It is particularly fulfilling for a Christian – or it should be – to see someone not necessarily in their camp, someone watching from the sidelines to find faults and criticize atheists and demonstrate the weaknesses and often foolishness of their bold pronouncements. The Devil’s Delusion by David Berlinski is such a profound work. Berlinsky is an agnostic and a scholar of tremendous insight, a mathematician and a philosopher. In The Devil’s Delusion, Berlinski takes on the New Atheists, their specific claims one at a time and their summation en masse, and demonstrates the weak and often nonsensical views being promoted.
Berlinski’s sideline view of the debate over God is not without some criticism and concern for theism as well. He does sometimes bring up views that have difficulties for Christians, Jews and Muslims (theism) as well. One of these is the apparent problem of the grounding of objective moral values and duties as it relates to God’s adoption of extrinsic moral laws or his capricious decisions of selecting them – the problem mentioned by Plato, popularly known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. I’ve written about the fact that the Euthyphro Dilemma is not really a problem for Christianity (and theism in general) so I won’t go into detail here. However, Berlinski presents the dilemma and leaves it wide open; he neither mentions the solution to the apparent dilemma that Christians have offered nor does he mention any alternative ways in which to ground moral values and duties. He’s either unaware of the solution or unconvinced by it. In either case, the silence is slightly disappointing. Berlinski simply presents the apparent dilemma and moves on. This would be one of my gripes – at times he tends to present a view but moves too quickly and away onto other matters without at least mentioning the thrusts behind each view. Perhaps it was found to be necessary to cover the breadth of topics he does cover. Still, slightly disappointing.
Berlinski reserves most of the real estate of the book to the claims of the New Atheists, one by one decimating those claims into a fine powder and blowing them away. On the origins of the universe, Berlinski certainly understands the problem of the infinite regress as well as deriving something out of nothing, both glossed over by atheists and simply dismissed by mere waving of the hand,
“But if the universe did not exist at some moment of time, then it emerged from absolutely nothing. The universe is everything that there is. What beyond nothing is left to explain its promotion from inexistence to existence? This, Aquinas observes, is incoherent. Ex nihilo nihil fit. From nothing, nothing, as ancient writers said. Because it is impossible to understand the emergence of something from nothing, Aquinas concludes, something must have acted to bring the universe into existence. That something, the argument continues, could have been contingent or necessary. If contingent, we are no further advanced. We have simply chased perplexities into the past. If not contingent, then necessary. When it comes to things that exist necessarily, it is wasteful to assume more than one. What could the others do? Thus there is one thing whose existence is necessary, and if necessary, by the very same argument, eternal. Since it is eternal, it has no cause. Questions about its origins are pointless. What is God if not an infinite and necessarily existing being?” IBerlinski, David. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (p. 85). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
On the brute reality of the existence of the universe to which atheists often recede, Berlinski has some interesting words as well,
“If the universe was always there and will always be there, why is it there at all? There is no point in answering this question by assuming that our own fond familiar universe must exist. With all due respect to the universe, this is an assumption no one wishes to make, because no description that we can offer of the universe suggests that its existence is necessary. But if the universe does not exist necessarily, then plainly it might never have existed at all, even if it has existed for all time. And that is precisely the problem. With the possibility of inexistence staring it in the face, why does the universe exist? To say that universe just is, as Stephen Hawking has said, is to reject out of hand any further questions. We know that it is. It is right there in plain sight. What philosophers such as ourselves wish to know is why it is. It may be that at the end of these inquiries we will answer our own question by saying that the universe exists for no reason whatsoever. At the end of these inquiries, and not the beginning.” IIBerlinski, David. The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (pp. 87-88). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
On the view that science has killed God that is circulated among some circles, Berlinski has incisive comments,
“Confident assertions by scientists that in the privacy of their chambers they have demonstrated that God does not exist have nothing to do with science, and even less to do with God’s existence.”
In the more cheeky and amusing snippets from the book, typical of Berlinski’s wit and humor, he states,
“The hypothesis that we are nothing more than cosmic accidents has been widely accepted by the scientific community. Figures as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have said it is so. It is an article of their faith, one advanced with the confidence of men convinced that nature has equipped them to face realities the rest of us cannot bear to contemplate.”
Perhaps the most important of Berlinski’s points in the book is to put science in its rightful place as a tool, one that with all its powers both real and merely perceived, it is in the end ill-equipped to answer the most important questions of life and ultimate reality.
“While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience. There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos.”
Berlinski must be commended if for no other reason, then certainly for taking the New Atheists to task, examining their boastful claims, and pointing out the deficiencies. One certainly gets the feeling that Berlinski has very little patience for arrogant ignorance as he certainly reserves his harshest words for those exemplifying the upper echelons of that mountain.
All-in-all, Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion is captivating, enlightening, deep yet clear, honest and often amusing. Berlinski has a sense of humor and a sharp sarcastic wit that is very welcome in books of this kind where subject matters often get dry and difficult.