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Getting It Wrong about Atheism and Science

Before we begin, let me tell a brief David Berlinski story. I've told it before here, but it bears retelling.

Three years ago The New Criterion sent me one of David Berlinski's books to review. I didn't think much of it, and said so rather bluntly in my review, which you can read for yourself here.

A short while after the review was published, TNC forwarded to me an email from David Berlinski, thanking me for having taken the trouble to review his book, regretting that I hadn't liked it, and wishing me well!

Now feeling terrible about having slighted David's book, I emailed back suggesting that by way of balance, I might ask the editor of TNC to give my next book to David for review. He emailed back in the same friendly and civil tone, saying he didn'’t think that would be right at all.

I call that an extraordinarily high standard of gentlemanly collegiality. Our exchanges were entirely private, so you can't put it down to moral potlatch display on David's part. It can only be sheer innate decency. So I enter these exchanges liking and respecting David very much, hoping his latest book sells well -- I worked off my guilt for that last one by telling everyone I met to buy it -- and determined to try to reach David's level of civilized discourse.

OKAY BERLINSKI, YOU DOG-FACED MORON ... Nah, just kidding. Well, what have we got here?

After some routine slandering of scientists as having "acquired" the "authority" of Soviet commissars -- I await with interest the demarcation of ZiL lanes for the sole benefit of atheistical biologists heading for their country dachas -- I see this: "It is curious that so many scientists should have recently embraced atheism."

Now I recall why I disliked David's book so much. There was something like this on every page -- something that fires off the chain of reactions: Is it? ... What does this actually MEAN? ... Does it, in point of fact, mean ANYTHING? ... Oh, the heck with it!

What, in that particular sentence, does David mean by "recently"? Since the seventeenth century? Since that rash of atheist books came out a couple of years ago? The only clue David gives us is a list of physicists in the following sentence. It's a pretty random list, with a 200-year jump from Newton to Maxwell, so let's try to be a bit more systematic.

Here are the top twenty physicists from Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment:

Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Faraday, Galileo, Cavendish, Bohr, J. Thomson, Maxwell, P. Curie, Kirchhoff, Fermi, Heisenberg, M. Curie, Dirac, Joule, Huygens, Gilbert, T. Young, Hooke

Due diligence at this point would require me to go to my local library and read up on these notables in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. That would involve me leaving my very comfortable perch up here in the tree house, though. I am therefore going to yield to sloth and run up a rough-approximation list for the piety of these people, using the best resources I have at hand: William H. Cropper's Great Physicists, Wikipedia, and my own fast-cratering memory. Here's what I get.

eccentric Anglican, functional atheist, functional atheist, devout Sandemanian (fundamentalist Protestant), devout Catholic, conventional Anglican, secular humanist, "social" Anglican, devout Presbyterian, agnostic, nominal Lutheran, agnostic, atheist, agnostic, atheist, deist, deist, nominal Anglican, Quaker, nominal Anglican

No doubt I have got some of them wrong, and there are of course hours of argumentation there. Several million words must have been written just about Einstein's religion, though the matter seems plain enough to me. (He explicitly and emphatically denied any belief in a personal God, and his "Old One" was so remote and inactive that even "deist" doesn't really fit Einstein. His Old One was really little more than a figure of speech, I think.) Still, I believe my list sufficiently refutes your statement that "the great physical scientists ... were either men of religious commitment or religious sensibility."

Let us proceed!

Then a question on "how the universe arose." Punchline: "Given the account of creation offered in Genesis and the account offered in A Brief History of Time, I know of no sane man who would hesitate between the two."

A few points at random:

  • What an extraordinary sentence to commit to print! Its clear implication is that Stephen Hawking is insane. Its only slightly less clear implication is that anyone who does not accept the Genesis account of creation -- a category that would include at least half of those top twenty physicists in my last section -- is insane. Furthermore, I am insane, and so is my wife. You had better alert the authorities, David.
  • Why restrict our choices to just Hawking and Yahweh? There are plenty of other accounts of the origin of the universe for us to choose from. There is a whole raft of them here. Why are you so cavalierly casting aside Mbombo, the white giant of the Makuba, who one day "felt a terrible pain in his stomach, and vomited the sun, the moon, and the stars"? Are you some kind of a racist, David? Or look at this lovely creation story from Tibet. You should at least try to be a little multicultural, David.
  • What's wrong with saying: "I have no clue 'how the universe arose,' and I don't believe anyone else has, either"? OH MY GOD, I HAVE RIPPED OPEN THE FABRIC OF SPACETIME! ... AAAAAARRRRRRRGGHHHHHHH! ...

"And there is Darwin's theory of evolution." Indeed there is. Do you have anything to say about it? No. That is not very surprising. Creationists never do have anything to say about it. They mention it, as you do, and as the authors of that silly movie do, only to at once veer off into questions about biogenesis, a topic about which nobody really knows anything, and that Darwin was not very interested in, and that forms no essential part of his account of the origin of species. I would love to get a conversation going with creationists about the origin of species, but they seem to be even less interested in this topic than Darwin was in biogenesis.

Dawkins is plainly trying to say the same thing in that exchange you quoted, but the movie editors cut it up to make him look stupid.

Metaphysics and philosophers' opinions about metaphysics -- and even scientists' opinions about metaphysics -- form no part of the scientific enterprise.

"What reason do we have to suppose that God might not exist?" Well, his being invisible, inaudible, intangible, nonaromatic, flavorless, and undetectable by any known instrument is a pretty good start. But why is there any burden on atheists to prove that God does not exist? How would you set about proving that Poseidon, Wotan, Ahriman, Unkulunkulu, or the Great Manitou do not exist, David? Come on, give us a clue. I don't want a detailed 80-page proof in each case. Just outline for me what your proof procedure would be.

Finally, back to those old commissars. "Who knows what mischief Soviet citizens might have conceived had they imagined that the Politburo was not, after all, infallible?" Another one of those say-what? questions. The answer, I think, is that the Soviet party bosses knew perfectly well, and made sure that the citizenry knew that they knew, and would deal with such "mischief" very briskly.

Underlying your last comments, to the degree I can squeeze any sense out of them, is the vague notion that atheism is a sort of religion -- "a doctrine," you say -- that people sign on to, perhaps after undergoing some formal instruction from a properly ordained minister. Possibly it does take that form in some individuals, but far more often it is merely an indifference to supernatural explanations, on the part of people who find natural explanations sufficiently interesting. As one of those atheistical book authors says -- Hitchens, I think it is -- an atheist just believes in one fewer god than you. He is an atheist in respect of Yahweh in just the same way, and for just the same kind of reason, that you are an atheist in respect of Unkulunkulu.

What is your problem with Unkulunkulu, David? Why are you not willing to accept his mighty power? Are you secretly, in your inner heart, one of those arrogant atheists? Well, of course, so far as Unkulunkulu is concerned, you are!

British-born John Derbyshire is the author most recently of Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra. His Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream: A Novel was a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year.