In Reply to ‘The Atheist Delusion’

If you are on social media, chances are that you have seen a video called ‘The Atheist Delusion’ by Ray Comfort, an American Christian minister and evangelist. In a short version of the video, Comfort asks people on the street whether they are atheists, and if they answer yes, he proceeds to discuss atheism with them.

He starts his argument by giving the interviewee a book full of colorful pictures and asks whether it is possible for such a book to exist by accident and be created from nothing, to which people reasonably respond in the negative. Then he makes an analogy with DNA, it being the ‘book of life’, wondering how it can exist by accident, and how nothing can create something. He mocks Richard Dawkins, convinces all the interviewees of his logic, gives us an astounding performance by Tim Allen, and everyone lives faithfully ever after.

The video went viral on social media with millions of views. You can check it out yourself before continuing the article on the link below (one of the pages that shared it), but prepare yourself for some disappointment with humanity.

The genius aspect of this video is the seeming impossibility of getting one’s head around its endless fallacies, flawed logic, and scientific inaccuracies to be able to organize any form of criticism. But I will proceed trying to recall the main logical fallacies in this short version, saving you from the longer version (which is just more of the same, really).

To start with, after showing the colorful beautiful book to people, Comfort asks them whether the ink can fall from the sky to form the book. After receiving “no” as the obvious answer, he then makes the analogy with DNA (the book of life) to suggest someone must have written DNA.

There are many flaws in this argument. First, “falling from the sky” is not how any scientist claims DNA was formed. In fact, its formation is the opposite of accident and is not at all analogous to “falling from the sky”. Experiments on amino acid creation (Miller–Urey experiment for example) have succeeded in simulating the early Earth conditions and observed the creation of more than 20 types of amino acids.

In recent years, other hypotheses (like panspermia) began receiving more attention. In fact, the existence of different viable hypotheses is what people like Comfort take advantage of in their so-called arguments. Yet it seems ridiculous that because scientists have different hypotheses on the origins of life, Comfort’s argument from ignorance should be valid. He commits a false dilemma here. He considers that whenever a scientific hypothesis is refuted then the alternative (his claim) is automatically proven. The burden of proof is on him as much as it is on scientists.

In any case, the road to DNA from amino acids is clear and understandable to scientists. Since the conditions of Earth changed dramatically since the birth of the amino acids, we cannot observe it again under natural conditions.

Second, the analogy itself is a false one. When presented by scientists, the analogy is meant to make it simple for the scientifically illiterate to understand the importance of DNA, not to take all characteristics of books to be the same for DNA; if that is the case, one can simply ask, “All books are reviewed; Who reviewed the DNA book?”

On another note, we are observing some interesting breakthroughs regarding the origin of life. For instance, research lead by biologist and Nobel Prize laureate Professor of Genetics Jack W. Szostak succeeded in building artificial cells and artificial RNA in laboratories. It was even observed that some cell membranes were selected by evolution: Some cell membranes, particularly those appended with phospholipids (which is what all living cell membranes are comprised of), consumed the cell membranes that did not have any phospholipids, demonstrating Darwinian evolution in action at the onset of primordial life.

Ray Comfort then claims that “obviously intelligent design designed the book”. The first problem in that sentence is the use of the word “obviously”. I cannot think of any epistemological theory that validates the truthfulness of claims because they are obvious. Any claim needs to be well-argued in order to withstand scientific scrutiny.

The second problem is alluding to the principle of causality. It is not a valid principle anymore as it was when proposed. The Kalām cosmological argument, for example, has been radically changed by our understanding of the quantum theory. Not to dwell on the subject, quantum theory shows, for instance, that electrons can disappear from a place and reappear instantly in another, or take all possible paths going from emitter to detector without any apparent cause.

Moreover, one has to ask, even if we admit the possibility of a designer, what is the basis of claiming its intelligence? For example, the video was obviously created by someone, but is it necessarily an intelligent video maker? I highly doubt that.

One of the questions repeated in the video is, “Can DNA make itself?” Since the question is put so crudely, questioning whether something nonexistent can make itself exist, the direct answer is logically no. Something that does not yet exist cannot do anything. But overlooking the ridiculousness of how this question is formulated, we can answer, yes, DNA replicates itself everyday with slight modifications called mutations in order to “make itself”.

Talking about DNA, Comfort  proclaims that “its origin doesn’t matter; The fact that there is intelligent information tells us there must be an intelligent designer.” I thought the question of the video was to prove the origin of DNA. What just happened? Comfort seems an expert in manipulating the interviewees here, conveniently dodging a scientific answer that he, or anyone interested in this question in good faith, would have to address. Good job on this one.

I invite the readers to look up “Game of Life” and read about the spectacular simulation of patterns of life; I have to control myself not to talk endlessly about it in reply to this argument. In short, “Game of Life” is a model of 2D grid of alive or dead cells and four simple rules for survival. It allows “players” to define the initial states and then watch what unfolds from this simplicity. The results show how a complex life can—possibly—stem from incredibly simple rules, refuting, thus, the necessity of intelligent designers for complex life forms.

Comfort, like many people who are too lazy to do a simple Google search, uses the “eyes are so complex; how were they formed without intelligent design?” argument. This has thoroughly been discussed and explained as a process starting with a simple light-sensitive spot on the skin of our early ancestors that culminated in the human eye. We understand how it was formed and how it evolved. Note that the eye is an organ that has independently evolved many times. To sum up the eye argument, Comfort says: “Every living thing has DNA that’s so complex, it’s mind boggling. There must have been a genius beyond any human reasoning that put it together.” This argument stems from ignorance and cannot be a proof for any claim.

Now the “ink fell from the sky” argument gets upgraded into a more entertaining version: “You’re an atheist, so you believe the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything” and “there had to be something in the beginning”. Though put in more elegant terms, the argument is still not a valid one. Nothing cannot create because nothing is not existent. But fixing the question to “Can something come from nothing?” the answer becomes—scientifically speaking—yes.

Science is not as arrogant as a person claiming to know the truth because he/she saw a few memes. Science explains that from a singularity, a great explosion happened, creating matter, energy, time and space (meaning that the Big Bang did not happen at a specific time and place); but it does not claim that it knows how the explosion happened. Until now, we lack the mathematical tools to work our way around singularities, and we hope that in the future we will have better tools to explain what we do not know yet. But be careful of adopting the “god of the gaps” argument because science has been expanding human knowledge ever since we started using it, and the gaps are increasingly narrowing.

Later comes the favorite part for anyone attacking atheism: Richard Dawkins. Ray Comfort keeps up his game of wordplay and tells the interviewees, who claimed that nothing creating something is absurd, that Richard Dawkins says exactly this. They become speechless. Of course, Dawkins did not say it! The video shows a clip of Dawkins on TV claiming that something can be formed from nothing (observed in the amino acid creation experiment or quantum fluctuation) and not nothing actively creating something.

Then the audience laughed at Dawkins because they were “endowed by their creator with a virtue of common sense” and did not believe what he said. The problem with common sense is that it evolved to deal with everyday matters of survival and reproduction. Those matters do not include ‘nothingness’ or how the universe came to be. Using common sense in such realms is not sensible. For instance, I can give many claims that common sense finds absurd: Photons can exist in two places at one time; there are 11 dimensions in the universe; time and space are one fabric; matter and energy are the same thing. How can common sense work itself around all these claims? It cannot—simply because it evolved to function with what our senses can perceive and is not a good tool to understand what happens on small scales or at high velocities. The adequate tool here is science.

Then Comfort tries to uplift our spirits (as if anything can cure the brain damage that he caused) by using his soft voice, accompanied by inspirational music, to tell us that we are not blobs of nothing, and that we all have purpose and meaning in life. When did science claim otherwise? On the contrary, scientists keep reminding atheists and theists alike that we are made of stardust, that we are the representation of the universe, that we are free and have the freedom to create our meaning and our purpose.

Finally, the video ends with Tim Allen telling us that it is “too much, too weird. It didn’t happen by accident. I don’t feel it did.” Surely no one is more entitled to discuss such questions than the Home Improvement guy. Allen wants to convince us that since something is too complicated for his brain, and since he does not “feel” it is right, then its opposite must be true. That is some bold claim from a guy who has no credentials to discuss such topics, let alone “feel” about them.

All throughout the video, Comfort keeps asking people if that was making them think, to which they replied yes while on the verge of converting. Here is something that strikes me as weird. I am an atheist myself and know plenty of non-believers; I can confirm that almost all of them questioned the claims in the video. Of course, some people lose their faith out of anger and do not initially ponder these questions, but sooner or later everyone does. After all, atheists might be gambling on an eternity of suffering in hell if they are wrong.

It is highly unlikely that this was the first time someone “made them think” about such questions. One has to speculate how no interviewee replied with at least one sound scientific argument, even though such scientific knowledge is easily accessible. It is hard to imagine that all these people risking an eternity of damnation did not take the time to look up obvious questions.

I will not claim that the video was staged, yet I cannot help but wonder how the interviewees were picked, and whether the video excluded anyone who answered the questions. Not to mention that clipped interviews often do not reflect the truth of the message, but are subject to the interviewer’s intent.

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An electro-mechanical engineer, in love with science, philosophy, and literature.
Blunt, meticulous, an animal lover, and an avid reader.