Seriously Deluded

I finally got hold of and read a copy of David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. It was just as I expected, largely a waste of time, unless you enjoy Berlinski going around being snide and misrepresenting science he clearly does not understand. He’s been hanging around with creationists too long.

Berlinski aims to show how absurd science-based nonbelief is. And I am sure that for readers who are not closely acquainted with today’s science—modern physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience etc.—it may very well seem that he succeeds. Much of modern science seriously offends common sense. It’s not difficult to present crazy-seeming ideas that scientists uphold, couple that to how such ideas are used in undermining faith-based convictions, and create an impression that skeptical scientists have undergone some kind of collective madness, not to mention fallen into mass arrogance. Yet read closely, The Devil’s Delusion is sheer posturing. Berlinski does not give much evidence of understanding the science he comments upon, let alone seriously engage the real arguments of those scientists he dispatches with a few insults.

Still, books like this raise a question. After all, sophisticated believers (and some nonbelievers) have responded similarly to the popular “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and company. They have accused the new atheists of attacking caricatures, of unconscionably ignoring sophisticated theologies that represent the best of religious belief today.

The most popular response to this accusation seems to be to along the lines of PZ Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply.” In other words, you don’t need to look at the sophisticated versions of apologetics to know that bullshit is bullshit.

But is it really that easy? Silly anti-atheist (Berlinski is an agnostic, not a believer) books like The Devil’s Delusion demonstrate how easy it is to perceive science-minded nonbelief as absurd. The only way I can see around that misperception is to try and engage with the best of the science-based arguments against supernatural claims, which demands some degree of acquaintance with the science. I’m naturally not impressed when some hack dismisses such arguments as absurd. So it’s at least possible that similar considerations apply to sophisticated theologies. It’s not good enough to call popular forms of religious belief absurd and leave it there.

As it happens, I think there’s no shortage of nonbelievers who properly engage with and address the better class of religious claims, whether in the domain of science, philosophy, culture, or what-have-you. I am convinced that sophisticated theologies do not succeed in making the supernatural more credible. But the way to bring this out, even in popular books, is not to recite The Courtier’s Reply. It is to cite the work that engages the better class of theology.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Bradley Bowen

    Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply” makes a bad analogy.

    Determining that the Emperor was naked required only trusting in one’s own eyes, plus a bit of healthy skepticism about beliefs that are widely held.

    On the other hand, determining whether God exists requires (contrary to Dawkins), careful and critical examination of various philosophical concepts and arguments.

    The fact that I can’t see a large man sitting in a giant white throne in the sky is NOT a compelling reason against belief in God. Simple empirical observation does not settle this issue.

    What is right about the “Courtier’s Reply” is that one can intelligently explore a number of key arguments for and against God, without having to consult the works of dozens of theologians. Philosophers do this in just about every intro to philosophy of religion course/textbook.

  • Rourke

    @ Bowen: What more is required to disprove God’s existence besides consideration of empirical evidence? I’ve grow up with about 10 years of “highly sophisticated” Catholic theology taught to me, and to me, the Courtier’s Reply seems to work just fine. All the “highly sophisticated” philosophical discussions just obfuscate the strongly implied nonexistence of God.

  • Steven Carr

    Why is Dawkins unqualified to discuss Christianity after reading the Bible?

    What is it about the Bible that makes readers of it unqualified to discuss Christianity?

  • Jim Lippard

    Steve: I think the argument would be that reading the Bible may be necessary, but isn’t sufficient. That argument would be more likely from a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican position than a Protestant one, since the former argue for the authority and expertise of the church, while the latter insists on Sola Scriptura.

    Rourke: I think you’re painting with too broad a brush–check out Richard M. Gale’s _On the Nature and Existence of God_. He does a good job of demolishing the standard arguments for the existence of God, while also attempting to identify definitions of God and divine characteristics that can resist the standard atheological arguments. I’d probably go with agnosticism with respect to the notion of God that Gale comes up with.

  • Sheldon

    “It’s not good enough to call popular forms of religious belief absurd and leave it there.”

    As a practical matter I think it is, because that is the majority of the theology that we confront. I consider myself a strong atheist on the question of a Christian God, and probably a Jewish and Muslim God as well. This atheism is relatively unsophisticated, but sufficient and far more sophisticated than the theology it rejects. Viewing my disbelief on a scale of probability, my atheism softens to a more agnostic position when it confronts allegedly more sophisticated theology, that still lacks the power to ultimately be persuasive.

    MAYBE there is a God of the First Cause who fine tuned the universe for life? But why is that any reason to accept the doctrine of original sin and Christ as my saviour?

    Is that not a defensible position? I would like to hear opinions of the more sophisticated atheists on this.

  • Rourke

    @Jim, Sheldon, especially “MAYBE there is a God of the First Cause who fine tuned the universe for life? But why is that any reason to accept the doctrine of original sin and Christ as my saviour?”:

    Actually, despite what I’ve said here and elsewhere, that kind of atheism–strong enough to reject most theologies yet technically agnostic on the question of a creator–is very close to where I stand. My prior assertions of even stronger atheism were borne of my dislike of supposedly “logical” theologies, but didn’t necessarily reflect what I actually think. Unfortunately, I don’t have any original or new perspectives on this question to offer at the moment.

  • bpabbott

    For me, when there is no possibility of evidence respecting a claim, there is no need to consider the claim as credible.

    Any claim respecting that which exists beyond nature lies solely in the imagination.