A Review of David Mills' Atheist Universe

A review of David Mills, Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism (Berkeley, CA.: Ulysses Press, 2006).

As an atheist author myself, I'm always curious to read other books written by fellow atheists.

I noticed that Mr. Mills advertises his book on the Secular Web, which, I understand, gets nearly thirty thousand hits every month, and that his book was the top selling atheist book on amazon.com at one time. This is impressive.

However, the number of books sold doesn't always tell us whether a book is a good one, and Mr. Mills acknowledges this (p. 14). The sales of a book may be due to the publisher's (or author's) marketing campaign strategy. One marketing strategy can be found on the back cover of Mr. Mills' book. Clearly some exaggeration is going on there of what this book actually accomplishes. There it's claimed his book "rebuts every argument that claims to `prove' God's existence," and as "a comprehensive primer" to answering religious dogmatists, it "addresses all the historical and scientific questions." This is all fluff and hype, at best. Only the ignorant would walk away from reading this one book by concluding every argument for God's existence was addressed and rebutted. Such misleading language is unbecoming of an author of a book that claims to be a "Thinking Person's Answer to Christian Fundamentalism," or anything else for that matter.

But since Richard Dawkins calls it "an admirable work", and since the late Carl Sagan's son, Dorion, wrote a "Foreword" to it, I thought it probably must be a good book. So I went ahead and bought it.

As I considered buying it I couldn't find any detailed reviews of it from people I knew were knowledgeable. So after reading it I thought I would do people that service, here.

Mr. Mills writes very well in a conversationalist tone, as if the reader were sitting down over a cup of coffee talking with him, for the most part. He also seems to be somewhat well read.

His book is intended for "open-minded readers who are not afraid to learn about the many conflicts and controversies between science and the Christian Bible." It's not intended to convert the "religious right-wingers," who think they belong to the one "true" religion. "Their ears and eyes and minds are closed forever. No amount of science or logic will make any difference to them." Since they know God exists, "anyone who disagrees with them is evil" (p. 21).

I don't like caricaturing people like he does here. Who is an "open minded person," for instance? Maybe there is some sense in which people are open-minded, but he never articulated what that sense is, except to say they are "eager to learn." Are these uncommitted people? Liberal Christians? Those who reject the inerrancy of the Bible? Agnostics? I just don't know. Moreover, which minds "are closed forever?" My mind was a closed mind for over two decades. Now I am an atheist. I suspect no one's mind is "closed forever" as he suggests. Besides, how does he think "open-minded" people got that way in the first place? Like me, some of them were former religious right-wingers. Since there are many people who leave the Christian faith, including himself (pp. 57-58), the question is when it can be said of a Christian that his or her mind is "closed forever?" We never can know.

I write to the Christian. That's who I aim my arguments toward. I figure if I can write to those who are supposedly "closed minded" in ways they can understand and appreciate, then others who are "open-minded" (however understood) will see more force to my arguments, and be better prepared to deal with the arguments of evangelical Christians. There are a lot of books that do nothing but "preach to the choir," on both sides of the fence. Someone has got to try to cross the great divide and try to speak so that those on the other side can see what the atheist universe looks like. But that's not a task Mills is attempting, and that’s okay.

Mills is going to write about “the tough issues.” In so doing, he admits there is nothing in his book that the reader does not already have easy access to in any local library. It’s just that he will bring those scattered bits of information and put it all together to show that “we live in an atheist universe” (p. 21-22). This is another way of saying there is nothing original in his book, which is something that can probably be said of most books. Originality for most books has to do with how the author organizes his material, and how well he expresses himself. Originality also has to do with how well the author researches into a topic. If, for instance, an author summarizes ontological arguments for the existence of God since the time of Anselm, he has produced an original work if he does this more extensively and in a greater depth than others, even if that's all he does.

Mills claims the chapters in his book are "independent and self-contained" ones. That is, there is no real flow to the book. They could just as well be separate essays in a periodical about "Atheist Topics."

Right he is about this. The first chapter is a "fun filled give-and-take" interview, in layman's terms, which claims to cover "almost every aspect of atheism," (p. 22), which it doesn't do. While I very much liked his short answers to some of the interview questions aimed at an atheist, this chapter reflects what we see in the book as a whole. In this chapter we see him dealing with mostly unrelated questions about atheism. Here we see Mills briefly and astutely answering questions about everything from his definition of atheism, to why an atheist would quote the Bible, to why people believe in God, to why believers have the burden of proof, to why he doesn't believe in God, to whether Jesus existed, to whether Jesus arose from the dead, to the existence UFO's, to the Supreme Court ruling on prayer, to whether he is afraid to die, to whether religion encourages moral conduct, to his getting arrested once for protesting a faith healer's "Miracle Crusade," to whether he celebrates Christmas, and what he'd say on Judgment Day if he is wrong, plus many more, all in the space of 39 pages.

As I said, I liked his answers. He has a way of succinctly and memorably coming up with sentences that resonate with the reader. And since he's writing to those who are "open-minded," I cannot overly fault him for the lack of in-depth answers here. It’s only when an author actually tries to write to the “close minded” that his arguments become deeper. This kind of writing requires more effort and study. It requires knowing what people who disagree with you will say in response, and in providing counter-arguments.

For example, in chapter six Mills deals with the impossibility of reconciling the Genesis creation stories with modern science. He doesn't show an awareness that there are actually two creation accounts in Genesis, containing four models of creation. There are at least nine different theories used by Christians to reconcile the creation accounts with science. He deals with just three of these theories, although, I'll grant that he does a fairly good job in dealing with these theories in the short space allotted for this in his book.

At the beginning of chapter seven, Mills claims that even if the reader has only casually read the first six chapters of his book, then he or she has become "somewhat of an expert" on the inspiration and reliability of the Bible. He goes on to claim that the reader of his book up until this point is not only better informed than most Christians about such things, but that he or she is "more knowledgeable than 90 per cent of the professional clergy in America (p. 156). Well, having been a preacher I can emphatically deny that what he wrote in the first six chapters does what he claims it does for the reader. There isn't any single book out there which will make the casual reader more knowledgeable than 90 percent of the clergy on anything.

When it comes to chapter eight, on the "Myth of Hell", the same things can be said. There are at least four conceptions of hell and many variations within evangelical thinkers, and Mills shows little evidence he understands these differences. His focus is mainly on why God should punish sinners after they die, and concludes quite reasonably that there is no good reason for God to do so. He neglected to deal seriously with the Christian argument that retribution is a good reason for punishment, which is the notion that punishment is what a criminal deserves, and something for which C.S. Lewis has argued. Besides, many Christians argue that Hell isn't a punishment for sin so much as it's finally giving sinners what they want. Furthermore, the reason Christians believe in some kind of hell after we die is because they believe the Bible is God's word, and the Bible says there is a hell. The reason why Christians believe the Bible is because they believe Jesus arose from the dead, a belief which Mills cannot effectively deal with in one page (p. 38), or two (p. 164).

Included in the "Myth of Hell" chapter, Mills offers a very brief critique of the substitutionary atonement theory, and he does a fairly good job of this (pp. 180-182). However, there are up to four major evangelical Christian atonement theories, not the least of which is Richard Swinburne's relationship theory. Mr. Mills doesn’t show how one could effectively argue against them.

I'll have no comment on why he inserted chapters on Internet porn, and on whether America was founded upon Christian principles. I'm not sure why these two studies are so important to include in a book on atheism, when he doesn't deal seriously with the problem of evil, divine hiddenness, religious diversity, and several other more worthy topics.

The main strength of his book is with the scientific basis for the evolution of life on this planet without the need for an explanation in God. No wonder Richard Dawkins and Dorion Sagan recommend it. It's because Mills is at his best when it comes to science and the origins of the universe. Whether or not you need to read Mills' book will depend entirely on how much of this literature you've read. I myself found what he wrote to be very good in this area.

If this book merely contained the chapters that dealt with the science of origins (chapters 2,3,4,5, and 11), this would be a good book. Because of these chapters it is definitely worth the cost. Mills speaks best in the area of science, not theology, and not philosophy.

When is comes to theology he misunderstands what Christian thinkers are supposed to be doing. In chapter eleven on "Intelligent Design," for instance, I find Mills rhetorically mischaracterizes ID theorists as a "cult" simply because they reject some traditional literal Christian understandings of the Genesis accounts. When it comes to a literal interpretation of the Bible, the literal interpretation is always going to be the correct one according to the particular genre of the passage in its wider context as understood by the original readers of the text. A literal interpretation of the book of Revelation, for instance, would mean we should to take it as it's intended to be taken, and that means taking it as apocalyptic literature. Christian ID theorists can further claim their interpretation of Genesis is the literal one that the true author behind the human authors of the Bible intended.

When it comes to philosophy Mills isn't any better. Mills doesn't understand some aspects of the Kalam Cosmological Argument of William Lane Craig, such that what he writes in opposition to it has only a modicum of merit. Mills uses an example reminiscent of Zeno's paradoxes (p. 237) which is supposed to show why Craig's "mathematical infinities" are "empirically ridiculous." What Mills fails to understand is that Craig distinguished between "Actual" and "Potential" infinites, although, in Mr. Mills defense, Dr. Nicholas Everitt thinks such a distinction is a bogus one, and I agree. Dr. Craig’s thought experiments about traversing actual infinites are to show that one cannot count to infinity, nor can one have an actually infinite set of books, nor can there be an actual infinite number of events stretching into the past. And it's not "special pleading" to say these rules don't apply to God since according to Christian theology God is not matter-in-motion, but a spirit. That being said, Mills does offer some good questions in opposition to Craig, such as asking what it means for God to be outside of time prior to creation, and raising the question of whether quantum mechanics "flatly contradicted" the first premise of the Kalam argument.

Again, Mr. Mills’ science is very good. However, I think he draws some conclusions from science that may not be warranted, a typical problem for scientifically minded people. Mills thinks the law of the conservation of mass-energy leads us to only "one conclusion." Since mass-energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only changed from one form to another, and because no experiment has ever invalidated this law "under any circumstances," therefore "our universe of mass-energy, in one form or another, always existed."(pp. 76, 232-233). The problem here is that there is no reason why the laws of physics, including the law of the conservation of mass-energy, apply to what I describe as the VOID ("before the Planck era"), prior to the existence of anything at all. Besides, the law of conservation of mass-energy says nothing to a Christian about whether a creator God exists, since if he exists, God would be the one to create this law in the first place, along with the stuff of the universe. If God created the universe, then he also created this law at the same time he created the universe.

I don't see why scientists think science can show us why this universe exists. Many scientific minded atheists fail to understand what the philosophy of science from Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Frederick Suppe and Ian Barbour have all shown us. There are no uninterpreted facts. Complete objectivity is a myth. All data are theory-laden. There is a reciprocity between scientific cold hard evidence and presuppositions, assumptions and biases; all of which I call "control beliefs." Control beliefs, control how we view the evidence, especially when it comes to metaphysical and religious beliefs. That's why I'm not sure science can solve the religious questions. They must be dealt with historically, theologically and philosophically. Science plays a role, no doubt, but only as a part of the whole cumulative case against religious beliefs. Even at that, scientifically minded atheists don't seem to be able to articulate exactly why science is, in Sagan's book subtitle, "a candle in the dark." It's not just because of scientific experiments. It's because of the scientific method behind them, which is based upon a control belief that defines us as modern people. It's known as "Methodological Naturalism." We assume a natural cause for any unexplained event. This modern bias does more to undermine religious belief than any experiment does.

At least Sam Harris honestly acknowledges "no one knows how or why the universe came into being. It is not clear that we can even speak coherently about the creation of the universe, given that such an event can be conceived only with reference to time, and here we are talking about the birth of space-time itself. Any intellectually honest person will admit that he does not know why the universe exists." - Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006), pp. 73-74.

I especially liked three chapters in Mills' book very much. I liked the author's description of how the solar system developed and how he concluded this is what "we would expect to observe if the solar system formed naturally" (pp. 87-104), his various and rigorous supports for evolution (pp. 105-135), and the fact that "Selective Observation" is a perceptual error that believers use to count answers to prayer as evidence for God, but fail to count unanswered prayers as evidence against the existence of God. (pp. 158-169). These three chapters form the best parts of the book. They are well worth reading.

There are some good arguments in the rest of the chapters, but because they are a tad brief, they distract from the greatness of the best chapters.

In the end, no single book can contain all of the arguments on behalf of atheism and against religion in general, or Christianity in specific. The more you want to know about these issues the more you’ll just have to read different books. I think The Atheist Universe is a great compliment to my own book which deals with the theological and philosophical problems with Christianity. Taken together our books demolish Christianity, although there will be plenty of Christians who will still disagree.

The Atheist Universe is a good book. It just does not live up to the exaggerated claims made about it, that's all.

David, I don't know if or when you plan on revising your book, but from reading it I know you still have a lot more to say, and I hope you say it.

I hope we are able to meet someday. We have a lot in common. We can learn from each other.