Book Review: “The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions”

The long read: a review of David Berlinski’s book, and his treatment of the arguments of militant atheists.

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(Book Reviewed: THE DEVIL’S DELUSION, By David Berlinski.)

David Berlinski has the distinction of being both an educated and intelligent man which is not at all the same thing. Neither has his long march through academia sandpapered away his sense of intellectual curiosity. In this book, he investigates with an uncompromising independence of mind the nonsense so often breathed by militant atheists in the name of “science”. It is too easy to accept atheistic claims because their views now circulate through our environment like the thin fumes of an odourless gas. Berlinski’s book is an excellent antidote to this intellectual numbness.

He writes what he knows. Berlinski holds a PhD in philosophy and also has engaged in molecular biological research at world-class universities, so he possesses worthy academic credentials for the book he has chosen to write.

Berlinski is a critic of evolution and maintains a sunny disposition toward intelligent design – the theory that biological life shows unmistakable evidence of creative purpose. To criticise evolution is almost enough to render him a leper among the academic community regardless of his impressive intellectual accomplishments. It is axiomatic that he who criticises evolution will find it progressively harder to be unsympathetic to God or “religion”. And to allow “religion” – or worse, God himself – to enter into the airless box of the secular empire is a nightmare of such proportions that atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins can scarcely describe it without resorting to apocalyptic language.

Both Dawkins and Harris (et al) come in for scathing rebuke in this book. Whatever Dawkins and his ilk may think of themselves, Berlinski is deeply unimpressed with the vacuity of their arguments especially those that appeal to “science” to establish their atheism. In fact, the title of the book is a none-so-subtle stab at Dawkin’s own magnum opus of polemic atheism, “The God Delusion“.

But whereas Dawkins’ work is exceedingly poor, Belinski’s is exceedingly good. Berlinski crafts solid and logical expositions while Dawkins draws liberally upon nearly every irrational argument ever discovered by humankind over the literate portion of its history. Reading “The God Delusion” is an exercise in frustration for this very reason. Rarely have I ever wanted to hurl a book so forcefully against the wall.

For people who can spot rhetorical fallacies, Dawkins amply illustrates the danger of presuming ourselves to be wiser than our craft. Like nearly all celebrity atheists, Dawkins writes as an amateur philosopher, historian, textual critic and theologian. Unsurprisingly, his iconic book – be it ever so thick – is emblazoned with the author’s ignorance from cover to cover. In contradistinction, Berlinski writes to his strength. Trained in philosophy and systems analysis, Berlinski deftly places his finger on the weak points of atheist rhetoric and crumbles their contentions into a finely-ground powder.

The thrust of Berlinski’s argument is that atheists misapply science in order to give atheism a legitimacy it does not deserve. He argues that atheism consists of a mass of conclusions without the slightest shred of evidence. In other words, the brand of militant atheism pushed by the likes of Dawkins and Harris are based on twaddle – it is sophisticated twaddle that many people struggle to penetrate in our educationally deficient age, but it is still twaddle. In fact, early in The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski suggests that is every bit as much a pseudoscience as mumbo-jumbo ideologies that have circulated through human minds over the last century, and perhaps also destined be consigned to the dustbin of history.

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Any student of history will recognise that similar “scientific” pretensions arose in the 19th century within the radical left. Their “scientific ideas” obtained the status of inviolable fact even when the implementation of them caused incalculable harm. The originators of communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, boasted that their Utopian ideology was thoroughly scientific in nature. Likewise, the more extreme anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin also supposed that their theories were somehow underpinned by a foundation of science.

Berlinski challenges this by pointing out that appealing to “science” is a little like a leader of a People’s Republic appealing to “democracy”. It is a principle that can be used to give a justification for practically anything. Berlinski wryly points out that atheists refer to science share an uncanny similarity to the claims of spiritualists to be receiving messages from the other world:

The title of Victor Stenger’s recent book is: God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Stenger is a professor of physics. He may have written the book, but it is science, we are to understand, that has provided the requisite demonstration. Like a nineteenth-century spirit medium, Stenger has simply taken dictation. [Emphasis in the original].

Importantly, Berlinski invites the reader to consider atheism as if it were a piece of flotsam or jetsam floating down the crowded river of human history.

Although militant atheists like to suppose that “atheistic science” is objective truth – the only truth indeed and therefore a license to bulldoze any other belief – Berlinski suggests that militant atheism is actually a reaction to social and political events within the modern world. Unwittingly, militant atheists are merely reactionary puppets:

Does any of this represent anything more than yet another foolish intellectual fad, a successor to academic Marxism, feminism, or various doctrines of multicultural tranquillity? Not in the world in which religious beliefs overflow into action. For Islamic radicals, “the sword is more telling than the book,” as the Arab poet Abu Tammam wrote with menacing authority some eight hundred years ago. The advent of militant atheism marks a reaction – a lurid but natural reaction –  to the violence of the Islamic world.

But the efflorescence of atheism involves more than atheism itself. Of course it does. Atheism is the schwerpunkt, as German military theorists used to say with satisfaction, the place where force is concentrated and applied; and what lies behind is a doctrinal system, a way of looking at the world, and so an ideology. It is an ideology with no truly distinct centre and the fuzziest of boundaries. For the purposes of propaganda it hardly matters.

Berlinski goes on to puncture the bizarrely self-congratulatory attitudes taken by militant atheists, shown in the galloping ego that runs through their work. Militant atheism often seems a kind of club for schoolboy toffs who award each other grandiose titles and share an unreal bubble where they can snicker at others less fortunate than themselves while lunching on mother’s sandwiches. One example is their predilection to calling themselves as “the Brights”, presumably in contrast to the rest of us who must be “the Dims”.

Oddly enough, militant atheists find it very difficult to understand why the Dims do not share their elevated self-evaluation. Berlinski writes:

…members of the scientific community are often dismayed to discover, like policemen, that they are not better loved. Indeed, they are widely considered self-righteous, vain, politically immature, and arrogant. This last is considered a special injustice. “Contrary to what many anti-intellectuals maintain,” the biologist Massimo Pigiucci has written, science is “a much more humble enterprise than any religion or other ideology.” Yet despite the outstanding humility of the scientific community, anti-intellectuals persist in their sullen suspicions.

Scientists are hardly helped when one of their champions immerses himself in the emollient of his own enthusiasm. Thus Richard Dawkins recounts the story of his professor of zoology at Oxford, a man who had “for years… passionately believed that the Golgi apparatus was not real.” On hearing during a lecture by a visiting American that his views were in error, “he strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand, and said – with passion – ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.'” The story, Dawkins avows, still has the power “to bring a lump to my throat.”

It could not have been a very considerable lump. No similar story has ever been recounted about Richard Dawkins. Quite the contrary. He is as responsive to criticism as a black hole in space. “It is absolutely safe to say,” he has remarked, “that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution that person is ignorant, stupid or insane.”

There are multiple examples of this sort of hubris lampooned by Berlinski. Of course, in addition to the vast storehouse of material drawn upon in the book, one could readily add the moralising articles that appear in publications like the Scientific American.

Over and over again, militant atheists claim (despite examples to the contrary, like the infamous Piltdown Man hoax) that scientists are honour bound to respond to evidence. Scientists accept that they are in error when there is proof. This represents an extraordinary nobility possessed by scientists alone.

Yet, an uncompromising submission to truth is a virtue that has been known to ordinary people and to scholars in many disciplines – including theology – for several millennia. To salute the practice of intellectual humility as if it were historically recent and isolated to practitioners of the scientific method, (or worse, to believers in atheism), is to demonstrate profound self-preoccupation.

As Berlinski notes, militant atheists transit from reasonable claims into the territory of dogmatism. They assert that science is a good thing, a claim to which nobody would object because the scientific process has undeniably produced many good discoveries.

But they cannot stop at that point. They thunderingly declare science to be the only good thing, superior to every other human endeavour, with the power to confer upon scientists themselves a moral quality unknown to the Dims. They then assert that scientists are the premier good people because they are the most intellectually honest vessels. And then, as if the balloon of their pomposity were not inflated to grotesque dimensions already, they then point the collective finger at religion and blame the sum of human evils upon it.

Berlinski succinctly deals with this:

The physicist Steven Weinberg delivered an address [at the “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason, and Survival” conference]. As one of the authors of the theory of electroweak unification, the work for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize, he is a figure of great stature. “Religion,” he affirmed, “in an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

In speaking thus, Weinberg was warmly applauded, not one one member of his audience asking the question one might have thought pertinent: Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons?

If memory serves, it was not the Vatican.

Every morally sensible creature accepts that religion can be a force for evil, and frequently is. None of this surprises knowledgeable Christians. This is precisely what the Christian religion predicts. There really should be an inexhaustible kaleidoscope of quarrelling religions, each tailored to the various predilections of mankind’s evil heart, because the devil is the father of lies and many men are eager to be deceived.  Religion gives a thin glaze of respectability to impulses that are barbaric, greedy and cruel.

But the conclusion that science must always be an unadulterated good and that scientists are of sanctified character, always honest and always pure, is sheer claptrap. Anyone with regard for history will know that scientists have participated enthusiastically in atrocities and horrors, equal to the most fanatical scimitar wielding religious extremist. The most odious regimes have produced scientists who violated the laws of man and God in experimenting on people. Scientists have engineered nightmarish weapons and developed theories, like eugenics, that thinking people find abhorrent.

This discussion really crosses into moral theology, and Berlinski takes the time to address the concepts of good and evil. Militant atheists enjoy tossing these words around like confetti, but studiously avoid explaining why their definition should be accepted by anyone else.

Berlinski cites Dawkins:

“Perhaps,” Richard Dawkins speculates, “I… am a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God.”

To which Berlinski cynically responds:

Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good when unpoliced by the police? If Dawkins believes that they do, he must explain the existence of the criminal law, and if he believes that they do not, then he must explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends.

Understandably, Berlinski cannot resist quoting Sam Harris on the issue of morality since Harris veers, like a car driven by a drunkard, from arrogance to fatuous philosophy:

Sam Harris has no anxieties whatsoever about presenting his own views on human morality… “Everything about the human experience,” he writes, “suggests that love is more conducive to human happiness than hate is.” It goes without saying, of course, that Harris believes that this is an objective claim about the human mind.

If this is so, it is astonishing with what eagerness men have traditionally fled happiness.

The book is packed with a rich vein of these observations, as Berlinski proceeds to deconstruct one argument after another, never stopping for too long at any one place.

He uses words sparingly. He has trimmed nearly all the textual fat from his writing, leaving the reader only worthy substance. The book is therefore pithy, with a lot of material packed into every short section.

The attentive reading will find himself re-reading sections, and pondering over them long afterwards. Indeed, The Devil’s Delusion is a book that warrants being read multiple times, if only as a refresher into the unutterable absurdity that is atheism, notwithstanding the sophistic lipstick smeared awkwardly upon its pompous features, as it tries to cavort on the dance floor, flaunting the tattered boa of “science”.

Finding a Secure Identity in an Insecure Age

If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity.

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If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity. The question “how do you identify?” is now a major flash point in the culture. This was amply demonstrated by the combative interview held between the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman, a British journalist working for Channel 4.

Peterson is a rare species of social academic because he has both interesting and novel things to say and the average listener cannot help feeling edified for having heard them. This is a tremendous contrast to the majority of social academics who either have nothing interesting to say or merely repeat whatever is current and fashionable.

Nonetheless, despite having a gift on her programme, Newman opted not to tap into the rich seam of intelligent material she could have explored, but instead chose to repeatedly badger Peterson on matters of identity politics.

The popularity of this interview undoubtedly owes something to the fact that Newman’s performance was such a candid combination of pomposity and stupidity. The relative strengths of intellectual formation between two people and their respective viewpoints could hardly have been more starkly displayed. In this instance, Newman was incapable of fairly or meaningfully representing Peterson’s views. She attempted to attribute to him the worst possible motives about women and transsexuals and seemed unable to understand anything that he was saying.

The timbre of discussion powerfully captures the vicious and unreasonable mindset that has swept across our institutions of learning and communication until nothing else seems to matter. Like the insatiable red dragon in the Revelation, identity politics has consumed everything in its path. No other intellectual endeavour or philosophical framework seems able to muster enough velocity to escape its gravitation.

Identity politics is the centrepiece of student radicalism. But unlike universities in the past where student obsessions were regarded as extra-curricula activity – the byproducts, perhaps, of enlightened brains united to youthful passion – identity politics has tunnelled its way into the curriculum itself and attached itself firmly to the syllabus. Such courses at major universities are little more than indoctrination.

As people are encouraged to find meaning in belonging to victim groups – each higher or lower on the hierarchy of victimhood – we increasingly witness various identity groups engaging in rhetorical warfare with each other, competing for the spoils of being recognised as the most oppressed. Each group wants to be on top. Each wants to be preferred. Each wants to be acknowledged above any other. And so Jewish students square off against pro-Palestinian students; feminists and transsexuals collide; American patriot organisations and civil liberties groups; feminists and pro-Islamic groups; environmentalists and trade unionists.

The ultimate aim for them all is power.

Our society has become something like an unsettled hen house, with every hen fighting for place, pecking their perceived inferiors and being pecked in turn. All of this is attended by hot envy, outrage, and even violence.

The social wreckage arises from insecure identities; identities grounded in the sinful nature. Yet, cutting through this dynamic comes the opening words of St. Paul to the Philippians like a refreshing cup of water:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul, in the inspired text, provides a simple greeting and establishes his identity. He is a servant of Christ Jesus. That’s all he is.

He’s not a white man, black man, or a Jew. He’s not a working-class stiff, a poor man, or a victim eager to obtain special regard. He does not inflate his sense of self-importance by ascribing to himself a immaculate class identity. Neither does he identify himself by race or wealth or education.

Instead, St. Paul finds his identity in simply being a servant of Christ Jesus. St. Paul pours his energies into the Lord’s kingdom, teaches the Lord’s gospel, lives out the Lord’s holy will, and labours for the expansion of the Lord’s glory. He places himself at the disposal of Jesus who now occupies the very centre of his life as Master and Ruler.

St. Paul’s own goals, dreams, aspirations, and achievements have been long forgotten and when he recalls them, they are so irrelevant that he considers them to be “manure”  in comparison to his King. He has a new identity and it is the most glorious and most wonderful identity anyone could ever covet: to be a servant of the Jesus Christ.

Later in this letter he mentions that he is a Benjamite and has been a scrupulously observant Jew. But he has discarded all of these former things. As he explains in this  letter, he counts it all as a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

The man who seeks this identity – and finds it – is a man who finds a truly secure identity. He will not marinade in self-pity. He will not think, “I deserve better in life but have been robbed by people with privilege and oppressive power“. He will not become paranoid, and be forever on guard for perceived sleights. He will not be always looking for fresh opportunities to be “offended”. He will not seek for political victory over other people; forcing others to speak and behave differently to slake his thirst for power and validation.

The man who becomes a servant of Christ Jesus and sees such an identity as the most privileged calling a person could ever have is filled with gratitude and brokenness. Such a man is truly content with knowing his Master and will be satisfied – indeed, will rejoice – to be a servant of Jesus. He will find satisfaction in serving to the extent that he has been granted by the Father – whether it is scrubbing toilets or running a transnational corporation. There is humility, generosity, gratitude, and sheer wonder to be had when finding a new identity in submitting to the King of kings.

It is a supreme paradox, but one taught by none other than the Lord himself. Crucifixion of the self – the purposeful and deliberate rejection of the old identities rooted in the sin nature – does not lead to being oppressed and downtrodden, but actually leads to life eternal. To a blossoming and indomitable life. “He who loses his life shall find it,” the Lord taught us, “And he who saves his life shall lose it”.

For mankind was created explicitly to be the servants and the friends of Christ. By him and for him were all things created, wrote St. Paul. In re-assuming this identity, a man can indeed find a peace and stability that passes all understanding. A peace that all the public rallies and all protests held in all the legislatures of the world could never afford. There is liberty in being a servant of Jesus. Far more than one can ever find in the soul-twisting, nature-distorting world of identity politics with its grasping for power and moral glory over others.

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Standing Firm in the Winds of Persecution: Christ Overcomes

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(Text: Mark 14:53-65)

After the agonising night in Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested and eventually brought before the Sanhedrin. There he stands trial before the leaders of Judaism and by extension, the representatives of the Jewish people.

Contrary to Jewish legal precedent, this hastily assembled court meets at an unseemly early hour, and far from giving preference to acquittal, this court is designed to give the thinnest gloss of legality to a predetermined death sentence. St. Mark tells us that the “whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence to put him to death”. In other words, this was a kangaroo court: prejudiced against the accused, presided over by biased judges, and one that ignored standards of justice in order to secure the desired outcome.

Or, perhaps more accurately still, this was an example of a legal process that has long characterised authoritarian regimes: the show trial.

The Lord had already given the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants shortly before so that the thoughtful reader can understand what is happening. Here the rightful King of Israel – the legitimate heir of the vineyard – is being usurped by envious and greedy men who want to hold onto their power, prestige, and the tradition-rusted, corrupted religion that had given them so much control over the people. The hour of darkness has come. St. Mark tells us that these rulers actively seek his blood. They want nothing more than to see him suffer a miserable and painful death.

It is worthwhile to note here how evil works. For there is nothing new under the sun. Then, as now, evil is expressed through institutions. Whether it is the Sanhedrin, or the modern parliament; whether it is the meeting of the High Priests and elders or a meeting of a corporate board, men and women generally do evil through institutions. Certainly, there are always some violent and cruel men at the bottom of the heap. There are the sharp-toothed bottom feeders who use actual force or inflict actual torments on others.

Yet even these violent men or women may, in some cases, be thought upon with mercy. The Lord prayed from the cross for the violent Roman soldiers who nailed him, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Not for the High Priests and the rest of the Sanhedrin. They knew what they were doing. And not for Pilate.

Although Pilate never drove any nails into Jesus or laid a single stripe on his back, the procurator was nonetheless quite aware that Jesus was innocent of any crime. He understood that the motive to judicially murder Jesus was solely to quench the outraged envy of the Jewish leadership.

Human beings create institutions. Nearly all of them are hierarchical, and all of them have both written and unwritten codes that govern them. Institutions can be very useful when they are overseen by benevolent and honourable men, but they are also susceptible to corruption and to the furtherance of unrighteousness. So often they provide a respectable covering, or a camouflaging skin, for distasteful behaviour: for greed, lying, manipulation, bulling, and propagating immorality.

When men and women gather together in an institution, they tend to work together to achieve corrupt purposes and promote the works of Satan in the world. We see this in corporations who successfully managed to suppress inconvenient information, as tobacco companies have done. Although many employees must have been made aware that they were promoting a dangerous product as documents were received, typed, circulated, filed, few spoke out against their companies in the heyday of the cigarette.

The cover-ups in government departments, the unbridled greed of corporate policies that often leave victims helpless in the face of a barrage of legal firepower, and the suppression of any Christian viewpoint in other circles points to the same corruption St. Mark documents on that cold night in the Judgement Hall. It is no wonder that ungodly activists who wish to remodel society in their own image are so quick to form groups, since propagating evil tends to be most effective when done in packs. Those who would advance God’s kingdom are often lonely men. The righteous are always outnumbered.

Institutions tend to be merciless, but merciless in a peculiar, paper-shuffling way. After all, Stalin, Mao and Hitler – who stand as history’s most vicious tyrants by dint of the sheer scale of misery and death they supervised – never killed anyone with their own hands. Hitler never gassed a single Jew; Stalin did not physically pillage the food from the Ukraine; and Mao never put a single bullet in anyone’s head. But, as St. Mark reminds us, guilt does not attach alone to those who perform deeds of evil, but to those who put the wheels in motion and use their positions to facilitate evil.

How do we stand firm, then, in a morally revolutionary age where institutions across society often seem irredeemably corrupt?

Jesus gives us the answer. Forsaken by his friends and delivered into the hands of his enemies, he stands (at first) silently like a sheep before his shearers. Their baseless accusations, distortions, and lies crash like water over his impassivity. Sometimes holding silence is necessary especially when it is clear that there is no point. One cannot reason with those who are determined to wield lies like a sword and who persist in their purposeful efforts to misunderstand or misrepresent us.

Yet Jesus also shows us the necessity of standing on the truth and declaring it. He did not hold himself aloof from suffering but shared it in full at the hand of unjust men. At the critical moment he did not resile from God’s truth. He stood firm, even knowing that his words would push the Sanhedrin over the edge and seal his crucifixion:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

One must stand upon truth at all costs. One must bear witness. In this case, Jesus bears glorious testament in that dark chamber to the reality that God had come; the Son of Man and the Son of God.

St. Mark reminds us that when evil manifests it is often through institutions of power. And small though a single Christian may be, the voice of faith rising from even the weakest believer can sound like a thunderclap in the eternal scheme of things. When we echo the words of Jesus and speak the truths which the world despises, we may suffer the cost at the hands of men and women combining in institutions of power.

But God, who is the ultimate Judge of all the earth, is not slow in keeping his promise. He will arise and do right. And those who followed the example of our Blessed Master will be vindicated and not fail to be rewarded in the life of the world to come.