The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions by David Berlinski is a unique, witty, and clever critique of militant atheism and its devotion to scientism. Within its ten engaging chapters, Berlinski shines a revealing light on the dogmatic stance of many of today’s popular “new atheists.” The new atheism, the author would contend, postures itself as the sole holder of truth via science, “And like any militant church, this one places a familiar demand before all others: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”1 Berlinski, a secular Jew who is an avid writer on science and mathematics, approaches his task with his own mixture of dry wit and thoughtful logic, which makes the reading of The Devil’s Delusion an entertaining experience.
After opening the book with an introduction to the scientism of the new atheists, Berlinski presents his own critique to one of the new atheism’s common party slogans: religion as a primary cause of evil in the world. Berlinski’s take: don’t ignore what atheism has caused in the world. It is precisely what atheistic regimes did not believe that is the problem:
What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.2
Berlinski moves on to offer his critiques of scientism (the idea that science is the best or only means to arrive at truth). In this process he stresses one of the main goals of his book: “What is at issue is not so much the character of the Deity but his existence. And the question I am asking is not whether he exists but whether science has shown that he does not.”3 Berlinski takes apart the ideas of scientism. He shows how naturalism and materialism are philosophical presuppositions; doctrines that determine the result of inquiry a priori.
In chapter four, Berlinski describes the philosophical roots of the cosmological argument for a cause for the universe as presented by Thomas Aquinas. He is succinct in his introduction of this idea: “The cosmological argument emerges from a simple question and its answer. The question: What caused the universe? The answer: Something.”4 He then describes the findings of modern cosmology that confirm a beginning to the cosmos; the inescapable beginning. This sets the stage for chapter five, The Reason, in which Berlinksi explains its significance: “Even if we understood how the universe came into existence, the question why it exists and why it continues to exist would remain.”5 Berlinski asks, “if it might not exist, why, then, does, it exist?” – the principle of sufficient reason. The author then lays out the various options available, such as something-from-nothing or the multiverse hypothesis. Berlinski’s use of humor to make his point is perfectly presented in this chapter. After presenting a tongue-in-cheek mock “catechism of quantum cosmology,” Berlinski says, “This catechism, I should add, is not a parody of quantum cosmology. It is quantum cosmology.”6
Berlinski continues in his exploration of cosmology in chapter six – A Put-up Job. This chapter’s title comes from astronomer Fred Hoyle’s reluctant quote stating that “the universe looks like a put-up job.”7 The author uses this chapter to describe the various models of the universe that have been proposed, the anthropic principle, and the awkward position that scientists find themselves in: a universe that had a beginning and looks fine-tuned for intelligent life.
In chapter seven, A Curious Proof that God Does Not Exist, Berlinski takes aim at Richard Dawkins’ argument against God from the idea that God is improbable. He contends that Richard Dawkins will accept most any hypothesis as long as it doesn’t involve God:
Dawkins must appeal to infinitely many universes crammed into creation, with laws of nature wriggling indiscreetly and fundamental physical parameters changing as one travels from one corner of the cosmos to the next, the whole entire gargantuan structure scientifically unobservable and devoid of any connection to experience.8
In chapter eight and nine, Berlinski also questions how Darwinian theory can account for the fact that “human beings have been endowed with powers and properties not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom – or the universe, so far as we can tell…”9 Most notably, Berlinski looks at the complexities of the human mind and criticizes the reductionist theories offered by evolutionary explanations. He continues by pointing out that few are willing to question the Darwinian party line for fear of the consequences. For Berlinski, Darwin’s theory has become more of an ideology than science:
If Darwin’s theory of evolution has little to contribute to the content of the sciences, it has much to offer their ideology. It serves as the creation myth of our time, assigning properties to nature previously assigned to God. It thus demands an especially ardent form of advocacy.10
The author is unwilling to grant evolutionary theory more credit than it deserves:
Although Darwin’s theory is very often compared favorably to the great theories of mathematical physics on the grounds that evolution is as well established as gravity, very few physicists have been heard observing that gravity is as well established as evolution. They know better and they are not stupid.11
Berlinski concludes the book in chapter ten: The Cardinal and His Cathedral. In this chapter he offers both history and a metaphor. For history, he retells the trial of Galileo; he must renounce his view that the earth but not the sun was in motion. The author fills in some of the historical narrative of how the episode played out. The metaphor that follows is that of a cardinal sitting in his unfinished cathedral. Without spoiling the conclusion, Berlinski paints a vivid picture of the place the “high priests” of science have found themselves in.
The Devil’s Delusion is a very readable book. Entertaining, witty, and insightful. Berlinski’s style and angle make for a very accessible book. Sometimes blunt, sometimes indirect, always with a unique choice of words or turn of phrase. For those looking for an honest, common-sense assessment of the new atheism and its scientific claims from a non-Christian perspective, Berlinski’s book is a great choice.
1 David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism & Its Scientific Pretensions (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2009), p. 10.
2 Ibid., p. 27.
3 Ibid., p. 45.
4 Ibid., p. 63.
5 Ibid., p. 83.
6 Ibid., p. 106.
7 Ibid., p. 111.
8 Ibid., p. 153.
9 Ibid., p. 155.
10 Ibid., pp. 190-191.
11 Ibid., p. 191.