Category Archives: From the Vault Redux

Old writings that seemed Ok enough to resurrect.

Modern Cosmology and God

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.

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.

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)

Are Newborns Atheists?

In 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?

Eller the Impatient

Ernest Renan remarked that "The day after that on which the world should no longer believe in God, atheists would be the wretchedest of all men." Eller's devotion to his holy cause of atheism clouds his judgment. The following is our exchange back in 2010:

Chernikov: A religious experience may be self-authenticating.

Eller: "God's grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God" is also a mere stipulation, and a circular one at that. Substitute any other name for "god" here and see the results: "Zeus's grace comes with a guarantee that it is from Zeus."

Chernikov: Well, Zeus has never bestowed grace, has he? But if he did, and it came with a guarantee that it was from Zeus, then it would be evidence for Zeus' existence.

Eller: I go one further: there is no such thing as a "religious experience" at all.

Chernikov: So much for going where the evidence leads. If you reject religious experiences a priori, then we have little to discuss. Your atheism is unfalsifiable. No matter which piece of evidence is presented to you, you'll reject it out of hand. So much the worse for you.

Eller: Atheism does not have to be falsifiable, since it is the default presumption.

That is like saying, "There is no Santa Claus" is unfalsifiable; one does not have to falsify no-Santa, one has to prove Santa.

Chernikov: The two are equivalent, and that's why "there is no Santa Claus" is eminently falsifiable: one only needs to present compelling evidence for Santa's existence. But if you have resolved once and for all that no amount of evidence will ever convince you that God exists, then we might as well quit right here. And I think that's the direction we are heading in.

The existence of Hercules, Harry Potter, Santa Claus are legitimate questions, sometimes historical, sometimes not. I have reasons (good, in my estimation) to believe that Hercules never existed in reality, while Jesus did. What about, say, Marcus Aurelius or Herod? Wouldn't you say that those guys did exist? Why liken Jesus to Hercules and not to Marcus Aurelius other than out of a preference for theft over honest toil?

Eller: To presume that those experiences "tell us about God" is again prejudicial. Perhaps they tell us about space aliens, ascended masters, brain states, or the nature of delusion.

Chernikov: Well, perhaps. But then perhaps not. Wouldn't you want to know the answer, if only to find out in the end that space aliens do exist?

But to reach a conclusion we must look carefully at lots of experiences.

For example, regarding those, common consent is on my side, not on Eller's; else atheists would outnumber believers. Peter Kreeft makes the following point:

Even a skeptic will admit that the testimony we have is deeply impressive: the vast majority of humans have believed in an ultimate Being to whom the proper response could only be reverence and worship. No one disputes the reality of our feelings of reverence, attitudes of worship, acts of adoration. But if God does not exist, then these things have never once -- never once -- had a real object. Is it really plausible to believe that? ...

It seems far more likely that those who refuse to believe are the ones suffering from deprivation and delusion -- like the tone-deaf person who denies the existence of music...

If God does not exist, what is it that believers have been experiencing? The level of illusion goes far beyond any other example of collective error. It really amounts to collective psychosis.

For believing in God is like having a relationship with a person. If God never existed, neither did this relationship. You were responding with reverence and love to no one; and no one was there to receive and answer your response. It's as if you believe yourself happily married when in fact you live alone in a dingy apartment. (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 83-4)

Eller: I would give you this as constraints: it must be some evidence that points to your god and no other and that cannot be interpreted in any possible way other than your god.

I expect that, on principle, this is an impossible standard to meet, since any conceivable experience or evidence could be plausibly interpreted in some other way.

So, in a word, your burden of proof is unbearable.

Chernikov: Unbearable. On principle. "Any claim about the 'supernatural' is automatically false." End of discussion.

Eller's point is that any experience can be interpreted away in a non-religious sense. First, if some experiences are self-authenticating, then this is false. If Eller had such an experience, then even he would see it for what it really is.

Why hasn't God graced Eller this way? Perhaps in conformance with Jesus' saying, "Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Mt 7:6)

Second, I agree that other people's experiences, no matter how amazing, need not convince Eller. But regarding them, our author is a hostile, biased, and uncomprehending outsider. Why should his interpretations be privileged? He is free to despise theists; but theists need not be swayed by his wild blind contempt.

Absolute Motion: In Him We Live and Move and Have Our Being

God provides an absolute reference point not because He is transcends the universe, looking at it from the "outside" as through at a giant cube, but precisely because He is immanent and omnipresent in the universe.

God, being fully present in every point in space as divine energy, feels each point differently from every other point.

This feeling allows God to number each point in space with a unique coordinate. God then detects motion of any object from point A to point B even if no one else does.

Agnosticism Rightly Understood

Eller's analysis of agnosticism claims that it denies that one can have any knowledge of God. But in that case one is automatically and essentially an atheist. For why bother considering the existence of that which is totally unknown or unknowable? What are we even showing the existence of? Eller correctly points out: "If you said that you have no idea what a zorg is or what it does or wants but that you believe that there is such a thing as a zorg -- and even worse, that you center your life around the existence and wishes of a zorg -- I would think you were either pulling my leg or talking crazy." (170)

But of course agnosticism is nothing of the sort. An agnostic says: "I accept your concept of God in all its richness as coherent; it is possible that this God exists; moreover, the probability that God exists is high enough to make me uncomfortable with atheism, which is why I am not an atheist; however, I still have doubts that this idea of God is instantiated." An agnostic then knows what God is; he just does not know that He is.

Eller replied to me (back in 2010), and the dialog went as follows:

Eller: I know what the Christian concept(s) of god is/are, but I recognize it/them as nothing more than concepts, and as having no actual referent. Any agnostic who understands agnosticism would say the same.

Chernikov: My point exactly: an agnostic will accept the concept but be unsure of whether this concept refers.

Eller: You are again inventing a straw man agnostic and knocking him down. What, for instance, would an agnostic in India say: that he knows what Shiva is but [not] that he is?

Chernikov: Absolutely.

Eller: If so, then Shiva exists, by your argument.

Chernikov: In semiotics there is a distinction between the meaning of a word and its reference which is at work here. The meaning is ideal, in the mind as the form of the word -- what the word is or signifies; the reference is real, out there as the thing to which the word corresponds. So, no, once again, an agnostic would be familiar with the concept of Shiva, but would disclaim any knowledge of whether Shiva exists. Think about it this way: otherwise, what sort of thing would the agnostic even doubt exists? Both "zorg exists" and "I don't know whether zorg exists" would be meaningless statements.

Evidentiary Status of Religious Experiences

The topic of religious experiences is given a particularly ugly treatment by Eller. In dismissing the argument for the existence of God from "personal experience" Eller relies on two tricks.

First, he argues, "If I hear a voice in my head or have a mystical feeling or see a beautiful sunset and call that a religious experience, I have imposed a meaning on it and prejudiced the evaluation of it as an experience." (42) It is harder to misconstrue the argument more crassly. Every experience is interpreted, that is, "imposed a meaning" on. When our author sees the sunset, etc., he, too, interprets this experience, though as non-religious. Does he thereby "prejudice the evaluation of it as an experience," too? Not necessarily. A new experience tries to fit into the picture of the world that we already have. Sometimes the fit is perfect; other times the experience is to a greater or lesser extent discounted, because it does not cohere with what we already think we know; still other times, we adjust even our fundamental and most cherished beliefs in order to accommodate the experience. This procedure is followed whether one is a religious man or not.

Now what is the right way of interpreting any experience that provokes an inkling, whether weak or strong, to consider it "religious"? One possibility is that genuine religious experiences are self-authenticating -- if you hear God's voice, you simply know with absolute certainty that it is God speaking to you. You feel no doubt: God's grace comes with a guarantee that it is from God. For example, atheist Howard Storm had no doubt that the Being of Light he met in his near-death experience was God:

The light conveyed to me that it loved me in a way that I can't begin to express. It loved me in a way that I had never known that love could possibly be.

He was a concentrated field of energy, radiant in splendor indescribable, except to say goodness and love. This was more loving than one can imagine. I knew that this radiant being was powerful. It was making me feel so good all over.

I could feel its light on me -- like very gentle hands around me. And I could feel it holding me. But it was loving me with overwhelming power.

After what I had been through, to be completely known, accepted, and intensely loved by this Being of Light surpassed anything I had known or could have imagined. I began to cry and the tears kept coming and coming.

Further, Peter Kreeft proposes three criteria for evaluating the truth of claims of communion with God:

(1) the consistency of these claims (are they self-consistent as well as consistent with what we know otherwise to be true?);

(2) the character of those who make these claims (do these persons seem honest, decent, trustworthy?);

and (3) the effects these experiences have had in their own lives and the lives of others (have these persons become more loving as a result of what they experienced? More genuinely edifying? Or, alternatively, have they become vain and self-absorbed?). (Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 82)

So, we have to do the hard work of verifying each religious experience on its own merits, which means that the easy and brisk dismissal of them just won't do.

Let's consider the second argument Eller employs, namely that the experiences of various religions contradict each other:

... religious experiences are so different for different people that it serves as a red flag for us;

the occurrence and interpretation of such experiences seems closely related to personality and culture, so much so that we can explain and dismiss them as culture-bound.

In other words, if Christians have personal experiences of God, Jesus, and Mary, and Muslims have personal experiences of Allah, and Hindus have personal experiences of Brahma or Shiva or Vishnu, then either an awful lot of gods exist... or people just experience what they want or expect to. (43-4)

As already pointed out in the previous post, however, the religious experiences tend to confirm that there is "something beyond" this realm, some possibly magnificent reality that is separated from this world by a veil or "glass" through which we see only "darkly."

In Kreeft's words, "many people understand their experience this way: they are 'united with' or 'taken up into' a boundless and overwhelming Knowledge and Love, a Love that fills them with itself but infinitely exceeds their capacity to receive." (82) And Love by any other name...

Further, that religious experiences are "culture-bound" is a pseudo-explanation: what is culture but mutual influence of individuals on each other? Perhaps the culture in which religious experiences are given respectful consideration has been formed by numerous people having genuine religious experiences in the past and describing what they had gone through to the public. The variety in experiences is due not only to different personalities of the folks but also to the fact that God is infinite, and religious experiences may perceive different aspects of Him. Instead of throwing our hands in air, helpless against this diversity, we should put all the experiences together, study them as any other phenomenon, and see what they tell us about God, life, the universe, and everything.

For example, even the normally skeptical Wikipedia has an entry on "life review," a standard feature of near-death experiences.

There is a more fundamental issue. Experience is all we humans have. Natural science, which Eller praises, is an abstraction from human experience, focusing on those experiences that exhibit regularity or can be modeled such as by math. But not all experiences are like that. Consider, for example, Eller's interaction with his own wife. Each such interaction is a unique non-repeatable non-reproducible historical event. People change, in their memories and personalities and bodies, circumstances change, ensuring just that. But each interaction remains valuable and more important, instructive for all that. Perhaps if God is a mighty spirit, he is at least as unpredictable as a human being.

Eller's discussion of religious experiences violates the very tenets of reasoning he endorses in his book. Take falsifiability: is really God unpredictable? To take NDEs again, they exhibit numerous regularities, such as out-of-body perception, the "tunnel," life review, the Being of Light, and numerous others. It is Eller who owes us an account of what experience would convince him that God exists. Victor Reppert relates that the atheist philosopher Keith Parsons told him that if the stars in the Virgo cluster were to spell out the words "Turn Or Burn This Means You Parsons," then he would turn. Eller needs something analogous, lest his atheism be unfalsifiable.

Or consider "honesty": "the evidence 'must be evaluated without self-deception'." (69) But Eller dishonestly and uncharitably calls all experiencers deceivers or the deceived. His rationality quickly evaporates, revealing only rancor and fanaticism inside.

Or, again, the idea that "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence": I would have thought that being "taken up into overwhelming Knowledge and Love" would qualify as exactly that! Eller simply selectively dismisses what he doesn't like.

What Does Diversity of Religions Imply?

Eller pronounces: "But supposing [Jesus] did [exist], the fact that he is allegedly a man-god means a lot to Christians but little to Muslims..." (97) Well, yes, but I fail to see how from the fact that Christians and Muslims disagree about Jesus it follows that they are both wrong, as opposed to one right and the other wrong.

This, however, is Eller's main shtick throughout the book, the alleged argument from "religious diversity" (ARD). Eller thinks that the fact of the plurality of religions is proof positive that no religion is true, or even that no positive proposition about God is true.

Thus, Eller notices the "extreme diversity of religious phenomena." (125) He does not explain to us on what grounds he concludes from this that all the religious phenomena are delusions. It seems that the exact opposite is suggested: there is "something beyond."

The question then is, what is beyond? There is no universal agreement. But which reasonably sophisticated branch of human knowledge enjoys universal agreement? That economists disagree with each other does not mean there is no truth of the matter, nor that there is not a basic core doctrine that enjoys the support of all economists. Same with religions: all religious truths awaken us to a higher humanity and even deiformity.

Further, theist philosophers do not put forward random ideas of God; they seek to uncover God's attributes rationally.

For example, it is an important question whether the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as described in the Old Testament is the same as the God of the philosophers. I think it is, which is partly why I am a Christian and not merely more generic theist.

Again, some philosophers believe that God is eternal; others think He is in time or at most everlasting. Both adduce arguments to bolster their conclusions. Must we take the fact of disagreement to indicate that both sides are wrong?

Eller is a dilettante in theology; he can't distinguish plausible concepts of God from implausible ones, or cogent proofs from mythological fantasies. To him, all ideas of God are the same. But why accept such a prejudicial and either naive or uncharitable position?

Our author writes: "I, for instance, acknowledge the possibility that Christianity is correct. ... As I argue in chapter 1, if there are 100 religions in the world, with equal chances of being right (and from here, we cannot tell the difference), then each has only a 1% chance of being right. That's nothing to get too excited about." No, they don't all have equal chances to be right. Yes, you can tell the difference, unless you are from the very beginning prejudiced against all religions. One would think that a trained anthropologist would at least be capable of assigning rough probabilities to the religions he studies. But Eller doesn't bother to evaluate each religion individually. He dismisses them all and precisely because of their very variety. I find it hard to believe that with so many traditions and practices to choose from, Eller has found nothing to his liking. Could it be that he is so cold as ice and so scientifically detached in his anthropological research that he has subconsciously developed contempt for the objects of his studies? "Why am I bothering with these pathetic humans and their miserable religions?" Eller thinks. "Wretches," he goes on. "They are deep inside a box, and they do not even realize that they are in a box... or that a box exists. They live their lives enslaved to illusions, like the prisoners in the Plato's cave. Filth. I am ashamed to be one of them."

Again, Eller's idea is that meeting the Other, "those who differ yet still deserve their humanity," (128) will lead you to a more objective view of various cultures. That's all to the good. But I do not see why encountering other religions must convince you of the falsity of your own, and if it does so convince you, why it is contrary to reason to choose for yourself the best religion from among those you have studied rather than atheism. Just as Eller is unmoved in his beliefs by the existence of theistic cultures, neither need a Christian or a believer of any other faith be moved by the existence of Eller's own atheistic culture.

In other words, Eller gives no evidence for his corollary (and absurd) claim that all religions are created equal and equally badly.

There is another problem here. Either ARD is sufficient by itself to prove atheism, or not. If it is sufficient, then no other arguments are required. Why then does Eller dedicate a short and incompetent chapter to the cosmological, etc. arguments for God's existence? If it is not sufficient proof, then every concept of God and every attempted proof of God's existence in every religion ought to be tested and judged by Eller on its own merits.

Nothing like this is attempted in this book. Eller merely casts a pox on all the religious houses, which is, needless to say, unhelpful.

Anthropology and Cultural Relativism

David Eller's main point in his book Natural Atheism is that immersion into the study of anthropology leads one to accept cultural relativism, and that, in turn, makes one into a freethinker. But is there in fact any connection between three things?

Cultural relativism, in Eller's understanding, "does not maintain that 'anything goes' but merely reports that this goes here and that goes there." If that were all, then cultural relativism would be a science describing different individuals and cultures. Relativism would be anthropology. But that is a strange and hardly adequate definition of relativism.

And, of course, Eller thinks nothing of contradicting himself in the next paragraph: "we must abandon the notion of absolute morality" (109), getting closer to the dictionary definition of this term: "the view that ethical and moral standards are relative to what a particular society or culture believes to be good/bad, right/wrong."

In his example of the debate within the Catholic Church on the status of Indians soon after the discovery of America, Eller writes that neither those who considered them subhuman nor those who considered them fully human but cared only about converting them to Christianity "considered the relativistic option -- to learn from and about them, to tolerate their difference, and to leave them alone." (116) Our author does not take his own doctrine seriously. It was part of the Western culture at that time to be imperialistic. Who is he to condemn that culture on moral grounds? If a culture is intent upon razing and pillaging, then that is just its peculiar feature and our response should be "to learn from and about them." (Learn what? How better to raze and pillage?)

And what does it mean, "to leave them alone"? Is our author against miscegenation, whether of blood or ideas? Is no culture to influence another? Must there be no intercourse, whether of commerce, travel, science, etc., between cultures? But if this idea is absurd, then why is it wrong for a person to become a missionary and work within foreign cultures to convert folks there to Christianity? It seems like an eminently peaceful occupation. Eller objects: "Few if any American missionaries ever arranged debates with Indian tribal leaders; instead they threatened them with hell, rewarded or punished them with material goods, and coerced them with military power." (126) Has it occurred to him that Indian tribes were unprepared for formal disputations? How many intellectuals even today are so prepared? In any case, this is an objection to the means by which conversion was effected, not to the end of conversion itself. Eller himself is on a crusade to spread atheism.

Eller cannot in the final analysis completely divorce himself from the natural law. Traditional cultures range "from the happy to the miserable, from the peaceful to the warlike." (118) Could it be that those cultures are happy because they are in some sense better than those cultures that are miserable? Mises sets up the argument as follows:

Some ethnologists tell us that it is a mistake to speak of higher and lower civilizations and of an alleged backwardness of alien races.

The civilizations of various races are different from the Western civilization of the peoples of Caucasian stock, but they are not inferior. Every race has its peculiar mentality. It is faulty to apply to the civilization of any of them yardsticks abstracted from the achievements of other races.

Westerners call the civilization of China an arrested civilization and that of the inhabitants of New Guinea primitive barbarism. But the Chinese and the natives of New Guinea despise our civilization no less than we despise theirs. Such estimates are judgments of value and hence arbitrary.

Those other races have a different structure of mind. Their civilizations are adequate to their mind as our civilization is adequate to our mind. We are incapable of comprehending that what we call backwardness does not appear such to them.

And replies:

These ethnologists... are utterly mistaken in contending that these other races have been guided in their activities by motives other than those which have actuated the white race.

The Asiatics and the Africans no less than the peoples of European descent have been eager to struggle successfully for survival and to use reason as the foremost weapon in these endeavors. They have sought to get rid of the beasts of prey and of disease, to prevent famines and to raise the productivity of labor.

There can be no doubt that in the pursuit of these aims they have been less successful than the whites. The proof is that they are eager to profit from all achievements of the West. Those ethnologists would be right, if Mongols or Africans, tormented by a painful disease, were to renounce the aid of a European doctor because their mentality or their world view led them to believe that it is better to suffer than to be relieved of pain. ...

The North American Indians lacked the ingenuity to invent the wheel. The inhabitants of the Alps were not keen enough to construct skis which would have rendered their hard life much more agreeable. Such shortcomings were not due to a mentality different from those of the races which had long since used wheels and skis; they were failures, even when judged from the point of view of the Indians and the Alpine mountaineers. (HA, 84-5)

There have been spiritual failures, as well, to come up with a half-decent religion. Eller reports that he spent two years among Australian Aboriginals, "trying to speak their language, eat their food, practice their culture, and enter their universe of meaning and action." What he failed to grasp, unfortunately, was that his own ideals of unbiased scholarly work were part of his own Western culture and were not shared by his subjects. Even if he was genuinely attempting to try their "cultural glasses" on and "'see' or think or understand as those others do," (111) it was he who was studying them; they did not study him, a fact which demonstrates his own superiority as clearly as day.

Again, Eller obviously feels, and I agree, that the development of anthropology was a significant achievement. But "it is a certain kind of society that embarks on either anthropology or freethought and modern European society is such a society for a variety of reasons." (120) Eller's Australian Aboriginals failed themselves to learn or practice anthropology, a fact that makes them, even from Eller's point of view, inferior.

In particular, the Australian Aboriginal "culture" is dead or at least arrested; it has existed for thousands of years but never changed, never improved, even from the standpoint of the Aboriginals. These people contributed nothing to the development of civilization. They have had zero economic, technological, scientific, artistic, philosophic, etc. progress:

... not one of the 1500 discoveries listed in Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery was made by a Negroid people. None of the 200 most important persons in history in Michael's Hart's list is Negroid.

... Baker's criteria for civilization, which include the wheel, metallurgy, building with stone, cultivation of food plants, roads, domestication of animals, money, laws ensuring personal security, recognition of a right of the accused to defend himself, written language, abstract knowledge of numbers, a calendar, schools, appreciation of art and knowledge as ends in themselves, and the absence of gross superstitions, cannibalism, torture, and self-mutilation.

Laying aside the honorific term "civilization," it is an objective fact that only "Europid and Mongolid peoples" have displayed these features. (Levin, Why Race Matters, 119-20)

Eller treats culture as something unchangeable, something to be put in a museum and marvel at. But a museum-suitable culture is dead. Perhaps Eller enjoys dissecting corpses. But his assumption of cultures as permanent or isolated from each other is untenable, and he realizes it, because he himself seeks the destruction of all religious cultures.

Just as with the individuals, there are cultures that are winners and cultures that are losers. There is no relativism with respect to civilizational success. Concludes Mises:

The scholars of the West have amassed an enormous amount of material concerning the high civilizations of China and India and the primitive civilizations of the Asiatic, American, Australian, and African aborigines.

It is safe to say that all that is worth knowing about the ideas of these races is known. (86)

The sad fact is that there is nothing to be learned from the Australian Aboriginals. Eller's studies were probably entirely useless.

It does not follow from the nature of anthropology that one needs to abandon his own culture. Is studying metal a good reason to despise wood? Is the fact that other nations have different legal systems a reason to abandon our own? On the contrary, it seems that studying "comparative law" can lead to improvements in our own jurisprudence.

Finally, moral relativism is of course a philosophical doctrine, to be defended with philosophical arguments. Eller needs to prove that ethics is a pseudo-philosophy. It's not an inevitable consequence of mastery of anthropology; nor is atheism a consequence of "freethought"; perhaps by thinking freely one can prove the existence of God. Eller is guilty of the "no true Scotsman" fallacy: when I say that I have thought freely and adopted theism, Eller replies, "No true freethinker would ever be anything but an atheist."