Let me begin by saying that I’m a big fan of Ray Comfort’s 2011 pro-life movie, 180, which packed a powerful punch, but also made you think. The hypothetical question which Comfort posed to the college students he interviewed was simple but stunningly effective, in exposing the intellectual inconsistency of the pro-choice position.
Last night, I viewed Ray Comfort’s latest movie, The Atheist Delusion, which is now available on Youtube. Professor Jerry Coyne has already critiqued some of Ray Comfort’s anti-evolutionary arguments – especially the ones about the chicken and the egg, the origin of the eye, and the origin of the heart and circulatory system (see here: his segment starts at 46:45 and runs till 56:30). I will be saying more below about Comfort’s two main arguments for God (relating to the origin of the universe and the origin of DNA), which Coyne did not address.
But the aim of Comfort’s movie is not merely to convince people that God exists. Ray Comfort is, and always will be, a missionary, and in the latter half of the movie, he tries to convert the people he interviews to Christianity. Not all Christians agree with his theology, however, and in this post, I’d like to ask him one question which I think will blow his apologetic to smithereens. But before I do that, I’d like to describe Comfort’s interviewing technique.
Ray Comfort’s method of interrogating his subjects
Ray Comfort’s standard method of interrogating the people he interviews goes like this:
Do you think you’re a good person?
(Most people, rather foolishly in my opinion, answer yes. The fact is that we’re a mix of both good and bad.)
Have you ever lied, stolen, lusted or blasphemed?
(After some hemming and hawing, most people admit that they have, once Comfort points out that illegally downloading music is stealing, and that taking God’s name casually – even saying “OMG” – is blasphemy.)
What do you call a person who lies, steals, lusts and blasphemes?
(The answer Ray Comfort obviously wants to hear is: a liar, a thief, a fornicator and a blasphemer. But that’s not true. Describing a person who has lied only a few times in her life as a liar is silly: a liar is someone who habitually lies. Also, someone who used to lie habitually but who no longer does so is an ex-liar, not a liar. The same logic applies for the other vices.)
Come on, admit it: you have a vested interest in denying the existence of God, because it gives you an opportunity to do the things you do, like fornicating and viewing pornography, without feeling guilty. Isn’t that right?
(This one usually makes the young guys squirm, as most of them, sadly, are into online porn, nowadays. But the logic of the argument is weak: even if atheism lets you off the hook for doing these things – and many feminist atheists would argue otherwise – affirming the existence of a personal God doesn’t entail that you are not allowed to do these things. The Kama Sutra, after all, was written by Hindus, who are theists.)
How do you think God reacts to your lying, stealing, lust and blasphemy?
(Most people say: He sees that I’ve done these things, but He sees my good points, too. Comfort usually responds by pointing out that a judge wouldn’t be too impressed with a defendant accused of robbing a bank, who argued: “Your Honor, look at all the banks I could have robbed, but didn’t rob. I’m good most of the time.” On the contrary, the judge would still send the man to jail for robbing just one bank. Since God is all-just, He won’t be impressed with that kind of excuse, either. But what Comfort omits to mention is that the penalty for robbing a bank is finite: at most, his argument shows that sinners pay some penalty after death.)
Here’s what the Bible says on the sins of lying, stealing, lust and blasphemy. These sins make God angry.
(At this point, many of Comfort’s interviewees start to look very uncomfortable. However, Comfort’s argument assumes that the Bible accurately reports God’s feelings, which begs the question. It still has to be shown that the Creator is the God of the Bible. Comfort hasn’t established that. How would he answer a Deist, for instance?)
The Bible also says that thinking of murder and adultery is just as bad as committing murder and adultery.
(Actually, the Bible says no such thing. There is a moral difference between:
(a) thinking of X;
(b) momentarily enjoying the thought of doing X, without actually intending to do X; and
(c) seriously intending to do X, if given the opportunity.
It makes sense to argue that seriously intending to do X, if given the opportunity, is just as bad as actually doing X, and I presume that’s what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:28: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (ESV). However, cases (a) and (b) are different, although (b) may be morally wrong, too.)
Thinking of murder and adultery really means you would do those deeds, if you had the chance.
(That doesn’t follow at all. See above.)
So, if God judges you by the Ten Commandments on Judgment Day, do you think you’d be innocent or guilty?
(At this stage, most of Ray Comfort’s interviewees acknowledge that they’d be guilty. But hang on. We still haven’t established that the Ten Commandments are God’s rules. There’s a gap in the logic here.)
So, do you think you’d go to Heaven or Hell?
(By now, most of the people whom Comfort interviews are sheepishly admitting that they’d go to Hell.
Also, if Hell is God’s prison, then why does it follow from the fact that I have lied once that I should stay in God’s prison forever? Show me the judge who would lock up a liar forever.)
There’s only one way out of the strife you’re in. There is no other name under Heaven by which you can be saved but that of Jesus. You cannot earn eternal life from God. Other religions try to do that, but it’s in vain. These religions cannot get you out of God’s jail, Hell. God is a just judge. We are sinners who have violated God’s commands. We’re headed for Hell, which is God’s prison without parole. But Jesus stepped in and paid for our crime. He paid the penalty. So God can legally grant you the gift of everlasting life. What you have to do, to have your case dismissed and walk out of God’s court and receive the gift of everlasting life, is: repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ alone. God will forgive you instantly. God’s grace is a free gift.
(Non sequiturs galore here. Ray Comfort seems to have a background theory of God’s justice that He hasn’t told his interviewees about. He still hasn’t explained why we have to stay in God’s jail forever, even if we tell only a single lie in our lives. He tells us that only Jesus can pay the penalty for sin, but fails to explain why there has to be a penalty in the first place. Why can’t God just commute it, if He is all-powerful and all-merciful? Also, it doesn’t follow from the fact that I can’t earn Heaven that I cannot pay the price to get out of Hell. Comfort is assuming that those are the only two alternatives. What about some sort of lesser, natural state of happiness without the vision of God – i.e. Limbo? Could I earn that? Comfort doesn’t say.
It would help here if Comfort were able to point to independent evidence that Christianity is true – e.g. evidence for the Resurrection. But in that case, he needs to present this evidence first, before accusing his interviewees of being unregenerate sinners. He also needs to show that his own interpretation of the Bible is the correct one.)
Despite these gaping holes in Comfort’s argument, his sincerity is obvious and touching, and many people whom he interviews welcome Jesus into their heart. And as I’m a Christian myself, I refuse to criticize them for doing that. Perhaps these people intuitively recognize that there is something deeply wrong with their lives, which only Christianity can set right.
But there’s one thing about Ray Comfort’s theology which really troubles me. And it’s not Hell, or the Penal Substitution theory. It’s something far more fundamental than that.
And now for the BIG QUESTION I’d like to ask Ray Comfort…
So here’s my big question for Ray:
Do you ever lie, steal, lust and blaspheme, and if so, doesn’t that make you worthy of Hell, too? In fact, since you have lied, stolen, lusted and blasphemed after encountering Jesus, doesn’t that make you even worse than the people you interview, since they did these things before they had met and heard about Jesus? So if you sin, aren’t you damned, too? And if so, doesn’t that make you hoist by your own petard?
Ray, I’m a Catholic. I won’t say I’m a good one; I know I’m not. But I have tried to research what you believe, and I have to say it doesn’t add up. I’d like to quote a few short excerpts from your non-copyright online publication, Sixty-six common questions and objections to the Christian Faith. (Actually, it’s 67.) First, allow me to quote from question 15. (Bolding in the answers below is mine.)
15. “Do Christians sin?”
“The great foundational truth respecting the believer in relationship to his sins is the fact that his salvation comprehends the forgiveness of all his trespasses past, present and future so far as condemnation is concerned (see Romans 8:1, Colossians 2:13; John 3:18; John 5:24). Since Christ has vicariously borne all sin and since the believer’s standing in Christ is complete, he is perfected forever in Christ. When a believer sins, he is subjected to chastisement from the Father, but never to condemnation with the world (see 1 Corinthians 11:31,32). By confession the Christian is forgiven and restored to fellowship (see 1 John 1:9). It needs to be remembered that were it not for Christ’s finished work on the Cross and His present intercession in Heaven, the least sin would result in his banishment from God’s presence and eternal ruin.” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Moody Press, p. 377).
To be fair, you do acknowledge that genuine repentance is necessary for salvation, and you draw a distinction between true and false conversion. But here, you insist that if someone genuinely repents and turns to Christ, his sins subsequent to repentance won’t prevent him from being saved: he will be chastised but not condemned. What kind of justice is this? “Your Honor, I’m a liar, but at least I admit it. And I know you let me out of jail free, once before, when I was summoned before this court, but now, after backsliding, I’m asking you to let me out once again. Please forgive me.” Is that a good reason to get out of Hell, which you describe as God’s jail? I ask again: if you sin, after encountering Christ, and if the just penalty for even “the least sin” is “eternal ruin,” what good reason do you have to think that God will forgive you? And why would forgiveness of the backsliding Christian be compatible with God’s justice in this case, while forgiveness of an atheist who hasn’t heard the call of Christ would not?
And now, here’s a quote from question 19 of your publication:
19. “Are you saying that Christians are better than non-Christians?”
The Christian is no better than a non-Christian, but he is infinitely better off. It is like two men on a plane. One is wearing a parachute and the other is not. One is not better than the other, but the man with the parachute on is certainly better off than the man who is not wearing a parachute. The difference will be seen when they jump. Jesus warned that if we “jump” into death without Him, we would perish.
Our great problem is a law that is even harsher than the law of gravity. It is the Law of an infinitely holy and just Creator. The Scriptures warn us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” They tell us that we are His enemy.
Ray, I submit that the parachute analogy won’t help you here. For on your analogy, the person who sins after repenting and turning to Christ is like a man who receives a parachute, and then throws it away. Should such a man get a second parachute? If I were the pilot, I certainly wouldn’t give him one.
But there’s more. You actually admit that Christians are no better than non-Christians. So you, a Christian, are no better than the lying, thieving, fornicating blasphemers whom you try to shame into repentance. And yet you believe that if you were to be struck by lightning tonight, you’d be saved, while they’d be damned. I ask: where’s the justice in that?
More to the point: if I am a lying, thieving, fornicating blasphemer, then why should I convert to a religion which, according to you, won’t make me any better? Doesn’t that negate the whole purpose of life, which is to become good? And didn’t Jesus command us to be perfect?
Finally, I’d like to quote from question 24 of your publication:
24. “Do you sin, as a Christian?”
If a Christian sins, it is against his will. He falls rather than dives into sin. He resists rather than embraces it. Any dead fish can float down stream. It takes a live one to swim against the flow.
Ray, I put it to you that your logic is specious. It is impossible to sin against your will. Sin, by definition, is a voluntary act. No choice, no sin. “I lied, I stole, I fornicated and I blasphemed, but it was against my will.” Oh, really? Tell that to the Marines: maybe they’ll believe you.
By the way, how do you respond to Professor Jerry Coyne, who accuses you of lying when you pose the chicken-and-egg question and other evolutionary conundrums to your interviewees, despite having had the answers pointed out to you previously by scientists?
I’ll leave it to my readers to decide whether Ray Comfort has a leg to stand on, after my cross-examination. And now, I’d like to address his two main scientific arguments.
Ray Comfort’s top two arguments for God
In his move, The Atheist Delusion, Ray Comfort deploys two key arguments to demolish atheism. He also attacks evolution, but his anti-evolutionary arguments are of secondary importance.
So what is Comfort’s first argument? In a nutshell: an atheist is someone who believes that nothing created everything, which is absurd. But that’s not what the vast majority of atheists believe. Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins might subscribe to that view, but the more common view is that the universe arose as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. A vacuum is not nothing: it still has measurable properties. It’s simply the ground state of a quantum field. Many (though by no means all) scientists also believe our universe is contained in a larger multiverse.
Now, I have to acknowledge that the thought of a quantum vacuum giving rise to spiral galaxies, salamanders and Shakespeare does seem rather mind-boggling. But Dawkins would say that’s an argument from incredulity, and you need something better than a feeling of incredulity if you want to debunk atheism. Comfort could have said a lot more here about the fine-tuning argument, but unfortunately, he alludes to it only in passing.
Comfort’s second argument is based on the analogy between DNA and a book: DNA is the book of life. Now I could object that much of the DNA in our cells is junk, as Professor Larry Moran has convincingly argued, but I shall refrain from doing so, because the important point is that quite a lot of the DNA “book” (at least 10%) actually has a function, and that’s the part I’m concerned with. In any case, Moran’s view is not shared by all biologists, and even Professor Moran would agree that there are some species of organisms whose DNA is virtually junk-free.
The argument Comfort puts forward is a simple but powerful one: if you don’t believe a book could make itself, how much more illogical is it to believe that DNA, the book of life, could make itself. Just as a book requires a maker, so too, the instruction book of life, which surpasses our understanding, is evidence of an Intelligent Designer.
Comfort’s question to his interviewees is a very cleverly framed one – he is an excellent communicator – but it rests on several false assumptions.
I’d like to respond to Comfort’s argument by quoting from my recent review of Dr. Douglas Axe’s book, Undeniable (HarperOne, 2016). In his book, Dr. Axe frequently likens life to alphabet soup – which I regard as a very flawed analogy, for reasons I point out in my review:
Alphabet blocks illustrate this point perfectly. Let’s suppose you had a large box of alphabet blocks – say, about 1,000 of them. It would be pretty easy to make something useful with them, if you wanted to: a large square made of blocks could serve as a playpen for a baby, while a stack of blocks could support a tray or a pot plant. But only a very, very tiny fraction of all the possible arrangements of blocks in a stack (or a square) would spell out a meaningful message. Most of the possible arrangements of alphabetic blocks in a stack don’t spell out anything at all. That tells us something: the number of ways in which parts can be arranged to perform a useful function is much, much larger than the number of ways in which letters can be arranged in order to convey a meaning. In other words, the emergence of a system of parts that can perform a function is a much more likely event than the emergence of a sequence that can convey a message. The same point applies to the Chinese characters which Dr. Axe discusses on pages 210-214 of his book: they have a meaning, which is intelligible to anyone who can read Chinese, but they don’t actually do anything, so they cannot be said to perform a function. The concepts of meaning and function are quite different, for reasons I shall now explain.
In order for an accidentally generated string of letters to convey a meaningful message, it needs to satisfy three very stringent conditions, each more difficult than the last: first, the letters need to be arranged into meaningful words; second, the sequence of words has to conform to the rules of syntax; and finally, the sequence of words has to make sense at the semantic level: in other words, it needs to express a meaningful proposition. For a string of letters generated at random to meet all of these conditions would indeed be fantastically improbable. But here’s the thing: living things don’t need to satisfy any of these conditions. Yes, it is true that all living things possess a genetic code. But it is quite impossible for this code to generate anything like nonsense words like “sdfuiop”, and additionally, there is nothing in the genome which is remotely comparable to the rules of syntax, let alone the semantics of a meaningful proposition. The sequence of amino acids in a protein needs to do just one thing: it needs to fold up into a shape that can perform a biologically useful task. And that’s it. Generating something useful by chance – especially something with enough useful functions to be called alive – is a pretty tall order, but because living things lack the extra dimensions of richness found in messages that carry a semantic meaning, they’re going to be a lot easier to generate by chance than (say) instruction manuals or cook books. Hence it may turn out that creating life by chance is extremely improbable, but not fantastically improbable. In practical terms, that means that given enough time, life just might arise.
That should suffice as a reply to Comfort’s book analogy.
To be fair, Comfort shows his audience how physicist Lawrence Krauss responded to this argument: he maintained that the laws of physics, chemistry and biology could account for DNA, just as laws can account for snowflakes. Comfort’s counter-reply was that DNA, unlike a snowflake, contains specified and purposeful information.
Most ID publications argue that snowflakes have only a little specified information, rather than none, as Comfort evidently believes. However, in my opinion, it would have been better for Comfort to dispense with the problematic notion of specified complexity (which could apply even to arrangements of pebbles on Chesil beach), and use functional specified complex information (FCSI) as the hallmark of intelligent design. Comfort seems to hint at this when he remarks that the information in DNA is purposeful – in other words, it is beneficial to the organism.
But the problem here for Comfort is that functionality is not an all-or-nothing affair: there are many shades of gray. Some protein molecules, for instance, are only weakly functional. Also, functionality may be either focused and highly specific, or it may be broad and general: some enzymes, for instance, have a much broader specificity than others. Finally, functionality comes in degrees: some functional hierarchies have more levels than others. The visual system has no less than nine levels of organization underlying the top level, whereas the photosynthetic system of a cyanobacterium has “only” three. So, how many levels of organization in a biological system are required to warrant a design inference?
Comfort rounds out his case by quoting from Bill Gates: “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” He omits to mention that Bill Gates was actually referring to human DNA, but we’ll overlook that point. More telling is the fact that the origin of DNA is not as mysterious as it used to be, as Michael Marshall’s BBC article, The secret of how life on Earth began (31 October 2016) beautifully illustrates. We now have a few good leads.
Finally, Comfort recommends that his viewers read “Made in Heaven” a book which tells the story of 32 modern inventions, whose designs were copied from Nature. The reasoning here is obvious enough: if our most intelligent scientists have to copy from Nature in order to come up with their inventions, doesn’t that strongly suggest that Nature herself is the invention of a Super-Intelligence?
Here, at last, I think Comfort is onto something. I would argue that if we know of no natural process that can generate biological structures whose complexity and efficiency far exceeds anything that intelligent scientists could produce in a lab, then the default assumption should be that these structures were intelligently designed.
I’d like to finish by quoting from a 2014 TED talk, “Digital biology and open science – the coming revolution,” by biologist and engineer Stephen Larson, who holds a PhD in neuroscience from University of California, San Diego, and who is CEO of MetaCell, a systems biology research and consulting company. Larson is a Darwinist with no religious beliefs whatsoever, yet he feels impelled to marvel at the staggering complexity of life, which far surpasses anything that even our most intelligent scientists could come up with:
…[A]s science continues to reveal how life works, we find again and again that the magic that seems to distinguish between things that are alive and things that are not [is] actually created by complex interacting molecular machines. These microscopic machines are as precise and intricate as a mechanical watch, but instead of being run on gears and springs, are powered by the fundamental rules of physics and chemistry. Our understanding of the precise coiling and uncoiling of the DNA molecule, or the way that one molecule can literally walk almost robotically along the tightrope of another molecule, continue to show us again and again, this molecular clockwork is real and pervasive.
Now what’s most unsettling to me about this is that we didn’t build these machines. As someone originally trained as an engineer, I’ve got to be honest with you, I kind of hate this.…
And yet when I look through a microscope at a humble bacterium — by the way its ancestors were on the planet a billion years ago, billions of years ago — I still wonder how it really works. Because the mechanical watch that is life is not like any watch we’ve ever built. It is biological gears and springs, but they fill rooms and buildings and cities of a vast microscope landscape that’s bustling with activity.
On the one hand it’s extremely well organized, but on the other hand the sheer scale of all of this unfamiliar well-organized stuff that happens in there makes me feel that I’ve stumbled onto an alternate landscape of technology that’s built by an engineer a million times smarter than me.
OK, not literally. I don’t literally mean that I think little green men and women came down to the earth and seeded life here a billion years ago. What we understand of course is that life evolved on the planet over billions of years. But the results of evolution confuse even our smartest engineers when we try to understand how we could build what biology has evolved.
Ray Comfort could have said a lot more about this. And I hope that one day he’ll floor his interviewees with a question about the design of molecular machines. But most of all, I hope he’ll stop peddling his version of how to get saved, which many Christians would regard as simply bizarre.