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.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University