Militant atheism is on the rise. In recent years, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have produced a steady stream of best-selling books denigrating religious belief. These authors are merely the leading edge of a larger movement that includes much of the scientific community. In response, mathematician David Berlinski, himself a secular Jew, delivers a biting defense of religious thought. The Devil’s Delusion is a brilliant, incisive, and funny book that explores the limits of science and the pretensions of those who insist it is the ultimate touchstone for understanding our world.
Though the scientific community has done wonders for our society, in recent years scientist and popular science writers have had a ballooning antagonism toward religious thought. In The Devil's Delusion, mathematician David Berlinski sets out to examine the so-called "militant atheism" pushed by such voices as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and offer his own defense for religion. Veteran narrator, Dennis Holland's casual yet confident voice enhances the authority and humor of Berlinski's intelligently designed arguments. So, whether you are coming to this audiobook to reaffirm your stance on religion or you side with science and are looking for a smart, counter-argument, Berlinski's The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Delusion makes for a great listen.
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I'm currently in the middle of this book, but even if I found the rest of it completely revelatory and satisfying I would still be writing this review.
Also, before I get into the problems with content, I have to say that Dennis Holland's narration is pretty monochromatic and robotic. I wondered for a moment if they'd gotten a more sophisticated Microsoft Sam or Siri type of program to read this book, so take that into consideration.
I came to this book as someone who's currently trying to figure out what I really believe about the nature of the universe and the existence of God. I've been reading books on science, theology, various religions, etc. - so I worked this one into the rotation in the hope that it would continue to broaden my perspectives and help me learn about things I've yet to.
I have been severely disappointed.
To begin with, Berlinski's prose - while well-worded - is absolutely dripping with disdain and condescension. Time after time he strays so far into self-congratulatory narcissism with his word choice and style that this book practically grinds to a halt. He spends paragraphs just calling people names and outlining how he doesn't like this person or what they've said; but rarely does he offer specific reasons as to why he finds someone "odious" or enumerate counterpoints to their hypotheses. Where something resembling a counterpoint can be offered, he invokes philosophers and thinkers of history - sometimes ancient history - without any consistency. At one point he uses David Hume against one of his targets, and then later turns his sneering condescension on David Hume's thinking itself. Moreover his dependence on historical philosophy and science flies in the face of history and science; two things that are constantly having to be updated as new facts come to light.
His big opening argument is one of the most tired and well-addressed of all: Nazis. To paraphrase and simplify "The Nazis were atheists, obviously the Nazis were evil, so clearly atheism is evil." Apart from the fact this argument completely ignores the socio-political history of Germany, numerous psychological factors on an individual and group scale, and grossly oversimplifies geopolitical climate - it's simply not true. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord" ... That's a two-fer, Hitler invoking traditional Christian thought and creationist ideology. But Himmler and Rosenberg espoused pagan beliefs founded in the myths of Germanic folklore. Kerrl even believed that Christianity could be integrated into Nazism as part of the official party platform. So if you're going to call out the Nazis for being atheists, you've got to contend with a mountain of evidence that says the opposite - or at the very least that they were simply moral degenerates who used whatever philosophical and religious means they could get their hands on to manipulate the people and justify their actions. But calling that behavior "atheism" instead of just "evil" is unforgivably reductive and inaccurate, and Berlinski marches right past those more complex ideas while patting himself on the back for so thoroughly revealing atheism to be the real reason Nazi Germany happened in the first place.
The book is filled with these kinds of oversimplifications and logical fallacies. When he's not invoking ad hominem argument attacks against those he deems intellectually inferior, he's rattling off war/genocide statistics for several minutes. I mean this quite literally; at one point in his riposte against the idea that the 20th century has seen a largely improved human condition (historically speaking) he lists all the wars and genocides and dictatorships that occurred during the 20th century along with their estimated death tolls. I don't know how long it took, but it felt like an eternity listening to the almost robotic narrator go on and on and on when the same point could just have easily been made in a few short sentences. Berlinski seems, however, far too interested in making his point as laborious and pretentious as possible.
Elsewhere he says "Science has no method - like golf - beyond the trivial." This, by the way, in a paragraph denouncing what he perceives as the pretentiousness of the scientific method and the arrogance of those who invoke it. I am genuinely stumped by how a man so demonstrably brilliant (his bibliography touches on topics of mathematics far more complex than I personally can claim to fully understand) can so arrogantly accuse others of arrogance. I'm even more stumped at how an agnostic and self proclaimed secular Jew with no active belief in the supernatural can so abhor the scientific method; arguably the cornerstone of empirical thought and research.
There are sparks of good arguments in here, there really are. There is so much fertile ground for intelligent discussion and debate regarding NOMA, or how Big Bang cosmology squares and/or doesn't square with the ideas of creationism and intelligent design, or the difficulties that Darwinian evolution still has to overcome from a theoretical standpoint, or the havoc wreaked by even the most well-intentioned scientific endeavors...the list goes on. But in place of thoughtful arguments (meaning an explanation of the shortcomings/strengths, and then an offer of counter-argument against/in favor) Berlinski is only interested in poking holes and then using his considerably impressive vocabulary (the man is undoubtedly a wordsmith) to stand back and admire his own intellect. If this book were drained of its ad hominem arguments, false dilemmas, arguments from incredulity, snarky rhetorical questions, laborious lists, insufferable arrogance in the face of easily cited fact, and some plain-old-playground-name-calling...it could fit on a napkin. And that's just the kind of catty putdown with which this book is filled, by the way.
The entire book is effectively one long argument from its own conclusion, so if you're just looking for some cleverly-worded phrases and putdowns to spit at atheists during your next rant - you have come to the right place and you won't find a more gleefully kindred spirit in that endeavor than David Berlinski. But if you're currently trying to find well-constructed arguments for belief in the supernatural, you would be much better off in the hands of C.S. Lewis, Francis Collins, John Lennox, or even Ravi Zacharias.
What made the experience of listening to The Devil's Delusion the most enjoyable?
Berlinski's prose is second-to-none. I could read his writings all day long and never tire.
What did you like best about this story?
Berlinski's ability to see "behind the curtain", as it were, and expose the nonsensical nature of modern, militant atheism and cosmology.
Which character – as performed by Dennis Holland – was your favorite?
Not really applicable for this book...
If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
"Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions" The official subtitle works great.
Any additional comments?
(Taken from my Amazon review) After [listening] this book for the [third] time, I have to say that it comprises one of the most logical and well developed criticisms of atheism in the modern day. Berlinski is clear in stating that he himself is not a believer, but an agnostic Jew. Only, he can see the glaring holes in conventional cosmology and atheism clearly enough to feel the need to defend the often derided alternative world view of a higher power. And this is something he does extremely well. For a topic so ensnared by controversy and ad-hominem debate, Berlinski remains level headed and admits when his points are less than certain. This is not to say that his arguments lack evidence or efficacy, just that he's willing to admit when something is simply unprovable when so many others will not. If you're open enough to critically challenge your world view, I can't recommend this book enough. It is superlative among its peers and remains one if the best works in this ever fiery category.