Them’s fightin’ words, Ray

I’ve been hearing about it for a long time, but only just found the energy to face it yesterday: Ray Comfort’s blog, “Atheist Central.” I’d seen the video with Kirk Cameron about the banana (which I can’t find on YouTube, but there are plenty of videos responding to it; here’s one), and that was enough to deter me. Until now.

So, the first few blog posts are enough to make one’s head explode. Not because it’s such amazing information that makes one completely rethink his or her entire world view, but because it is such willfully ignorant and malicious material, it actually hurts to read it.

Please know, I don’t use “willful” lightly. It takes some work to be willfully ignorant. Some people exist in a state of ignorance purely because they truly don’t know any better. “Willfully ignorant” people are such because they have access to a wealth of information and choose to ignore it. Comfort calls his blog “Atheist Central” because such a large portion of his readers (or his commenters, anyway) are atheists. I can’t speak for everyone, but my guess would be because the skeptical, freethinking community tends to use that as a frequent reminder that there is still much work to be done in combatting bad propagandistic information. Although, I suspect quite a few people really just need the daily laugh, and his idiocy comes in high doses.

So anyhow, I see this section on the right side of his page that is titled, “The Atheist Starter Kit.” I’m sure he’s very proud of himself for having come up with this. He says:

If you are a beginner atheist, there’s a belief system you should embrace and a language you should learn, or you will find yourself in trouble. Here are ten suggestions for the novice:

Okay, so at first, I let it slide, but it turns out I really can’t let it go. I feel I need to respond to this list of ten things, one by one, if for no other reason than to just get it off my chest. As I’ve mentioned, he’s very willfully ignorant, so I have no delusions of convincing him that his little satire is not clever. I doubt I’ll say anything here that hasn’t been said brilliantly by countless other people. But I’m going to say it anway.

So let’s start with this introduction. Atheism is not a “belief system.” There are no governing tenets, and atheists, in general, take great pride in thinking for themselves. The fact is simply that many of them agree because the evidence in matters they consider tends to point in the same direction for everyone. It is not because they’ve got some narrow-minded book or minister telling them what to think and believe.

Alright… let’s get going. His first suggestions:

1. Whenever you are presented with credible evidence for God’s existence, call it a “straw man argument,” or “circular reasoning.” If something is quoted from somewhere, label it “quote mining.”

Okay, well, since you brought it up, let’s talk about these very distinct logical fallacies. It’s important to avoid using them (and others) in debating a position, and it’s important to recognize when your opponent is using them. Many logical fallacies are so prevalent in today’s world that it’s hard to recognize them.

A straw man argument is probably one of the most commonly used on both sides of the religion/science debate. It is essentially a misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument, and it is done in such a way that the argument becomes easy to knock over (as a straw man, get it?). They may be accidental (because of lack of understanding of the opponent’s position), or they may be quite intentional. An extremely common example is:

“Do you really believe we are descended from apes? Then why do apes still exist after they supposedly evolved into a better (fitter) form?” The answer is, no, evolutionists do not believe we descended from apes. Someone who thinks they’ve knocked evolution on its ass with this brilliant reasoning either doesn’t understand the ideas of evolution, or assumes he will win over those people who don’t understand it through sneaky misrepresentation.

Circular reasoning is really pretty self-explanatory. It is an attempt at reason/logic that goes in a circle, and really concludes nothing. My favorite example:

“You don’t believe in God? Well, I know he exists because my bible tells me he does. How do I know I can trust the bible? Because God has told me so.” And now we’re back to the question of the reality of God. Your “evidence” has not answered the original question.

Quote mining is the use of a quote, often taken out of context, and often from a source used by opponents, to discredit or diminish a key element of an argument. Here’s an example, taken from The Living Store’s “The Atheist Test,” which Ray links to on his blog:

Charles Darwin said,

“To suppose that the eye could have been formed by natural selection, seems I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

If man cannot begin to make a human eye, how could anyone in his right mind think that eyes formed by mere chance?

Except, what Charles Darwin really said, was this (emphasis is mine):

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. When it was first said that the sun stood still and the world turned round, the common sense of mankind declared the doctrine false; but the old saying of Vox populi, vox Dei, as every philosopher knows, cannot be trusted in science. Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certain the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, should not be considered as subversive of the theory. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself originated; but I may remark that, as some of the lowest organisms in which nerves cannot be detected, are capable of perceiving light, it does not seem impossible that certain sensitive elements in their sarcode should become aggregated and developed into nerves, endowed with this special sensibility.

(Vox populi, vox dei translates from Latin to mean, “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”) Darwin makes the regrettable mistake of introducing his argument for the possibility of the evolution of the eye by presupposing the argument against. This has allowed dissenters easy, surface quote mining.

So Ray, when your opponents respond by calling you out on your logical fallacies, they are actually calling you out on the lack of “credible evidence” you supposedly provide. It is not a tactic geared toward anything except the purpose of asking for a fair and evidence-based debate.

Whew. That one took a while. I hope the next nine aren’t so involved. Moving on:

2. When a Christian says that creation proves that there is a Creator, dismiss such common sense by saying “That’s just the old watchmaker argument.”

What the watchmaker argument states is that if you look at a watch (or in other forms, a building, a car, etc.), you can see the complex workings, and you know that it was designed, or created. Such a thing doesn’t come about because of random chance. Similarly, human beings (and most other life forms) are extremely complex, and must have a designer as well.

That’s all well and good, except no one has proposed any ideas that would suggest how a watch (building, car, etc.) could come to exist in the absence of a designer. In all honesty, no one has needed to, since watchmakers aren’t hiding out in some hole in the sky and creating unexplainable watches from heaven. We can prove that there are watch designers that exist.

Conversely, evolution presents a quite plausible concept of how life came to be so complex without any hand but time’s in the mixture. Evolution, incidentally, is hardly “pure chance.” In the simplest terms, it is the result of mutations that occur over generations. Species who are aided or unhindered by such mutations tend to survive. Species whose mutations present an obstacle to survival typically fail to do so. But I’m not here to argue for evolution. I’m here right now to argue Ray Comfort’s suggestions for novice atheists. So I suppose it’s time to move on.

3. When you hear that you have everything to gain and nothing to lose (the pleasures of Heaven, and the endurance of Hell) by obeying the Gospel, say “That’s just the old ‘Pascal wager.'”

Ray’s dismissal of this argument suggests that he really doesn’t understand Pascal’s wager, which is essentially the idea presented here. Even if God doesn’t exist, shouldn’t you lay the chips on God anyway, since doing so could win you a spot in heaven, and not doing so could see you ending up in Hell?

Great theory, except the God I was taught about growing up was smarter than that. He wanted followers – people who truly believed in their hearts, and lived to serve him. Simply saying you believe in him may have been sufficient to fool your fellow church members, but you’d still be bound for Hell. And there’s the catch: finding a way to truly believe enough to earn admission to heaven is extremely difficult in light of the evidence that convinced a person that there is no god in the first place.

Frankly, it truly surprises me that people who claim to know God so very well actually try to use this argument to convert people. You’d think they’d know better than to bring posers to bow at God’s feet.


4. You can also deal with the “whoever looks on a woman to lust for her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart,” by saying that there is no evidence that Jesus existed. None.

I’ll be honest. I don’t even know what he’s trying to say here. My best guess is that, since atheists don’t believe in Jesus, we are perfectly willing to let that adultery thing slide right on by. Which goes to the old, “if you don’t believe in god, where do your morals come from?” argument. I’ll respond briefly by referring you research the Ethic of Reciprocity, which is known to Christians as the Golden Rule, but actually shows up in many pre-Christian and pagan religions as well. In short, we don’t perform or overlook grievances to individuals or humanity as a whole because they are grievances we don’t want happening to us. Whether it’s a fear of retaliation or a sense of empathy (or a combination of both), it exists, and we don’t need a god to enforce it. It’s really pretty much a no-brainer.

5. Believe that the Bible is full of mistakes, and actually says things like the world is flat. Do not read it for yourself. That is a big mistake. Instead, read, believe, and imitate Richard Dawkins. Learn and practice the use of big words. “Megalo-maniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” is a good phrase to learn.

Hey, guess what? There are ignorant people everywhere. In this specific case, anyone who has argued that the bible actually says the world is flat. I haven’t read the whole thing, but I’m pretty sure I never saw that verse in any of my Sunday school classes. I have heard people talk about the bible coming from a time when folks believed the world was flat, suggesting that perhaps its science is a bit outdated. That comment I’ll stand behind. Since I can’t trust good old Ray not to twist someone’s words, I just wanted to make that qualification.

So, I’m all for understanding the tenets and texts of an opponent’s arguments. That’s really the best way to avoid slipping into logical fallacies and invalidating your arguments, and potentially, your credibility.

That said, there’s plenty of reason to suggest megalomaniacal (worship-demanding), sadomasochistic (flaying of skin), capriciously malevolent (child-sacrificing) qualities about the god of the bible. Sure, there’s stuff in there about how he’s loving, too, but his mood swings are worse than PMS without chocolate.

Just because religion holds deities and people on certain pedestals, doesn’t mean that atheists do as well. As I stated before, any similarities you find are not because of a demand of any person or text, Dawkins and/or his works included.

Halfway there! I’m starting to feel a little better already! Are you still with me? Take a breather – go get some nachos or something. I’ll still be here when you get back.

6. Say that you were once a genuine Christian, and that you found it to be false. (The cool thing about being an atheist is that you can lie through your teeth, because you believe that are no moral absolutes.) Additionally, if a Christian points out that this is impossible (simply due to the very definition of Christianity as one who knows the Lord), just reply “That’s the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy.'” PLEASE NOTE: It cannot be overly emphasized how learning and using these little phrases can help you feel secure in dismissing common sense.

You’re one to talk about being dismissive, Ray, seriously. I’ve discussed my journey from Christianity to atheism already, elsewhere on this blog. I won’t waste time here trying to convince anyone. But because I decided to stop fighting the cognitive dissonance, all of my years in the church amount to nothing more than a tactic to, what exactly?

The No True Scotsman fallacy is described as:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

In other words, the boundary becomes blurred in order to maintain the Scotsman’s comfortable definition of a Scot. Or in Ray’s case, a Christian is not one who follows or is of Christ (as the name implicitly suggests), but instead one who knows the Lord. One who follows Christ can stop following at any time, an uncomfortable thought for Mr. Comfort. One who “knows the Lord” cannot continue to claim to have known someone/something which they now claim to not exist at all. So Ray sleeps better at night knowing that no true Christian could find the whole thing to be false.
7. Believe that nothing is 100% certain, except the theory of Darwinian evolution. Do not question it. Believe with all of your heart that there is credible scientific evidence for species-to-species transitional forms. When you make any argument, pat yourself on the back by concluding with “Man, are you busted!” That will make you feel good about yourself.
Well, you’ve got one thing right: “Believe that nothing is 100% certain.” Except then you keep writing and blow it all to hell. Atheists don’t accept anything, even evolution, as 100% certain. We have an open mind to the possibility of an answer, completely apart from the one we accept, to peek its head over the horizon and hit us in the face. The difference between skeptics, freethinkers, atheists, etc. and you is that we are excited by the possibility of learning something new and unexpected.
8. Deal with the threat of eternal punishment by saying that you don’t believe in the existence of Hell. Then convince yourself that because you don’t believe in something, it therefore doesn’t exist. Don’t follow that logic onto a railway line and an oncoming train.
Actually, I don’t believe it exists, because there is no evidence that it exists. That is the basis for my world view. I don’t choose a belief, then wish it into or out of existence. It really is that simple.
9. Blame Christianity for the atrocities of the Roman Catholic church–when it tortured Christians through the Spanish Inquisition, imprisoned Galileo for his beliefs, or when it murdered Moslems in the Crusades.
Wait, aren’t Catholics Christians, too? Oh, wait, there’s that No True Scotsman issue again…
Honestly, I don’t think it’s all that productive to argue the death toll for each side, as so many people are wont to do. Things like the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s version of communism are the result of ignorance, pushes for power and/or fearmongering. Granted, there is some validity to the point of who is driving these factors, but doesn’t religion have enough atrocities to answer for in today’s world without having to argue over the past? People need to be accountable for their own actions today.
10. Finally, keep in fellowship with other like-minded atheists who believe as you believe, and encourage each other in your beliefs. Build up your faith. Never doubt for a moment. Remember, the key to atheism is to be unreasonable. Fall back on that when you feel threatened. Think shallow, and keep telling yourself that you are intelligent. Remember, an atheist is someone who pretends there is no God.
I’m so drained from the preceding nine arguments that it’s difficult to muster the words to express the disgust I feel when reading this statement.
Fellowship: Yes, important to most people. As atheists, it’s not necessarily about being around the same beliefs, but more about being around the same thought process.In a country where we are such a minority, it is helpful to see that I am not the only person who questions what others take for granted.
I shouldn’t be judged for using my brain, and I won’t apologize for it. Yes, I do remind myself often that I am intelligent. I think my inquiry into everything that isn’t supported by evidence is so far beyond shallow that I can’t even comprehend why Ray Comfort chose that particular word, except for its negative connotation in general. It is not unreasonable to demand truth and evidence. It is not unreasonable to decide not be a sheep who says “moo,” just because all the other sheep are doing it.
This set of ten “suggestions” are really just an amalgam of various logical fallacies, and as a whole, are a pretty offensive ad hominem attack. I suppose dismissing the atheist position can help him feel better about the arguments he’s encountered, but it doesn’t make those arguments invalid.
There you have it. Hope the nachos were good. Did you save any for me? I’m spent.

Cracker-Jack Journalism

There was an article published in yesterday’s Times-Herald in Coweta County, Georgia, titled, “Believe it or Not,” written by ace reporter Alex McRae.

It seems that McRae came across the published brochure for the 2008 Atheist Alliance International Convention, and decided to forgo the journalistic process and use his column to simply mock the AAI’s efforts. Apparently, once you’re granted columnist status in small-town, small-circulation newspaper, you don’t have to put any more effort into your work than goes into the average op/ed letter coming from your average joe.

Instead of taking the opportunity to learn more about the point of the convention and its attendees, McRae chooses instead to level a number of juvenile ad hominem attacks:

Don’t be alarmed. Atheist World isn’t a new planet. It’s a convention of people who don’t believe in much of anything. Small crowds are expected.

Maybe attendance to the Sept. 25-28 event would be higher if it were hyped like a political convention, complete with free whiskey, strippers, red-faced speakers, back-room bargaining sessions and bazillions of balloons.

Apparently, atheists aren’t fond of such frivolity. Guess it might imply they actually enjoyed life.

Is this because the attendees won’t be rolling in the aisles? Apparently, he finds the whole convention’s itinerary dull:

The promotional brochure on the Internet says …

“The Atheist Alliance International (AAI) will hold its annual convention on the Queen Mary, in Long Beach, Calif., Sept. 25-28, 2008. Titled “Unsinkable Atheism,” the conference will mix freethinking intellectual discussion with charity events, an atheist wedding, a salute to ‘atheists in foxholes,’ and a children’s summer camp.”

Intellectual discussion? Atheist wedding? Charity events? Set the snooze alarm and call me when the Cyndi Lauper concert starts.

How about nobody calls you at all? How about people who care about the message (and who want to remind themselves that the world’s not completely full of willfully ignorant, dismissive jerks) just leave you out of the party? I think that would make everyone happier in the long run.

Wait it gets better – we really get a glimpse into the mature, open-minded side of the author:

…[O]ne section of the brochure is titled “Who We Are.” But it doesn’t tell “Who We Are.” It actually describes “How We Live,” described in such nuggets as:

“Atheism is living one’s life without the supernatural,” and “We are responsible for humane interaction with other animals and for the preservation of our habitable planet.”


Nice. This passes for journalism. Here’s his closer:

By the way, AAI bills itself as religion-free. As opposed to sugar-free or fat-free, I guess. But the more you read about this group, it seems like what they’re most free of is a sense of humor. There’s not a light moment on the agenda.

You wonder why. Here’s an “enlightened” guess: Maybe atheists refuse to embrace laughter because they’re afraid that one day they’ll discover the joke’s on them.

I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the header of the brochure that this is meant to be a party-fest, but it seems to me the organizers have done a fine job of including plenty of levity (such as comedians Troy Conrad and Julia Sweeney), interspersed with informative speakers and interesting topics. Some people don’t find learning boring. In a perfect world, someone in the career of delivering news to the masses should be such a person.