Any book by David Berlinski is bound to be fun. He is simply one of the most erudite writers in popular science and mathematics today. Those who particularly like seeing sacred cows treated with a hint of sarcasm and irreverance will enjoy his writing on almost any subject, but this book, attacking the "new atheism" as it does, is especially delightful if for no other reason than for how pompous writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchins are in their approach to this subject.
In brief, Berlinski's argument boils down to three main points: there is nothing in science proper that undermines religion (a point that used to be widely recognized and even extolled by writers like SJ Gould), most of the new atheists badly misunderstand even the most rudimentary arguments of theology and are not logically consistent, and finally that much of science has become rather dogmatic, like a new religion. I think Berlinski does an excellent job addressing all three of these points, the first of which should be more or less self evident. Claims, for example, that one "should" only believe in physical or visible evidence are not, in and of themselves, empirical claims. Indeed, I have friends who resolutely insist that materialism is "all there is" while remaining blissfully unaware of the fact that such a statement could not arise from strictly empirical observation.
Regarding the new atheist approach to Aquinas, Berlinski correctly notes that the critics of St. Thomas really do not understand his arguments. Take for example the famous cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas. In its simplest form, this argument takes the form of a syllogism. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began at some point. Therefore the universe has a cause. Agnostic that he is, Berlinski correctly notes that this is not actually an argument for God. It is an argument that the universe began to exist, meaning it required a cause. Aquinas, of course, argued this cause was "God" and very specifically the God of the New Testament and Catholic Church. But one need not arrive at this conclusion. It is possible that the universe simply goes on forever. One event causes another and so on back to infinity. (This was the position of David Hume and it has been popular among the atheist set ever since.) Still, Berlinski askes, if we saw a row of dominoes falling, "would we, without pause say that no first domino set the other dominoes toppling. Really?"[p. 69] Of course not. We fall back upon such reasoning only when discussing God. But of course Hume's argument has been rendered pointless by the fact that 20th century cosmology did in fact discover the universe had a beginning, and much of cosmology since then has been an effort to try to explain away the obvious implications of this. (One should also consult on this matter God and the Astronomers
by another thoughtful agnostic, Robert Jastrow.) Scientists too, it seems, for all their vaunted objectivity, often find their research agendas driven by their theological concerns.
But how does a "scientist" who also publicly promotes atheism respond to Aquinas and the rather stunning vindication of his argument by 20th century science. Well, Dawkins for one simply asserts that Aquinas failed to consider the possibility that God was subject to infinite regress. Amazing. As one reviewer put it, to call this argument sophomoric is an insult to sophomores, though he did not specify whether he was refering to high school or college sophomores. Aquinas did not "assume" God was not subject to infinite regress. It was the conclusion of his argument that infinite regress was not possible and Dawkins, should he want to refute such an argument, needs to address it directly, which of course he does not.
And so it goes. Berlinski examines one argument for atheism after another and finds each wanting. The authors of these arguments are logically inconsistent. They appeal to multiple universes and diminsions, a weak anthropic principle, physical laws that change from place to place coupled with as yet undiscovered universal laws, and then accuse theists of violating the law of parsimony, Occam's Razor. They publicly stand by Darwin, especially on origin of life issues (about which Darwin had little to say) while privately expressing their doubts about the explanatory value of his theory in many respects. Perhaps the highlight of the book for me was Berlinski's decision to quote the prominent biologist Shi V. Liu who noted that Darwinism "misled science into a dead end" but "we may still appreciate the role of Darwin in helping scientists .. in fighting against the creationists."[p.197] Indeed. Any theory is better than an alternative that might imply God or some other non material cause.
But what would motivate a supposed scientist to make such outlandish claims? And it is here that Berlinski is at his dead level best. For some scientists, and many more non-scientist, science has itself become a religion. And it is a religion with a very jealous God, who can have no other Gods before Him. Like other religions, of course, this one has much to offer its followers, both in material benefits and spiritual solace. But all good agnostics still recognize it for what it is, the zeal of its adherents notwithstanding.