April 23, 2009
So, the first chapter in David Mills' Atheist Universe is titled, "Interview With An Atheist."
As I was reading, I quickly realized I was making lots of red marks in the margins and body copy. Of those marks, I include the strongest and most relevant arguments, and discard weaker, less persuasive ones. Even so, I could see as early as page 31 that my critique of Chapter 1 was going to take multiple posts. The chapter itself is over 40 pages long, and as a general custom, I'm won't critique more than ten points in any one post in this series. Ten is probably too many already.
I suspect much of this chapter's purpose was to rebut common misconceptions people have about atheists. This is a noble cause. I sympathize with any misunderstood minority party, because there's perhaps nothing more frustrating in life than having people insult you based on what they think you believe, which is often wrong. All in all, Mills does a good job setting some things straight, but unfortunately, he also affirms just as many common misconceptions about Christians. Nonetheless, considering that religious tension and distrust of atheists was still considerably high in this country when Atheist Universe was published (2004), I'd say the chapter was appropriate. Nobody deserves to be on the receiving end of ignorance, especially in a religio-political climate of hostility such as the first few years after 9/11.
Still, that doesn't mean "Interview With An Atheist" was without problems, and in my opinion, the first one worth mentioning comes on page 28.
1) Mills makes his first hasty generalization about Christians, suggesting that,
Christians instantly disregard the Greek gods as being figments of an overactive imagination… (p. 28)
Who is Mills speaking for in this sentence? I know writers who reasonably qualify as Christian by most definitions of the word who have also written books explaining in great detail their belief in the converse opinion – that the Pantheon represented something that existed – and exists – in actuality. We cannot simply say all Christians believe such, when in fact there is diversity of opinion.
2) The second red flag went up where Mills says,
So while, on esoteric philosophical grounds, I hesitate to claim absolute proof of a god's nonexistence, I will claim proof that the Bible is not 'The Word of God' because much of it has been shown by science to be false. (p.28, 29)
This is a rhetorical statement, not to mention loaded. What presupposition does Mills bring to scripture in order to support his claim that science shows it false? We'll find out when he gets into the arguments later, I suppose. Further, how much is the generic 'much' as used in Mills' sentence? Even if I granted Mills' argument that science has proven certain tenets of the Bible false – which I do not – still, that would only be a handful of the claims the Bible actually makes. Is it fair in a public interview to conflate a handful of claims with "much of [the Bible]" sans further explanation?
3) Mills' next paragraph opens with the argument that there is no more "reason to believe" in Zeus than the God of the Bible, yet exactly what constitutes "reason to believe" in either of them is never even discussed. Instead, we're offered another rhetorical argument. He tries to support this by reminding us that the burden of proof falls on the person making a positive claim, but this has nothing to do with whether we should believe in Zeus or the God of the Bible, or what constitutes reason to believe in either of them. Mills then gives us the oft-repeated strawman,
…if you demand belief in all Beings for which there is no absolute disproof – then you are forced by your own twisted 'logic' to believe in mile-long pink elephants on Pluto, since, at present, we haven't explored Pluto and shown them to be nonexistent. (p. 29)
First, this fallacious reasoning is the source of ULFSM arguments, and only applies to the person making the most absurd and ill-thought-out of epistemological claims. No person I know demands that we believe in "all Beings for which there is no absolute disproof." Mills sets up a position that is caricaturized into uselessness, then knocks it down. Big deal! The question of which God is sufficient to believe in cannot logically proceed without discussion of what constitutes sufficiency of reason to believe in any of them, something Mills neglected to do entirely.
Worse, Mills obviously did not think that analogy through very well. We can completely justify our disbelief in the preposterous example he offers with current scientific knowledge. We don't need to have explored Pluto to know it is not the type of planet that can support any elephants, let alone mile-long pink ones. Central to the development of carbon-based life are the good old-fashioned planet and host star, and not just any planet or host star, either. Both have certain requirements, and water appears to be primary among the planet's. The planet has to be large enough to support an atmosphere and small enough to maintain correct gravity. To support the development of carbon-based life, the host planet must be about .8 – 1.25 the size of Earth's mass or temperature variations would presumably halt the development of life within about 2 billion years. The planet must also have some mechanism for the preservation of carbon-dioxide, or else chain reactions resulting from the presence of water would deplete carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere. On Earth this occurs via plate tectonics and volcanic activity. Does Pluto meet any of those criteria?
4) Mills' next hasty generalization comes directly after the above problematic paragraph, where, in response to the interviewer asking why so many people believe in God, Mills replies,
Because, again, they were taught to believe as small children and because almost everybody they know believes in God also. (p. 29)
Who is this hypothetical they Mills already seems so fond of referring to? Does Mills imagine that his comments apply to all theists?
5) Next, he says,
We should recognize that all children are born as atheists. (p. 29)
I disagree with that, because I define an atheist as someone who's reached at least a tentative conclusion about the matter. Newborn infants haven't even considered the question, so calling them atheists seems a bit unfair.
6) At the top of page 30, Mills states an incomplete, strawmanned version of the First Cause argument, identical to the manner in which Bertrand Russell frames the argument in his famous skeptical treatise, Why I Am Not A Christian. The real First Cause argument is that everything which begins must have a cause, but even with this distinction clearly made, the argument fails to persuade. Incidentally, Mills is correct to point out that even if we accepted it, the First Cause argument doesn't prove which God created the universe. Further, I don't believe there's a discussion about the creation of the universe that doesn't suggest an infinite regress. Either way, it appears we must say that something or some process always existed, right? We have no point of reference for something that can exist eternally and uncaused. I'm not claiming the First Cause argument is successful, only that Mills fails to frame the argument accurately.
7) Mills' next hasty generalization comes here where he says,
Christians are masters of selective observation – or counting the hits and ignoring the misses. (p. 31)
Again, which Christians? All of them? Does Mills' statement apply equally to all denominations of Christians? Did he intend to refer primarily to Fundamentalists? Certainly, anyone with even a half-brain would be a fool to deny that some number of Christians acts this way, but Mills wasn't very clear here, and clarity was supposed to be one of the book's strong points. My experiences have shown that atheists, skeptics and anyone else is vulnerable to the error, and selective observation is by no means a Christian or even religious phenomenon. At best, statements like Mills' here serve to persuade via propaganda and rhetoric, not reason.
8) In the next paragraph, we get another hasty generalization, this time regarding what Mills apparently believes is the "Christian" position on evolution.
The reason why Christians view evolution as such an absurdity is that their only exposure to evolutionary theory has been through absurd caricatures and harebrained misrepresentations offered by pulpit-pounding evangelists. (p. 31)
I know that Mills knows better, because he addresses theistic evolutionists elsewhere. What I don't know is, if Mills knows better – why present skewed information in public interviews?
There's a related criticism of this point that I feel is worth mentioning here. Yes, part of what Mills says is true. Many Christians do have an absurd understanding of evolution, because many Christians limit their intake of knowledge on evolution to religious criticism of the matter, which tends to get a little out of control and irreverent of science, to say the least. However, many atheists and skeptics commit the same logical error in the inverse context. Many atheists' only exposure to religion has come through absurd caricatures and hare-brained misrepresentations, not to mention the most extreme examples of religious insanity they can find. Many atheists criticize religion on account of people who starve babies and spew anti-homosexual hatred, but they commit the same error as those who say evolution led to the Holocaust. When that is the case, no wonder religion is misunderstood! But to be clear, I'm not disagreeing that many or most Christians aren't exposed to absurd caricatures and harebrained misrepresentations of evolution. Again, I'm disagreeing with Mills' lack of clarity and hasty generalization.
9) On a positive note, I heartily agreed with Mills' response to whether or not there was meaning in life:
The only realistic answer to meaning-of-life questions is that 500 different people will have 500 different meanings to their lives… The error in searching for one meaning of life is to assume that every human being holds identical values. (p. 32)
It's comments like these that reassure me Mills might really be level-headed and objective at heart, yet it's difficult to tell against a backdrop of hasty generalization and ill-thought-out arguments this early on in the book.
10) To finish up 1.1, Mills drops an epistemological nightmare that is highly reminiscent of the what we've been arguing about at DD's and in the MiracleQuest posts for months:
The fact is that, whether we like it or not, our earthly life is the only life we're ever going to experience. (p. 34)
Excuse me, but for those who dislike preaching, that's quite a preachy statement. On what evidence might that statement rest? Truthfully, for all we know, we might have already lived and experienced several lives, and we might live and experience several more. To simply state the above as 'fact' severely undermines Mills' credibility as an objective thinker in my opinion.
And, that pretty much wraps up my first ten points of comment and criticism on Atheist Universe, Chapter 1. We'll return to Chapter 1 next week, but so far we've got 4 hasty generalizations, 2 rhetorically bolstered arguments, 1 epistemological nightmare, 2 strawman arguments, and 1 well-spoken observation.
Although not off to the best start, I'll give Mills the benefit of the doubt until at least the third chapter.