Monday, July 20, 2015

Doubtful

Someone asked me to read Divinity Of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi, so I did.  Bugliosi, who died last month, was a bestselling author and perhaps best known as the prosecutor in the Charles Manson case.  Most of his books deal with legal or criminal issues, but this book is his take on religious belief.  In short, he looks at (or puts on trial) theism, agnosticism and atheism, finding the first and last wanting.

The book is almost unbelievably bad.  Even when I agree with him, he makes his arguments quite poorly and worse, spends very little time doing so--more than half this book is his mocking others for being so stupid or silly or hateful.  And much of the rest is personal anecdotes that barely relate to the issues at hand.

Bugliosi spends a few chapters discussing atheism, but the bulk of the book looks at belief from the Christian point of view. (He does clean up at the end, spending a few pages on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Mormonism, but it seems more an afterthought).  He goes into certain classic arguments--first cause, the argument from design, the problem of evil, etc.--though generally on a cursory level, making points that have been made before in far better ways.  But even that I could take if he stuck to his basic premise.

Instead, we get long sections mocking what believers think and do.  Whether or not they deserve to be mocked, what does that have to do with the basic truth or falsity of what they believe?  Take, for example, his chapter on the Catholic Church, the longest in the book.  Most of it is taken up with what he doesn't like about their practices--covering up pedophilia, opposing contraception, not fighting against Hitler strongly enough, etc.  Once again, you may agree with these points, but what have they got to do with whether or not there is creator to the universe, or even if Jesus is divine?

Even worse, if a much smaller part of the book, is Bugliosi's treatment of atheism.  He looks at bestsellers written by three leaders of the "new atheism" movement, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.  But when he wants to discuss Hitchens (who was still alive when this book was published), he spends an entire page discussing Hitchens' politics.  The discussion is foolish and demagogic, but even if it were wise, of what relevance could it be?  When he gets around to Dawkins, he notes the biologist leans heavily on Darwin to make his argument yet never mentions that Darwin himself was a professed agnostic.  For some reason, Bugliosi considers this damning, and spends over two pages on it.  Whatever difference does Darwin's (well known) views on religion make?  Darwin is not a god, he was a scientist whose work helped lead to the modern-day understanding of biology. Nothing he says--not even his claims about evolution--hold any special weight just because he said them, and his personal views on all sorts of private matters--religion, politics, race, etc., may be of interest for biographical reasons, but have no bearing on Dawkin's arguments.

On another chapter regarding Darwin and evolution, Bugliosi shows himself to be generally ignorant of the theory.  To give one small examples, he writes "the struggle for life caused organisms to mutate, to change, to adapt to their demanding environment, the changes making them more complex." In general, mutation happens, regardless of the environmental stress.  It's when they're helpful, often at a later date, that they come more into play.  And the changes that have occurred don't necessarily make animal more complex.  They simple make them better adapted to their environment.  He also claims that "evolution holds that early organisms were locked in a fierce struggle with other organisms for food, water, safety." Early organisms?  The ferocity may vary in different periods, but the struggle is ongoing.

He even asks the monkey question--if we did evolve from them, why are monkeys still around?  First, we both evolved from a common ancestor. Second, though Bugliosi elsewhere states if you've evolved from an ancestor then that ancestor must be extinct, in fact part of a population can separate and evolve (the process is fairly common) while the remnant sticks around.

He also makes some foolish statements about the fossil record which suggest he's been reading creationist literature and not actual biology textbooks.  And, personally, he just can't see how bacteria can evolve into people.  Well, perhaps it is anti-intuitive, but that's the point--evolution explains things that previously seemed difficult or impossible, and fits in with all the known evidence.  He also finds it hard to imagine that humans can evolve further.  Why?  If we evolved in the past, why not in the future? Perhaps we'll take over our own destiny as no other animal could, or perhaps we'll destroy ourselves, but the idea that evolution has reached an end is just another sign of his ignorance on the subject.

He also spends four pages of this chapter relating anecdotes about his cat for reasons I still can't divine.

The book is an embarrassment.  If I were his publisher, I would have rejected it just to protect Bugliosi's reputation.

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