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The idea that the practice of science is at odds with religious commitment has long been part of conventional wisdom. In the 18th century, the philosophers of the French Enlightenment argued that science is the voice of reason while religion is little more than blind faith. Only by embracing science as the one true source of genuine knowledge, they argued, can humankind be rid of superstition.

  • The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, by David Berlinksi, Crown Forum, 237 pages, $27.95

A glance at the longer sweep of history shows this Enlightenment view to be misguided. Doubt has been an integral part of religion at least since the Book of Job, while science has often gone with credulity. The doctrines of dialectical materialism and "scientific racism" promoted by communists and Nazis, respectively, during the 20th century were as irrational as anything in the history of religion. Yet in the 20th century, millions of people embraced these pernicious ideologies as scientific truth.

Despite being at variance with historical experience, the idea that science and religion are opposites is embedded in modern Western culture, and it has been given a new lease on life in the writings of the current wave of "scientific atheism." Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have popularized the Enlightenment view that a reductive type of materialism is the only picture of the world compatible with the results of scientific inquiry. Promoting Darwinism as an intellectual orthodoxy - a creed rather than a provisional hypothesis - these writers renew the old quarrel between science and religion. Though controversy has been intense, it can hardly be described as having made any large intellectual advance on the debate that raged in Victorian times.

There is actually very little that is new in the so-called new atheism, whose claim to be based on science is as dubious today as it has ever been. A critique of the contemporary assault on religion is therefore much needed, and in The Devil's Delusion, David Berlinski gives us a polemic that is powerful, erudite and often savagely funny. Berlinski - a mathematician and well-known critic of evolutionary theory, though not a proponent of "intelligent design" - has two targets in his sights: the conventional belief that religious thought is intrinsically superstitious and the materialist philosophy that Dawkins and his fellow "brights" - as members of the atheist community fondly describe themselves - mistakenly identify with science.

The first of these targets is dispatched with in a barrage of devastating arguments. Berlinski quotes Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg as declaring "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion." Berlinski comments on this, forcefully and unanswerably: "Just who has imposed on the suffering human race poison gas, barbed wire, high explosives, experiments in eugenics, the formula for Zyklon B, heavy artillery, pseudo-scientific justifications for mass murder, cluster bombs, attack submarines, napalm, intercontinental ballistic missiles, military space platforms, and nuclear weapons? If memory serves, not the Vatican."

Nothing infuriates atheists more than the observation that people who scorned traditional religion in all its varieties were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the last century. But Berlinski is pointing to an undeniable truth. The former Soviet Union was an atheist regime from the moment of its inception to the day it collapsed. Applying Marx's philosophy, its leaders looked forward to a time when religion would be eradicated from human life. Lenin and Stalin's "liquidation" of remnants of the old society - in plain words, the mass murder of tens of millions of people, artists and intellectuals, peasants and workers, priests and rabbis - was not done only with the aim of maintaining power.

Atheism was - according to the founders of the Soviet state, and in fact - always an integral part of the communist project. Despite the vehement denials of Dawkins and Hitchens, terror in communist Russia - and Mao's China - was also meant to bring about a utopian society in which religion would no longer exist.

Berlinski is right to focus on the fact that 20th-century atheist states were as complicit in crimes against humanity as any religion has been in the past. He weakens his case when he argues that "The twentieth century was not an age of faith, and it was awful." Quite to the contrary, the 20th century was an age of faith - the secular faith in Utopia that produced the atrocities Berlinski rightly condemns.

Lenin's Bolsheviks were not a bunch of skeptics. They were fanatical believers in a vision of a future world, more fantastic than any religious myth, which they claimed was based on science. The same is true of the Nazis, who in claiming that race was a scientific category, opened the way to history's supreme crime. The atrocities perpetrated by atheist regimes during the 20th century did not come from believing in nothing. They are testimonies to the destructive ferocity of faith when it is detached from traditional religions and invested in pseudo-science.

Berlinski's second target is the materialist theories of evolution and of the origins of the universe advocated by contemporary atheists, and here his polemic is less successful. No doubt correctly, Berlinski argues that Darwin's account of natural selection and current theories of cosmology leave a good deal that is not adequately explained. More contentiously, he suggests that these gaps in understanding may give support to ideas of intelligent design. Here Berlinski follows atheists such as Dawkins in thinking of religion as a type of explanatory theory, different from that which is presented in prevailing science.

The truth of the matter is that religion and science are not competitors, but fundamentally different responses to the human situation. Religion begins where science leaves off. Theories of how humanity or the universe came about are strictly beside the point. Claiming to have a better explanation of the natural world than orthodox science - as creationists do - does nothing to advance the cause of faith.

Religion expresses the human need for meaning, not a demand for explanation. For those who have it, faith entails understanding the limits of the human mind and an acceptance of mystery. Even if all the problems of science are some day solved, humans will still be searching for purpose in their lives, and for that reason alone they will need religion.

John Gray is the author of Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia and is emeritus professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.

Claims and questions

The idea that we must turn to the sciences in order to assess our religious beliefs owes much to the popular conviction that so long as we are turning, where else are we to turn to? The proper response is a question in turn. Why turn at all? And if we must turn, why turn in the wrong direction? To ask of the physical sciences that they assess the Incarnation, or any other principle of religious belief, is rather like asking of a rather powerful Grand Prix racing car that it prove itself satisfactory in doing service as a New York taxicab.

The claim that the existence of God should be treated as a scientific question stands on a destructive dilemma: If by science one means the great theories of mathematical physics, then the demand is unreasonable. We cannot treat any claim in this way. There is no other intellectual activity in which theory and evidence have reached this stage of development.

If, on the other hand, the demand means merely that one should treat the existence of God as the existence of anything would be treated, then we must accept the fact that in life as it is lived beyond mathematical physics, the evidence is fragmentary, lost, partial, and inconclusive. We do what we can. We grope. We see glimmer.

From The Devil's Delusion , Chapter 3.

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