it.
In the next several chapters Berlinski suggests that belief in God’s existence matters. The popular logic of our age is that if science is true, then God does not exist. If God does not exist, then everything is permitted. This makes the monstrous possible. For example, although religious fanaticism has caused a great deal of human suffering, the twentieth century was not an age of faith—think of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot and the approximately 180 million extra deaths from the world’s armed conflicts. Atrocities result because atheists have a Pollyannaish concept of human depravity; they believe humanity is naturally good. According to Richard Dawkins, if God would just stop policing the world, then people would be good.
Some scientists think they have actually shown that God doesn’t exist. If God exists, then his existence is a scientific claim and they find insufficient evidence. Additionally, science’s method is naturalism, which it considers superior to religious thought. Methodological naturalism is the only way to truth, so if God is out there science will be able to tell. Berlinski counters that scientific theories themselves say nothing of God’s existence and none of the great physical theories mention the term natural or the idea it expresses. Naturalism’s attempt to disqualify religious belief must also then disqualify the conclusions of law, math, and the greater part of ordinary human experience. Berlinski contends that the existence of God is not a scientific question. If we think so then we’re looking in the wrong place. Moreover, evidence for the existence of God, like evidence for anything else, is sometimes fragmentary, partial, and inconclusive. Sometimes the best we can see are glimpses and flashes of light.
Berlinski proclaims that one of the best arguments for God’s existence is humanity itself. Although we and the apes share some things in common, there are many profound differences. If we really are as special as the evidence suggests, then religious ideas about being made in the image of God have some weight. Support for our specialness can come from unexpected sources. Alfred Wallace, one of the creators of modern evolutionary thought, contemplated the consequences of his theory and suspected it might be false. He observed that many human traits, from language to moral awareness to abilities in the arts and sciences all seem to be “front-loaded” into us from the beginning. Berlinski concludes that atheistic scientists’ claims that humans are only the culmination of an evolutionary process display a commitment that has little to do with science or evidence.
Scientific atheists concede that the concept of God is useful to some people (e.g. theists) because for them he serves as a God of the gaps (gaps in our knowledge of how the universe works). But Berlinski asserts there will always be gaps. Our grand theories do not agree with each other. Maybe this is because the “God of Old” purposely chooses to reveal only so much about his magnificent creation. That could explain why Darwinism and natural selection make little sense and are supported by little evidence. Atheists can’t scientifically explain the startling coherence and complexity of living organisms, therefore the claims that “natural selection has been demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt” is like an ecclesiastical bull (or bluff) from a most peculiar church. Berlinski thinks the God of the gaps (or of Old) would likely have this to say about all our grand theories: “You have no idea whatsoever how the ordered physical, moral, mental, aesthetic, and social world in which you live could have ever arisen from the seething anarchy of the elementary particles” (p. 201).
In retrospect, Berlinski’s book marshals many cogent reasons we should be skeptical about the claims and assumptions of modern scientific atheism. He concludes there is more ideology than science behind their presumptions and overextended claims. Their view of the universe is incoherent and incomplete and they know it. He aptly notes that their tools are not of the right sort, much like the Russian cosmonaut looking for and not finding God in the darkness of outer space. He sees that the atheistic scientist’s universe seems pointless and in his view that is a depressing place indeed. But it is difficult to know what Berlinski would replace their views with. He realizes, as he states in chapter nine, that there is something inhuman about our efforts in the physical sciences. There is a great gap between what it represents and what we embody. “We live by love and longing, death and the devastation that time imposes. How did they enter into the world? And why? The world of the physical sciences is not our world, and if our world has things that cannot be explained in their terms, then we must search elsewhere for their explanation. . . . We are where human beings have always been, conveyed by miracles and yet unsure of the conveyance, unable to place our confidence completely in anything, or our doubt completely in everything” (p. 207-8). This seems to succinctly state Berlinski’s own dilemma—but is he really unable or just unwilling to place his confidence fully in the divine being that his research leads him to? He defines miracles as “access to the divine” and sees the miraculous in the wonderful design and complexity of the universe, but fails to commit to a Designer. Apologetics can only go so far, for who has perhaps more natural evidence for the existence of God and has yet committed less to such a being than David Berlinski? As Pascal reminds us, the heart has reasons that reason knows not of. Perhaps Pascal’s Wager would be an appropriate read for him—one mathematician to another. As Pascal concluded, there is no down side to betting on God.
Michael M. Christensen