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.


(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.


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”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s