Monday, September 6, 2010

Gambling with Pascal: A Refutation of the Foundational Basis of Ray Comfort's Ministry

It is a fact that there does not as yet exist a single argument for the existence of a god that is not either an appeal to emotion or a logical fallacy. This being the case, it is only natural that those of us who realize this fact should come to expect that more and more theistic apologists should begin to understand this as well. But in this regard we often witness the opposite; the observation that very little in essence has changed in apologetic approaches from its earliest practice is quite startling upon consideration.

I can find no better demonstration of this fact than the popularity and influence of the ministry of Ray Comfort and his sidekick Kirk Cameron, of Way of the Master infamy [1]. As utterly stupid as these two figures are, it cannot be denied that they are extremely popular in the mainstream evangelical community and have become household names in American Christian culture. This means, of course, that there are actually many Christians who sincerely consider Ray and Kirk to be competent defenders of the Christian faith. This is a very interesting phenomenon considering that, in the words of my friend Martin Wagner, these two men do not have enough brain cells between them to power a very tiny flashlight.

On their website, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort offer an online course on Biblical Evangelism, which teaches Christians how to effectively share and defend their faith [2]. This course has also been published as a book, entitled The School of Biblical Evangelism, which consists of 101 lessons which take the form of 5-10 page chapters. Several aspects of this coursework are quite telling. For one thing, their entire approach throughout is to largely bypass intellectual argumentation in favor of purely emotional appeals and guilt trips. They are quite open about adopting this approach on their own website and televison show. What follows is a choice sampling of their open admisssions to being anti-intellectual and proud of it:

"These lessons will teach you to overcome your fears by using a proven, powerfully effective way to make the gospel make sense. You won't be at a loss for words. You don't need to be an expert in apologetics. Instead, you'll learn the forgotten biblical principle of bypassing the intellect (the place of argument) and speaking directly to the conscience (the place of the knowledge of right and wrong) — the way Jesus did"
(http://www.wayofthemaster.com/btc.shtml)

"[T]hese questions [intellectual objections from the non-believer] can often be arguments in disguise to sidetrack you from the 'weightier matters of the Law.' While apologetics (arguments for God’s existence, creation vs. evolution, etc.) are legitimate in evangelism, they should merely be 'bait,' with the Law of God being the 'hook' that brings the conviction of sin. Those who witness solely in the realm of apologetical argument may just get an intellectual decision rather than a repentant conversion.

Always pull the sinner back to his responsibility before God on Judgment Day, as Jesus did in Luke 13:1–5."
(http://www.livingwaters.com/witnessingtool/watchforredherrings.shtml)


Ray: We'll teach you how to bypass the intellect (the place of argument) and speak directly to the conscience, the place of the knowledge of right and wrong.

Kirk: You don't have to be an expert in apologetics or archaeology, and you don't have to know Greek! Just let love swallow your fears and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SmEu8DaM58).

Kirk: When you learn how to speak to a person's conscience, and circumnavigate the intellect, the subject of evolution seems to disappear.

Ray: Now this is real good news for people like me. It means I don't have to become an expert in the "fossil record." And it also means I don't have to learn words like "Rhinorhondothackasaurus."
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohCDWDsUefk&p=B772A24C0D6113CF&playnext=1&index=27).

Interestingly enough, Kirk and Ray have stumbled (albeit through no intellect or cleverness of their own) across an approach that is in fact quite effective, even when applied to some people who do have a solid grounding in intellectual thought. Because of the way the human brain is hardwired to function, one's entire education, intelligence, critical reasoning and every other aspect of our self that relates to rationality can literally be bypassed if the barriers separating the outermost layers of the brain from the brain's center are psychologically manipulated in such a manner that entry is made possible. This is because the human brain is structured in such a way the function of critical thinking and rationality resides in its outermost layers. The height of our emotional being, as well as the most animalistic and instinctive part of our being, resides in the center of the brain, and this emotional capacity decreases the closer we progress in study to the outer edge of the brain. Thus, that part of our psyche that is operated by the center of the brain is the area most susceptible to fear tactics and appeals to emotion. Depending on how strong these tactics are, they do have the potential to override the rationality of even a highly intelligent and critical thinker. This potential to override the intellect is especially strong in cases involving intelligent people who simply have never devoted much deep thought concerning what they believe and why, and what they do not believe. The evangelicals who exploit this psychological state of affairs most often target these people. The success of the street preaching of Kirk and Ray, for example, depends entirely on their targeting of people who have not developed the critical thinking skills necessary for realizing the emptiness of their claims.

Then, of course, there are many people who are purposefully not shown in the final edit of Kirk and Ray's television show depicting their street preaching adventures. These are the people who have a background in active critical thinking, who have a solid understanding of skepticism and are well-educated and well-read, and who have thought long and hard about what they believe and why and what they reject and why. Those of us who grasp these qualities will immediately and clearly see how embarrassingly pathetic Kirk and Ray's course on Biblical Evangelism is. Numerous examples abound, but one of the most important in my mind is the fact that lessons involving how to provide evidences of God's existence is almost non-existent in the coursework. Out of 101 lesson chapters, only five chapters near the end address the subject of atheism. Only one of these addresses "proofs" of God's existence, in an almost begrudging, impatient manner that makes it obvious to the reader that very little thought was given to the argument.

But the question of the existence or non-existence of God is a very basic one; one would think that this question should have a prominent place at the beginning of any discussion involving someone who lacks a belief in God. In fact, that starting point should be basic regardless of whether the person targeted by the evangelist believes in God or not. If an evangelist tried to convince me to become a Christian, it would do no good for her to begin by telling me that I am obliged to worship her deity or dedicate my entire being to its will. I have yet to be convinced that the deity being described even exists in the first place. But Kirk and Ray have failed to apply even that basic logic to their initial evangelistic approach. If he can get away with it, Ray Comfort will always avoid discussions that prompt him to provide evidences for theism. Of course, this is because he does not have these evidences, which is also why he places such great and enthusiastic emphasis on "bypassing the intellect." And who better to teach the art of bypassing the intellect than two idiots who have no intellect, and who even admit they have no need of it?

The "proof" that Ray Comfort's course instructs the aspiring evangelist to present to the unbeliever is nothing more than that well-known and tired runaway analogy that has been overly refuted in multiple ways for over one hundred years: the analogy between buildings and paintings and builders/painters, extrapolated to the universe as a whole, onto which the label of "Creation" is slapped to uphold the analogy. Ray ends up invoking Romans 1:20 as his main piece of evidence, using the Christian holy book to "prove" the Christian God exists. Beyond this extremely illogical and circular argument, Ray continues to avoid any depth of thought on this issue, as we see in the opening of lesson chapter 70, on "How to Prove the Existence of God":

To one who examines the evidence, there can be no doubt that God exists. The fact of the existence of the Creator is axiomatic (self-evident). That's why the Bible says, "The fool has said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). The professing atheist denies the common sense given to him by God, and defends his belief by thinking that the question "Who made God?" can't be answered. This, he thinks, gives him license to deny the existence of God [3].

Apparently, Ray cannot manage to remain consistent even in the same short paragraph. If the "fact" of the existence of God is axiomatic, why must one "examine the evidence" before being clear of all doubt? Why would examination of evidence even be required? Notice also what this axiomatic assumption does: even in a chapter purporting to provide evidences of God's existence, the approach is still to assume at the outset that God's existence is a given (i.e., the claim that professing atheists deny the common sense given to us by God, and that this is why we are atheists). In the previous chapter, Ray had declared that there is no such thing as a true atheist. Thus, it is likely to be this idiotic assumption that all professing atheists either secretly believe in God or are truly agnostics that encourages him and Kirk to take a detour from delivering evidence-based justifications for belief in God. I also find it exceedingly ironic that Ray Comfort writes that in order to know God exists, "all we need are eyes that can see and a brain that works . . . The only ones who have trouble with its simplicity are those who profess to be intellectuals. No wonder man is searching for intelligent life in the universe" [4]. The reason this blows the irony meter is seen in the self-contradictory way Ray concludes the chapter:

In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get stomped on, we are informed that God has gone to the other end of the line with the message of everlasting life. How has He done that? Simply by choosing that which is weak, base, and despised. You can see this by asking a skeptic, "Do you believe that the following biblical accounts actually happened?"

Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, Jonah and the whale, Joshua and the walls of Jericho, Samson and his long hair, Daniel and the lion's den, Moses and the Red Sea.

Of course he doesn't. To say that he believed such fantastic stories would mean that he would have to surrender his intellectual dignity. Who in his right mind would ever do that? The answer is simply those who understand that God has chosen foolish, weak, base, and despised things of the world to confound those who think they are wise [5].

Here we are basically being told that aggressive anti-intellectualism and utter ignorance should be proudly displayed, because in the deluded minds of Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, such loud displays of blind and credulous acceptance of superstition is proof that God exists and that he has turned his backs on us critical thinkers. 

Pascal's Wager: A Sucker's Bet
As it turns out, Ray and Kirk's Biblical Evangelism course as a whole depends most heavily on Pascal's Wager, far more than any other terrible argument. Long before actually working on establishing the existence of their deity, they instruct their aspiring evangelist students to begin by throwing the Ten Commandments at the unbeliever in the hopes of causing him or her to feel guilty, embarrassed or otherwise uncomfortable about themselves, at which point they switch to the fear tactic of threatening eternal torture if he or she does not convert. Their twisted routine is described in their own words as follows:

He [Jesus] used the Law to bring "the knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:19,20). We can do the same by asking, "Do you think you have kept the Ten Commandments?" Most people think they have, so quickly follow with, "Have you ever told a lie?" This is confrontational, but if it's asked in a spirit of love and gentleness, there won't be any offense. This is because the "work of the law [is] written in their hearts" and their conscience will also bear "witness" (Romans 2:15).

Jesus confronted the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-21 with five of the Ten Commandments and there was no offense. Have confidence that the conscience will do its work and affirm the truth of each Commandment. Don't be afraid to gently ask, "Have you ever stolen something, even if it's small?"

Learn how to open up the spirituality of the Law and show how God considers lust to be the same as adultery (Matthew 5:27,28) and hatred the same as murder (1 John 3:15). Make sure you get an admission of guilt. Then ask the person, "If God judges you by the Ten Commandments on Judgment Day, do you think you will be innocent or guilty?" If he says he will be innocent, ask, "Why is that?" If he admits his guilt, ask, "Do you think you will go to heaven or hell?" [6].

After pressuring their victims to admit guilt, Ray and Kirk then charge the unbeliever with being a liar, a thief, an adulterer at heart, a murderer at heart, etc. Their tactics make about as much sense as saying that if you have ever told the truth in your life, that makes you a truth-teller (and, as we all know, all real truth-tellers will say that they have lied at least once in their lifetimes). Ray and Kirk apparently have no grasp whatsoever of the difference between being imperfect and being evil, and their erroneous equivalence between minor imperfections (including thought crimes) and grave immorality that is harmful to society is similar in scope to claiming that anyone who changes the oil in vehicle is an expert mechanic. Again, their goal in employing these tactics is to shame their subjects adequately enough so that their intellect is completely discarded, making them susceptible to their array of emotional appeals and threats of divine punishment. Ray and Kirk are hoping that it will not even occur to the person they are trying to convert to request that the evangelist present evidence that the being they are being told to pray to and ask forgiveness from even exists in the first place!

The shady sales technique in play here is to convince potential buyers to impulsively purchase their product, without first demonstrating that they actually need their product. To Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron I say: Prove to me first that God exists and then that this God is necessarily the Christian God, before telling me I need to go to this God for any kind of forgiveness. Their entire methodology depends on peoples' intellect, an intellect that would lead them to ask for such qualifiers, being placed on the back burner. But of course, Ray and Kirk do not realize their dependency on people's gullibility and credulity, because their intellect is not even on the back burner. It is non-existent.

Their promotion of religious impulse-buying is closely related to their aforementioned dependence on the all-too-transparent fallacy known as Pascal's Wager. In addition to gleaning satisfaction from putting others down as a way of over-compensating for their own utter lack of intelligence, Ray and Kirk are motivated by the delusionally paranoid notion that, in the words of the infamous eighteenth-century clergyman Jonathan Edwards, "[T']here is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up" [7]. This is perhaps seen most clearly Lesson 23 entitled "The Reality of Hell." In this lesson, our authors enter into a discussion of what they see as being the implications if the Christian fundamentalists are wrong about Judgment Day and hell, all the while revealing the hilarious and complete cluelessness with which they delve into their polemic:

Here's the good news, though, if there is no hell: You won't know a thing after you die. It will be the end. No heaven, no hell. Just nothing. You won't even realize that it's good news.

Here's the bad news if the Bible is right and there is eternal justice: You will find yourself standing before the judgment throne of a holy God. Think of it. A holy and perfect Creator has seen your thought-life and every secret sin you have ever committed. You have a multitude of sins, and God must by nature carry out justice. Ask Him to remind you of the sins of your youth. Ask Him to bring to remembrance your secret sexual sins, the lies, the gossip, and other idle words. You may have forgotten your past sins, but God hasn't. Hell will be your just dessert (exactly what you deserve), and you will have no one to blame but yourself. This is the claim of the Bible. If you don't believe it, it is still true. It will still happen [8].

Again, it cannot be stressed enough that at no point thus far in the course has the existence of this "holy and perfect Creator" or the existence of any kind of afterlife ever been established by way of evidence. These things are axiomatically assumed as a given at the outset. Rather than laying out a coherent argument that demonstrates the truth of their claims as the end product of a carefully-reasoned investigation process, the aspiring evangelists who are learning from this course are directed to answer all objections from non-believers with the Mother of all Logical Fallacies. Any experienced Christian apologist with even half a brain realizes that Pascal's Wager is a defunct and stupid argument whose utter unability to address anything of substance killed its validity long ago. It offers all the wrong reasons to believe and, when boiled down to its essence, is nothing more than an appeal to consequences and an appeal to fear. What is even more telling is the fact that Ray and Kirk know they are using fear as a tactic to manipulate a conversion-friendly reaction from their victims, and admit as much, when they write, "[T]he Bible discloses an often-overlooked tool that we can use to reach the lost. That tool is the 'fear of death' . . . Every human being in his right mind has a fear of death (Hebrews 2:15)" [9].

The Greatest Gamble
Why exactly is Pascal's Wager a defunct and stupid argument that fails to address anything of substance? In answering this question, I find it useful to turn to a brief critique of a particular episode of Ray's and Kirk's television program The Way of the Master which is devoted to the subject of Pascal's Wager [10]. In this episode, entitled "The Greatest Gamble," Ray and Kirk prowl the streets of Las Vegas. Standing inside a bustling casino, Ray first asks the viewer, "So what is the greatest gamble? I mean, what are the highest stakes?" We then cut to a scene outdoors where Ray asks a man, "Would you ever bet your life? Would you, for ten million dollars, play Russian Roulette with one bullet and a six-shooter? Ten million dollars!" The man shakes his head, says no, and tells Ray, "Because it's your life . . . I value my life."

Ray and Kirk repeat this question to six other people they stumble across in the streets of Vegas. In all, almost half the people interviewed said they would not gamble their life in that way. Five say they would be willing to go through with that gamble, at which point Kirk and Ray open up a briefcase full of cash with a handgun lying inside and present it to the person. All but one of those who at first said they would go through with the game end up backing out at this point. The one exception is a man identified as Nick, who without hesitation reaches for the revolver upon being presented with the briefcase. "Give it to me. Let's do it," he tells Ray. "You're going to try?" Ray inquires incredulously. The footage of this street interview is cut at this point. We are not shown what happened next, most likely because they did not allow him to go through with it and did not want to kill the drama they had built up.

One man, closer to the end of the episode, even goes so far as to say he would play the game of roulette with three rounds chambered instead of simply one: "For ten million dollars! Ten million bucks, man! You don't even make that in a lifetime!" When Ray tells him, "You're not going to have a lifetime if the bullets are in the cylinder," the man replies confidently, "That's a risk you've got to take. That's the way I look at it." Ray's very next question to this man is, "Do you believe in Heaven and in Hell?"

Those of us with our thinking caps on can clearly see where this is heading.

Ray and Kirk then proceed to explain the point they are attempting to make, an explanation that involves Ray and Kirk making an argument as to why it is reasonable to believe in an afterlife, and specifically in hell. They provide two "very convincing evidences" (which are not evidences at all) that hell is real: 1) The rationality of divine justice; if there is no eternal torture chamber, they claim, then God is unjust and couldn't care less about the sins of humanity and 2) the existence of the human conscience, which they allege equips humans with a built-in knowledge at birth of right and wrong. Following this Non Sequitur-soaked two-pronged argument, their reasoning goes like this:

Ray: So what is the biggest gamble? I mean, what are the highest stakes? It is to say there is no Hell. And if you're wrong and you go there, you're going to lose your most prized possession: You're going to lose your very soul! (4:37 - 4:54).

Kirk: So how will you do on Judgment Day? Will you be innocent, or will you be guilty? In light of the fact that God sees your thought life and every sin done in darkness, do you think when you die you'll go to Heaven or Hell? Please, don't gamble with your own soul. You can't afford to be wrong! Simply be honest before God. Confess your sins to him, and then turn from them once and for all and put your faith in Jesus Christ to save you. Then obey the Bible. Read it daily. Your obedience is proof of your love for God. God demonstrated his love for you when he sent his son to die on the cross and take your punishment upon himself. Listen to what Jesus said: "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (23:16 - 24:13).

The analogy presented by Ray and Kirk fails to even get off the ground, and showing why this is the case also shows why Pascal's Wager completely fails as a valid argument. In a game of Russian Roulette, the gambler has a 1 in 6 chance of dying via a shot in the head at point-blank range, which is the penalty. There is absolutely no comparison to Pascal's Wager, where the odds of being hit with the penalty have never been calculated, as far as I am aware. Who knows what such odds would be? As far as anyone knows, the odds of "losing my soul" in this spiritual game of Russian Roulette could very well be one in a million! After all, Christianity is not the only religion that threatens eternal punishment for not believing. The very existence of even one belief system or worldview different from and/or incompatible with Christianity that threatens its own harsh penalty for non-belief destroys the validity of Pascal's Wager, for obvious reasons. The Wager relies on a Special Pleading fallacy. Therefore, if the Wager is to be applied consistently in such a way as to avoid special pleading, we are not left with the simplistic choice put on the table by Ray and Kirk. We are instead left with a choice between literally thousands of different belief systems that all conflict with each other [11]. Seen in this light, choosing non-belief in any purported god, religion or unsubstantiated worldview (pending demonstrable and verifiable evidence, of course) is clearly exceedingly more reasonable than choosing any one of hundreds of religions or unsubstantiated worldviews solely out of fear of being wrong and ending up experiencing divine retribution [12].

My closing remarks are directed at Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, should one or both ever stumble across this: When your combined IQ level finally reaches above room temperature, then come back and try again to present a serious argument for theism first and then for Christianity in particular. However, I am quite confident that the day your collective IQ approaches that value, hell will have frozen over anyway.


NOTES

1. Kent Hovind is a close contender in my book, coming in at a close second. But of course, his current hiatus as a prison patron has put a considerable hamper on his popularity and influence. See Nathan Dickey, "Inside the Mind of a Creationist: A Critical Analysis of Kent Hovind's 'Doctoral Dissertation.'" The Journeyman Heretic (blog), 23 February 2010, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2010/02/inside-mind-of-creationist-critical_23.html (accessed 6 September 2010).

2. http://www.biblicalevangelism.com/register (accessed 6 September 2010).

3. Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort, The School of Biblical Evangelism (Gainesville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2004), pp. 464-65.

4. Ibid., p. 466.

5. Ibid., p. 469-70

6. Ibid., p. 118.

7. Jonathan Edwards (1741), "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes Revised Edition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), p. 165.

8. Cameron and Comfort, Biblical Evangelism, p. 155.

9. Ibid., p. 185.

10. "The Greatest Gamble." The Way of the Master, Trinity Broadcasting Network (KTBN, Santa Ana). For those who have even a slight masochistic bent in their entertainment choices will not want to miss this episode. It really is that rich: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5388605400616793608# (accessed 6 September 2010).

11. This is not even to mention the weighty problem presented by the sheer number of divergent denomination within Christianity itself. The fact that there are about 38,000 Christian denominations means that no matter what kind of Christian one becomes (including "non-denominational") there will always be at least (and most likley many) other branches of Christianity that will declare him or her a false Christian, a heretic, an apostate, etc, who is therefore headed to hell. Ray and Kirk have not addressed this problem, namely that becoming a Christian is more or less analogous to playing the lottery. Thus, Pascal's Wager fails even when applied within a single religion. Can anybody say fractal wrongness?

12. The counterpoints to Pascal's Wager I have presented here is hardly the extent of the problem with this apologetic. A more exhaustive treatment of this subject, by way of a point-by-point refutation of "The Greatest Gamble" episode, is in the works.

11 comments:

  1. Very well-argued piece. I wish I could give it to my Muslim students as part of a lesson in critical thinking, an activity none of them has ever engaged in. 'There will never be a vaccine for AIDS'one of them told me toda. 'AIDS is not an illness, it's a curse.' I made the obvious point that Allah seesm to have allowed syph and gon through the net, but counter-arguments simply do not register with them.

    According to Ray and Kirk, it seems I am a liar, adulterer, murderer and sodomite. And I don't give a stuff.

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  2. "I wish I could give it to my Muslim students as part of a lesson in critical thinking, an activity none of them has ever engaged in."

    And now, according to the left, you are a racist Islamophobe. Thoughtcrime!!!!!11

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  3. Not really - just an uncriticalthinkingophobe whose students are mostly muslims.

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  4. What class is it, then? History of Islam? Really, I'm intrigued, now... :-/

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  5. I enjoyed reading this, it was very well written, thought out, and covered all points

    Well done

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  6. As Ray's own page and those of his colleagues / employees (Trish, Miano) and various preachers who use this Biblical Evangelism / Academy stuff like to advertise these courses, why not visit their blogs, and in turn the blogs of their customers following the name links, and point them all here to this article. I think if only one really reads through this and has a thought process sparked, it's Great Success.

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  7. Could do without the ad hominems, but otherwise a good read.

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  8. Phil: Personal insults, while some readers find them distasteful, are not the same thing as an ad hominem.

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  9. I contend that I have no point employed ad hominem in my treatment of Ray and Kirk. The insults are not even personal. Rather, the insults I have levied are accurate reflections on their actual character as revealed by their words and actions.

    Ad hominems, in contra-distinction to this, is closely related to the Non-Sequitur. If I had insulted Ray and Kirk without addressing why they are wrong or why my criticism is justified, that would constitute ad hominem.

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  10. "The answer is simply those who understand that God has chosen foolish, weak, base, and despised things of the world to confound those who think they are wise"

    Wait, so Ray contends that his god loves us atheists, and wants to save us.....yet he just stated that this god fucks with us, thereby putting our eternal 'souls' at stake?

    To what end, exactly? To be a dick?

    Does Ray even think things through before he speaks/writes?

    Anywyas, great job on this, Nathan.

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