Monday, July 15, 2013

Becoming an Atheist - A Response

I can never tell if Ray Comfort is serious, or if he's engaged in a long-running practical joke that has become so successful that people think it's a genuine ministry. Honestly, for me here in America, it doesn't really matter. By and large, what he has to say doesn't pick my pocket; nor is it in any danger of breaking my leg. However, on the off chance that anyone takes items like this as a serious or credible assessment of atheism, well... that could cause some confusion on both sides. So:
Becoming an Atheist – Ray Comfort

There are two main hard and fast rules for anyone who would like to become an atheist. If you are tempted, beware. It's easy to take the first step, but it is very difficult to walk the walk.
First of all, is anyone ever actually tempted to become an atheist? I mean, what would anyone find tempting about losing their faith? Where's the payoff? What sort of angle does he think we're working, here?

Second, well... I'd agree that it's hard to "walk the walk" - just, not in the way that Comfort means. Since he's talking about atheists who used to be Christians (and, for that matter, since he assumes a priori that all atheists secretly know the truth of Christianity), I'm going to point out that everyone that I know who went from Christianity to atheism doesn't consider it a "choice" at all... and found the transition disconcerting, at best.
The first rule is to ignore design in nature. You will see it everywhere; from the planets, to the atoms, to the birds and the bees, to the seasons, to the design of the human body, the design of fish, flowers, fruits, feet, and even fungus. And of course, the amazing-looking human eye--everywhere you look and everywhere you can't look, you will see design.
No. This is a classic bit of Ray Comfort sleight-of-hand: nature has patterns, therefore it must have been designed. But here's the thing: pattern is not evidence of design. Pattern is evidence of, well, pattern. That's it. The same goes for complexity.

(Sure, if I find a watch in the desert, I'm going to assume that it's man-made... but that's because I know what a watch is, I know they don't occur naturally, and by the way I have a great bloody expanse of desert all around me to provide some non-designed contrast. If the world is designed, then metaphorically speaking we're all standing in the middle of the watch, and we have no desert available to compare it with.)
Now here's the hard part. Ignore your God-given common sense.
You know, every time I point out some part of the Bible that conflicts with my conscience, I'm told that my common sense isn't trustworthy; but let's ignore that. And, in fact, common sense frequently isn't very trustworthy, since human beings tend towards things like confirmation bias and pareidolia; but let's ignore that, too.

The real problem here is that Ray Comfort is setting this up with an underlying assertion that atheism is a choice - that some people, for incomprehensible reasons of their own, decide that they're going to become atheists, and then start looking around for ways to justify their decision. In my experience, that's essentially never how it works - it's almost always the other way around. In general, the process starts when someone finds a reason to doubt what they've been taught, and begins questioning and searching; they're almost never looking for a reason not to believe. And atheism isn't the only possible end of that process, either - plenty of people go through a phase of deep questioning and reassessment, and return to their religion with their faith strengthened.
Admit that everything man made is man-made, but be uncompromisingly adamant that everything in nature came from nothing, with no Designer.
This again? Yes, it appears to us that the world as it currently exists is the result of impersonal natural processes; but that isn't some bizarre view that we stubbornly insist upon despite all evidence to the contrary (because, again, pattern is not design). That actually is how the world appears to us; that view, and the interlocking theories that cover more specific patterns and phenomena, seem to better explain the world we live in than the idea that some all-powerful Creator willed it into being.

Note, however, the way that Comfort sets up his argument so there are only two possible sides: belief in his version of the Christian God, or uncompromising insistence that "everything in nature came from nothing". There's no room for nuance here, no allowance for honest disagreement; it's either Acknowledging The Truth or Stubbornly Refusing. That's a slick little bit of rhetorical setup, that is.
Once you have set aside your acumen to do this, crown yourself as being intelligent. Very. Then find other atheists and they will confirm to you that you are indeed, intelligent.
This is actually funny, because atheists (especially the ones who frequently end up discussing religion) do tend to assume that we're the smartest people in the room. And, as a general thing, we like hang around with people who agree with our views and values. Of course, so does everyone else - Ray Comfort included, as witnessed by this exact essay.
The second rule is to "believe." This is very important, because if you let doubt in, it will let in fear, and that can be a scary thing when the issue at stake is a place called "Hell."
Whoa-hoah! Slow down there, Tex. Show your work. It's a big enough leap from "nature has patterns" to "therefore God". Now you're jumping all the way from "nature has patterns" to "therefore Tha Fires O' Hell Await Ye!" and you're just expectin' the rest of us to follow 'long as if that were a given.

And no, I have no idea why I just slipped into a bad Old West Gunfighter accent, there.

My point stands, regardless. You can argue that nature shows clear evidence of design, just by existing. You can argue that anybody who really looks can see that. I'm not going to agree, of course, because I really have looked and I really don't see it, so by your logic I can't possibly exist. (So, um, "Hi!") But even if I'm wrong, and nature really does show clear and undeniable evidence of design (and I'm just, I don't know, theologically color-blind or something, that I can't see it), it's a long stretch of road between "the Universe must have been created," and "Hell exists, exactly as my particular brand of Christianity describes it."

You can only skip directly from the idea of an all-powerful Creator to the specifically Christian concept of Hell if your starting point isn't actually some sort of perceived design in nature, but rather the Christian Bible. Even then... The idea of Hell as an actual place where the souls of the unredeemed are punished for eternity is only loosely Biblical. It has a lot more to do with Christian popular culture than it does with the three (that's right, only three) passages in the Bible that mention the matter at all.

As far as letting doubt in... Look, quite a few of us live our lives pretty comfortably with quite a bit of doubt, ambiguity, lack of complete knowledge, and varying degrees of uncertainty about a variety of topics. (The poet John Keats referred to the ability to operate this way as "Negative Capability" and considered it both a virtue, and something of a prerequisite for honesty.) So once again, either Comfort is wrong, or I don't really exist - because letting doubt in, as a matter of fact, doesn't let in fear.
Believe that you are right in your beliefs.
Okay, quick show of hands: is there anyone out (Christian, atheist, or something else altogether) there who doesn't believe that their beliefs are correct? No?

...I didn't think so. Which brings me back to an earlier point: people don't become atheists because (for reasons that Ray Comfort presumably understands, but I do not) they choose to. They come to be atheists because based on the evidence they have available, and their best analysis of that evidence, they think atheism is the likeliest conclusion.
Believe that evolution is indeed true. Believe that it's scientific. Believe that there are no missing links, and believe that Richard Dawkins knows what he is talking about.
Wait, what? How did atheism and evolutionary theory suddenly become one and the same? First of all, there are plenty of Christians who find the Theory of Evolution perfectly compatible with belief in a divine Creator. Second of all, it's perfectly possible not to believe in God, and not to believe in terrestrial evolution at the same time. (See, for example, some of the Fortean theories of Ancient Aliens.)

As for missing links... did you know that it is absolutely impossible for an arrow shot at a target to reach that target? Because, you know, it passes the halfway point. And then it passes the halfway point for the remaining distance. And then it halves the remaining distance. And it covers half of the remaining distance... And since it must cover an infinite number of these halfway points, it can never actually reach the target. We have transitional fossils. Yes, occasionally we find new transitional fossils that contradict our previous conclusions. You know what happens then? Our model gets updated to incorporate the new information. What Ray Comfort is doing with his "no missing links" schtick is setting up the Zeno's Paradox of transitional fossils.

And how on Earth did Richard Dawkins get in there? Was Comfort just conflating unrelated topics, and decided to throw him into the mix, too?

Okay, I realize that Richard Dawkins is kind of a Big Bad for a certain strain of evangelical(?) Christianity, but out here among the atheists, a lot of us know him only by reputation. I've never read his stuff, I've never seen him in a debate - in fact, I'm not entirely certain that he participates in debates. Either way, an awful lot of atheists - again, going mainly by the people I know - came to their disbelief mainly on their own. They weren't following any "leaders", particularly among the New Atheists. They were just asking questions and looking for answers.
Believe that you are an ape, that you are not morally responsible because apes have no moral absolutes. Believe that your conscience was given to you by your parents and society, and not by God (always use a small "g" for God, if possible).
Granting a bit of hyperbole on Comfort's part - current evolutionary theory suggests that we share a common ancestor with apes, not that we are apes ourselves - we're still back into "Slow down, Tex, and show your work" territory, here. This idea - that if God doesn't exist, then there are no moral absolutes - simply isn't true. "We have a responsibility to take care of each other and do each other as little harm as possible," is a moral absolute... and it requires no belief in the supernatural whatsoever. All you need is a degree of empathy and a willingness to acknowledge that humans are social beings.

But set that aside, because the real issue here is that Comfort has taken us completely off-track. Atheism isn't a starting point; it's a conclusion. All its says is, "As far as I can tell, there is no God and there are no gods." That doesn't absolve you of any sort of moral responsibility to your fellow human beings; it just means that your moral responsibilities only extend to beings you can perceive and interact with.
To grow as an atheist, you will need to learn believers' language--phrases like "There is no creation," "Evolution is a proven fact," and the powerful "Flying Spaghetti Monster." Learn the fine art of cutting and pasting, and responding with "Straw man!" That means you won't have to respond to anything challenging.
I find it somewhat telling that the phrase "Straw Man!" so typifies atheist reactions to Ray Comfort that he's included it here as a Standard Atheist Boilerplate Response. Except, well, I think that says more about Ray Comfort and his assertions about atheism than it says about atheists themselves. (If you keep asking people out on dates, and they keep turning you down, maybe the problem isn't with them...)

I don't know any atheists who make a habit of saying, "There is no creation." Maybe they're out there - maybe - but I haven't run into any. The folks who are interested/literate in science tend to make careful, qualified statements like, "The best evidence that we have at present indicates that life diversified gradually over millions of years through a process of evolution." I do know some who will point out that the alternative to the Theory of Evolution - the theory that God Did It - isn't much of an explanation... especially if you insist on the belief that the Earth itself is 22,000 years younger than certain aboriginal rock art. (To be fair, I'm not at all sure whether Ray Comfort is a young-Earth Creationist or not. I get him confused with Ken Ham, to the extent that I'm not entirely sure where their beliefs differ.)
All this will give perceived intelligence. Never question evolution, and don't think for yourself.
Again, this is a nice bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Apparently, having been "tempted" by atheism (what's so tempting about it?) and having "decided" to become an atheist (because, um, why?), you're now supposed to never think for yourself. At least, that's the way Ray Comfort sees it, even though according to him it was thinking for yourself that led you here in the first place.

Notice, again, the absolute connection (at least in Comfort's mind) between evolution and atheism. Is it possible to accept the Theory of Evolution and remain a true Christian? Comfort doesn't come out and say it here, but judging by what we've read so far, his answer is a resounding "No!" So, you know, an awful lot of mainstream American Christians aren't, in Ray Comfort's mind, really Christians at all. Never mind the whole "followers of Jesus" bit.
Do these things, and you will be able to call yourself an atheist, or even a "new" atheist. How cool is that!
Well, um, judging by the studies that show that atheists are among the least trusted groups in America, I'd go with "Not Very Cool At All."

Again, almost nobody decides to become an atheist so that they can be part of in "in-crowd". If there are benefits to being an atheist - social benefits, financial benefits, career benefits, or maybe psychological benefits - I'm sure not seeing them. I'm just lucky to live and work in an environment where being a reasonably open atheist isn't actively career-limiting.

Which brings me back, once again, to an earlier question: why, exactly, does Ray Comfort think anyone would find the idea of becoming an atheist tempting?
Well, I should say, as much of one as you can be called one. No one can be a true atheist because you need "absolute knowledge" to say that there is no God.
This is another cute bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand: set the bar so high that nobody can possibly meet it. Yes, I would need absolute knowledge to say that I absolutely know that there is no God. But I don't need anything even close to that to explain that Christianity - and Ray Comfort's version of Christianity, in particular - fails to explain my perception of the world or reflect my experiences in the world. I don't have to conclusively prove that every possible version of God absolutely doesn't exist before concluding that my current views (of the world as the result of impersonal natural processes) provide a more accurate, if less satisfying, explanation for why the world is the way it is.
So until you are omniscient (like God), you will just have to do with pretending to be one.
So, finally, Comfort closes his essay with another common misconception (and another reason why he might might be ever-so-intimately-familiar with people using the phrase, "Straw Man!"). The implication - stated here as a given, that all right-thinking people naturally accept - is that atheists think of themselves as gods, or want to be God, or are pretending to be God.

That... isn't possible. An atheist who thought he (or she) was a god would necessarily believe in gods, and would therefore (by definition) no longer be an atheist. I don't know what you'd call such a person - autotheist, perhaps? Or in more practical terms, maybe just a Narcissist?

Regardless, we're back to the part where atheists don't believe in God, or gods. We really just don't think such things exist. Some people have trouble processing that ("You have to worship something!"), and so, I think, conclude that if we won't point to something external, we must be worshiping ourselves - or maybe each other; see the reference to Dawkins, above. That... simply isn't so. However strange it may sound, there are some of us who seem to have been born without a compelling need to worship anything. (The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is, say it with me, a lovely little bit of satire.)

This also sort of conflicts with Comfort's earlier assertions. After all, if God's existence is so perfectly obvious from The Evidence Of Design In The World(tm), then there are no real atheists. That is, there isn't really anybody who genuinely thinks that God just doesn't exist. Anyone who claims to be an atheist is... well, from this essay, I don't know. But based on some previous conversations with certain sorts of believers, I'm going to go with "suppressing the truth in unrighteousness," and I'll leave you to figure out what that means, exactly.

It seems to mean that I don't really exist, though. So again, um, "Hi."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!