Last week, we stopped in the middle of page 34, and Atheist Universe had already racked up 4 hasty generalizations, 2 rhetorically bolstered arguments, 1 epistemological nightmare and 2 strawman arguments. In the positive, the chapter also aspires to a worthy cause, and contained 1 well-spoken observation that everyone can agree on. Let's return to see how the next ten points go…
1) Unfortunately, just a few paragraphs from where we left off, Mills throws another hasty generalization onto the pile:
No wonder [Jesus'] followers are so intolerant. (p. 34-35)
Red flag. This is tantamount to an intolerant believer saying, "No wonder atheists are angry and immoral."
2) Ironically, mere paragraphs after making the hasty generalization that Christians were masters of selective observation in 1.1, Mills says:
[Jesus] squandered His alleged supernatural powers on frivolous nonsense. Instead of bringing mankind a cure for heart disease and cancer, He used His magic to curse a fig tree. Instead of ending birth defects and infant mortality, He filled pigs with demons. Instead of ending world hunger and illiteracy, He conjured up a jug of wine. What an incredible waste of omnipotence. (p. 35)
Well tu quoque! So, if Christians are masters of selective observation when it comes to science, Mills shows rather exemplary mastery of selective observation concerning Jesus' miracles here. He conveniently ignores every instance where Jesus eliminated human suffering, fed the hungry, raised the dead or cured the leprous and blind. Yes, certain believers of all faiths sometimes cherry-pick from science to bolster their arguments, and it's certainly fair game to discuss this. However, Mills strategy of cherry-picking from the New Testament miracles to build his case is equally unimpressive, especially in the same chapter where he faults others for doing the same thing.
3) I had a good laugh when Mills asked the following, and not so much because it's fallacious or anything like that, more because I felt the question was naïve and overlooks human nature:
Why is there no historical record of Herod's alleged Slaughter of the Innocents? (p. 36)
Gee, why didn't Mao, Stalin or King Bush want any of their subjects to know about any of their respective atrocities? What tyrant in his right mind seeks to record his misdeeds accurately in history? The brighter despots at least pay someone intelligent and gifted with words to frame them as heroes. Sometimes the proof-fetish can obscure an obviously reasonable explanation, and public relations is a non-religious explanation that answers Mills' question perfectly. It is entirely reasonable that Herod would have suppressed this information, and threatened the would-be writers of any exposé with a similar fate. Contrary, the gospel writers would have been safe from such a threat, as Herod was disposed decades before they allegedly wrote.
4) On page 38, Mills states that there are "hundreds" of possible explanations for the stone being rolled away, yet not one is offered. I personally do not believe "hundreds" of reasonable alternative explanations exist, and I consider this to be an inflated claim.
5) When asked about the question of extraterrestrial life, Mills said:
I don't believe that our planet has ever been visited by alien spacecraft. The flying saucer stories are total nonsense because a spacecraft traversing vast interstellar distances could not be physically designed in the shape of a small, flat saucer. (p. 39)
With no further explanation, Mills offers what amounts to little more than an argument from ignorance. Just because humans in their current state of knowledge can't plausibly conceive of such a craft doesn't render such a craft "total nonsense." Mills essentially makes a UFO of the Gaps argument! (Quixote: Any luck yet?)
6) On that same page, Mills attempts to draw a line of distinction between supernatural beings and highly advanced aliens that I think is mostly semantic and a bit biased. He states that highly advanced extraterrestrial beings "better use the laws of physics," while supernatural gods "violate the laws of physics." What knowledge might Mills rest on to draw this distinction? How might we reasonably quantify the difference between "better use" of physics and "violation" of physics? Is it not reasonable that any act of a supernatural god also makes "better use" of physics? Is it even possible to violate the "laws of physics?"
As it is, I see no reason to assume that any God, Creator or supernatural gods wouldn't simply "better use the laws of physics," and I don't understand why Mills would frame their actions as implausible while carbon-based extraterrestrials get a free pass. I can only call it as I see it, and without further explanation, to me it looks like special pleading. We'll come back to this point in the discussion on Chapter 2.
7) I tend to agree with Mills' views on Madalyn Murray O'Hair. To me, the law she challenged was Pharisaical. I also applaud Mills for deconstructing one of the most popular myths surrounding O'Hair, which is that she was responsible for prayer being banned from public schools. As far as I know, prayer has never been banned from public schools. Rather, in Murray v. Curlett she persuaded the Supreme Court to remove mandatory, denominational prayer. Indeed to me, the very idea of forced prayer is a paradox. How can one truly feel and believe what one is being forced to do?
8) I don't know how many readers belong to any sort of minority group, but of those who do, I'm willing to bet none of us likes to be marginalized. That's why I was surprised to hear yet another hasty generalization on Mills' behalf, when asked if he was going to force atheism on his daughter:
Of course not. But if I were inclined to force atheism on her, here's what I would do: I would absolutely insist that she attend church several times a week, whether she wanted to or not. I would force her to read the Bible for two hours a day; and I would demand that she pray every night for at least another hour. I would remind her often that she might burn in Hell for disobeying Jesus. And I would absolutely forbid her to date or wear cosmetics until she is 21 years old. By using all these techniques of Christian parenting, I would certainly lead her to look favorably upon atheism. (p. 42-43)
Don't get me wrong. There are Christian parents who govern their children with such strict religiosity. There are also Jewish, Hindu and Muslim parents who do the same, so why the selective focus on strict Christian religiosity? Because most Americans identify as Christian? I can understand that Mills' main point was to illustrate how religious indoctrination can often backfire, and that's a point on which we can all agree. Still, the reader not pre-committed to Mills' point of view easily tires of his sweeping generalizations, especially when the jacket of the book assures us Mills proceeds with "simple, straightforward logic."
9) A few paragraphs later, in response to the interviewer asking about love, Mills says:
…my love for my family "exists" only so long as I remain alive and have a cognitive function. Saying that love exists independently from our brains is like saying that digestion exists independently from our stomachs. (p. 43)
I'm especially curious to see how other people who consider themselves rationalists react to this statement. I understand this is what most atheists believe, but I say that Mills offers an unknowable, unfalsifiable claim as an argument here. It's essentially a case of circular reasoning that begins with a premise the debate is attempting to resolve in the first place – that consciousness is forever terminated upon physical death. How would we know? How can Mills or myself or anyone else know if love and consciousness persist after death? Can we die and come back to report the results of the test? Mills' claim here suffers from the same set of epistemological difficulties as any of the believer's claims atheists normally vehemently deny. Am I the only one who finds that interesting?
10) Although I agree with Mills' that the question of whether or not atheism is a religion hinges largely on semantics, and I applaud his noticeable use of the proper quantifier most before an argument he makes against Christians on page 45, Mills definitely drops the ball when he argumes for an inverse relationship between a nation's religious devotion and it's moral conduct:
If we're talking about the Christian religion, the United States is indisputably the most religiously devoted nation on Earth. The United States also suffers one of the world's highest crime rates. By contrast, in the more secular nations of Europe – where fewer than 10 percent of the people attend church on a regular basis – the crime rate is a minuscule fraction of the U.S. total. Per capita contributions to charity are likewise much higher in secular European nations than in "Christian" America. So there seems to be an inverse correlation between a nation's religious devotion and its moral conduct. (p. 47)
When I complain about people making rhetorically bolstered arguments, this is a perfect example of what I mean. This argument is deceptive and vague. What does Mills consider crime? When it comes to heroin use, for example, the United States and the UK are fairly equal. Is the crime part of his argument also meant to reflect per capita ratios, like the contributions to charity part? Is one sample sufficient to suggest an "inverse correlation?" Are there other identifiers of moral conduct we might choose to evaluate that Mills might have overlooked? Did Mills make any attempts to identify or eliminate confounders? Why no mention of India or any of the Muslim countries?
Honestly, if this is what the publishers consider "simple, straightforward logic," then I'll pass. I'm always a bit skeptical of vague arguments based on statistics. Very often when we look into them, we'll find that drawing definite conclusions is not as permissible as it might seem. To contrast, arguments that truly rely on sound reasoning are easily demonstrable to anyone with an eye to see – regardless of what anybody claims is fact. How silly does it sound to speak of proving the sun's existence?
That'll have to do it for this week's critique of Atheist Universe, and Chapter 1 is quite the chapter! 40-something pages and still not done.
Between pages 34 and 47, Mills actually managed to get me to nod in agreement a few times, most notably for his comments on Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the semantics of whether or not atheism is a religion, and the legitimate errors of religion throughout the centuries: The Witch Hunts, the Galileo incident, etc. These are very real and compelling arguments against placing our trust in organized and dogmatized knowledge. Unfortunately, the errors of the religious often speak louder than the Bible.
Still, I'm tiring of Mills' habitual generalizations, and here we find two more instances to throw on the pile; a cherry-picked argument against Jesus' use of power; an inflated claim as to reasonable explanations for the empty tomb; an argument from ignorance regarding alien spacecraft; a just-so statement about human consciousness; and an rhetorically bolstered argument about national devotion and moral conduct. Not to mention pleading specially for extraterrestrials and their better use of the laws of physics.
Next week we'll cover the remaining pages of Chapter 1, then finally move on to Chapter 2 where Mills discusses "creationists" and the Big Bang, among other things. I hope Mills' formally written arguments are tighter than his public interviews!