The Devil’s Delusion

Devil's DelusionDavid Berlinski. The Devil’s Delusion. Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. (Basic Books: New York, 2009) 256 pp. Pbk.

Into a very crowded genre of books redressing Richard Dawkins and the new breed of militant atheists comes an interesting and thought provoking submission by David Berlinski. With intellectual depth, helpful insight and more than a little sarcastic humour, Berlinski crafts a very readable and helpful book intended for those who feel that there is something seriously amiss in the recent best-selling category of anti-religious literature. “While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience. There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos. All will be well. I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.” (p. xvi)

Berlinski is a self-described ‘secular Jew’ who does not approach the questions of religion and faith as a believer, but rather, as a member of the scientific community who cannot stomach the poorly developed and  intellectually indefensible arguments of so-called “scientific atheists.” This might come as a surprise to the reader since the title of the book suggests a conservative religious perspective. The Devil’s Delusion avoids grounding itself in any particular religious tradition choosing instead to advocate Intelligent Design from the perspective of science and philosophy.

The Devil’s Delusion offers a stimulating and compelling journey through the major questions raised by scientific atheists. Berlinski fearlessly and, at times, ruthlessly tears into the arguments presented by writers such as Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. The overall tone of his writing is one of incredulity – as if Tom Sawyer has tricked everyone into white washing the fence and no one has the slightest clue about how they’ve been deceived. Not everyone will appreciate Berlinski’s tone as it is sometimes very harsh and vitriolic but anyone who has ever been upset by those who have openly attacked belief in God will undoubtedly find his counter punches entertaining and, at times, amusing. “Christopher Hitchens is prepared to denounce the Vatican for the ease with which it diplomatically accommodated Hitler, but about Hitler, the Holocaust, or the Nazis themselves he has nothing to say.” (p. 27)

It is with a marked economy of expression that Berlinski writes. At times, it leaves one wondering if the point he is making has been adequately grasped. At other times, one is astounded by the speed with which he is able to drive home his point.

“Astronomical observations continue to demonstrate,” Victor Stenger affirms, “that the earth is no more significant than a single grain of sand on a vast beach.”  What astronomical observations may, in fact, have demonstrated is that the earth is no more numerous than a single grain of sand on a vast beach. Significance is, of course, otherwise.” (p. 8)

What one quickly realizes about Berlinski is that he is a man of depth and breadth. He has taught both philosophy and mathematics in university but he is able to navigate these and other fields of knowledge with great dexterity and ability. As an example, in Chapter 4 he shows an intimate familiarity with  Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument which is immediately followed by a summary of the key people and events which led to the development of the big bang cosmology. Berlinski is able to move effortlessly between a staggeringly diverse body of knowledge.

Atheistic attacks often rest on the popularly held belief that science is trustworthy since it is founded on the bare facts of observable phenomena while religious thought is based on human ideas and wishes that are completely lacking in evidentiary proof. The Devil’s Delusion deftly exposes the fallacy of this reasoning demonstrating that many contemporary theories such as the Multiverse and String Theory are highly speculative and lack any observable evidence. In fact, many contemporary theories in vogue today cannot be observed. Why then is Intelligent Design frequently dismissed by the scientific establishment because its central argument, the Designer, is not observable? Berlinski argues passionately that many scientific theories are based on extrapolation from observable phenomena to an unobservable cause. In this way, Intelligent Design represents a legitimate scientific perspective as a growing body of research will attest.

Berlinski’s philosophical critique of the scientific atheist’s central argument – that science displaces God as an explanation for the universe – is as elegant as it is brief. The foundation of scientific enquiry is to explain the physical world empirically without appealing to supernatural causes. But it is logically incongruous to conclude that there is no supernatural cause if this is also one’s original assumption.  The starting point and conclusion cannot be the same.

If there is one criticism of the book it would be that there are no references when quotations are presented leaving the reader to trust the accuracy of the writer’s recollection. While this does not deal a death blow to the relevance of the work, it does impose a great limitation should a reader wish to pick up a theme or author in more detail. For those who prefer something more academic with a careful building of one’s argument without so much rhetoric, this book may well disappoint. Still, for those who are willing to engage Berlinski in his quest to embarrass the academics who should know better than to speak into disciplines for which they lack any knowledge or education,The Devil’s Delusion presents a highly entertaining romp through religion, science, mathematics and reason.

Jonathan Mills

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