You’re not thinking like a true atheist!

createRay Comfort, aka Bananaman, has posted this to his Facebook page twice in fairly quick succession recently, while promoting his fuck-awful “documentary”, Evolution vs God. And no, it really wasn’t any funnier the second time. I’ve seen funnier Dan Lietha cartoons, although that’s only because Lietha’s crippling blindness to the irony of what he writes is inherently hilarious.

I know it’s a cartoon and all, but even then a joke needs a logical structure to it. Observational comedy requires (clue’s in the title here) an observation. Unless you’re one of those ghastly right-wing types who just make stuff up to play to their audience’s prejudices, then really it helps if the observations are somewhat factual. A joke should embed itself partially in reality, otherwise what else are you left with? It sounds pedantic, but seriously, when was the last time you ever laughed at something where that wasn’t based in fact?

Anyway, let’s look at the logical structure since we know that Comfort is trying to make a point, rather than make people laugh here. The text becomes fair game for dissection in this respect.

I’ve been thinking about how no one can create anything from nothing….

Okay, this is mostly true. We can see from experience and observation that things aren’t “created from nothing”. If you want to make a sandwich, you get ingredients and assemble them into a sandwich; it was created, but only in the sense that it was assembled from parts and that a sandwich now exists where there were only the component parts of a sandwich before. You weren’t “created” when you were born, you were assembled. You mind wasn’t “created” at any point, it was assembled as an emergent phenomenon caused by the organisation of neurons in your brain. I’m so sorry if that denigrates your existence by removing the magic from it, but reality sends its regards and says it doesn’t really give a fuck.

So, what?

Doesn’t that prove everything must have had a creator?

Wait? What? Okay, okay, we could salvage this car crash if the Walter White lookalike in the other panel says something sufficiently witty, but Jesse Pinkman here is playing the protagonist for the creationist, so we must assume they’re supposed to be presented as “right”. In this case, how? Where is the logical connection?

I’m still struggling to find it. I’m trying really hard. I just cannot figure it out. We start with the observation that we only observe ex materia and no ex nihilo creation events, and make a pretty good inference that this means ex nihilo creation is, in fact, impossible. Although that’s just an inference, there are also good logical reasons why it’s impossible, or at least that if it is possible it would break the concept of causality. But how do we go from there to proving that everything had a creator? The first premise says nothing about the nature of the creator, nor anything about creation requiring a “creator”. “Creator” as in an independently acting agent, as we can make a good case for an unconscious physical cause but not for a conscious creator. After all, a car engine “creates” carbon dioxide and water vapour (from hydrocarbons) but we would be hard-pushed to give it the personal agency implied by calling it a “creator”.*

I’m still looking at those two panels. And I’m thinking, and I just can’t see it.

Anyway, I did say the “joke” could be salvaged if the Walter White lookalike could say something sufficiently witty in the last panel. Alas, I lack the wit and charm required, so offer this pitiful re-write that should appeal:

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*”Aha!” perks up that one annoying guy in the front row. “But the engine is operated by a human, therefore the human is the creator!” Perhaps, but the human is driving because of their desire to go from A to B. The “creator” is, in fact, the abstract entity of the daily commute.

If in doubt, jump on other people’s misery for your own gain

From the archives of Ray Comfort:

One of the three Cleveland girls who was kidnapped and held captive for ten years says that she had become pregnant five times and that each time her captor, Ariel Castro, starved her and punched her in the stomach until she miscarried. According to CBS News, unlawful termination of a pregnancy in Ohio is to commit murder, and Castro could be given the death sentence.

But one moment. Why is there such an outcry about the termination of five pregnancies? Everyone knows “It’s not a child in the womb,” and besides, each of the pregnancies were the product of rape, and according to pro-abortion advocates should be terminated. The key is the word “unlawful.” Her captive should have had the five children killed lawfully at an abortion clinic. Hypocrisy is not confined to the Church.

It would be a pointless and rather pained task to say what is wrong with this. It should be obvious. However, it does helps highlight the absolute depths that some people will sink to in using misery to score political or “philosophical” points.

The long and short of it is that people who are “pro-abortion” are actually “pro-choice”. And unlike the opposite, “pro-life”, this isn’t an horrific misnomer. When Penn Jillette said on an episode of Bullshit! that “people aren’t ‘pro life’ or ‘pro choice’, they’re for or against abortion” he was wrong. Painfully wrong. “Pro choice” literally means that it should be someone’s free choice to abort or not. This is really orthogonal to being “for” or “against” abortion itself. This isn’t hard to understand.

Except for Ray Comfort, because he lacks the empathic capacity to see it.

Forcing someone to terminate through a brutal and unsafe method (that will become more common should anyone decide to outlaw the safe and legal methods) is emphatically against that “pro choice” principle. Whether it be a product of rape, incest, or even consensual activity, the choice belongs purely with the person experiencing the pregnancy. That’s it. End of discussion.

People like Ray Comfort don’t understand the basic concept of “informed consent”, which underpins a lot of humanistic morality, and don’t believe humans are smart enough to deal with it on their own. They don’t think we can figure out some kind of behavioural guidance for ourselves using tools such as empathy and compassion. Such tools don’t come from a god, but from the ability to imagine being another person; it’s a stretch, it’s an inference, and it’s not always easy, but it can be done. Some of us choose to exercise that ability and put it to use. Sure, it’s difficult and I’m sure being told what is “right” and what is “wrong” is so much simpler, but not all of us need that.

The mere fact that we can do this is a massive problem for fundamentalist evangelists and their followers. A truly massive problem of an epic scale. It means their absolutist views aren’t necessary, and if they’re not necessary, there’s no reason at all to hold them. Indeed, things like presuppositional apologetics outright state that there isn’t a reason to believe in them, and then change the rules of the game to handwave it away. That sort of thing simply cannot survive in the face of people making their own choices.

Given that, why does it still surprise me how far people will go in demonising others and outright misrepresenting their opinions and ideas? It’s the only way they can rationalise their position.

Too much Comfort…

Subscribing to Ray Comfort on Facebook was probably a bad idea. There are nearly half a dozen posts on his page a day, ranging from longwinded rants to fairly short and meaningless phrases designed to just make people feel better about believing his own brand of Christianity (aka, the stupid, unthinking variety). There is so much wrong coming out from him that each posts makes me want to go racing to a blog, or comment section, and then dissect it.

Then I realise that it’s probably pointless to do so.

With 100,000+ followers, Ray’s page is the kind where conversation moves fast. By the time even I see the post, it’s amassed 1,000 comments already. A good proportion of them are his followers blinding saying “AMEN”, which I’m sure used to be a nice way to end a prayer, but in this context seems more like a chant of “OBEY, OBEY, OBEY!”

And clearly, his supporters simply are obeying and unthinking, because much of what he says is easy to refute and easily shown to be fallacious. Even a brief moment to stop, step out of a bubble of belief (you’re free to step back into it afterwards), and think about what he says proves it to be stupid.

He tries to defend slavery in the Bible by focusing on debt-slavery (which, apparently, “doesn’t count”, but is certainly in there) but glosses over all other mentions of what the Bible endorses doing to non-Hebrews. He claims that someone using the word “belief” in the context of the phrase “believe in evolution” somehow means it requires faith – but, frankly, saying what’s wrong with that would go well over the heads of anyone involved in the conversation. He also tries to say that someone mentioning that they “hate God” because “God is clearly vile” proves that they think God is real, because, you know, me saying “Joffrey Baratheon is a right cunt” implies I think Joffrey Braratheon is a real person in the real world where real things reside. His most recent jaunt is saying that a US Supreme Court ruling that atheism “is a religion” proves that it is a religion – there’s so much Not Even Wrong about this assertion that I’m not quite sure where to start. Needless to say, it’s probably beyond Comfort and the people (“And the sperm and egg came from where first?”) who follow him.

He has no respect for, or even concept of, the use-mention distinction – any “foul” language, which includes using the acronym “BS” will result in an immediate ban. That, and also the immediate assumption of you being an atheist. I don’t know how many Christians he’s caught in his indiscriminate net, but maybe a good portion of the 700+ people he’s proudly banned.  When he raises the number of people banned, he mentions “posting pornography” as a reason – rather rudely implying that such a thing is a common occurrence, whereas in reality 90% of his blocks are probably for posting nothing more obscene than the word “fart”. By golly gosh.

He will ban people for using the word “banana” – because his most famous video claiming that the banana was an perfect example of intelligent design has been so widely mocked and refuted (yes, the modern banana is, in fact, intelligently designed, because it’s been selectively bred by humans over thousands of years) that he’s resorted to claiming that it was “a joke” or “a stand up routine”. Except the original video is still available online to watch; there’s no sense of “stand up” about it, the original was serious, and there’s even a video attacking atheists for taking it out of context (you can see this “apology video” in here). Ray Comfort repeatedly lies about the nature of that original video, and his followers lap it up and accept this revisionism.

His understanding of atheism and evolution can hardly be called understanding at all. He makes no attempt to even try to understand these completely unrelated ideas, instead conflating them and then making up his own assertions about what they mean. He regularly ignores everyone who tells him otherwise. Instead, when he does find time to respond to someone calling out his bullshit he cherry picks the most minute wording of the least-informed responses and focuses on them instead – managing to make even more simplified straw man arguments out of arguments that weren’t that great to start with (and yes, there are bad arguments for atheism and evolution). I know this because I’ve dropped in very direct questions while he was in the middle of responding to ones around him and been ignored. Perhaps he missed me, or perhaps the word “naturalistic” had too many syllables in it for him to process without having to have a long sit down and a cup of coffee first.

So, in all, Ray Comfort isn’t that bright. I wonder why people bother with him, because although time consuming it’s not difficult to point out the myriad flaws in everything he says. Then you notice; 100,000+ followers; millions of YouTube views; thousands more he speaks to and addresses when invited to speak. People take him seriously. Seriously.

He’s considered one of the best that his “side” has to offer.

He is taken seriously, and referenced by others, like Eric Hovind and Ken Ham, as someone to respect and pay attention to.

A man that demonstrably stupid and dishonest is considered, amongst his followers, a go-to guy for his religion. This isn’t just some random twerp going derp-a-derp into a webcam, to his brand of evangelical Christianity, he is as Dawkins is to evolutionary biology and Hawking is to physics. That’s the single scariest thing I’ve thought of for a while.

Dumbest man alive?

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.

Caveat

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.