Rebutting Atheist Universe: An Introduction

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I've decided to do a book review post series, and should you choose to follow along with me, the first book we'll be taking a look at is David Mills' Atheist Universe (Ulysses Press, 2006, 978-1-56975-567-9).

From the backcover: "Using simple, straighforward logic, this book rebuts every argument that claims to 'prove' God's existence."

Really? Every argument? I already smell an inflated claim and we haven't even peeked inside, but I suppose if we are to call ourselves rationalists, we'll have to suspend judgment until further evidence appears.

In the Forward by Dorion Sagan, we get a small taste of what Atheist Universe might be about. Sagan begins with some blanket statements about creationists – always fun to shoot fish in a barrel – then moves swiftly into personal views of the biblical God as a, "2,000-year-old petty Middle Eastern tyrant." Sagan concludes, assuring us that Mills' work represents, "impeccable logic, intellectual bravery and professional clarity," and these will be part of the criteria by which I judge the book.

In the Preface, Mills notes the success of Atheist Universe, stating that such was a complete surprise to him. He makes an interesting point I'd like to share: "Whether a book sells well or poorly is, of course, no necessary indication of its merits. Many superb books sell very few copies, especially when they are geared to academic or scholarly audiences; and some runaway bestsellers are often popular only because they capitalize on momentary media frenzy over a particularly lurid crime or a hot new celebrity scandal." Indeed. Same goes for blog popularity. Some of the worst arguments are found on the most popular blogs.

Mills also notes an observation from Bertrand Russell which we'll be sure to revisit later in the series: "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd; indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible."

In the Introduction, Mills focuses specifically on the relationship between science and religion, and one gets the impression this will be a recurring subject in his arguments.

In my opinion, the first factual error of the book comes possibly on p. 17, where Mills implies that a Christian-based ethical system does not promise rewards for real-world ethical treatment of others. Such is commanded in many religious scriptures, not just the Bible, and Mills ignores this fact in favor of repeating a tired canard I don't really hear that much anymore: "…a man could theoretically kill hundreds of innocent people, rob fifty banks, poison the drinking water of an entire region, or even start a world war. But if this man, during his last few seconds of life, sincerely repents of his sins and 'accepts Jesus into his heart,' he will be taken to Heaven and rewarded eternally. By contrast, a woman can sacrificially devote her entire life to charitable work and to generously helping disadvantaged children throughout the world. But if she neglects to recognize the existence of a supernatural Power, then she will be barbecued forever in the pits of Hell, according to Christian doctrine." (p. 17,18)

Mills then uses this logic to conclude, "Christianity, therefore, defines ethics primarily in terms of an individual's religious beliefs (which affect no one else) rather than in terms of unselfish conduct towards others." Friends, that conclusion is patently false. Let one person challenge the point and I'll gladly provide the evidence.

More bad signs come at the bottom of p. 19, where Mills begins a lightweight ad hominem spree on Bill Bennett, Rush Limbaugh and others – then turns around p. 20 and has the audacity to criticize his opponents for calling him names and not pointing out factual or logical errors – after nearly a whole page of Mills doing the exact same thing himself! Whether true or not, neither Limbaugh and O'Reilly's personal failings – nor Mills' personal judgments of them – have anything to do with the actual arguments Atheist Universe purports to address, and Mills didn't need to include them at all. That he did makes me wonder if he wasn't just looking for easy public cheap shots on standard fish in a standard barrel. I also wonder if we can call that "intellectual bravery."

However, Mills picks up some credit when he says, "…this book is intended for the 40 percent of Americans who, according to the New York Times poll, do recognize that there are good people (and bad people) in all religions – and with no religion." Okay, sounds good and favorable to all parties. Problem is, the very next sentence reads, "This book is written for open-minded readers who are not afraid to learn – in fact, who are eager and fascinated to learn – about the many conflicts and controversies between science and the Christian Bible."

Really? I'm both eager and fascinated, and I can't wait to discuss them.

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