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December 2009

The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions

By David Berlinski

Publisher: Crown Forum

Pages: 225

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Terry Scambray

David Berlinski is a skeptical man. He doesn’t believe in various scientific dogmas. Equally skeptical of religion, he writes, “I am a secular Jew. My religious education did not take.” Even his spare, unadorned style reflects his reluctance to use his penetrating wit and his assorted literary gifts to go beyond the plain and the provable. Yet Berlinski also realizes that skepticism is selective. As he puts it, “What a man rejects as distasteful must always be measured against what he is prepared eagerly to swallow.”

His targets in The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, whom he calls “the new atheists,” certainly do swallow a lot of strange “scientific” concoctions in order to eliminate God. One such concoction is the ancient concept of an eternal cosmos, now updated as “the mega-verse.” What this concept offers is the time and space necessary for accidental forces alone to have made the world.

But is this tempting intellectual morsel palatable?

If everything that could happen has happened, along with all the variations on the variations, then we are talking about something incoherent and unreal — Twilight Zone stuff.

Additionally, in order for this scheme to get cooking, there has to be “an assumed set of laws.” So everything is possible when one is committed to this gargantuan, incomprehensible “mega-verse,” except when one wishes to explain the existence of the necessary constants, like forces and chemicals.

Invoking Ockham’s Razor, Berlinski wonders, “Is it better to have many worlds than to have one God” to solve the problem of creation?

A more comprehensible way to approach cosmology is to begin with a claim that is supported by the preponderance of evidence — the Big Bang, two words which suggest “the most ancient of human intuitions, and that is the connection between sexual and cosmic energies.” Not incidentally, the Big Bang also “suggests an old idea in thought: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Though Darwinism is a fossil of 19th-century progressive thought, it is eagerly embraced by the neo-atheists. Darwin’s mechanism of pro­gress, “natural selection,” has never been shown to create anything close to the improvements necessary to get life going and keep it going: such improvements as wings in birds or brains in humans.

Realizing this, neo-atheist Richard Dawkins argues that such improvements must, therefore, have been the work of covert, microscopic “selfish genes.”

But, like the mega-verse hypothesis, such explanatory gimmicks cannot be disproved; they can only be parodied. As Berlinski remarks, “The thesis that we are all nothing more than vehicles for a number of ‘selfish genes’ has accordingly entered deeply into the simian gabble of academic life, where together with materialism and moral relativism it now seems as self-evident as the law of affirmative action.”

Berlinski admires the great edifice of science, and it is clear that he has it in for those who promote such cloudy concepts that resemble Rorschach more than they do Einstein and Edison. Berlinski has entered this fray because he wants to defend those who have “an angry sense of being oppressed” by smart alecks like Dawkins who routinely announce that science has obliterated religion.

Berlinski’s defense of religion is engagingly straightforward: “While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought… A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos… I do not know whether this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false.”

For Berlinski, there are four scientific theories: Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. None of these mentions anything about God. As Berlinski wryly insists, “I have checked this carefully.”

As with other achievements in science, however, these four monumental theories have served to make “the world more mysterious than it ever was.” Other unanswered questions also remain: How did the universe begin? What is time? Science “can say nothing of interest about the human soul… Where is the form of the good found?”

Berlinski concludes with an evocative parody of the present condition of science. He describes a confused Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, famed as Galileo’s opponent, directing the construction of a great cathedral. Berlinski, however, reverses the situation and has the brilliant and ruthless cardinal supervising the construction of a church to science that is now our church. The basilica’s spire, however, remains incomplete. “And in the clear moonlight, the cathedral looks unbalanced, almost as if it were a cripple defiantly waving a stump against the sky.” At this uncertain juncture, the cardinal is asked if the cathedral supports the faith placed in it.

“Does any cathedral?” Berlinski responds in the last line of the book.

What Happened to Notre Dame?

By Charles E. Rice

Publisher: St. Augustine's Press

Pages: 192

Price: $15

Review Author: Michael V. McIntire

It has been said that Church history is a cycle from fidelity to rebellion to repentance and return to fidelity. Charles Rice’s well-researched book is about the rebellion phase. Its setting is the University of Notre Dame, but Notre Dame is really a case study, representative of the growth of permissiveness and the erosion of authority within the Catholic Church in the U.S. In 1971 Rice, a young professor of law at Notre Dame, wrote a book titled Authority and Rebellion, in which he sounded the alarm against the then-nascent trend of “progressive” Catholics, lay and clerical, disregarding the teaching authority of the Church. His latest book is a follow-up report, and the news isn’t good. What Rice reluctantly relates is not only that the rebellion is in full bloom at Notre Dame, but that the storied university was and remains a leader in the revolution.

Both of Rice’s books focus on the Magisterium of the Church. Rice’s patient, readable explanation of the meaning of the Magisterium as the Church’s divine commission to be the authentic interpreter of God’s unchanging moral law is one of the many strengths of What Happened to Notre Dame? Rice further explains why the Magisterium is necessary to protect freedom of conscience and defend truth against the dictatorship of relativism. Clearly, a university cannot reject the teaching authority of the Church and still be “Catholic.”

The book begins with a detailed report of Notre Dame’s awarding an honorary doctorate to U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year; it was this event that finally provoked previously somnolent Catholics, including not a few bishops, to ask the question with which Rice opens his book: “What the hell happened?”

The answer begins with an analysis of the notorious “Land O’Lakes Statement” of 1967, the authorship of which has been credited to Notre Dame’s then-president, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. With this document, Notre Dame and the American Jesuit universities (and later almost all U.S. Catholic colleges and universities) declared themselves to be a new kind of Catholic university — independent of and autonomous from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

Rice documents how, from 1967 until now, Notre Dame has defiantly demonstrated that independence. He points out that the Land O’Lakes Statement established Notre Dame as its own “alternative magis­terium,” in effect making itself its own “pope” by arrogating to itself the authority to independently decide what is and is not Catholic teaching. He laments that, institutionally, Notre Dame proclaims by word and deed that the teachings of the Church are optional, that each person may morally decide for himself what is and is not moral truth. Rice neglects to mention, however, that the Land O’Lakes Statement explicitly discourages the “modern Catholic university” from teaching that the Catholic Church is the true Church, derogating that belief as “theological imperialism.” In his well written Introduction, Dr. Alfred Freddoso of the Notre Dame faculty provides an insider’s look at the current attitude of “the vast majority of faculty members” that, in the Obama affair, “the university administrators had stood up courageously against their oppressors in the Church.” One purpose of this book, he says, “is to show that the movement toward secularization at Notre Dame is much further along than most people would have believed before March 20, 2009,” when the university first announced its decision to honor President Obama.

Land O’Lakes did not occur in a vacuum. Rice informs us that Notre Dame’s deterioration from a university which once was envied for the effectiveness of its academic and moral discipline to one which apologizes for its faith in order to curry favor with its secular peers began long before 1967. Indeed, the book’s most telling passages are the two separate sections that tell the how and the why of this deterioration.

The first of these, a subchapter called “A Prelude to Land O’Lakes,” is comprised entirely of quotes from Prof. Donald Critchlow’s authoritative 1999 book on population control, Intended Consequences. According to Critchlow, in the early 1960s Notre Dame’s administration, including its president, were among the “progressive Catholics” seeking to conform Church teaching against contraception to the popular mores of the times. In 1960 Notre Dame collaborated with Planned Parenthood and the Rocke­feller Foundation to host three conferences, shrouded in secrecy and to which only “liberal Catholic academics” were invited, expressly “to formulate an acceptable liberal position for the church” in an effort to pressure the pope into liberalizing Church teaching on the immorality of contraception. For this apostasy, both Notre Dame and its president were well rewarded — Notre Dame with money and its president with prestige.

Such little-known information takes on added significance when considered in the context of Rice’s excellent discussion of Humanae Vitae. Here, Rice reveals how the evils of contraception and the “contraception mentality” contribute to the destruction of marriage and lead to acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality. He demonstrates that contraception, not abortion, is “the sacrament of initiation into the Culture of Death.”

What, then, does this say of the Catholic university whose administration, dissenting from Catholic teaching, partnered with the prime movers of the Culture of Death to pressure the Church to approve a practice that initiates entry into the Culture of Death, and when that effort failed, declared its independence from Church authority and set itself up as its own magisterium?

Rice does not answer this question directly, but the evidence he presents does. The inescapable answer is that Notre Dame is a schismatic institution in rebellion against the Church, a rebellion no different in kind from that of Martin Luther or Henry VIII, except that, by falsely claiming to be Catholic and thereby continuing to lead unsuspecting Catholics into error, Notre Dame gravely compounds its already grave sin. The local bishop could and should prevent this continuing scandal by exercising his canonical authority to deprive Notre Dame of its right to call itself a Catholic university. But such an act would require supernatural courage, for Notre Dame has powerful friends, and to “speak truth to power” in this case would almost certainly result in the good bishop’s martyrdom.

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