So, I decided to subscribe to Ray Comfort’s Facebook page just to see if he can keep up his act rather than just save it up for his occasional documentary. (The title of this is something I’ve ripped from PsyGremlin’s blog, which examines Comfort’s documentary on John Lennon up close, and shows that it has next to nothing to do with John Lennon)
Anyway, the one piece of Comfort’s evangelism I want to address is this one:
Most atheists despise the very thought of “faith,” not realizing that they exercise it many times each day. If you want to see some faith in action, watch what happens at the lights at any busy intersection. Drivers speed up to a red light trusting (having faith) in their brakes. It hardly enters their trusting mind that if the brakes fail, they are almost certainly dead. Watch them take off as soon as the light turns green, trusting (having faith) that the lights are working correctly, and that the alternative light isn’t stuck on green. Their trust is so great (their faith) that no one is running a red light, that they don’t even look in that direction to see if the way is clear. Many trusting drivers have taken off in faith, and have tragically gone to meet their Maker. Watch unthinking pedestrians trust (have faith) the on-coming driver’s brakes and his ability to use them, as they step out in front of his car and trust (have faith) the light when it says “Cross now.”
That atheists somehow profess “faith” is one of the most common tactics found in the evangelical playbook. It’s a textbook tu quoque fallacy, and indeed is likely to be the single most common version of it you can find. It’s an odd accusation, though. Isn’t faith supposed to be virtuous? To simply believe because faith tells you to? So, clearly, atheists must be virtuous to express such faith. Or maybe not.
Faith or inference?
Comfort here is using a very broad and unusual version of the term “faith”. Now, this in itself is fine. “Faith” is just five letters arranged in a certain way; so long as you’re consistent you can define it to represent whatever you want, but as we’ll see in a moment, this can have unwanted consequences.
Faith usually means, by most people’s definition, as believing that something is true without evidence that it’s true. You take it on faith that a particular god exists, for instance. You take it on faith that this god wants you to wash your toes a certain number of times before praying, or to not pull and levers on an arbitrary day of the week, that sort of thing. There’s no actual evidence for this. There are a few books dictating it, but there are books that are testament to the existence of Gandalf and Harry Potter, this says nothing. There is no physical law of the universe Given this understanding, Comfort’s accusation that drivers profess “faith” in their brakes is plain wrong. Brakes are designed to stop cars. Brakes are tested to make sure they work. They must pass tests of tolerances against ware and tear. Their expected life time is known and replacements occasionally made. At the very least, a driver approaching a red light will have repeatedly used their brakes on the drive so far. This is no guarantee that they’ll work next time – but this is much in the same sense that we can’t guarantee that the sun will rise tomorrow because of the finite potentials for alien invasions destroying the Earth or spontaneous quantum death of the universe.
To be slightly technical, expecting your brakes to work when approaching a red light isn’t an expression of faith on behalf of a motorist or a pedestrian, but a reasonable inference based on past data.
But in the world of Ray Comfort and his rather bizarrely gullible followers, there’s no room for such subtlety.
A poor definition
Let’s assume for this second part that Comfort’s wider definition of “faith” to encompass reasonable inferences holds true. As I said, this is fine. You can define words how you like so long as you’re both consistent and let people know that bellabubing your flapdoodle isn’t quite as dirty as it sounds.
The question then remains: “so fucking what?”
Simply put, the fact that Ray cheekily expands his use of faith to encompass reasonable inferences doesn’t change the fact that they are, in fact, reasonable inferences. Even if you described the faith Comfort has in a God that is curiously absent in the real-life smiting or healing business (or has aim so terrible as to be completely indistinguishable from random, deity-free natural disasters) as “faith” and described the inference a driver makes about their brakes also as “faith”, they’re qualitatively different things. This doesn’t prove anything. It certainly causes a massive problem for what “faith” is because if trusting that your brakes (that you’ve observed to work previously) is faith, then is there an action, or belief, or factoid, that would not be counted as faith?
Without an example of this, the entire concept fails to have any meaning. It’s like using the word “stuff” to refer to absolutely anything in the universe. It’s nice and all, but it doesn’t narrow ourselves down and you’ve lumped in a cubic lightyear of hydrogen gas in a nebula with a coffee pot – it’s a pretty absurd abuse of language. To rip an example from Scott Clifton, we use words like “small” because we can define them in contrast to things that are “big”. If things weren’t bigger nor smaller, then the concept of size wouldn’t exist.
By the same token, if Ray Comfort insists that atheists have faith, and insists that drivers have faith… then it becomes a useless concept to use. He proves nothing, and indeed weakens his own ability to use the word “faith” anything.
For the sake of completeness, it’s worth pointing out that Comfort continues a little more after that paragraph:
With these thoughts in mind, it’s important to know that when a Christian says to have faith in God, we’re not saying to believe that He exists. That’s axiomatic. We are saying to exercise the same trust we have each day in things and in people. The difference being that God is utterly faithful because He cannot lie. You can trust Him to never let you down. Ever.
At first glance it may seem to address some of the issues described above. It’s just an analogy at the end of the day. But does it really? The analogy is a bad one. The situations are comparable for all the reasons espoused above. When he states that God will never let you down ever, he’s moving faith back to being an absolutist position. He gives no room for error or contingency as a reasonable inference allows for. He’s trying to evoke a sense of trust, and then yank it away to replace it with faith. It’s a good old fashioned semantic switcheroo, which is what makes him a bullshit merchant.