Review of David Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

David Berlinski. The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. New York: Basic Books, 2009. xvii + 237 pp. This review or something like it was published in Evangelical Quarterly 83.4 (2011), pp. 357-359. With a March 2011 email, Paul shared much of this review with his supporters.

Publication: March 2011

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In the past decade, notable atheistic scientists or philosophers have published vitriolic books claiming that religion is bad for society and that science offers an intellectually satisfying explanation for the universe without having to appeal to the existence of God. Examples include Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (Free Press, 2004), and Richard Dawkins’ publication, The God Delusion (Black Swan, 2006). Although the Christian response to these ‘New Atheists’ has been vigorous and strong, the response outside Christian circles has generally been positive. One notable exception to this trend is David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Berlinski, a fellow of the Discovery Institute with a PhD from Princeton, describes himself as a secular Jew whose religious education did not stick.

In The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski addresses the main claims of the New Atheists point by point, often with a downright funny, tongue-in-cheek satire. New Atheists claim that theism is bad for society; Berlinski counters with the claim that atheism is worse for society. To do this, he points to a couple of strong observations. If there is no God, he says, then there is no justice, no reward for good deeds, and no punishment for truly wicked ones. Therefore, anything goes. To support this point, he mentions the staggering casualties in the 20th century of wars or movements that at their core were fuelled by atheism and notes that such willingness to kill was the logical product of the lack of divine accountability. In fact, he goes one step further by concluding that in a causally closed universe with no God and in which life and the mind developed via evolution, there is no basis for calling any of these actions wicked or bad. In that type of world, our sense of freedom, moral and otherwise, is an illusion. Physics governs chemistry, and chemistry natural selection. Natural selection controls for genes, and genes control the cell. Cells control the organ, and the Mind (capital M) is merely an organ animated by the firing of its neurons. Since our ‘choices’ are determined by these brute physical forces and only seem to be real, objective moral terms like ‘wicked’, ‘evil’, and ‘good’ don’t apply. In Richard Dawkins’ terminology, we are just dancing to the tune of our DNA.

New Atheists also claim that science gives an intellectually satisfying view of the universe. This, Berlinski says, is just false. He contends that the four major scientific theories are inconsistent. Also, as is typical of scientific advances, they offer as many questions needing answers as they offer answers to questions. This last point is especially important in relation to the New Atheists’ complaint against theism offering a God of the gaps to paper over ignorance and to the new Atheist objection that an uncreated God himself needs explanation. Richard Dawkins phrases this objection with his famous question: ‘Who Designed the Designer?’ For the God of the gaps complaint, Berlinski states that the belief that science can and will eventually answer the questions its advances create is itself a scientific version of the God of the gaps; it is an article of sheer faith. For the ‘Who Designed the Designer?’ objection, Berlinski explains that the objection cuts both ways. The objection operates on the premise that if one cannot explain one entity that is posited as an explanation for another, then the explanation for the entity is invalid. But this, Berlinski notes, would have rendered invalid past scientific discoveries and much of our scientific knowledge today, so the premise is faulty. With that objection presenting no real obstacle to the postulation of an uncreated God, he highlights the fine-tuning of the universe that is best explained by some divine intelligence, and he refers to scientific evidence for an expanding universe, that, if one works backwards, leads to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning. And if it had a beginning, Berlinski remarks, then the cosmological argument for the existence of God works.

Berlinski also takes issue with the notion that science alone gives access to truth and trumps religious truth claims. In addition to noting that none of the four major scientific theories ever mention God, Berlinski observes that fundamental axioms on which science rests are themselves not explained by science. Why do electrons follow physical laws, for example? Science has no answer; religion does. Further, he points to the fact that an atheistic evolutionary worldview cannot easily and satisfactorily explain how the jostling of atoms and electrons should result in the rich world of the mind, with its loves, thoughts, self-awareness, reflection, abstraction, and anticipation. As for evolution, he thinks it has little evidence in its favour, makes little sense, has not been demonstrated by experiment, is more a dogmatic ideology than a scientific theory (if the latter title is even appropriate), and has an incredible malleability that permits it to twist evidence to fits its procrustean bed.

Although there are many more arguments set forth in the work, some conclusions about the book itself are in order. The Devil’s Delusion stands out from similar responses to New Atheists in the tone and nature of its language. Berlinski’s prose is masterful. The pace is fast, and the language brisk. Sometimes the style is playfully contemptuous. At others, it’s brutally honest and hard-hitting. It frequently drips with innuendo, sarcasm, and a disdain at least equal to the prose of New Atheists. Sometimes, however, this approach gets in the way of clarity. Although other responses to New Atheists may not have the wit and verve of The Devil’s Delusion, they present more information, more clearly, and with a more observable structure than does Berlinski’s book, and so are probably more helpful to persons actually wishing to engage atheists in civil discussion. Although Christians may be tempted to imitate Berlinski’s style, they probably better serve the gospel by taking his content and leaving his style behind.

Keywords: Atheism, Evolution

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