So Many Claims, So Little (No) Support… »« …And our little lives are rounded with a sleep

Mr. Friel goes to Europe

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.

 

Q

"Well, I hope I've been entertaining you." "Barely."

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.

 

Comments

  1. Raven says

    The part of the “are you a good person?” test I always get hung up on is the way the questioner so blatantly jumps from “you did a bad thing once in your life” to “therefore I can brand you as a person who does that.” When a normal, sane human being hears that someone else stole a pack of gum when they were a little kid and didn’t know better, they emphatically don’t label that person as a THIEF, and in the normal meaning of the word an “adulterer” isn’t someone who merely looks at another person in a lustful way.

    “Jesus said that if you look at another person with lust in your heart you’re an adulterer.”

    “Well then Jesus really ought to go buy a dictionary or something, because that’s just not what the word means.”

    But Comfort’s real problem is presuppositionalism. All of his arguments start with the baseless assumption that God exists and will send you to hell if you haven’t accepted Jesus.

  2. jacobfromlost says

    If you can convince people that you are on god’s side, that you know god, that god agrees with you, that you are chosen by god, that you should be allowed to tell others what god wants them to do, that others should obey your (god’s) orders, that the power of god moves through you, that the mysterious omniscience of god moves through you, that the mysterious omnibenevolence of god operates in everything you do (even if it doesn’t seem so), and that god always agrees with you (or you with him, whichever the audience will believe)…

    …then you’ve cleverly set yourself up with extreme political power that you’ve tricked out of some ignorant, desperate, or emotionally fragile people.

    It’s not supernatural, but it’s as close as anyone has ever come–a Big Con.

  3. L.Long says

    I’d tell them the truth that I have violated all of them but 1 and have repeatedly tried to violate them as often as possible.
    Yes I’m going to HELL, so me and Hitchens and others can ‘sing with the drunken angels on the merry side of Hell!!!!!’
    Snap my fingers in their faces and walk away with a smile.
    Bet they don’t show that on their show!!

  4. Tim H. says

    It was my understanding that, per the beliefs of mainstream Christianity, we are all born deserving to go to Hell because of original sin; even newborn babies absolutely deserve to be tortured forever before they’re able to choose anything. Has Way of the Master broken from this belief, or is the “good person” test even more of a rhetorical charade than normal religious dialogue?

  5. michaelbuchheim says

    Wow, Hitchens wipes the floor with Friel. Too bad the guy doesn’t even stop to listen to Hitchens, too busy reciting his lines.

    And that’s one of the things I find so frustrating when talking to theists. They seem to recite arguments rather then build them. And the moment you veer away from the path they expected, many of them are at a loss.

    Friel himself seems to employ many of the tools Ive been subjected to in such cases, when he talks to Hitchens. He thinks that Hitchens failed to answer his questions when he gets an unexpected response, not even able to asses how legitimate it is. He repeats the “game” mantra and rules over and over, reminding me of old programs where you had to try various commands to receive the desired input. Other times he seems to ignore the answer, or even seems to have not heard it at all. There was at least one time where he simply continued as if Hitchens has responded according to his expectation, even when his next point is rendered absurd.

    It’s so frustrating when I see people who are otherwise quite intelligent and attentive, respond like broken automata when confronted with arguments against their religious beliefs.
    I remember a fellow who approached me of his own volition, trying to convince me to take part in a religious ceremony, as part of a misguided attempt to convert me. When I showed resistance to his pleading and gave my reasons, we fell into a small dialog on the subject. After less then two minutes he seemed to grow frustrated with my arguments and kept repeating the same assertions over and over. I addressed his argument several times and in several different ways, but he just kept on repeating his argument like a mantra.

    It was something disturbing to see so clearly.

  6. andrewhawkins says

    What a smarmy douchebag. AronRa said that if it weren’t for religion these types would have to fall back to being used car salesmen or some such thing, and both Comfort and this Friel cat have exactly that veneer. I can clearly imagine them standing in a used car lot wearing cheap suits and smoking cigars.

  7. davidct says

    The whole point of the exercise is to demonstrate that even “good” people are not good enough, and that without god’s forgiveness all people deserve eternal punishment. That makes everybody a potential paying customer.

    There is no sense of justice or rational grading of different offenses. According to the mentality of certain theists, any offense committed against the ultimately magnificent deity is equal by comparison. Compared to the infinite perfection of the great one, it makes no difference whether one takes some gum or is the worst sort of serial killer. With this mentality the argument is won if the smallest offense is admitted to. Since in comparison to infinite goodness all crimes are equal, so is the punishment.

    Even with “Lawnboy’s” link to Hitchens, competent answers to this line of questioning makes no impression on Friel. The only people to benefit are those watching the shallowness of the arguments being exposed. That is the only good reason for talking to the seriously deluded.

  8. JJR says

    My religious ex-mother-in-law could be rational up to a point, but once you started casting doubts on the tenets of her religion or her other cherished beliefs, you could almost hear the switch as her brain shut down and on came the bible-vers-o-matic, just spitting out random bible verses; some of which didn’t even make any sense given the context of what had come previously. It was almost amusing but also quite sad.

  9. Kazim says

    You seem to think that this would be impressive, but it wouldn’t. Todd would just shake his head and say “You see how deluded these atheists are? They tell themselves that hell is just going to be one big party, when the Bible clearly tells us that it’s a lake of fire. That’s what happens when you don’t understand scripture.”

    Your answer, flippant or not, takes the frame of Biblical fairy tales seriously, by saying that hell exists and is fun.

  10. John K. says

    So there are arbitrary rules set up that are impossible to follow, and the penalty for not following these rules is eternal punishment. The only course is then to agree to punish someone else for all of my infractions so I can get off scot-free?

    How about calling out the bullshit system in the first place? This system does not make me lucky, it makes the god an asshole.

  11. Yellow Thursday says

    Warning! I’m about to mix geek references. (Also, spoilers ahead!)

    It seems that the only way to win is not to play.

    Which reminds me of the “side quests” from the AC:Brotherhood. You play an ongoing chess game against the computer, standing in for the Templars. Each time, there is only one move that the computer will accept, and it leads you into checkmate by the end. To beat the last scenario, you have to remove the king from the board in order to remove him from the trap. Then the game pointedly tells you that you mustn’t play by the opponents’ rules.

  12. garnetstar says

    Nothing like selective editing. It’s long been clear that these grifters attack many people, most of whom shoot down the stupid pitch, and then the con men make public only the interviews in which the victim got caught.

    I’ll bet it was tough in Europe to find two people who didn’t tell the grifters to mind their own damn business. They probably had to go through plenty of interviews.

  13. michaelbuchheim says

    I’m reminded of a bit from the Sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. Lister, the last human being alive, discovers that a race of Cat-people have built a whole religion around him while he spent 3 million years in suspended animation. Reading their holy book he exclaims in wonder: “I’m supposed to have given the sacred laws. Five sacred laws! I’ve broken four of them myself. I would have broken the fifth but there aren’t any sheep on board.”

  14. says

    One thing I respect about Todd is that he takes other Christians to task about what they believe. All though of course I don’t agree with his beliefs, he calls out other Christians who don’t understand what the bible actually says and have these watered-down touchy-feely ideas of God. One of the best clips I ever heard on that show was him trying to get a self-described Christian to admit that non-Christians will go to hell, and the guy kept dodging him.

    I think this is a good thing because if more people realized how insulting and degrading the Bible is to humanity they would be quicker to reject it, and Todd makes it his mission to shoot down the half-assed accomodationism that makes Christianity more palatable to the masses.

  15. annabucci says

    I think if I were to answer these little test questions, my answers would be similar to Hitchens. If his god did exist, and assumed ownership of me against my will, I STILL wouldn’t care if I measured up against some arbitrary rules that I don’t agree with. None of it would compel me to abandon my beliefs and switch to his beliefs under penalty of some torturous afterlife.

    I would also argue some of the weird definitions adding “in your heart”, and if you do something once that means you carry that label for life. Aside from murder and rape(things that are serious crimes and kind of a big deal), doing something once doesn’t necessarily put you under that label. In reality, you become a label base on action/behaviour after you’ve done it enough times so that people know you by these actions. If you are habitually lying to people, then you are a liar. If you donate to charity regularly, you are a charitable person. And considering he thinks lying once makes you a liar, I would counter with “well I’ve told the truth as well, therefore I’m a truthteller”.

    I once saw an amusing video on youtube satirizing this, but using muslims rules instead of christian. Needless to say, Ray Comfort doesn’t measure up.

  16. articulett says

    I think I’d turn such questions on the interviewer:

    Q: “Are you a good person?”

    A: “I’d say I’m probably as good or better than you.”

    Q: “Have you ever told a lie?”

    A: “I’ve probably told fewer than you.”

    Maybe I’d return the question with “Why do you ask?” Or “Have you?”

  17. Jaytheist says

    I think that another strategy to counter this silly game would be to point out the obvious flaw. Say:

    “Once a thief always a thief? So the trick is defining a person by one single act? So that means that by doing a good act, such as giving blood, you get to label yourself as a good person. I have given blood, therefore, I am a good person.”

    I wonder how this would play out?

  18. Mr. Lynne says

    This issue was the first thing that popped into my head when he accuses one of being a thief and liar. I think, my response would be “I’m sure at some point in your life, Mr. Comfort, you’ve wet your bed, but I think the vast majority would accuse me of inaccuracy if I were to call you a ‘bed-wetter’ on that basis alone. If I’m a thief then you’re a bed-wetter.”

  19. garnetstar says

    I think, when Ray says “Let’s say that there is a god”, I’d counter with “Which god?” and then insist that we use the edicts of Allah or Vishnu or Thor. Make Ray explain why not and laugh his “explanations” to death.

  20. Andrew EC says

    Russell — I’m pretty sure the trip to Europe stuff is all reruns. Todd Friel takes a lot of days off, particularly at the holidays.

  21. danadamsky says

    I love this interview! I’ve heard it before, and my favorite part is still Hitchens’ answer to the last question. Essentially: “Why, yes, I do want to live my life the way that I see fit based upon my own values and desires. Do you want to do otherwise?” How else would you answer that question? “No, at home, I’m secretly a slave to long-standing institutions who derive their authority from an old book. I have no desire to be my own person or think my own thoughts.” This whole apologetic, if you can even call it that, makes me cringe!

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