David's Reviews > The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski
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it was ok

This book starts out on a fairly good roll: the author mentions that he is a secular Jew -- his religious instruction "did not take". Thus I was hopeful that this author might be able to approach the long-running science-religion "war" with a bit of detached objectivity. He certainly is well qualified, in general terms, to write such a work, having written at least two rather widely read technical popularizations (Tour of the Calculus and Advent of the Algorithm).

The initial material on the weaknesses of the recent spate of books by prominent atheist authors was reasonably good. He points out, for instance, that demands that only hard-nosed quantitative scientific discussion is worthy of the label "truth", are self-refuting, because such rhetoric itself lacks clear, crisp, quantitative scientific content. He also points out how criticisms of religion based on the prevalence of religious war ignores the two major world wars of the 20th century, which together killed nearly 100,000 human beings, but which in neither case was based even secondarily on religious conflicts. The Holocaust, for instance, was directed by Hitler under cover of WWII, but was not by any means the central conflict of WWII.

But then Berlinski's discussion declines rapidly into a tirade. He ridicules quantum cosmology in a superficial two-page Q/A outline. He ridicules Stephen Hawking's work. He ridicules Leonard Susskind. He ridicules string theory, quoting Smolin and Woit in opposition but not offering anything more than tirade on his own. As for the extra dimensions implied by string theory, Berlinski lapses into melodrama.

Just when you thought that the narrative had bottomed out, Berlinski launches into evolution. Here it is clear that he is completely uninformed. In 30 pages of polemicism, Berlinski demonstrates only that he has only the most superficial knowledge of evolutionary biology. For example, on page 190 he questions whether natural selection exists at all. I'm sure those battling a panoply of newly evolved pathogens, including tuberculosis, AIDS and influenza, that are resistant against all known medical countermeasures, would be startled to learn from Berlinski that these new strains are only imaginary. Berlinski also states flatly in numerous places that probability calculations rule out evolution, unaware that such lines of reasoning have been refuted time and time again -- what such calculations refute is the creationist theory (i.e., that various biological structures came to be in an instant of random chance) rather than the scientific theory (that they developed gradually over eons in response to evolutionary pressures that are anything but random).

No, quantum physics will not just go away because Berlinski laughs at it. Big bang cosmology will not just go away because Berlinski laughs at it. Evolutionary biology will not just go away because Berlinski laughs at it. It is most unfortunate that a highly qualified author descended into hyperbole, polemicism and mystery.
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March 11, 2012 – Shelved
March 11, 2012 – Finished Reading

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Ellie Dyk Thanks for your generous and articulate review. I was hoping for some clarification on one of your points. Would you mind expanding a bit on what you mean by "newly evolved pathogens?" Are these pathogens that have evolved from one species into another species altogether? My family have genetic mutations relating to how iron is handled in the body, that could be deemed an evolution in our DNA. Is this the type of evolution to which you are referring? If so, would you mind sharing how that convinces you regarding the evolution of apes to mankind? Thank you.

Ellie Dyk clarify

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