Are Newborns Atheists?

David Mills' book Atheist UniverseIn his Atheist Universe David Mills is asked by an interviewer: “But why so many people believe in God?” He replies: “Because, again, they were taught to believe as small children and because almost everybody they know believes in God also. We should recognize that all children are born as atheists. There is no child born with religious belief.” (29)

Well, shiver me timbers. If this generation were taught to believe as children by the previous generation, how did that previous generation itself come to believe? Were, they, too, taught by their parents? And the latter by theirs? Are we not having an infinite regress here, a favorite atheistic trick? Surely, we must at some point come to a time when Christianity was confined just to Jesus’s 12 apostles. They were not taught by their parents, were they? Nobody they knew were Christians. Why did they believe? And how did Christianity spread and increase in influence generation after generation, often against impossible odds? Why, for example, did so many people die for their faith? These are the questions Mills should be asking.

Now Mills might reply that having gained so many followers, Christianity has become self-sustaining. Yet he himself writes, correctly, that “We tend to believe that, once knowledge has been acquired and technology developed by man, these gains are ‘locked in’ and the future will only build upon these past achievements. But history argues forcefully against such an optimistic assumption.” (49) The very same point applies to any religious tradition. Truths about God, whether of reason or faith, must be relearned and defended and taught anew by each generation. One slip, and it’s all over.

Thus, secondly, Christianity has been around for 2,000 years, and Judaism for thousands of years longer. Why, I want to ask Mills, has the Church endured for so long? It would have taken a single generation that mostly refused to believe, and Christianity would have withered, contrary to our Lord’s proclamation that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Mt 16:18) The Church has continued triumphant, and its teachings have been preserved and deepened. How?

Mills pleads that “all children are born as atheists,” as if it meant something. Well, all children are born not knowing their parents’ names, that the earth is round, that 2 + 2 = 4; in fact, they seem to be born with no knowledge at all. Should they therefore stay ignorant? Or should they learn as much as they can, including about God?

Who Created God?

Mills gives so little credit to theists that he is content to dismiss the “cosmological arguments” in three sentences:

For if “everything needs a cause to account for its existence,” then we are forced to address the question of who or what created God.

If God always existed, and therefore needs no causal explanation, then the original premise of the cosmological argument — that everything needs a cause — has been shown to be erroneous: something can exist without a cause. …

If we can suppose that God always existed…, then we can suppose instead that the mass-energy comprising our universe always existed and thus requires no causal explanation. (30)

I invite Mills to try to respond to something that’s not a straw man.

Arguments for God from “Justice”

The argument sometimes takes the following form:

Interviewer: But don’t you think there has to be some kind of ultimate justice for human beings? People who do wrong are not always punished in this world, and good is not always rewarded. Don’t these injustices require an afterlife to redress the imbalance: where good is ultimately rewarded and evil punished?

Mills: You’re undeniably correct that there is often grave injustice in this world. But that sad fact argues against, rather than for, God’s existence.

There is no reason to believe that the injustice we perceive in daily life is not typical of how the universe as a whole operates.

For example, suppose that a deliveryman places a large crate of oranges on your doorstep. You open the crate and discover that every single orange you see on top of the box is rotten. Would you then conclude that the remaining oranges on the bottom of the crate must be good?

No. You would conclude that the rotten oranges you see on top are probably quite representative of the shipment as a whole.

Likewise, the injustice we perceive in our world is evidence that we unfortunately live in an unjust world, rather than that justice is waiting “just beyond sight.” (55-6)

Mills’ response, of course, is the same Bertrand Russell gives in his “Why I Am Not a Christian.” I think that Mills was influenced by Russell quite a bit. Regardless, it is certainly false that there is only injustice in the world. There are also justice and just acts; what’s more, we deduce that someone has acted unjustly by comparing his actions with the ideal of justice. Injustice then is the absence of justice, exactly as evil in general is the absence of the good that ought to be there. Thus, not all the oranges on the top of the crate are rotten: some are, but some aren’t; in fact, most aren’t.

Let me propose three arguments for the immortality of the soul and possibly existence of God.

1. Consider a “perfectly unjust man.” As per Plato, he “makes no mistakes in the prosecution of his unjust enterprises, and he escapes detection; … while committing the grossest acts of injustice he has won himself the highest reputation for justice.”

Call him a T-man (for Thrasymachus).

Further, let’s describe a most miserable just man:

We must certainly take away [other people’s perception of his justice]: for if he be thought to be a just man, he will have honors and gifts on the strength of his reputation, so that it will be uncertain whether it is for justice’s sake, or for the sake of the gifts and honors, that he is what he is.

Yes, we must strip him bare of everything but justice, and make his whole case the reverse of the former.

Without being guilty of one unjust act, let him have the worst reputation for injustice, so that his justice may be thoroughly tested…

… in such a situation the just man will be [punished], and at last, after suffering every kind of torture, will be crucified; and thus learn that it is best to resolve, not to be, but to seem, just. …

[The perfectly unjust man], whenever he engages in a contest, whether public or private, he defeats and overreaches his enemies, and by so doing grows rich, and is enabled to benefit his friends and injure his enemies, and to offer sacrifices and dedicate gifts to the gods in magnificent abundance; thus… he is also more likely than the just man to be dearer to the gods.

And therefore they affirm, Socrates, that a better provision is made both by gods and men for the life of the unjust, than for the life of the just. (Republic, 361-2)

Call the latter S-man (for Socrates).

Here’s the argument:

1) All people ought to be ethical and lead holy lives (however understood).
2) Suppose the contrary: there is no afterlife or at least no afterlife with “ultimate justice for human beings.”
3) Then there is no definitive and compelling reason to recommend a just life to a T-man or to comfort an S-man who is tempted to regret his justice.
4) Therefore, there is no all-things-considered duty to be moral.

The contradiction between (4) and (1) now obtained will require Mills to give up either (1) or (2). If he gives up (2), then we have our conclusion.

If he gives up (1), then he must pay a steep price, namely of rejecting the seriousness of ethics and the absoluteness and categorical nature of moral law.

There are indications that Mills would be unwilling to do the latter: he agrees that murder is wrong (55);

he is eager to argue that atheists are at least as moral as theists (47);

he provides personal testimony that many atheists are “dynamic, highly optimistic men and women who enjoy life to the hilt.” (40)

2. The argument from “justice” can be cast as a version of the argument from desire: humans long for cosmic justice, and since no natural desire is futile, this longing must somehow be satisfied, and if not here, then in the next life.

3. Finally, ultimate justice could be not a rational deduction but an article of faith: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:10)

Whether Jesus “Wasted His Omnipotence”?

Mills thinks so:

Another reason why I don’t find Jesus admirable is that He 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! (35)

But Jesus came down from heaven not in order to fight our battles for us, but for the salvation of our souls. It is up to us to find a cure for cancer and reduce the number of birth defects and so forth. The purpose of the miracles Jesus performed was to attest to His being both God and man in one person and to His divine mission.

This mission involved a trial, an ordeal set up by God the Father to learn whether the Son would love us even after we, what with our corrupted nature, committed the most terrible imaginable crime against Him personally: deicide.

If God wanted to benefit mankind in the way Mills suggests, then He did not have to wait for the Incarnation. He could do it at any time and still can. So it is silly to argue that Jesus should have done more than what He did. He did the greatest thing that could have been done, namely, redeemed the world, and therefore He did enough.

Modern Cosmology Weighs in on God’s Existence

Mills invokes the law of the conservation of mass-energy, saying that mass-energy can be neither created nor destroyed. He proceeds to derive from it the conclusion that “the universe, in one form or another, in one density or another, always existed.” (74)

Now it is true that matter and energy are imperishable — once there, they do not corrupt or disappear. But how to account for the existence of the original amount of matter/energy within the pre-Big Bang singularity, as well as for the existence of the singularity itself in the first place? In other words, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (a question first formulated, contra Mills, by Leibniz and not by Mortimer Adler).

To that our author has a ready response. This question, he says

assumes that there is supposed to be nothing; that the “natural” state of the universe is nonexistence. …

From a scientific perspective, though, the question is: Why shouldn’t there be something rather than nothing? What law of science claims that the universe is not supposed to exist, or that nonexistence is the “natural” condition of the universe?

There is no such law. On the contrary, the law of the conservation of mass-energy leads to a radically different conclusion: that the mass-energy which now constitutes our universe always existed, though the universe, as we observe it today, did indeed have a beginning at the Big Bang. (75-6)

The first part of this reply is unsatisfactory, because it neglects the fact of the contingency of the universe:

Arguments for God’s Existence from Contingency;
Re: Dillahunty Objects to the Arguments from Contingency;
see also
Three Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence.

The second part is incoherent. Either the mass-energy had existed for an actually infinite number of years within the singularity quite inertly, only to erupt, i.e., mysteriously after an infinitely long sleep, in the Big Bang 14 billion years ago; or it makes no sense to speak this way at all, since time itself arose via and as part of the Big Bang.

But not the former, as has already been proven, since a cause that had existed for an infinite amount time (i.e., the singularity) without ever causing a given effect (i.e., the Big Bang) in fact had no power to cause that effect at all.

And not the latter, because it admits that the universe “had a beginning at the Big Bang,” in which case it cannot be said that the mass-energy “always” existed but only since time itself began ticking upon the Big Bang.

But does not the theistic creation ex nihilo violate the law of the conservation of mass-energy? I don’t see how. Ex nihilo means that only God and no creation existed. And God, being omnipotent and infinite could create the universe and infuse it with energy without losing anything in Himself and while remaining unmoved.

A zero-energy universe hypothesis deserves mention. It “proposes that the total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero: its amount of positive energy in the form of matter is exactly canceled out by its negative energy in the form of gravity.”

What produced the energy before inflation? … As crazy as it might seem, the energy may have come out of nothing!

Perhaps many quantum fluctuations occurred before the birth of our universe. Most of them quickly disappeared. But one lived sufficiently long and had the right conditions for inflation to have been initiated. Thereafter, the original tiny volume inflated by an enormous factor, and our macroscopic universe was born.

If this admittedly speculative hypothesis is correct, then… the universe is the ultimate free lunch! It came from nothing, and its total energy is zero, but it nevertheless has incredible structure and complexity.

First, quantum fluctuations would still have occurred in some sort of preexisting and non-trivial space-time which was such as to feature this complex phenomenon. This primordial environment itself would then stand in need of an explanation.

Second, we have the perfectly apt statement in Genesis: “Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light. God saw that the light was good. God then separated the light from the darkness.” (1:3-4) St. Thomas interprets this as a reference to the creation and fall of angels: the separation was between moral good and evil.

But it may well point to the separation of the positive and negative energy that constituted the Big Bang, in which God, too, would have played a role.

“Law” As Explanation?

Natural laws, Mills maintains, are descriptive:

… a scientific or physical law is a human description of how the universe consistently behaves. (69)

But, by believing that the laws of physics cause the behavior of the universe, creationists overlook the need for pursuing genuine causal explanations.

For example, if I ask why a rock thrown skyward soon falls back to Earth, it would be meaningless to respond, “It’s the law of gravity.”

“Gravity” or “the law of gravity” is simply the name and description we assign to the observed phenomenon. (71)

That a law of nature is an abstraction, an ideal universal is an eminently defensible view.

But he thinks nothing of contradicting himself later in the book with statements like

Inertia keeps the arrow going, until an outside force… stops the arrow’s forward progress. (88)

… simple gravity, unaided by supernatural Beings, transported the hunter to the bottom of the cliff. (92)

Because of gravity, water is attracted to the center of the sink, but spins rapidly before disappearing down the drain. (94-5)

… gravitation is real. (108)

Because of bacterial evolution, doctors sometimes encounter infections that actually thrive on the antibiotics designed to kill them. (110)

By Mills’ own admission these explanations are meaningless.

What Good Is Half an Eye?

Evolution is the name of a physical process by which biological organisms develop new features. It proposes that a present complex structure Y developed from a more primitive structure X in the past (in fact, over millions or billions of years) over a great many generations, because it conferred upon a creature some advantage in its survival and reproduction. But what evidence is there that X ever existed?

Mills gives us a familiar defense:

For within Nature, we find eyes in all stages of development. We find lifeforms with:

(1) no eyes at all,
(2) eyes that sense only the presence or absence of light,
(3) eyes that focus light extremely poorly, such as the mole’s,
(4) eyes that cannot see more than a few feet,
(5) eyes that cannot see color, such as most dog’s breeds,
(6) eyes that are humanlike, and
(7) eyes that are far superior to human eyes, such as the bald eagle’s.

He concludes:

Within Nature, we find a smooth and unbroken continuum of visual capabilities among the various animals species.

What good is 50% of an eye? It enjoys a decided advantage over 49% or 37% or 8% in the struggle for survival. (112)

Unfortunately, this conclusion is flat-out false. The issue is not “visual capabilities” but the specified complexity of different species’ eyes, and regarding those, there are huge gaps.

Darwinian evolution is supposed to proceed via “by numerous, successive, slight modifications.” But no kind of eye, regardless of its capacity, can bridge the gap to a superior form without going through a myriad of intermediate stages in its biological structure that are not only useless but a serious burden in its owner’s struggle for survival.

And that goes not just for eyes but for an enormous variety of biological structures that are best described as biomechanical or biochemical machines. An emergence of an irreducibly complex robot of any kind via random mutation + natural selection has never been observed. But such robots are routinely produced via intelligent design. Reason suggests that the latter is the best explanation of their existence.

Geologic Column and Evolution

Studying layers of sedimentary rocks reveals that some species appeared on earth later than others, such as multi-celled organisms after single-celled, amphibians after fish, and Homo sapiens after apes.

Mills argues that “the geologic column is a fortunate coincidence of Nature that attests biological evolution.” (119)

I don’t follow. Suppose it’s true that “amphibians first appear in the geologic column in layers 405 million years old” and further that reptiles can be found in layers “approximately 310 million years” old. What do these manifestly innocuous facts have to do with a vastly different claim that “amphibious creatures evolved into reptiles” (emphasis mine)? (117) How is the Darwinian process according to which Y descended from X established from the mere fact that Y came after X?

I’m sure Mills is familiar with the ad hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy. The fallacy he is committing in his book is even more preposterous: as far as he is concerned, from the fact that amphibians preceded the reptiles in time, it allegedly follows not only that reptiles came from amphibians but even that reptiles evolved from amphibians, i.e., came from them via a highly specific and peculiar process!

Mills might try to argue this way:

The small mammals, however, continue to develop, both in size and complexity. A very primitive for of ape first appears in rock layers dating 40 million years. Ape evolution progresses to Australopithecus (southern ape) still higher on the column, [etc.] (117)

I reply that first, the fossil record does not by itself illustrate the increasing “complexity” of later species. It may be true that existing mammals are more complex than existing reptiles. But fossilized bones are not complex at all.

(For example, nothing whatever can be asserted about the relative complexity of the Archaeopteryx.)

Second, even granting Mills this point, the theory of evolution does not predict that increasingly greater complexity must arise out of simpler or more “primitive” organisms. If primitiveness is more conducive to survival and reproduction, then it will be selected for. Proving that complex biological structures are as a rule superior — in this instrumental sense as means to success in adaptation — to more simple structures requires a separate argument. Therefore, the geologic column does not confirm evolution.

(My guess as to such an argument is that greater complexity permits surprising new functionality through novel biological structures and organs, which in turn allows the newly mutated creature to claim a hitherto unoccupied niche within the circle of life, even if the mutant species is less successful than its parents’ species in sheer numbers.

Thus, it might seem strange that tigers evolved from bacteria, given that tigers are seriously endangered, and there are many orders of magnitude more bacteria than tigers (indicating that bacteria seem more “fit” or successful than tigers: “99% of all animals species… have… fallen victim to extinction,” Mills himself writes (113). But one species that has never gone extinct is precisely bacteria.) But perhaps tigers have surprisingly mutated to thrive within a tiny but unique niche of the biosphere.)

So, no, the fossil record generates no insights into the origin of species.

Intermission: Shall We Suffer Witches to Live?

Mills points to Ex 22:17 which states, “You shall not let a woman who practices sorcery live,” and complains:

These verses, among others, were cites by Christians for centuries to justify the burning of “witches.”

Hundreds of thousands of innocent women — including female children as young as two years of age — were routinely tortured to death by devout believers obeying these biblical injunctions to take the life of any “witch.” (149)

Now the hunts were actuated by syllogisms like the following:

(1) Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
(2) Alice is a witch.
(3) Alice is to be burned.

As it happens, I, following C.S. Lewis, fully agree with (1):

If we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather — surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did?

The failure occurred not in the major premise which is true but in the minor: Alice was not in fact a witch, (presumably) because witches do not exist. If witches did exist, and Alice was one of them, then I might personally help to stone her to death.

Finally, the fact that most victims of witch-hunts were innocent does not prove that witchcraft as such is impossible or that no witches have ever existed.

Nature’s Yin and Yang

Mills states the obvious:

The fact is that Nature displays some degree of beauty and organization. But all too often, Nature also mindlessly slaughters scores of innocent men, women, and children through natural disasters: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, … Nature is obviously a mixture of order and disorder, the appealing and the loathsome, the purposeful and the arbitrary. …

For every person “miraculously” healed against the odds, there is another who, against the odds, died a premature and meaningless death.

For every magnificent sunset to behold, there is another child stricken with leukemia.

For every breathtaking night sky filled with radiant stars, an unexpected heart attack turns a happy wife into a grieving widow.

These observations are undeniably accurate. But Mills’ conclusion is surprising:

The universe in which we live is located equidistant between absolute order and absolute chaos — a neutral position which we should expect from a universe impervious to our wishes. (162-3)

I beg to differ. The universe’ position relative to us is indeed a mixture of order and chaos, but far from being neutral, it is remarkably good. For the mixture is rather of “yang” and “yin,” of the forces of “masculine” life and “feminine” death, that, in uniting with each other, produce fruit of creative advance in the human power over nature:

Under moderate scarcity, the forces of life, sustaining and nurturing man, and the forces of death, adversarial to him, challenging him to fight and improve his conditions, are in a rough balance that is most conducive to economic development.

Insofar as the world contains plenty of moderately scarce environments, it is wisely designed.

Mills might object that this is merely apparent or illusory design, since human beings are adapted to their environment well but not perfectly, exactly as the theory of evolution seems to predict.

This argument, however, turns out to be an unseemly reduction of the distinctly human civilization to a struggle for survival and reproduction common to all life.

For it is not the case that men adapt to their environment as described by evolutionary theory; rather, they adapt the environment itself to their own needs and to their pursuit of happiness.

The facts that man’s glory shines so clearly in his achievements (including of mastering natural sciences) and that these achievements are even possible are in my view very close to being “miraculous” and improbable given atheism. Why expect nature to yield to man? The yin-chaos has two aspects: 1) evil in being destructive and 2) potency complementary to yang in being receptive. It is thus a receptivity of nature to being subdued, to human efforts aimed at conquering it. The union of the potency of matter (plus all lower nature) and the forming influence of man is not neutral but sublimely wondrous.

In being “equidistant between absolute order and absolute chaos,” human life is not neutral, as in boring or meaningless, but precisely most poignant and interesting. Both aspects of yin then deserve respect. As much of nature is beyond our control, there is a sense in which we passively receive random blessings (as from a sunset) and blows (as from leukemia) from nature. But in addition, nature is putty in our own hands.

In short, the universe is not “impervious to our wishes”; though it hides and mocks and resists, it also gives in when handled with prudence and skill.