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Secular Sunday: Case for a Creator: Chapter Three, Part 2

January 11, 2009

So there’s this asshole Christian asshole by the name of Jack Chick, who has produced evangelical tracts for several decades, but who has only come to most peoples’ attention since the advent of the internets. These “Chick tracts,” freely available on his site, are by turns misogynistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, and just about any other -ist, -ic, and anti- you can think of (except, of course, atheist or agnostic).

Also, everything is Satan’s fault. Chick is basically The Church Lady, except he’s serious.

The tracts are supposed to be little comic-book stories that you can hand out to people, they read them, and, thoroughly convinced, they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

If that sounds a little too pat, that’s apparently how easy it is in Jack Chick’s mind, because that’s how it always works in the tracts. This is how most of the Chick tracts go:

Unbeliever: Religion is stupid!

Believer: But Jesus died for your sins.

Unbeliever: No one ever told me! Praise His holy name!1

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Go read them. You’ll see.

You can tell that Chick has never met a true unbeliever — certainly he thinks that everyone actually believes, they’re just “rebelling” — and so he only imagines, poorly, the way such people talk and think.

I bring this up not to specifically go off about the Chick tracts; they’re morbidly amusing, but don’t really deserve a detailed response. Most folks, even religious, can see that the arguments presented in the tracts (such as that Catholicism came after Protestantism, and is a perversion of Christianity as opposed to, you know, its origin) are absurd. And those who cannot are clearly either stupid, insane, or sociopathic, and deserve nothing more than to be pointed and laughed at.

No, I bring it up because the continuation of Chapter Three, the Jonathan Wells interview, plays out essentially like a Chick tract. Strobel has cast himself in the role of skeptic, but he has never been one, and doesn’t know what the word means, and so his performance is shockingly poor.

The gist of the interview is Strobel discussing the images of evolution, presented in Chapter Two, with Wells. And it basically goes like this:

Strobel: This is evidence of evolution, right?

Wells: Nuh-uh.

Strobel: I’ve never heard it from that perspective! You’ve totally convinced me!

You think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.

Wells presents no evidence to support his case, only dismisses the evidence Strobel presents as not being evidence, and Strobel, in the most embarassing parody of skepticism I’ve ever seen, immediately accepts Wells’ dismissal as totally valid. As a corollary, he also immediately accepts any assertion Wells makes regarding what is true, without requiring Wells present any evidence to support it.

At this point, the best-case scenario explanation for this book is that Strobel is a credulous idiot. It’s starting to seem like he keeps presenting arguments from authority because he genuinely finds them compelling — he accepts Wells’ arguments because he considers Wells an authority.

But at this point — long since, really — it has become clear that Strobel is actually a liar and an opportunist. It’s become clear that if Strobel expects his reader to be the credulous and idiotic ones. He thinks that his declarations of being “convinced” will themselves do the convincing, in the absence of an actually convincing argument.

And of course, when it comes to his target audience, he’s right. Over Christmas, a close friend’s girlfriend received another Strobel book “The Case for Christ,” which her brother, the giver, encouraged her to read. And the first thing out of his mouth was “The guy who wrote it was a skeptic, and then he became a Christian!”

That means nothing. It might mean he was a bad skeptic, or an idiot, or (quickly becoming my pet theory) a liar.

Not to mention the fact that if it were that easy, I could always counter that I was a Christian, then I became a skeptic, which is completely true. Have all you theists out there automatically dropped your beliefs as a result of my testimony? Does the fact that I am unconvinced mean you are unconvinced?

That’s what I thought.

Admittedly, his conversion, if such it was, could mean that the evidence was genuinely convincing. But if it were, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time being convinced that the fact that these people are convinced should be enough to convince us.

Arguments from authority are meaningless, and the manner by which many (otherwise sensible!) people find themselves talking about their naked Emperor’s exquisite clothing.

I’m going to try not to go intricately into the poor writing or poor argumentation of this chapter as I have been doing before — not only is this book not restoring my faith in God, it’s beginning to erode my faith in humanity. Just know that it’s still there under the surface. I’ll be doing my best to address only the main arguments, and save my snark about Strobel’s foolish conclusions and/or laughably poor writing for only the most grievous passages.

Still, I can’t help this one little piece of dialogue:

“If these icon are the illustrations most cited as evidence of evolution, then I can see why they’re important,” I said. “What did you find as you examined them one by one?”

Wells didn’t hesitate. “That they’re either false or misleading,” he replied.

“False or misleading?” I echoed. “Wait a second — are you saying my science teacher was lying to me? That’s a pretty outrageous charge!” [page 36]

Yes, Strobel is just shocked — shocked — that a man working for the Dishonesty Discovery Institute in Seattle, the sole expressed purpose of which is to promote Intelligent Design over evolution, who got his Ph.D specifically for the purpose of “destroying evolution,” in the name of the glory of God (who by the way is a Korean man), should state that evolution is false.2

Like I said, most of the dialogue in this book is like that, and I will spare you. Am I not merciful?

But okay, Wells. I’m ready to have my mind blown. Gimme whatcha got.

The Miller-Urey Experiment

Wells’ first argument is that the Miller experiment used the wrong atmospheric composition in its “early earth” simulation, the one which produced amino acids, which are the building blocks of life.

It is true that Miller’s original theory about the composition of the early atmosphere has since been abandoned in favor of other atmospheric theories. But Wells fails to mention that most scientists agree that the initial formation of organic compounds, and even the early forms of life, probably occurred well away from the atmosphere (e.g. in the deep sea), making the composition of the atmosphere largely irrelevant.

Wells does state that other experiments have been performed which create complex organic compounds — but points out that some of the molecules formed are cyanide and formaldehyde, which he refers to as being intensely toxic. And they are.

To humans.

But they’re also necessary building blocks to important biochemical compounds, such as amino acids. Therefore in this context they are not toxins. Wells even acknowledges that “it’s true that a good organic chemist can turn formaldehyde and cyanide into biological molecules,” but then states that “to suggest that formaldehyde and cyanide give you the right substrate for the origin of life…well, that’s just a joke.” [page 38]

What? WHAT? You just said that those two chemicals can form the basis of biochemical compounds, then say that it’s a joke.

In context, the punchline of the “joke” is that what you create by mixing them is embalming fluid. Which is true. But what he doesn’t mention, because it would be devastating to his case, is that you can also get amino acids, which are the substrate for the origin of life. Of course, despite the fact that Wells has two Ph.Ds, neither of them is in biochemistry, so at best it can be argued that he just didn’t know. But if he didn’t know he shouldn’t go around saying it with such finality and authority.

A simple Google search of “cyanide amino acids” brings up pages and pages of scientific studies discussing how hydrogen cyanide is a precursor to the formation of amino acids. Wells is supposed to be the expert, he’s TELLING us he’s the expert, and yet he can’t be bothered to actually check if what he’s saying has any truth?

The other option is that he has done the research, he knows he’s lying by omission, and he’s doing it anyway. It’s not the first, nor I’m sure the last, occurrence of lying for Jesus I’ve seen in my life. It’s probably far from the last that I’ll see in this book.

In the next section he goes on to say that if you were to poke a hole in a cell and allow the insides to drain out, you could not form another cell from this material, nor expect one to form, even though “you’ve got all the components you would need for life.” [page 39] But that’s not the way cells are formed, and not the way evolution works, and Wells knows this. Evolution involves replication and reproduction, activities in which a dead cell — especially a dismembered one — cannot engage.

This section of his argument is just ridiculous, but of course someone who is already ignorant or suspicious of evolutionary biology will latch onto it as making total sense. And that’s the alarming part, to me.

And of course, since Wells has dismissed these naturalistic explanations for abiogenesis, there must be a supernatural reason. Not because there’s any evidence for a supernatural explanation, mind you. Just cuz.

So, in this section Wells fails to disprove abiogenesis — by his admissions about the products of abiogenesis experiments, he has in fact provided evidentiary support for the theory. He lies and says it’s evidence against, but being an actual skeptic, I did some research. It didn’t even take me long to find all the ways he’s full of shit (going by number of Google hits on “cyanide amino acids,” approximately 666,000 ways. How appropriate).

Since he has no evidence of his own, he instead fills pages with straw man arguments, a clearly misguided understanding of evolution that I do not believe he actually holds (rather, he just hopes that the people reading won’t know better and won’t bother to check), and rhetoric that assumes the pre-determined conclusion.

I’ve said this before, but the correct process is: “here is the observation, what does that indicate.” Not “God exists, chase observations in support and ignore/deny observations against.” So far, Wells — and Strobel — are following the latter.

I’ll finish up the Wells chapter next time. For now, no points awarded. Try again next round.

 


 

  1. That’s another odd thing that Jack Chick seems to believe: that the vast majority of people in America aren’t aware of the fundamental tenets of Christianity — Christ’s divinity, salvation, etc. Presumably he thinks that the only logical explanation for people not believing is that they haven’t heard. Though of course “Jack Chick” and “logical” never seem to have been properly introduced.
  2. Shocked.
7 Comments
  1. Drew Mazanec permalink

    Please let Strobel’s arguments stand or fall on their own merits. There is no need to poison the well. http://is.gd/fqiu

  2. TheGamut permalink

    Evolution. Intelligent [sic] design. Heh.

    Part of the problem of theistic design is probability.

    When something has already happened, its probability is 1 in 1; a guaranteed event (because it has happened under the conditions that existed and, therefor, will always happen under all those same conditions). Many people rely in the 1:1 and refuse to believe their life happened largely as a matter of chance… until they go to a casino and lose.

    Now, let propose the alternative: What is the probability of this ever happening again? People begin to think that it’s not possible and could never have happened on its own in the first place, and so, we must exist by design.

    Of course, the problem is: all it takes is 1 out of any number to make it happen. I believe in that 1 chance. It makes me appreciate everything a heck of a lot more than when I thought I believed someone made all this just for me (to use and abuse because it’s mine — my right to be alive instead of being darned lucky to be alive). It’s enough to make me see life through a near-death experience. (That’s what it is after all.)

    Then again, others believe that all of existence is precious because it is a “gift” from the “creator”; a privilege to live and not a “right”. Sadly, far too many are like how I was and think they somehow deserve to be alive.

  3. Carniphage permalink

    If you ask a religious person if they have faith. They will proudly declare they have. In spades!

    The old part of our culture values having faith. – And typifies a “loss of faith” as a weakness.

    But it is not so.

    Embracing faith, means not having to rely on such fragile mechanisms as logic and reason. Having faith literally requires that evidence and argument must take a back seat to feeling,sentiment and certainty. That’s not ordinary certainty, it’s a special hardcore certainty that comes only with many years of cultural indoctrination.

    So these dudes are effectively immune to your earthly human logic.

    As a regular, rational person this is hard to grasp. It’s like meeting a human who does not need to breathe or eat.

    If you want to disagree with a regular person, you engage them in debate. And following the rules of rational discourse – lead them to see the truth. Step by step – the process of argumentation.

    This process is a waste of time on the faithful.
    They will engage in a form of pantomime that looks like an argument. They look like they are debating. But they start with the conclusion. Because they know the end point at the outset.

    What is worse is that the very act of engaging in a debate will legitimize their point of view. If a creationist were to debate with Dawkins, the charade would be exploited. It would add credibility to the supernatural point of view.

    Trying to persuade a theist they are wrong is like talking to a rock – and asking it to fly. It can’t possibly work. Instead you just have to pick it up and throw it.

    So it’s best not to debate them – just mock them more.

    C.

  4. Dorkman permalink

    Carniphage, I don’t think that’s entirely fair to say. I think that some theists genuinely do want to discuss this, they genuinely do want to understand and seek the truth, and they genuinely do have the potential to see it. I know from experience because I was that guy. I was pretty Jesus-freaky back in the day, but I wanted to understand the truth, and eventually did, to the demise of my religious faith.

    I mean, let’s look at the origin of me even reading this book. Instead of preaching Jesus at me Chick-tract style and expecting me to jump on board with it, he sent me what he believed was at least an attempt to give answers and reasons and rationales to the subject.

    I think people like Drew have a genuine interest in rational inquiry; they’ve just been so sidetracked by snake-oil salesmen like Lee Strobel that they don’t quite know the right questions to ask or how to frame them. But they want to ask the questions.

    That’s why I’ve begun losing patience with Strobel’s dishonesty — because honest, well-meaning people, ones who actually want truth and reason, get drivel instead.

    Admittedly, it’s because of their faith that they’re willing to accept it, because first and foremost they want to hold onto their faith. So if they can satisfy that urge for actual information with something that superficially qualifies, without threatening and/or while strengthening their conviction, then they’ll take it happily.

    That’s why I’m going at Strobel so hard, while trying to provide the actual facts he’s working so hard to obscure or misrepresent. Some theists do want to know the truth, genuinely, and that’s what I’m trying to do my small part to communicate here.

  5. Carniphage permalink

    Interesting.

    I have never met a religious person who could be persuaded by rational arguments.

    There are people who are rational. They adopt a naturalistic world view, and are interested in working out how stuff works.

    And there are the others. They start with a feeling that the world should be a certain way – and work backwards from there. The supernatural fits their needs.

    Of course, these two contrary viewpoints lead to many arguments. But these are not arguments that can be won. Because both sides are playing by completely different rules.

    Strobel is just playing American Football, and you are playing soccer. When he suddenly picks-up the ball and runs, it looks like blatant cheating. It’s not to him.

    So I guess what I am saying is, if you want to open the eyes of theists, then picking-apart a pseudo-rational argument in a dense minor text is a really hard way to do it.

    If there are theists who have enough residual rationality left – then it might be easier to draw their attention to the giant gaping holes than the tiny cracks.

    C.

  6. Dorkman permalink

    You’d think so, but not actually. The gaping holes are more easily dismissed, because you can construct a worldview that explains or closes them, and/or can make yourself cognitively blind to them by accepting such a worldview. How many theists do you know who hold contradictory beliefs and yet can say them one after another as though they logically follow?

    (The question is of course rhetorical, since we both know that the answer, to some extent, is “all of them.”)

    No, the holes they’ve got an explanation for. You’ve got to start by showing what’s wrong with the explanation. It’s with the small cracks that reality can start to wedge itself in, and eventually, if the person is really searching for the truth, it reaches critical mass and the whole thing shatters.

    That’s how it worked for me, I’ve heard of others having the same experience, and I have no reason to believe that there aren’t still others out there. A lot of people are theists simply because they’ve never had their beliefs properly challenged; they didn’t know there were questions to be asked, let alone how to ask them.

    There are the stark-raving mouth-foaming theists out there in the world, to be sure. But frankly they probably stopped reading my blog the very first time I mentioned that I am a non-believer, if they ever bothered to start. I’m convinced that the people who do read here are rational people at their core; they just may hold certain irrational beliefs, and so I am dedicating Sundays to pointing that out.

    And make no mistake, Strobel is no minor player. He’s one of the bestsellers in the “liberal” Christian set, the ones who want to be able to say they have rational reasons to believe, and not just faith-based ones (they don’t, but Strobel makes them feel like they do). I would say Strobel is second only to Josh MacDowell in influence, as gauged by how often people bring up his books.

    Hell, I’ve been hearing about Evidence that Demands a Verdict since I was prepubescent, and back then even just hearing that someone tried to write a book disproving Christianity, then became a Christian because he found so much proof, was, I admit, enough to convince me. I didn’t even read the book and I took it as fantastic proof of Christ’s power.

    And then I outgrew that. So, I believe, can others.

  7. TheGamut permalink

    Case in Carniphage’s point: I see the perfect math in water (h2o). I see that the reasons it does what it does is the result of mathematics (in the realm of physics). My partner sees water as designed. Its properties are required to create life. He believes the mathematics behind h2o were designed to create life.

    It’s the same belief, but he went one step past what I feel is the end to give it a reason. I simply see no evidence of a reason, no need for a reason and no evidence of a need for a reason. When I try to put a reason behind the facts, I start hitting all kinds of brick walls in the logic that follows based on that reason.

    Of course, you will get those who claim “His Plan” is unknowable. That’s where Carniphage is 100% correct when trying to discuss this. They tend to ignore you.

    Still, you will also get those who have created the universe in their image. I have found that latter type to become hostile when challenged (unlike the former). I feel that they want it easy and that the challenge threatens to require them to think further than their faith. I also feel that, even if they were convinced, they still wouldn’t think beyond their universe, leaving a empty space surrounding their existence (which is not empty at all). They would be unhappy as Atheists.

    Some people just can’t do it. Again, is it really all that bad, though?

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