Ray Comfort: "Atheists believe that nothing created everything"

In case you aren't familiar with Ray Comfort, he's an evangelical creationist who has gained notoriety mainly for three things:
  • The infamous "banana routine". In a video posted on YouTube (the original video has since been removed), he called the banana the "atheist's nightmare", and proceeded to describe the myriad ways in which it appears perfectly designed for human consumption — it fits the hand, has a tab on the top for easy opening, etc. etc. Comfort had used this routine in his church with great success, but when he went public with it, alert skeptics were quick to point out that the modern banana is a mutation resulting from thousands of years of human horticulture, and barely resembles wild bananas, which are extremely difficult or impossible to eat.
  • The "Crockoduck". In a truly awful debate televised on Nightline, Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron suggested that evolution should have produced a hybrid between a crocodile and a duck, and the non-existence of such a creature is proof that evolution is a sham. This displayed such a face-palming ignorance of evolutionary biology (specifically, speciation) that you can now purchase "Crockoduck" t-shirts on Richard Dawkin's website.  
  • Most recently, the distribution of Darwin's The Origin of Species with a 50-page introduction that aimed to debunk Darwin's theory, met with ridicule from both the scientific and secular communities. 

So, on to the meat of the story. From Comfort's website, peculiarly called "Atheist Central":

An atheist has no scientific creditably [sic], because his "nothing created everything" violates the basic laws of science.

Before I address this statement specifically, let me just take a minute to talk about the irony of Ray Comfort talking about "scientific credibility". This is a man with no formal education in any field of science, yet he explicitly rejects physics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology. Consider for example Francis Collins, the geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project and was recently appointed as Director of the National Institutes of Health, who wrote a book on Christian apologetics called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief; or consider Kenneth Miller, an outspoken Christian and evolutionary biologist at Brown University who wrote the book Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution; or consider finally Richard Dawkins, who was an evolutionary biologist at Oxford for nearly 40 years. Ray Comfort sincerely believes that he knows enough about evolution to know it can't be true, despite having no formal education in any field of biology. He really, honestly thinks that renowned scientists such as these – regardless of their beliefs about God – are fools to accept evolution as a scientific reality because it conflicts with his rather arbitrary interpretation of the Bible. So if there's anyone not in a position to talk about "scientific credibility", it's Ray Comfort.

Atheists don't actually believe that "nothing created everything"

Ray Comfort is so convinced that atheists believe this proposition that he actually named a book after it. But if the comments on Ray Comfort's blog, the Amazon.com ratings for his books, or the popularity of rebuttals to his views (just look at YouTube ratings) are indicative of anything, it's that he seems to be having a tough time actually reaching atheists. When an atheist like myself reads what he's writing, it's obvious why: he doesn't understand my position. If he did, he wouldn't be saying such stupid things. I don't think Ray Comfort is actually aware that his argument is a straw man; if it walks like a true believer and quacks like a true believer, it's probably a true believer. But if he wants to have any hope of convincing skeptical atheists that he's right, he needs to make more effort to understand, rather than ignorantly mock, their views.

Why he's wrong

Atheism is not a system of belief predicated on any assumptions. It is a conclusion derived from examination of evidence. Atheism is not the belief that God's existence has been disproved, but rather that it is unproved. This is a subtle but absolutely pivotal distinction. The burden of proof falls on the one making the claim, not the other way around.

The question, "If there's no God, then where did the universe come from", and all the different ways in which it's phrased, is by far the most common "gotcha" leveled at atheists. After all, the origin of the universe remains one of the most puzzling mysteries in physics. Ray is asserting that God is the only possible explanation for the origin of the universe, and that the alternative is to believe that the universe was created out of "nothing". Here are a few reasons why it's wrong.

  • It's a false dilemma — God may have created the universe. But even if we assume that the universe had to have been created (more on that momentarily), why need it have been "God" – particularly the way Ray defines it? It could have, in equal probability, been super-intelligent aliens from another universe, an omnipotent magical squirrel, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If it were God, then God could be deistic, polythestic, pantheistic, or monotheistic. The burden is on Ray to demonstrate why the universe had to have been created by his monotheistic God, rather than any of these or any infinite number of alternative possibilities. 
  • There is no reason to assume the universe was created — Some Christian apologists are fond of the Big Bang, believing that it proves that the universe has a finite beginning; in fact, the theory does no such thing. Moreover, the theory is woefully inadequate in explaining a host of observable phenomena, not the least of which is the fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing down as the theory would predict. And while some philosophers and mathematicians dispute the possibility of an "actual infinite", or a truly infinite past, our modern understanding of the laws of physics renders such a dispute moot. As Stephen Hawking explains in A Brief History of Time:
    "In the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time, there are only two possible ways the universe can behave: either it has existed for an infinite time, or else it had a beginning at a singularity at some finite time in the past. In the quantum theory of gravity, on the other hand, a third possibility arises.... it is possible for space-time to be finite in extent and yet have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge."

  • Atheists have no burden of proof — Atheists do not make assumptions about how the universe came into being, or whether it even truly "came into being" at all. The above concepts are intriguing scientific possibilities, but they remain inconclusive and likely will for some time yet. But while Ray sees this as an opportunity to pounce on "gaps" in the insights of science, atheists realize that these gaps are mysteries in need of solving through rational inquiry — not something that can be hastily explained away by postulating unprovable supernatural assumptions. It's disingenuous to pretend to know the answers to questions that are currently beyond the scope of all human knowledge.

Incidentally, while on Ray Comfort's Living Waters Ministry website and his blog, I couldn't help but notice a preoccupation with both atheism and controversy. The section on their 50-page introduction to The Origin of Species shows a number of pictures of individuals tearing the introduction out of the book. Ray seems to thrive on provoking the ire of nonbelievers, which to me seems rather counterproductive to his goal of drawing them into his ministry and converting them to Christianity. But it seems to me that the most common reaction Ray has provoked is simply indifference. With his embarrassing "banana design" and "crockoduck" routines, he's demonstrated a pitiful ignorance of science; and with his assertion that "atheists believe nothing created everything", he's demonstrated an equally pitiful ignorance of atheism. No wonder his message is falling on deaf ears.


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