Review: The Devil’s Delusion, Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

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In this book, David Berlinkski uses a biting wit to try to take apart atheism that is driven by a commitment to science. Figures like Bertrand Russell, Jacques Monod, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins have advanced the view that the presence of human life is nothing more than an accident, not the product of a divine plan at all. Such thinkers presuppose that science has the ability to explain everything, and so there is no need to appeal to anything that is not subject to scientific inquiry  We are in the age of militant atheism, and Berlinkski mounts a series of arguments to undermine this ideology.

The merit of Berlinkski’s book does not lie in any novel arguments. It is the pungent wit with which he makes his points. One theme is that the removal of a theological framework can entail a laxity in behavior. The threat of punishment and the incentive of reward can encourage more moral behavior. Rejection of religion, in other words, can lead to sexual promiscuity. Berlinksi therefore sets out to debunk the idea, popularized by Stephen Pinker, that modernity has witnessed tremendous moral progress. Since religion has lost much of its prestige, there has been an increase in egregious behavior on the part of governments in the twentieth century. Without recognition of God, the higher power becomes oneself.

People still look for worldviews by which they can explain their experiences in place of religion. Prominent religious thinkers have given up their place of preeminence to Charles Darwin. Berlinkski argues that the Nazis incorporated Darwin’s ideas to justify their views on the competitiveness of the races. Like animal species, the human racial groups also are to compete, and it is right that the weaker races die out.

Without God, and facing the prospect of a fully naturalistic worldview, one has to ask what the grounds of ethics are. Goodness and badness seem to be phenomenon that are not reducible to empirical terms. If the scientific naturalism is complete, then there seems to be a need to rethink the foundations of ethics as well. Are ethics just feelings we have, and so are we doomed to ethical subjectivism, where there is no way to identify one person’s feelings as right and another as wrong? One can only accept these feelings as they are, without being able to distinguish their value or aptness.

Berlinkski has a charming sarcasm, but his prose tends to get quite clumsy and purple at times. His book is good if you already agree with his basic platform, but it’s short on sophisticated argument and so probably won’t convince someone who’s inclined to disagree.

 

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