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Vincent Bugliosi has an impressive record as a prosecutor, with 105 successes in 106 trials. This time, however, he will not be getting a conviction against either religion or atheism, the two defendants in Divinity of Doubt. Fortunately, the charge is not murder in the first degree, but rather … silliness.
Divinity of Doubt: The God Question is Bugliosi's response to letters he received concerning his views on agnosticism, as he expressed them in an epilogue to his book, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O. J. Simpson Got Away with Murder. Therein, the question, "where was God when O. J.'s 'not guilty' verdict was delivered," serves as a pretext for a loose discussion of the problem of evil. As Bugliosi points out, O. J.'s family, in the course of presenting their personal triumph as God's will, seem to imply that God doesn't mind helping cold-blooded killers (in Bugliosi's opinion) get off the hook, while doing nothing for the victims. If this is intended as a case for agnosticism, the argument would seem to be that since these people's view of God's will is thoughtless and absurd, they really cannot know there is a God. How exactly remains unclear, but Bugliosi seems to take this to imply that no one can know the truth about God's existence, a claim that requires a considerably more cogent proof, yet never receives it. (1) In Divinity of Doubt, Bugliosi proposes to expand on this basic argument, though the main expansion is to the quantity of ridicule heaped on believers' views.
True to his agnosticism, Bugliosi declines any claim to special insight into religious belief, though he feels he has something worth saying about it. (xii) Hi qualifications for writing the book are his abilities as a trial lawyer and common sense. (xi, xiv) He has, as he puts it, a natural ability to see what's in front of him completely uninfluenced by whatever hoopla is put on it by others. (xi) Further, perceiving the stupidity of religious belief will require little more than the application of common sense. (xiii-xiv) But Bugliosi's most frequently employed device is ridicule, as he breezily dismisses most of the claims of believers with a quick barbed comment. Effectively, in Bugliosi’s estimate, no question of the truth of religious matters deserves more attention than would be needed to latch onto the first appearance of silliness. His commentary borders on contempt for anyone who thinks that these questions might have some subtlety to be teased out and carefully examined. One is reminded of the complaints of arrogance and ignorance issued against the New Atheists' books: here is a book that actually deserves those charges.
This assessment, harsh as it might seem, is borne out in virtually every chapter. The best of the lot is the second chapter, where Bugliosi argues that, if posed as a court trial, the case for God would never get a hearing, since the main documentary evidence (the Bible) could not be authenticated, and would be no better than hearsay. Bugliosi launches into a discussion of the reliability of Biblical sources, and though way he makes some of his claims seems blunt and naïve, the endnotes continue the discussion on a more scholarly basis, and reveal that Bugliosi has taken some care in investigating this issue. By contrast, Bugliosi's attack on the Christian God in the very next chapter seems completely oblivious to the Christian responses to the problem of evil. (His claim is that the loving Christian God cannot exist in a world that has the amount of suffering that ours does. Probably true, but hardly a TKO to the believer.) Later, the central Christian belief that Jesus died for our sins is summarily dispatched by pointing out that Jesus didn't really die (since to die would be to cease to exist forever and Jesus rose after three days). No doubt, the Resurrection has been flatly denied before, but never on so trifling a ground. Following this, Bugliosi points out that sinning did not stop with Jesus' sacrifice, so obviously this great sacrifice was a complete waste. He continues on at some length in this vein. In later chapters, the Catholic Church and the beliefs of born-again Christians are satirized, death is presented as the ultimate instance of God's cruelty (with no hint of awareness of the theological significance of death in theology) and the ineffectiveness of prayer is lampooned. So as not to seem to pick exclusively on Christianity, Bugliosi includes a round up chapter on the silliness of other world religions, with further trite sniping.
While the main target of Bugliosi's scorn is Christianity, he spares a chapter or two for the New Atheists. His main complaint with the New Atheist books is that they fail to provide any convincing argument to justify atheism; this apparently being the only legitimate topic on which an atheist could possibly write. Using this assumption as a Procrustean bed on which to stretch them, Bugliosi dismisses the relevance of these books and ignores their actual subject matter, before proceeding to take some of the cheapest shots on record at their authors, Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. After ridiculing Hitchens' lack of common sense (apparently because Hitchens disagrees with him on the Iraq war and Clinton's infidelity), Bugliosi chides Hitchens for including the word God in the title of his book, since that presupposes the existence of God, which Hitchens denies. (42) That he himself has done the same in the subtitle of his book seems to have escaped his attention. Bugliosi accuses Dawkins of trying to conceal evidence of Darwin's religious belief. Dawkins, he supposes, would want to do this, since, as he sees it, Dawkins relies so heavily on Darwin that The God Delusion couldn't exist without him, and thus he would suffer great embarrassment were the truth about Darwin's beliefs known. (51-2) Why one should believe that Dawkins would rely on Darwin, and on which subject, evolution or religion, is never explained. Bugliosi takes Harris to be arguing that since he has debunked faith, he has destroyed religion and therefore has disproved God. Given the title of Harris' book, The End of Faith, it seems certain that Harris is attacking faith, but there is little justification to attribute the rest of the argument to him. In fact, Harris' book highlights the problem of exalting unjustified belief and the harms that follow from it. It is hard to escape the feeling that Bugliosi has found only what his ill-justified assumptions led him to expect in these books.
On his way to criticizing creationism, Bugliosi takes a detour through evolution, which seems a natural enough turn, given that evolution is the obvious counter to creationism. But here he takes the opportunity to air his own perplexity: after complaining that those who write on evolution have never been able to make him understand it very well, he trots out the old creationist canard that 'if we are descended from monkeys [sic], how come monkeys still exist?' (64) Bugliosi prefaces this remark with a disclaimer that he 'might not be correct in saying this,' but this humility would be more reassuring if he did not continue to say things that five minutes on the internet would reveal to be simple ignorance of evolution. He goes on to issue arguments from incredulity ("I can't imagine how bacteria could evolve into Mozart, so …"), and fusses over transitional fossils as if disagreement between (unidentified) sources actually makes something dubious. (66) Finally, he speculates that human memory must be a problem for evolution, since, given its "unbelievable degree of perfection" (70), what environment could bring about this adaptation? Oddly for one who finds creationism laughable, most of his information seems to come straight out of the creationist's textbook.
Sadly, there is more, much more, of this caliber, but it is hardly worth the time to recount. Throughout, Bugliosi comes off like one of those featherweight apologists who are so convinced by their own simplistic reckoning that they can't even imagine the opposing positions. He writes, he says, when he has something to say that isn't being said. (xii) Had he done a bit more research, he would have discovered that there has been a fair bit of fun had at religion's expense, and most of it far more eloquently expressed.
© 2011 George Williamson
George Williamson, University of Saskatchewan