The Devil’s Delusion by David Berlinski – A Book Review

Bias. In order to undercut an unpleasant argument, just claim that prejudicial self-interest blinds another person from seeing the error of their ways.

So what to make of Dr. Berlinksi, with a Ph.D. from Princeton and time spent as a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University, who opens his critique of the New Atheists by claiming:

Here it is, an inconvenient fact: I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take. I can barely remember a word of Hebrew. I cannot pray. I have spent more years than I care to remember in studying mathematics and writing about the sciences. Yet the book that follows is in some sense a defense of religious thought and sentiment.

Berlinski’s biography and book raises at least two questions: first, given the book’s powerful arguments in favor of religious belief, why is the author not religious? And second, given that the author is not religious, doesn’t this spirited defense of religion deserve an honest hearing?

At the psychological if not the logical level, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions contains a running tension between these two questions. At times I wondered how convinced even Berlinski was of his arguments, if he remains areligious, while at other times, I found his points to be all the more devastating because he is not.

Berlinski’s biography aside, the central and important argument in The Devil’s Delusion is that “science” is by no means a uniformly anti-religious authority figure. On the contrary, “science” is limited, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory. It is a messy and jumbled human enterprise that points in different directions: sometimes in favor of atheism, but also in favor of Christianity. As Berlinski quotes “the Nobel laureate Arno Penzias,” who did crucial work in discovering cosmic microwave background radiation: “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole” (p. 71).

The book establishes numerous major, highly significant points in the debate between atheists and the religious. For instance,

  • That atheists regularly seek to authoritative (and arrogantly) pronounce, on the basis of ‘science,’ that religion is stupid and dead.
  • That even though “A great deal of human suffering has been caused by religious fanaticism…Nonetheless, there is this awkward fact: The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot will never be counted among the religious leaders of mankind” (19).
  • That there may, after all, be a practical link between the denial of God and the lack of moral restraints in a given society.
  • That “Neither the premises nor the conclusions of any scientific theory mention the existence of God” (50). Therefore, to conclude that ‘on the basis of science, there is no God’ often involves a series of rather ridiculous inferential leaps, which Berlinski is only too happy to point out to us.
  • That “There is nonetheless a striking point at which Big Bang cosmology and traditional theological claims intersect” (80).
  • That, ”Arguments follow from assumptions, and assumptions follow from beliefs, and very rarely—perhaps never—do beliefs reflect an agenda determined entirely by the facts. No less than the doctrines of religious belief, the doctrines of quantum cosmology are what they seem: biased, partial, inconclusive, and largely in the service of passionate but unexamined conviction. There is no surprise in any of this, and if there is, there should not be” (103-104).
  • That, quoting the string theorist Leonard Susskind, “Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [intelligent design] critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID” (135).
  • That, quoting Erich Harth, “Mind is like no other property of physical systems. It is not just that we don’t know the mechanisms that give rise to it. We have difficulty in seeing how any mechanism can give rise to it” (175).
  • That, “A successful evolutionary theory of the human mind would, after all, annihilate any claim we might make on behalf of human freedom. The physical sciences do not trifle with determinism: It is the heart and soul of their method. Were boron salts at liberty to discard their identity, the claims of inorganic chemistry would seem considerably less pertinent than they do. When Steven Pinker writes that “nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives,” he is expressing a belief—one obviously true—entirely at odds with his professional commitments. If ordinary men and women are, like Pinker himself, perfectly free to tell their genes “to go jump in the lake,” why pay the slightest attention to evolutionary psychology?” (178).
  • That, “The God of the Gaps may now be invited to comment—strictly as an outside observer, of course. He is addressing us. And this is what He has to say: You have no idea whatsoever how the ordered physical, moral, mental, aesthetic, and social world in which you live could have ever arisen from the seething anarchy of the elementary particles” (201).

Reading The Devil’s Delusion was like watching a little kid pop all the bubbles in a roll of bubble wrap: man, isn’t it fun to hear the “POP POP POP” as they go? Many of the big, bad, scary atheist arguments against God, in Berlinski’s hands, start to look more like puffed up egos relying upon a blind faith in naturalism.

Berlinski’s style is also worthy of note. In general, the book features a lively and amusing dismantling of atheistic pretensions. The humor sets the book apart from a drab, dispassionate, methodical, and plodding dissection of the logical flaws in the New Atheist case. For instance:

Did Muhammad fly to Jerusalem on a horse named Borak? What an idea, Hitchens writes, observing alertly that “horses cannot and do not fly” (p. 44).

In all this [the ‘central argument’ of The God Delusion], Dawkins has failed only to explain his reasoning, and I am left with the considerable inconvenience of establishing  his argument before rejecting it (p. 138).

These little jokes go straight to the point, making The Devil’s Delusion a far more enjoyable read. Ridiculous ‘arguments’ are sometimes best met by ridicule.

But sometimes his ‘jokes’ felt tired, as when he belabors an extended compare-and-contrast between today’s atheists and the Nazis. Though not without its merits, these charges began to feel less like a historical counterpoint to weak atheist arguments and more like an occurrence of Godwin’s Law. In addition to the Nazi comparisons, there are a number of other jabs which come across as indiscriminate and unkind (e.g., “His atheism notwithstanding, Dawkins believes that he is a “deeply religious man.” He simply prefers an alien cult”).

This style is both the strongest and weakest part of the book. Without the banter, the discussion of such wide-ranging topics (from Aquinas to string theory) could have become quite dull. But sometimes cheap ad hominems are substituted for rigorous argumentation. At its worst, the attacks are overly aggressive, as if the poor target had somehow personally offended Berlinski, just by being an atheist.  The stakes of this conversation are just too high for any below-the-belt remarks.

Overall, The Devil’s Delusion is an enjoyable read, with many intriguing angles on a surprisingly wide range of topics, all of which are tied into the question, “Does science disprove God’s existence?” Berlinski is well-suited to answer this common question with a resounding and reasoned “no.”

Though with some caution, as noted above, I recommend The Devil’s Delusion as a good – and fun – overview of the logical connections between science, faith, and atheism.

You can buy The Devil’s Delusion at