Berkowitz ‘truth’

Peter Berkowitz has written a review (of sorts) of Chris Hitchens’ ‘God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, which is now available from the Wall Street Journal Online.

Now, I will be the first to admit that Hitchens is not my favourite person (his views on the Iraq war are, to put it mildly, somewhat out of step with my own), nor was ‘God is Not Great’ my favourite of the new crop of atheist literature. Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ spoke much more to me as a scientist, although as a piece of science literature, it fell short of Dawkins’ previous works (such as ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, which ought to be manditory reading for all 3rd and 4th year undergraduate biology students). Sam Harris’ ‘The End of Faith’ and ‘Letter to a Christian Nation’, on the other hand, were the most lucid of the bunch; while Hitchens writes in flowery prose, Harris’ words are succinct and deadly accurate in effect.

Harris and Dawkins take a far more rational approach to the argument; they claim (rightly so) that there is simply no evidence to support the existence of god; they freely admit that disproving god is likewise impossible, but point out that that the burden of proof lies with the party making the positive claim (the theist), and that, moreover, one cannot disprove the existence of Thor, Zeus, Ra, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I would go one step further and argue that not only is there no evidence for the existence of god, but there is also no a priori reason to even hypothesize that god exists. I would also argue that any ‘evidence’ for the existence of god (alleged miracles, for instance) must, by definition, presuppose the existence of god. This simply begs the question; if circular arguments are invalid, they are always invalid. But I digress, and this is a topic for another post.

My goal here is to discuss Berkowitz’ review of Hitchens’ book.

Berkowitz starts out well, showing the latest sales figures for the “new” atheist literature that has come out in the last 2-3 years:

But one stunning new development under the sun is that promulgating atheism has become a lucrative business. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, in less than 12 months atheism’s newest champions have sold close to a million books. Some 500,000 hardcover copies are in print of Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” (2006); 296,000 copies of Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (2007); 185,000 copies of Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” (2006); 64,100 copies of Daniel C. Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”; and 60,000 copies of Victor J. Stenger’s “God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does not Exist” (2007).

It is true; atheism is popular once again, and we are all better for it. If nothing else, it has gotten atheists to stand up and say what they’ve always felt; there is simply no good reason to think that god exists. Some of us go one step further and suggest that religious beliefs do not automatically deserve respect simply because they are religious. Richard Dawkins claims that the late Douglas Adams was his first, and probably only convert; this trend is likely to continue. Most theists are unlikely to lose their delusion (and I find no reason not to use this term to describe this evidence-free belief in a mystical sky fairy or 1st century cosmic Jewish zombie), but many atheists have been empowered by these books. We don’t have to accept ridiculous Bronze Age ideas about morality; we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom of speech simply because we are “offending” someone’s beliefs (although why someone would be offended by slights against god is beyond me; presumably god can take care of god without any help).

Anyway, I digress once more. Back to Berkowitz:

Unlike the classical atheism of Epicurus and Lucretius, which rejected belief in the gods in the name of pleasure and tranquility, the new new atheism rejects God in the name of natural science, individual freedom and human equality.

The “new” atheism (Zeus, I hate that term!) rejects god on the grounds that there is no evidence to support god. That’s all. Science provides a mechanism for understanding complicated things in a rational manner, without needing to invoke god. Philosophy can provide moral teachings without presupposing anything on insufficient evidence.

Unlike the Enlightenment atheism of the 18th century, which arose in a still predominantly religious society and which frequently went to some effort to disguise or mute its disbelief, the new new atheism proclaims its hatred of God and organized religion loudly and proudly from the rooftops.

I don’t think any of the new atheists ‘hate’ god; they may hate the idea of god (as Hitchens clearly does), and they may hate the result of irrational belief, but they don’t hate god: they simply don’t believe that there is a god to hate.

And unlike the anti-modern atheism of Nietzsche and Heidegger, which regarded the death of God as a catastrophe for the human spirit, the new new atheism sees the loss of religious faith in the modern world as an unqualified good, lamenting only the perverse and widespread resistance to shedding once and for all the hopelessly backward belief in a divine presence in history.

I’m not sure that Dawkins or Harris (to pick two) have ever called for the immediate abolition of religion, but rather the immediate uptake of rational thought. The death of religion, in the minds of Dawkins and Harris (and this is an opinion I share), will come through the gradual realization that rational, evidence-based thinking is a far better way to understand the true nature of reality (and, I would argue, to deal with death, the ultimate ’cause’ of religion, in a more appropriate way), than is religious superstition. The immediate death of religion would be catastrophic; its gradual replacement would be a godsend (ahem…). Of course, we may not have time to wait for this gradual process; Bronze Age ideas about morality do not mix well with 21st century tools of warfare, which is why it is so important for atheists to stand up and proclaim the idiocy of religious superstition in all forms.

To be fair to Berkowitz, however, it would seem that Hitchens is far more willing to immediately abolish religion. Needless to say, I think this would be a mistake.

They contend that from the vantage point of the 21st century, and thanks to the moral progress of mankind and the achievements of natural science, we can now know, with finality and certainty, that God does not exist and organized religion is a fraud. The disproportion between the bluster and bravado of their rhetoric and the limitations of their major arguments is astonishing.

Fighting words, indeed. Let’s read on…

But [Hitchens’] arguments do not come close to disproving God’s existence

Oops, a misstep in the first paragraph. Does Berkowitz, a professor of law at George Mason University, really believe that all things are true unless disproved? Is the onus not on those who claim the existence of a particular phenomenon to provide evidence to support that claim? Why should Hitchens or anyone else be required to disprove anything? Has the theist side made out its prima facie case for gods existence? The answer seems to be a clear ‘no’, as evidenced by the number of times you will hear the “well you can’t disprove god either’ argument coming from theists who think they’re being clever.

Consider Mr. Hitchens’s contention, elaborated at length and with gusto, that religion by its very nature compels people to behave cruelly and violently. According to Mr. Hitchens, religion educates children to hate nonbelievers, encourages grown-ups to engage in slaughter and conquest for God’s greater glory, and obliges the “true believer” to restlessly circle the globe subduing peoples and nations until “the whole world bows the knee.”

The bloody history of oppression and war undertaken on behalf of the gods and God, from time immemorial, makes all decent people shudder.

Ahh, we agree. There is no question that people have done enormous harm in the name of religious dogma (and in the name of other dogmas, as we will see…). Good to see that Berkowitz does not dispute this.

But Mr. Hitchens knows perfectly well that human beings are not born in Rousseauian purity and freedom, and then made savage by the imposition of the chains of religion. Therefore, he should have asked whether and to what extent the varieties of religion have inflamed or rather disciplined humanity’s powerful built-in propensity, attested to by social science, to fight and kill. But he didn’t.

A fair enough critique of the book. But even if we accept that religion simply causes the manifestation of a hypothetical latent “propensity” to murder and rape, does this absolve religion of guilt? Certainly not. The fact remains that religion was necessary, if not sufficient, for the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and any number of other horrors committed throughout the ages.

Mr. Hitchens mocks the crudity of the biblical principle known in Latin as lex talionis, or an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot.” But suppose, as Jewish teaching suggests, that the biblical principle put an end to the practice of taking a leg for a foot and a life for an eye, and in its place established a principle that, though differently interpreted today, remains a cornerstone of our notion of justice — that the punishment should fit the crime.

What Berkowitz is saying, in essence, is that “an eye for an eye” is better than the previous system of “a life for an eye”. But this is heinous cultural relativism. Yes, we still “let the punishment fit the crime”, and as Berkowitz correctly points out, we have modified this slightly since biblical days. But why have we done this? Because we (feeble human beings) have recognized that “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind” (ironic that I should use a line from Gandhi, considering his treatment at the hand of Hitchens in the same book!). If we had it god’s way, we’d all be blind, toothless, and limping. You see, if we accept Berkowitz’ premise here, we must absolve those who choose to accept god’s true version of morality. But if we accept that “an eye for an eye” (in the literal sense) is wrong, then it is always wrong, full stop.

The fact is, god’s prescription for punishment is immoral. That is Hitchens’ point; it doesn’t matter if “an eye for an eye” replaced an even worse system; an omnipotent, omniscient god should be able to do better.

Similarly, Mr. Hitchens heaps scorn on the biblical story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, in which, at the last moment, an angel stays Abraham’s hand. What kind of barbarian, wonders Mr. Hitchens, would prepare to sacrifice his son at God’s command, and what kind of morally stunted individuals would honor such a man, or the deity who made the demand? Yet Mr. Hitchens’s categorical claim that religion poisons everything is undermined by the common interpretation according to which God’s testing of Abraham taught, among other things, that the then widespread practice of child-sacrifice was contrary to God’s will, and must be put to an end forever.

Very clever, Mr. Berkowitz. Very clever. But notice what is going on here; Hitchens has made the argument that Abraham’s act, at god’s behest, is one example of the immorality of religious teachings. Berkowitz is prepared to simply wave away this issue by stating a “common interpretation” is that the Abraham incident was actually a good thing. But on what grounds can Berkowitz make this claim? Why does his claim have any more veracity than Hitchens’? If anything, Hitchens’ claim has more veracity because it is based on what the book actually says. I am, of course, free to interpret any book however I choose. But the problem with interpretations of religion is that they aren’t based on anything tangible. Did god stay Abraham’s hand to show that child-sacrifice was immoral, or was he truly asking Abraham to kill his son? How would we know?

At the same time, Mr. Hitchens has next to nothing to say about the historical role of religion, particularly Christianity, particularly in America, in nourishing the soil in which our widely and deeply shared beliefs in liberty, democracy and equality took root and grew strong

This is a common point made by theists (particularly American theists), but I have yet to read a convincing argument that suggests that Christianity has anything to do with the development of liberty, democracy, or equality. Someone please point me in the direction of a single line of scripture that claims that democracy is god’s will. Someone please show me a single line of scripture that says that all people are equal or should be free to do and say as they please. By contrast, I can point you to several places in the Bible that suggest that god has no interest in any of these concepts, but instead was a great fan of slavery, autocracy, and maintenance of the superiority of the Jewish people.

Mr. Hitchens anticipates that critics will point to those crimes against humanity, dwarfing religion’s sins, committed in the name of secular ideas in the 20th century. He attempts to deflect the challenge with sophistry: “It is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists.” But who is behaving defensively here? Mr. Hitchens is the one who unequivocally insists that religion poisons everything, and it is Mr. Hitchens who holds out the utopian hope that eradicating it will subdue humanity’s evil propensities and resolve its enduring questions.

And now we come to the big one; the last-ditch argument that will always come from theists when you’ve really got them on the ropes; the Stalin/Hitler/Mao/Pol Pot defense. Let me summarize this for you: Stalin (to pick one; Hitler was most certainly not an atheist, but a staunch Catholic to the end) was an atheist and supported state-sponsored atheism (none of this is in question, by the way). Stalin was also responsible for tens of millions of deaths (also not in dispute). Thus, atheism causes atrocities as well.

First off, it is, as Hitchens points out, laughable that the faithful would reduce their argument to what amounts to “well, you’re as bad as us”, as though that strengthened their case (they’re supposed to be divinely inspired, remember!). But more importantly, it misses one enormous thing: atheism had nothing to do with the atrocities of Stalin (or any of the others).

The next reason this line of thinking is wrong is that it commits the fallacy for which this site is named: post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Stalin was an atheist and a mass murderer, therefore his atheism caused him to murder. Stalin also had a moustache, as did Hitler. Perhaps that is the real culprit…

The bottom line is, correlation does not imply causality.

What causes virtually all atrocities to be committed is one thing, and one thing only: dogma; that is, the belief in the absolute, inerrant truth of a particular point of view. For most people, this dogma takes the form of religion. For others, it takes the form of communism, or national socialism, or what-have-you. But there is no question that only bad things can come from dogmatic adherence to a particular world view.

Atheism (and certainly the “new atheism” with which Berkowitz deals here), on the other hand, is absolutely non-dogmatic, and posits only one argument: there is insufficient evidence to suggest the existence of a supernatural entity called god. I know of no atheist (and certainly not Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens) who would not change their views in a heartbeat should sufficient evidence be proffered.

All we know, we know through evidence. How do we know that DNA is the genetic material? Because over 100 years of molecular biology lead us to this conclusion. One could postulate otherwise, but would then be forced to explain the mountain of data suggesting the importance of DNA to heredity. But if an alternative theory was proffered and sufficient evidence presented, I would change my belief in an instant.

This is the absolute definition of non-dogmatic thought. One must always be ready to alter or abandon one’s fundamental views in the presence of evidence. That is what the new atheists do, and what theists do not.

Interestingly, Berkowitz seems to see this connection:

Nor is his case bolstered by his observation that 20th-century totalitarianism took on many features of religion. That only brings home the need to distinguish, as Mr. Hitchens resolutely refuses to do, between authentic and corrupt, and just and unjust, religious teachings.

Yes, 20th century totalitarianism did take on the features of religion, because they were both based on dogmas.

But what is an “authentic” religious teaching? Perhaps what Berkowitz means is “palatable” religious teaching; ignore the teachings that are at odds with our modernity, accept those that serve us well? Now where did I read the line about “nothing added, nothing taken away”???

Noting surveys that showed that half of all scientists are religious, Gould commented amusingly that “Either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs — and equally compatible with atheism.”

Berkowitz is discussing Stephen Jay Gould, who was a brilliant scientist, but a shameless religious apologist. Darwinism is fully compatible with religious beliefs, if and only if one is prepared to do some seriously heavy mental gymnastics.

This notwithstanding, appeals to authority get us nowhere.

Gould was correct to think that both conventional religious belief and atheism are compatible with natural science, in part because “there are many questions that by their very nature must be recognized to lie beyond the legitimate scope of the scientific method.” Such questions — toward which the mind naturally wanders, though it is susceptible to ambush by the crude scientism of which Mr. Hitchens occasionally avails himself — include: Where did the universe come from, and is it governed by purpose?

Yes, there are questions that lie outside of science (although ‘where did the universe come from?’ isn’t one of them). But what good does it do us to say “god-did-it” and then move on? How does this advance the discussion?

And let us not forget that religion does not limit itself to these hypothetical “beyond-science” questions, as creationism testifies. Theists regularly impose their evidence-free beliefs on the natural world, which is solely the realm of the scientific method. Go ahead and speculate about the “purpose” of life; just stay the heck away from reality, thank you.

As for his claim that the Bible abounds in falsehood and contradiction, Mr. Hitchens makes great sport with an old straw man. Yes, traditions teach that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, yet the Pentateuch refers to Moses in the third person and tells the story of his death. Yes, Matthew and Luke disagree on the Virgin Birth and the genealogy of Jesus. And so on. The literalness of Mr. Hitchens’s readings would put many a fundamentalist to shame.

I fail to see how valid contradictions are “straw men”. Berkowitz continues:

However, isolating the supposed religious significance of the Bible from the communities and interpretive traditions that have elaborated its teaching is invalid. It is like deriving the meaning of the Constitution today by reading its provisions without reference to “The Federalist Papers,” which provides authoritative commentary on its principles; without reference to the two centuries of cases and controversies through which the Supreme Court has sought to construe its meaning; and without reference to the two centuries of experience through which the American people have sought to put the institutional framework it outlines into practice.

Berkowitz is claiming that the bible should be read as (to use a Canadian term) a living tree ; that is, it should be interpreted with later writings. I agree with this with respect to constitutions, but the bible is the word of an omnipotent, omniscient god. Moreover, it contains explicit instructions not to add or take away.

And it is not a straw man to say that millions of people currently believe that the bible should be interpreted 100% literally. Perhaps Berkowitz isn’t familiar with Fred Phelps? And before you say “but Fred Phelps is a nutjob fundamentalist”, let me ask you: how do we objectively determine whose faith is more “correct”? Perhaps Berkowitz contention that we should view the bible in light of later teachings is correct; perhaps not. How would we know? In science, we’ve figured this out: new theories are welcome, but they must explain why the old theory appeared correct. Religion has no such mechanism. There is no objective way to determine whose version of faith is right. Is god a moderate or a fundamentalist? Seriously.

Of all the Bible’s sublime and sustaining teachings, none is more so than the teaching that explains that humanity is set apart because all human beings — woman as well as man the Bible emphasizes — are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

…and Berkowitz shows his hand. The theist can never, ever, make an argument without resorting to biblical references. Mr. Berkowitz, what is the extra-biblical evidence that Genesis 1:27 is literally correct? Without such evidence, there is no reason to think any more of your own creation myth that we do of the myths of the Norsemen or of classical Greece.

That a teaching is sublime and sustaining does not make it true. But that, along with its service in laying the moral foundations in the Western world for the belief in the dignity of all men and women — a belief that our new new atheists take for granted and for which they provide no compelling alternative foundation — is reason enough to give the variety of religions a fair hearing. And it is reason enough to respect believers as decent human beings struggling to make sense of a mysterious world.

Finally, we come to the end.

It would seem that Berkowitz believes simply because it makes him feel good. Indeed a sublime and sustaining teaching doesn’t make it a true one. Why would I choose to languish in a lie, when I can set about an honest, open exploration for the truth?

There is no question that god is not the source of morality; for that, at the bare minimum, god would have to exist. In the absence of any evidence to this, we must provisionally conclude that god does not exist.

Berkowitz is right, though. We should respect believers. They, too, are on a quest to understand the literal nature of our existence. Of course, this does not imply that we must respect the belief.

To once again paraphrase from Richard Dawkins, simply because two opposing points of view are expressed with equal vigor, does not imply that the truth lies somewhere in between. It is possible for one to simply be wrong. There are many reasons to think that the universe operates according to natural, definable laws, which are made evident to us through the thoughtful application of the scientific method. It is also true that science cannot answer all questions; for that we have alternatives, such as moral philosophy and law.

But the tie that binds is the ability to speculate and explore this beautiful existence without assuming anything on insufficient evidence. The idea of god may make us feel good; this doesn’t make it true.

I remain,



4 Responses to Berkowitz ‘truth’

  1. Good response.

    I think you have far more patience than I do with Berkowitz – who seems to argue for a religion that almost nobody believes in. (Ironically, when he *does* go near the Bible, his interpretations would get him *thrown out* of most churches down here in the southeastern USA.)

  2. edge100 says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    Yes, this one did try my patience a little. I’ve been known to get a little bit snippy with these kinds of people, so I’m trying to analyze with a little less vitriol. Not always easy, but I’m trying.

    I agree, though; Berkowitz doesn’t seem to know which way is up. He contends that Biblical literalism is a straw-man, ignoring the vast ocean of evidence suggesting that there are people who really do believe this stuff.

    And yet, he quotes Genesis in his argument.

    I can’t figure him out, but I guess if you can hold one set of irrational beliefs, what’s one more?

  3. KenKahn says:

    Nice essay. One picky detail. You write:

    “How do we know that DNA is the genetic material? Because over 100 years of molecular biology lead us to this conclusion.”

    Do you mean “over 50 years”? Or was there lots of molecular biology prior to Watson & Crick?

  4. edge100 says:


    I would consider the discovery of DNA in 1869 to be the birth of molecular biology, although most would say it truly began with the Beadle/Tatum/Avery experiments in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Watson and Crick were certainly a turning point. We’ve known that DNA is the genetic material since 1943 (Avery), but the basis of that knowledge is far older.


    (Wikipedia is just so damn easy!)

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