With so many shows being skipped this holiday season, in order to stay current on theist arguments I’ve done something I’m not proud of. I’ve… (deep breath) subscribed to a podcast of Wretched Radio.
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of an introduction, Wretched Radio is the audio arm of Ray Comfort’s “Way of the Master” show. It’s hosted by a fellow named Todd Friel, but Ray Comfort drops by about once a week.
As a Ray Comfort production, you won’t be surprised to hear that the show is inordinately fond of the “Are you a good person?” test. In fact, once a week either Ray or some other proxy will go out and do “man on the street” interviews where they employ this technique, and they broadcast the resulting conversation live.
If you haven’t heard it before, it goes a little something like this. The interviewer asks if the mark is a good person. They usually say “pretty good,” at which point the interviewer asks if they have broken any of the ten commandments. They use the most broad possible interpretation of the commandments, so for instance if you’ve ever looked at another person with lust, then you’ve committed adultery.
As an atheist, there are a number of ways to hold up gracefully against this sort of questioning. For instance, the entire notion that right and wrong are defined by adhering to the somewhat arbitrary and capricious whims of an imaginary bronze age patriarchal deity is questionable at best. What’s the justification for saying that homosexuality is “an abomination” while slavery is A-OK? The answer, of course, is that no justification is needed; you don’t need reasons for morality, just do what God says (or rather, what we say he says). For an atheist, the obvious answer to many of these questions is, “Yeah, I lust. Who cares?”
For another thing, the whole argument is predicated on the assumption that the god exists and that the purpose of being good is to attain heaven and avoid hell. There are some things I did in the past which I would definitely consider bad behavior. Yes, the act of shoplifting a pack of gum when I was 11 probably caused material harm to the store owner’s bottom line, and that’s unfortunate. But Friel and Comfort want you to believe that the “sin” of stealing is a greater wrong than the material, financial harm that it causes directly. Oddly enough, the argument is that since God is an infinite being, even the smallest slight against him is infinitely evil. Which, personally, makes little sense to me. Why is the sin figured out by subtracting rather than dividing? You could just as easily say that since God is an infinite being, even the largest possible sin we could commit against him in a finite capacity is trivially unimportant to him.
It just goes to show what I always say: a large part of religion is just making stuff up to support your conclusions, and then stating beyond a shadow of a doubt that God agrees with you. Friel spends far more time on his show railing against other Christians than he does talking about atheists or any competing religion. He’s constantly ridiculing other Christians as posers, or playing clips of enemy Christians (read: “The vast majority of self-described Christians”) saying things about God which he thinks are stupid, when neither he nor they has a shred of evidence to support their points of view.
Anyway, the Good Person Test shouldn’t (I hope) be convincing to atheists. The ultimate goal of the argument is to convince you that you’re not good enough to get into heaven — a Pascal’s Wager when you strip away all the window dressing — and atheists don’t believe in heaven. By any secular standard, Christianity does not make anybody more likely to act good, a fact that Friel would readily cop to; Christians are sinners, they just have Jesus to keep them safe from God’s wrath.
Nevertheless, listening to Wretched emissaries deploy this test among most people (not atheists) is an exercise in frustration, and it’s easy to see why Friel and company think that it’s so good as to deserve to be a regular feature. They fall for it, and they keep falling for it. Case in point, recently the show has been on a field trip to Europe, so they can witness to all the poor unsaved godless foreigners.
Now, as I’ve heard, Europeans are mostly a pretty unbelieving lot, but the “man on the street” interviews I heard on Wretched sound like generic theists who don’t give it a lot of thought. In a way, I suppose that’s to be expected. Europeans have “official religions,” and many of them go through the motions; they have high rates of secularism but not atheism.
So I listened as first an English high school girl (preying on the young of course, very classy) and then a German tourist got asked these various questions. And the thing is, in the vast majority of these chats, the mark has no idea what they’re being hit with. They don’t know Bible verses, they don’t know the basics of their own religion, they just have a vague sense that “sure, there’s a God I guess, he’s probably nice.” The high school girl was asked if she ever went to church, and she said “Sure, but not since I was six.”
In both cases, the interviewee was asked if it all made sense, and they said some variation of “Yeah, kind of, I guess so.” It’s not clear whether they were just giving a non-committal answer to get rid of the interviewer, but whether that’s the case or not, it clearly sounded, from the audience’s point of view, as if Todd had scored one for Jesus.
In my recent posts on raising atheist kids, I made the point that you shouldn’t hide your kids from religion, because arguing is like building a mental immune system. You may successfully shield yourself from diseases for a while, but if you haven’t been exposed in a controlled environment then the first encounter will wipe you out. For a secular country in a world with so many religious viruses, not learning about religion is very risky.