Review of “The Devil’s Delusion” by David Berlinski

The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinski, New York: Crown Forum, 2008.

For those who have not read anything by David Berlinski, I should say right off the bat that he is one of the wittiest yet incisive writers on contemporary science I know.  This provocative book is a well aimed critique of those atheist scientists and their followers whose egos have prompted them to step over into philosophical questions about ultimate issues without much forethought or reflection.  Berlinski is an agnostic Jew with a background in mathematics and philosophy.  By agnostic I mean that he does not kick up the verbal dust about “the facts of science” to excuse his unbelief.  As he says in this book, “the question I am asking is not whether [God] exists but whether science has shown that he does not.” (45).

Despite the obvious affinity of the title, The Devil’s Delusion is not to be thought of as yet another salvo against Richard Dawkins.  The author sets his sights on any number of scientific luminaries who have on occasion communicated philosophical rot to the masses.  Prof. Dawkins does get mentioned throughout the book.  And for good reason.  Dawkins has said a lot of silly things; like calling religion “a virus of the mind,” and once referring to humans as “robot vehicles”, and is an easy target.   Despite these and other materialistic gems Berlinski notices that the man who wrote The Selfish Gene possesses genes that “are not so selfish as to tell him what to do.” (177).

Very often because Dawkins (and others like him) have not understood either what they were talking about (e.g. Biblical Christianity, 150; Aquinas, 68), nor reflected on where their atheistic pronouncements lead (36, 59), the author quite properly exposes them.  After all, having a strong personal preference that God would not exist is not the same thing as proving that, in fact, He doesn’t. 

As I have said, Richard Dawkins is not the only eminent atheist examined in the book.  Nor would any reader familiar with this writer expect that he would be.  The media have provided ample opportunities for many atheists to expatiate irresponsibly, and Steven Weinberg (20-21, 199), Steven Pinker (21-22, 169-170, 178-179), Peter Atkins (7, 95-96), Daniel Dennett (191, 196), and Christopher Hitchens (4-5, 27-28, 160-161, 208) all come under the cosh.

A good sample of Berlinski’s ability to bring the obvious to light is when he refers to the opinion of Hector Avalos that methodological naturalism “is the foundation of the natural sciences.”  To this statement Berlinski rightly objects:  “if naturalism is the foundation of the natural sciences, then it must be counted a remarkable oddity of thought that neither the word nor the idea that it expresses can be found in any of the great physical theories.” (52).   Later, towards the end of the book, when commenting on Eugenie Scott’s advice to her colleagues to “Avoid debates,” he observes: “I myself believe that the world would be suitably improved if those with whom I disagree were to lapse into silence.” (220).

And that, in large part, is why The Devil’s Delusion is worth reading.  It represents an intelligent man’s reaction to being preached at by those who consider themselves to be the intellectual elite.  Berlinski is not a Christian, but he writes for all those to whom the patronizing language of a Stephen J. Gould or Peter Atkins is at once incoherent and hard to stomach.  Against Richard Dawkins’ imperviousness to correction the author characterizes him as being “as responsive to criticism as a black hole in space.” (7).   Much the same can be said for these men and women in the fraternity of “new atheists.”  Just because the assorted media promote them doesn’t mean they utter truth or sense.

There are, of course a few areas in the book where we disagree.  The author’s understanding of the biblical view of cosmology is confused with that of Ptolemy (211-212), and his reliance upon a stripped down argument of Thomas Aquinas allows him to stay agnostic (a more transcendental argument would have made him sweat more).  All in all though, this is an excellent an informative read.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent review.

    I have the book and agree. If you’ve ever heard Dr Berlinski speak and enjoy his wit, you’ll enjoy his book as well. I can almost hear his voice as I read it.

    It helps if you take the time to familiarise yourself with the various points of scientific contention to fully appreciate Berlinsk’s humour.

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