The interview below with Dr. David Berlinski from Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge represents for me one of those great moments when one can revel in hearing someone much smarter than you agree with the reasonableness of your position.
Berlinski is a writer, so he insists, but a writer about mathematics, a scientist’s writer. One knows that this interview will go well when they hear this because just imagine what kind of writer one must be in order to make math interesting. What must a conversation with this strange and apollonian creature be like!
The topic of the interview is Dr. Berlinski’s book The Devils Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. The title alone gives me shivers of glee – I won’t say up my leg – but down my spine. To hear Berlinski address the pretentiousness of the “new atheism” is a sheer delight. Take this exchange for instance. Robinson quotes a passage from the book that claims Darwin’s theory “makes little sense” in and of itself and it has little evidence for support. The notions is astounding. How could he possibly defend this position? Berlinski answers wryly:
What’s it say? Whatever survives survives, eh I knew that before. I didn’t even have to study Darwin. It’s empty. It doesn’t tell us anything. Yes survives survives, I’ll believe that. But that’s not a theory. That’s just a string of wet sponges on a clothes line. That doesn’t tell us anything deep about biological structures. Yeah, a lot of variations. Children don’t look exactly like their parents thank goodness. And their children will be slightly different too, but does that tell us why startling complex structures arise in the history of life. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with it.
I must admit I felt like a little school boy who heard a joke about the headmaster being told ever so expertly. Everyone knows it is true, but one dare not say it. Berlinski is, of course, right. Darwin’s theory is not noteworthy because of its deeply penetrating vision. It is noteworthy because with it the attempt has been made to try to prove that God has nothing to do with human history. Here and elsehwere in the interview I find Berlinski’s candor refreshing and his thinking correct – which is natural because he agrees with me right?
My favorite point, though, is when the host provides two quotes to Berlinski by which draw out a reaction. The quotes are at once illustrative of the pretentiousness of the new atheist and also of the balance of the theist position. The first quote is from atheist Sam Harris:
Religious faith is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas. Science must destroy religion.
The second quote is from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
There can never be a contradiction between faith and science because both originate in God. It is God who gives us both the light of reason and of faith.
Which of these is the more balanced and reasonable? Which of these bears the enlightened gift of paradigmatic wisdom? Which, one may dare say, is less struck through with bilious hatred for the other? Well, dear reader, I think it is clear. Dr. Berlinski goes on to describe the Catholic position, though he is not himself a Catholic, as appearing at least as a position that has the weight of centuries of thought behind it. It is a deeply nuanced and careful statement. While the first, from the atheist, is the very definition of closed, over-zealous vitriol.
This is all very important stuff to me as I have attempted to make sense of the new-found and zealous atheism of friends. Attempts to reason with them have ended in, again, closed paradigms by which they see everything they desire and exactly nothing of anything else.
One friend of mine recently accused the Pope of being responsible for many millions of AIDS deaths in Africa because of the Church’s teaching on contraception. When it was pointed out to him that an atheist Harvard professor actually demonstrated that the Holy Father’s position would actually save lives and that the secular position to distribute condoms has actually harmed more people, well, then the goal posts changed. All of a sudden the Pope was a vilain for possibly, maybe creating the conditions that could someday result in someone dying from AIDS unnecessarily…maybe.
The exchange reminded me of that great book by Fr. Dubay Faith and Certitude, which ends with his recalling an exchange with someone angry at the Church for some reason. When the good Father answered the objections, more and different objections were raised as proof that his answers were wrong in the first place. In the end, he just dropped the whole thing saying,
As to your amusing (at least to me) desire to get theists to “think,” I say no thank you. I have learned to think from logicians, epistemologists and other scholars, and they are far, far superior to your approach. I have seen enough of your type of literature to know that I do not want what it has to offer: hatred, objections, rejection – which if consistent, leads to nihilism. I prefer real thought.
It is the particularly bad reasoning from those who claim to have the corner on reason that I find so fascinatingly frustrating about these new atheists. “Why are they so angry?” one of them asks. The answer for this one is that she didn’t like the particularities of the creed she was given growing up. For that one, he didn’t like much the Church mudsplashed with history. The third atheist just doesn’t want to be told what to do… ever, much less by a book as ancient as the Bible.
But of course none of these answers or objections have anything to do with whether God exists. They are personal hangups that may or may not be rooted in justified offenses. One feels like saying to them: You don’t want to believe in Judaism or Christianity or Islam? Fine. But how does any of that negate the existence of God? Also, why should you assume that it is somehow our burden to prove God’s existence by scientific means, as though the scientific method were the only way of accessing reality? No, it is all very bad thinking, and like the Uncle from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe I cannot help but wonder why it is that they don’t teach logic in schools anymore.
Honestly, though, do watch this interview below with Dr. Berlinski. It is a great joy. Also, consider the following video of a debate between Dr. John-Mark Miravalle (son to famed Mariologist Mark Miravalle) and atheist Dan Barker. Barker is one of the worst debaters I’ve ever seen, but Dr. Miravalle gives some wonderful arguments which I think the Christian sould know. Lastly, may I also mention the podcast from the Dominican House of Studies #91 by Fr. Brian Davies, O.P. on the new atheists. I’ve listened to it several times now. God bless you all.