Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.
– Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

You can’t identify an atheist simply by looking at them and in fact, your group of friends probably includes at least one atheist in their number. Even though belief in some sort of supernatural being is the dominant philosophy in the Western World, atheism still persists. Why? This book specifically addresses these questions, and many more;

  • What, precisely, is atheism, and why is it misunderstood so thoroughly?
  • Do atheists believe that human beings evolved through blind accident from lifeless matter?
  • Can atheists prove that God does NOT exist?
  • Does the fact that energy cannot be destroyed lend credibility to a belief in eternal life?
  • Without God, can there be a valid system of ethics or an objective “right” and “wrong”?
  • What is the meaning of life without God?
  • When we die, are we simply dead like dogs?
  • Even if you believe that all life evolved from a single cell, how could complex cellular life originate without a Creator?
  • Is atheism a totally negative philosophy, leading only to cynicism and despair?
  • Was America really founded upon Christian principles by Christian believers?


If you want to better understand the conflict between science and religion, you must read Atheist Universe: Why God Didn’t Have A Thing To Do With It Amazon by David Mills (2003, Xlibris). This deceptively compact book (243 pages, including 35 pages devoted to an introduction, references and an index), is a powerhouse of detailed and useful information that will appeal to all freethinkers, whether they are christian, agnostic or atheist. Mills’ argument is developed logically in clear prose and the book is conveniently formatted so this information is easily and quickly accessed.

Besides this book’s lively and readable style, Mills demonstrates a good understanding of prevailing scientific thought regarding the origins of the universe, a reasonable grasp of our current understanding of the evolutionary process, and a keen awareness of the conflicts between science and religion, particularly between evolutionary biology and christianity.

The book quickly engages the reader by starting with a chapter of pithy quotes by famous people who also happened to be atheists. Mills then quickly moves on to the next chapter, which sets the stage for topics discussed throughout the remainder of the book. This particular chapter is a large and readable essay combined from transcripts from three live radio interviews and presented in a conversational tone.

Now that Mills has his reader’s attention, he then proceeds to tackle in more detail each of the main topics raised in this interview-essay. He begins by providing the scientific definition of scientific “Laws” and “Theories”. For example, he defines Physical Laws as

human descriptions of how the universe consistently behaves .. as based on human observation …

… rather than universal truths, so these laws are therefore subject to revision when new observations warrant (p. 88-89).

Having defined his terminology, Mills then argues that the universe could not be created from nothing at the Big Bang. Instead, he invokes the Laws of Thermodynamics (conservation of mass and energy) to show that the universe always existed in one form or another.

In the next chapter, Mills develops a very insightful and important analysis that he refers to as “The God of the Gaps”. Basically, this argument observes that humans have always created a “God of the Gaps” to fill an intellectual vacuum. For example,

A mother, unaware of the existence of viruses and microorganisms, would ascribe her daughter’s illness to the wrath of God (or perhaps the devil). .. Unaware of biological evolution, medievil man considered the complexity of his own anatomy to be evidence of Divine Creation. The wider the gaps in scientific understanding, the greater the historical need for a miracle-working “God of the Gaps.” (p. 102)

This argument is especially useful with regards to perceived “gaps” in the fossil record because creationists/IDists will always claim gaps in the fossil record regardless of how many missing links and transitional fossils are discovered. This “God of the Gaps” argument appears again and again throughout the remainder of the book.

In this book, Mills also raises a number of interesting Biblical conflicts in an almost casual way including, for example, the observation that the genealogies in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke present detailed but contradictory male lineages for Jesus from Joseph back to King David. According to the Biblical account, Jesus was the result of a virgin birth, without any blood relationship to his father, Joseph, so why wasn’t Jesus’ lineage to King David instead traced through his mother, Mary?

Predictably, I especially enjoyed reading Mills’ chapter entitled Answering Creationist Objections to Evolution. This chapter is lucid and well-developed in a direct question-and-answer approach, and each point is clearly presented. Everyone should read this chapter, if for no other reason than to more clearly understand the sharp differences between science and religion, especially with regards to current ongoing battles over teaching “ID” in science classrooms.

Throughout this book, Mills contrasts the rationality of science with the Bible’s lack of veracity, noting at one point that, as far as accuracy is concerned, “the Bible is a non-prophet organization.” Unlike some books that I have read in this genre, Mills never reconciles science and religion. As an unfortunate result, many religious people will probably throw this book into the trash before finishing it, without thinking deeply about the arguments presented. But I hope that a few of them will come to appreciate Mills’ logic as they come to a clearer understanding of what atheism is and is not, and will realize why atheism is a rational position for anyone to hold.

I highly recommend this insightful little book to everyone who is seeking to understand other ways of thinking and who wish to further define their own personal philosophies, whether they are atheists, agnostics or christians.

tags: , , , ,

Included in the Carnival of the Godless
Issue 34.

Comments

  1. #1 Tabor
    January 30, 2006

    Some many books…so little time.

  2. #2 Brad Hoge
    January 30, 2006

    One of the greatest ironies of the human mind is that the very nature that requires us to devise religion to comfort our fear of the unknown is the same instinct that requires us to deny truths discovered that threaten our illusions.

    I will look for this book. Thanks.

  3. #3 Pamela
    January 30, 2006

    Late last week BBC Online posted a disturbing story, reporting that “less than half” of Britons buy evolution and around 40% want ID or something like it taught in schools.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4648598.stm

    This means it’s not just “stupid Americans” that are problematic, and we should all redouble our efforts to educate . . .

  4. #4 Corkscrew
    January 30, 2006

    Hmm… most of those questions appear to be one-liners. Does it really take an entire book? :P

  5. #5 Phila
    January 30, 2006

    Of course atheism is a rational position. And given the debased nature of organized religion, it’s also a wise and healthy position. I tend to agree with Simone Weil, who, while Christian herself, felt that the concept of God as set forth by the Church was so flawed and evil that atheism was often a necessary purification.

    Her hope was that people would go from there to a greater understanding of religious obligation (i.e, of responsibility for the well-being of one’s fellow human beings), and would give up dogmas like Hell, Biblical literalism, anathematizing heresy, and so forth. But even if they didn’t give up their atheism, she felt it was far better for people to disbelieve in god altogether than to worship a false god.

    My view is that morality is inherently metaphysical – for now, at least – and that religious thinking is a natural and even logical outgrowth of this indeterminacy. But morality is also totally separate from dogma. The most supererogatory forms of obligation to others (e.g., trading one’s life for a stranger’s) may be scientifically inexplicable for a time, or forever; obviously, that’s not at all true of injunctions based on tribalist superstitions – or the consolidation of political power, or the justification of a social hierarchy, or public-health concerns circa 12 AD – and those sorts of mundane concerns are often the most noticeable distinguishing points between different religions.

    My complaint with religion isn’t that it fails as science (hell, so do art and poetry). My complaint is that it so often fails as theology. The fundamentalists’ unwillngness to make simple logical accomodations to the physical nature of a world they believe was designed for them strikes me as a lot weirder – and a lot more heretical and dangerous – than accepting gay marriage.

  6. #6 Torris
    January 30, 2006

    Thanks for the review. I’ll have to order it.

  7. #7 Lee
    January 30, 2006

    Y’know, I think it’s really unfortunate that so many atheists frame the debate about God’s existence around Christianity and its problems. And not just any form of Christianity, but typically the most fundamentalist and backwards form they can find. I’m tired of it. It’s so pointless!

    Not that I agree with most fundamentalist Christian views, mind you. But whether there is a God or not is a question largely separate from the squabbles between religious fundamentalists and equally-fervent atheists. That is, whether there’s a God or not is immaterial to most of the real problems that we face today.

    The mistake far too many atheists make is holding up the Judeo-Christian-Islamic idea of “God” as the object of their refutation. In truth, that’s just a straw man. If you want to confront fundamentalist Christianity about its backwards beliefs and illogical policies, by all means, do so – I encourage it. But don’t confuse the issue by bringing God’s existence into things – just because they fall back on God as the excuse for all their irrationality doesn’t mean you should argue with them about God. That just muddles the issues and rarely accomplishes anything.

    I myself am an agnostic. I find it pretty naive and presumptuous to assume there is a God – and I find it equally so to assume there isn’t. Sure, the optimistic part of me hopes there’s a higher purpose to this thing called Life, but the fact is, there’s no way any of us will ever know for sure while we’re still on this mortal coil.

  8. #8 Matt McIrvin
    January 30, 2006

    Having defined his terminology, Mills then argues that the universe could not be created from nothing at the Big Bang. Instead, he invokes the Laws of Thermodynamics (conservation of mass and energy) to show that the universe always existed in one form or another.

    Oh, dear. His philosophy might be all right, but if he says that, he needs to read up on physical cosmology.

    Energy is not globally conserved in general relativity (which is a well-confirmed theory). It can be defined as conserved if you make a more or less arbitrary definition of the mass-energy inherent in the gravitational field, but that definition does not correspond to a physical entity and doesn’t generalize well to the whole universe. (This strange feature of the theory actually held up Einstein for a year or more while he fruitlessly tried to get rid of it.)

    There’s a more general statement known as “covariant conservation” that does hold in the theory, but it allows the generation of energy from nothing under some circumstances, e.g. cosmic inflation using dark energy. Some cosmologists think that that’s in fact where everything came from.

    And even barring that, covariant conservation only holds within space-time. If space-time had a beginning in a Big Bang singularity, all bets are off.

    So modern cosmologists don’t actually hold mass-energy conservation as an absolute law, and I’d be skeptical of attempts to use it to speculate about what happened before the Big Bang.

  9. #9 Matt McIrvin
    January 30, 2006

    Atheists in America argue with the existence of the Abrahamic God because that’s the one that people keep pestering them to believe in. Devotees of other gods tend not to bother them, so there’s not much point in arguing.

  10. #10 Ellen
    January 31, 2006

    I consider myself a nontheist. I just don’t think about it one way or the other. Who has that kind of time and patience? After all, you can think about it literally forever, because you will never know the answer. Having come from a family that suffered terrible tragedy (my mother is the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust) I tend to think that if there is a god, he/she is really screwing up and should be placed on probation. But mostly, I just don’t think about it. I am, however, strongly adverse to organized religion, which, as best I can tell, is just one more excuse for people to hate and kill. Like we need more reasons…So what happens if I am wrong? God will be pissed? God will laugh at me? I have that covered. To hedge my bets, 5 seconds before I die, I am going to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. From what I hear, that apparently does the trick. You can live your entire life as an atrocious piece of shit – raping, maiming, even murdering a few people – but so long as you accept JC as your personal savior for even a few seconds before you die, you are saved and you will go to heaven. What a cool religion! Instant salvation. Just add water (or vodka) and mix. All I know is that heaven had better be full of birds – all easily visible and vocalizing all the time – or I am going to be really disappointed. Trying so hard all my life to be “worthy” only to find out that heaven wasn’t worth it?

  11. #11 GrrlScientist
    January 31, 2006

    wow, so many comments, so little time! i really MUST get a wireless connection from home so i can keep up with everyone.

    Tabor; i sometimes argue that bibliophiles must be immortal for this very reason.

    Brad; ah, the iceman cometh. …

    you will enjoy this book.

    Pamela; like you, i was very surprised and saddened by the results of that poll, too. i had thought that the average european was more scientifically aware than the average american.

    Corkscrew; heh. the length of the answer depends upon how thoughtful you are.

    Phila; thanks for your thoughts. what is the name of Simone Weil’s book that you are referring to? i’d really like to read it.

    i think that your disappointment with religion’s failings as theology is what causes a lot of people to question their beliefs. this failing is not a new thing, either, which is why i thought Isaac Asimov’s little addage at the topof the essay was so appropriate.

    Torris; this particular book is definitely worth your time.

    Lee; i appreciate your thoughts, and while you are probably correct regarding some of the books espousing atheism that are out there, i challenge you to read this book before saying that fundamentalism was the main paradigm being analyzed. in this book, Mills actually differentiates between fundamentalism and more mainstream religious thought in his discussions.

    Matt; i am not an expert on physical cosmology nor will i pretend to be, so you could run circles around me (and probably 90% of my readers) without any of us knowing what you are talking about. but based on what little i do know, there appears to be a fair amount of mathematical headscratching regarding the nature of the very early universe and how this impinges upon the Laws of Thermodynamics.

    Ellen; when i was a kid, i once asked a preacher what heaven was like and was told that it would be whatever i wanted it to be. after some thought, i decided that my idea of an ideal heaven would cause most christians to want me sent to hell.

  12. #12 anon
    January 31, 2006

    Britain is not Europe. I would argue the problem is with anglophones (and perhaps level of education, which is also an issue in the UK?). My personal experiences with the rest of Europe are quite different.

    I also agree with some of the other posters that in the US, this debate always appears framed in both Judeo-Christian and seemingly absolutist terms. One is either for or against Christian wingnut belief, or for or against athiest Scientific liberalism. The whole context and nature of the debate here is foreign to me. There is a large grey area here about philosophy and belief and rationalism which has been largely hijacked by being forced to context everything into the fundamentalism/creationism debate. I am not aware of any other country that spends the same amount of time fighting about science and creationism, or that has the same deep-seated cultural issues against evolution.

    As for the big bang, Stephen Hawking once said that asking what came before the big bang was the same as asking what is north of the north pole. I find it rather simplistic that the author thinks he can invoke thermodynamics on a situation that has so far eluded some of the best minds of physics.

  13. #13 Pamela
    January 31, 2006

    Sorry to be using Grrl’s space to nitpick, but I want to defend her a bit — Britian IS in the European Union, so saying it’s “not Europe” is perhaps splitting hairs. And my own experience in central Europe (and their colonist cousins in the tropics) is that they are more “fundamentalist” that anon indicates. Let’s just not assume right now that Europeans are generally supportive of evolution. Natch education level has plenty to do with it — but as Darwin’s great-grandson Matthew Chapman shows in his coverage of the Dover trials in Feb’s Harper’s Magazine (not avail online), relatively “uneducated” folks support evolution . . . This isn’t the place to start a debate, of course, but sometimes I think the “cliche” that “men evolved from monkeys” got into popular heads generations ago and that’s what people all over the globe object to — anyway check out Chapman’s article if you can.

  14. #14 Phila
    January 31, 2006

    Phila; thanks for your thoughts. what is the name of Simone Weil’s book that you are referring to? i’d really like to read it.

    Most of her work is posthumous, and was gathered together after her death by Catholics who picked and choosed from her notebooks and papers, so it’s both scattered and – if you read her unedited workbooks – somewhat misrepresented. But Gravity and Grace would be one place to look; her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God” would be another (esp. her section on accepting the world as mechanical).

    i think that your disappointment with religion’s failings as theology is what causes a lot of people to question their beliefs.

    Probably so. Which is a bit weird, in some ways. I’m no theologian, but if I were, I don’t think I’d be shocked to find that even the most well-intentioned people can create corrupt, exploitativ systems. It happens everywhere else, so why not in a domain that tempts people with such a huge amount of power? Anyway, it doesn’t seem to me to have much bearing on the existence or nonexistence of God, which I see as undecidable and ultimately unimportant.

  15. #15 biosparite
    January 31, 2006

    Pamela,
    I agree that most people who object to the Darwinist model seem to be offended by the idea of having monkey forbears. Sometimes monkeys are not all that nice. I had some ex-NASA clients back in 1988-89 who would tell me Shuttle stories. One Shuttle science mission involved taking monkeys into orbit. Although there was an automatic waste disposal system to vaccuum up monkey waste, the monkeys learned quickly to defecate into their hands and save the product until an astronaut would come back to look after them. Then they would pelt the astronaut with feces.
    And for the record, Tom Delay once inveighed on the floor of the House against those who argue that man is ultimately evolved from pond scum (although in his case he got it just right). I always kinda liked pond scum under the microscope since I like to look at diatoms and rotifers.

  16. #16 GrrlScientist
    January 31, 2006

    Phila; i forgot to mention that neither art nor poetry claim they are scientific, whereas creationists do.

    thanks for the book title. i will try to get it from the library.

    biosparite; unfortunately, a lot of people act like monkeys, except they throw cigarette butts all over creation. in fact, my day started out badly this morning when a man threw a burning cigarette butt from his car window as he sped by, hitting me in the face, just below my left eye (i was lucky it didn’t hit me in the eye). fortunately, no lasting damage resulted, but wow, that hurt!

  17. #17 Phila
    February 2, 2006

    Phila; i forgot to mention that neither art nor poetry claim they are scientific, whereas creationists do.

    Of course! I was talking about religion per se, though, not creationism or ID.

  18. #18 vjack
    February 19, 2006

    Thanks for the review. I already had this book on my to-read list, and now I’ll bump it up so that I actually get around to it sooner than later. Sounds like a good one.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.