A modified version of this article ran 14 April 2008.
There are a recent number of books seeking to either demonstrate, scientifically, that God does not exist, or to show that the love of religion is the root of all evil. Some familiar names: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Weinberg, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, and even John Allen Paulos. All proclaim that the weight of scientific evidence is either completely or heavily on the side of the non existence of God.
The question is, of course: Has the authority of eminent scientists enabled them to prove their case? Berlinski says, “Not even close.” Not only have they not come close, Berlinski goes further and shows how easily they are persuaded by weak or demonstrably false arguments, and the extraordinary lengths that some scientists will go, in the sense of believing bizarre theories, to avoid ceding any ground to the “religionists.” Their distaste of religion has also lead them to say some rather stupid things. For example, Berlinski quotes the eminent biologist Emile Zuckerkandl as saying that if God exists, He would represent “something like a pathology of the state of being.” An enjoyable, sputtering rant by that author published in the peer-reviewed journal Gene is summarized later in the book.
It is worth mentioning that like most books in this genre, Berlinski does not attempt a definition of who or what God is—and neither do those on the other side. This is curious, because as St Anselm would say, the proof of God is in His definition. Even if that is not so, understanding what God is goes a great way to understanding why God is.
A non-Enlightened disease
Berlinski puts the claim that religion is bad for you in perspective. Some anti-religion authors won’t settle for anything less than damning religion in all its stripes, disallowing, even, the crumb of comfort given to people when their loved ones die. Even Carl Sagan, in his Demon-Haunted World conceded this form of solace, but without recognizing that since everybody dies, this is an enormous amount of comfort to go around that would be denied mankind if religion were absent. But you never hear of enemies of religion breaking open Mill to assist in calculating the utility of comforts versus torments of religion.
Many scientists think that religion, while still a cancerous growth, is benign and only mostly harmful, and not always deadly. Sort of like smoking, which the more Enlightened among us would like to ban. Presumably, those who would prohibit smoking are same people who would support legalizing assisted suicide. Which happened in Holland in 1984 (and where a partial smoking ban does exist). Since then, about three percent of all deaths in that country are assisted [this is the 2008 figure], of which the government admits that about one-fourth are “involuntary.” We call that involuntary method of exiting “murder” here in the States, but Europeans are often considered more Enlightened, so they might be one step ahead of us in legal definitions.
Arguments for assisted suicide are usually intentionally religion-free. Thus, the point of the Holland example, of course, is that the world would not necessarily become a more moral, or safer place, if religion were to disappear. More proof is given by Berlinski in the form of a table, ordered by number of “excess”, or untimely, twentieth-century deaths due to non- or even anti-religious behavior. Leading the pack are of course the two World Wars, but not far behind in the body count are mankind’s experiments with various communist utopias. Since one of the top arguments used by those who would wish to bar religion is that the religious can be cruel and have killed, the evidence that the non-religious can be cruel and have killed in equal or larger number only proves that there will always be a class of people who adore pain, misery, and bloodshed, irrespective of creed.
The disease religion is also seen as congenital, in the sense that people have religion on the brain, literally. Somehow, we are assured, the brain has genetically encoded religion into itself, and that if we’d just grow up and recognize this, we would become Enlightened (or brightened, these days). This is one of the sillier arguments put forth by scientists. If religion is genetically encoded, then it cannot be overcome, unless some of us, the superior ones naturally, have somehow managed to escape expressing those particular genes that activate, say, the praying response. Look for one of those fMRI studies that “proves” this, soon.
Berlinski shows that because some scientists cannot countenance religious arguments of any kind, they refuse to accept any evidence that is any way tainted by religion. This leads to the fallacy that one should not listen to arguments against, say, stem cell research or abortion because they are religious. You will surely certainly recognize this ploy when you meet it.
Everybody already knows that physics, and its offshoots, has done brilliantly at explaining more and more of the universe. But it cannot keep doing so forever. At some point, meta-physics must enter into the discussion. This is because, no matter what physical laws we have identified, we will never have explained through observation why these particular laws and not some other are in force, nor can we answer what the laws mean. It is obvious that it is here that God can slip in and offer the needed explanations. Some scientists are therefore anxious to fill in these gap with…something, anything but God. Or, if that cannot be accomplished, then to prove that God does not exist.
Dawkins, in his The God Delusion offers a particularly weak argument. His first premise is that the universe is improbable. And we can stop right there, because that is a nonsensical statement, so his argument fails. Any thing or statement cannot be improbable. A thing can only be improbable with respect to something else. Further, a thing can be improbable with respect to one set of evidence and entirely probable with respect to other evidence. So, in Dawkin’s case, the universe is improbable with respect to what?
Weak Anthropic evidence is sometimes offered, in the guise of certain physical constants having particular values, in the sense that if these constants did not have these values, then human life would be impossible (which is not the same as saying the universe is impossible, but let that pass). Now the burden is on those who tout this evidence to show that this is the best evidence with which to measure the improbability of the universe. And there are many hints that it is not the best evidence. It is, after all, by its very name, suspiciously self indulgent and human centered evidence. Why would the universe care if humans, or other sentient beings, evolved enough to notice that they might not have evolved had the universe been arranged differently anyway? Besides, to say that things might have been different and humans might not have evolved is just a tautology, and therefore of no interest.
Still, accept it if you like, so that we can move to Dawkins’s second premise, which is that God Himself is improbable. Again, the statement is nonsensical: improbable with respect to what? Dawkins suggests that God must be more improbable than the universe, which again makes no sense. Anyway, improbable is not impossible, as Dawkins often argues with respect to evolution by natural selection, arguments he has apparently forgotten. Still, Dawkins moves to his conclusion that God is so improbable that He doesn’t exist, and advises people to accept some recent conjectures in cosmology that seem to do away with the need to explain why the universe, or universes, are the way they are.
These are the Landscape and multiverse hypotheses, put forward by various authors to help them cope with the insolubilities of quantum mechanics and cosmology. These are attempts to shift the questions of “Why?” one step back. That they do not answer them, I would have thought clear. Even pushing the grand questions a little deeper down is enough to please some people. Berlinski, a mathematical physicist, covers these speculations well, without any math, and gives pointers to books where we might learn more. See especially his very clever “Catechism of Quantum Cosmology.” Briefly, however, the solutions offered posit an uncountable number of alternate universes that are coming into and out of creation always. There are no mechanisms to observe these other universes directly or indirectly. Even if we could, these theories might answer some questions of quantum mechanics and gravity, but they never answer why it is infinities of universes instead of just one. The theories are also mind-boggling complex, and by no means are they consistent with one another. Nobody even knows what the full scope of these ideas are.
Berlinski quotes Dawkins, who is nevertheless satisfied, as saying, “The key difference between the radically extravagant God hypothesis and the apparently extravagant multiverse hypothesis, is one of statistical improbability.” Presumably, he means that God is more improbable. He never says how much more. Infinities, of universes or anything else, are a dangerous thing. More foolishness has been generated by jumping to infinity than by any other reason (see chapter 15 of Jaynes’s remarkable Probability Theory for appropriate words of admonition).
Argument from design
It has long been convincing to many that the wonderful biological complexity that is everywhere in evidence must have had a designer. How else, Darwin himself wondered, can one explain the human eye? This argument is less convincing than it once was, because of the success of modern biology and genetics, and the seeming success of evolution by natural selection.
Wait a minute. Did he just say seeming success? He did. Which brings us back to Dawkins, the best-known anti-religion author. Was there ever a man who published so much nonsense that was taken so seriously by the scientific community? Nobody else even comes close. Just mentioning the word memes proves my point. Is not believing in God a meme? Berlinski doesn’t discuss memes, but does offer some well known criticisms of “selfish” genes—incidentally, the best are due to the philosopher’s Mary Midgley (Evolution as a Religion) and David Stove (Darwinian Fairytales; if you haven’t read either of these books, please do so, especially Stove’s, before you comment).
Not all biologists are satisfied with present-day theory. Berlinski writes
[Darwinian] theory is what is always was: It is unpersuasive. Among evolutionary biologists, these matters are well known. In the privacy of the Susan B. Anthony faculty lounge, they often tell one another with relief that it is a very good thing the public has no idea what the research literature really suggest.
“Darwin?” a Nobel laureate in biology once remarked to me over his bifocals. “That’s just the party line.”
There are still gaps in the evolutionary record. Nobody knows how life original arose, and nobody knows how species originate. Some fill these gaps with God. Scientists argue that the gaps will be filled in eventually. Berlinski says that this assumption is “both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent—primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience” because filling gaps “has created [new] gaps all over again.”
The best summation on the side of (non-apoplectic) scientists is probably from Richard Feynman, who said, “Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation [which describes the time evolution of physical systems] contains frogs, musical composers, or morality. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way.”
To say whether or not God exists is not always the easiest question; yet everybody seems delighted to meet an argument, however weak, that agrees with their desires. This leads very smart people to say exceptionally stupid things. [This was the case with me, before I returned fully to the Church.]