13 October 2015

That time I responded to a Ray Comfort video



A lot of my friends and acquaintances, across a broad religious and non-religious spectrum, consider Ray Comfort to be not really worth their time. His arguments are so consistently bad that two of them — the "crockoduck" and the banana-design — subsequently became popular atheist memes. Yet while he may not command the kind of esoteric prestige that someone like William Lane Craig or AC Grayling does, he's nonetheless a widely known voice in the evangelical community and his arguments reflect common talking points for everyday believers.

Case in point, this video on "How to Prove the Existence of God".

Of course, Ray thinks this is kind of superfluous, because he insists that everyone already "knows" God exists:


Why bother "proving" something everybody already knows? Apparently, to show the rational-thinking types that their secret belief is rationally justified. Or something, I don't know, honestly.

Anyway, let's go through a few key phrases in this video. Ray is going through the old Watchmaker argument, and there are literally whole books on it. It's the idea that since man-made things like paintings and buildings have creators, so too must everything else that exists. And that's where Ray first stumbles, saying "creation is proof there's a creator". This is the fallacy of assuming the consequent, because precisely the issue is whether the universe is in fact a "creation" at all. Seconds later though, Ray also uses the word "nature" to describe "creation" — but saying that "you cannot have a nature without a maker" is an assertion, not an argument. The statement presumes nature is created, and that's the claim atheists dispute.

He then says it is "scientifically impossible for [material things] to create themselves". And it's true! Mountains don't have consciousness or agency of any kind, and obviously 'creating itself' is paradoxical. But of course, atheists don't believe that mountains 'create themselves', but that they're formed by the laws of physics. Ray would probably reply that the laws of physics themselves need a maker. But do they? Lots of scientists and philosophers think that the laws of physics, and indeed the universe itself, may simply "be" — they may be 'brute facts'.

In any case, Ray continues by suggesting that atheists ask "Who created God?" Ray replies that God is spirit, and eternal; only material things need a creator. But we're right back in the realm of pure assertion. Ray's not actually making any headway with an argument; he's just loosely stringing together a series of assertions. Even this tactic, though, causes him to trip over his own statements.

Ray claims that "the Bible says God made time". I'm not sure where in Genesis, or anywhere else, the Bible actually states such a thing. But even if it were true, it'd raise an obvious question: what was God doing before he created time? Besides, what does it even mean for a being to "exist timelessly"? It's one of those statements that sounds mysterious and profound, but is really just meaningless gobbledygook. A God that exists at no place and at no time sounds an awful lot like the God I believe in.

Atheists are just closet theists who don't want to be morally accountable 



Ray goes on to claim that atheists already know God exists but don't want to acknowledge this uncomfortable fact because then we'd have to be morally accountable for our actions. He says, "The atheist can't find God for the same reason a thief can't find a policeman. Because if they admit he exists, they are ultimately responsible to him — and that is not a pleasant thought".

There are a million directions I could go with this one, but I'll keep it simple. I'll actually grant (for the sake of discussion) that Ray is right. There's only one problem: which God? There are tens of thousands of religions. What if I need to be accountable to Allah by following the decrees of Mohammed? What if I'm supposed to be following the Book of Mormon?

Okay, so let's assume that what Ray really means is that I secretly know that the Christian god exists. This doesn't get me much farther; as I noted in my previous post, "Christianity" is less a singular religion than a wide umbrella that encompasses a staggering array of theological viewpoints. Wikipedia gives a nice overview of the major branches in Christianity:


Of course these are just the major branches. Each is home to a litany of sub-denominations with a bewildering disparity of views on major concepts like sin, redemption, historicity, the Fall, the meaning of the resurrection, etc. And that of course is to say nothing of the vast moral disparity in the Christian church. So maybe Ray really means that atheists secretly believe in the Christian God and that they also secretly know that Ray's own particular brand of Western apocalyptic fundamentalist evangelicism, and the idiosyncratic moral views it encompasses, is the one correct branch of Christianity. Surely even Ray Comfort isn't naive and incredulous enough to believe such nonsense.

Because even if atheists really did secretly believe in "God", then whose god do we secretly believe in? People have such radically different ideas about who and what God is, what he wants from us, and what he does and plans to do that just saying that atheists will have to be accountable to God doesn't get them very far. Accountable to whose version of God? Ray takes all this for granted, and it's devastating to his arguments. 

Then again, it shouldn't really surprise us that Ray takes all this for granted. Ray consistently displays the kind of compartmentalized thinking characteristic of someone insulated in a religious in-group. Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie recently penned a great post about this phenomenon and how it affects one's tendency toward intellectual compartmentalization. Particularly relevant in his post is the tendency for Christianity to discourage rational doubt. Proverbs 28:26 says, “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool: but whoso walketh wisely, he shall be delivered"; Proverbs 3:5 delivers the famous refrain, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding". Christians learn early on that when rational doubt conflicts with faith, faith must be preserved and the doubt be squelched. 

Ray is probably a lost cause. People who engage him on his Facebook page (or anywhere else) are unlikely to make a dent in his belief. He's so deeply entrenched in the evangelical community that he views non-believers and less fundamentalist believers as outsiders not to be trusted, and he'll always view debates with them as antagonistic. But I think it's worthin discussing his views from time to time because maybe, just maybe, someone who is on the fence about this stuff will see through his charade and get on with their lives.

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