Book review: God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists, chapter 1

I find the title compelling:

God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists: Proof that the atheist doesn’t exist

Ray Comfort

I’m a professed atheist, and I’m also keen to find out ways in which I don’t believe what I think I believe. This book makes the bold claim that it can do that.

Let’s see if it lives up to it.

“Either there is a God or there isn’t. Both possibilities are frightening!”

quotes the foreword. This is a great quote.

After that though, things get a little confusing.

If you were walking through the woods and found a painting hanging on a tree, you would automatically conclude that it did not grow out of the tree

The argument is that the painting must have had a painter. Later on we’ll get to arguments that the tree must have had a designer also, so I don’t see what’s supposed to be so incongruous about one growing out of the other.

What’s especially odd about this example is that paintings pretty much do grow out of trees. Or at least, beautiful sculptures grow out of orchids. Check this out. Orchids that look extraordinarily like monkeys with no possible evolutionary explanation. So far, a website called Why Evolution is True is doing a better job convincing me that evolution isn’t real than this book is.

This is just the foreword though, and I’m sure whoever wrote it was extremely busy, so let’s skip ahead a page and see if the book itself can do any better.

Chapter 1, Who made God?

It amazes me that people can have a belief in the existence of God, and yet not think for a minute that something is radically wrong in our world.

is the sort of sentence we would expect near the start of a book promoting atheism. But it’s a good arguing style to lay out the opposing argument first and then counter it – so let’s see where this is going. There’s some stuff about how bad the world is (e.g. cancer) and then this:

The fact is, there are only three alternatives to explain all this suffering:

  1. There is no God, as evidenced by the chaos.
  2. God is totally incompetent and can’t control His creation (or won’t, which makes Him a tyrant).
  3. There is another explanation, one which the Bible gives for the state of the world.

To neatly round this off, there should be a 4., There is another explanation, which is not in the Bible. I’d imagine a lot of religious believers, including many Christians, would go with 4.

Possibilities 2 and 4 remain unaddressed in this chapter (maybe Comfort will get to them later on in the book, we’ll see. It’s difficult to tell from the chapter headings).

So the chapter is really just about point 1 – but in fact that’s all we need, and all the title page really promised.

The book revolves around the following cluster of claims:

  • Atheists don’t exist
  • Atheists don’t want to admit there’s a God
  • Atheists are stupid

These seem to be mutually incompatible, but if I could be convinced of any one of them it would be a huge and important update to my beliefs.

The chapter goes on to talk a bit about faith, which is defined to mean more or less “the reason we don’t chemically analyse our coffee each morning before deciding it’s safe to drink”. So, basic, everyday trust. This is great – I like knowing how people use their words, and this definition doesn’t seem hard to understand.

…faith is as essential to the spiritual realm as oxygen is to the natural realm

It sounds like faith is pretty essential to the natural realm too, if we are to consume corn flakes, milk, sugar, coffee and water, sit on chairs, use taxis, elevators, stairways, airplanes, the post office and banks or undergo surgery (all examples given in the book). So I don’t understand this sentence.

God is described as having no beginning, no end, and existing outside of time, therefore the question “Who made God?” doesn’t need to have an answer. This is the first thing I can find in the book which seems to actually be arguing a point, so I’ll go into a bit more depth here with my thoughts.

God can flick through time as you and I flick through the pages of a history book

The word “flick” (and a lot of other verbs) imply some kind of time axis along which the action is carried out. The easiest way to visualize this in the case of God is with 2-dimensional time. (Yes, I did just say that 2-dimensional time is easy to visualize). God exists in His own timeframe, flicking through a book. You or I exist within the book, unaware of God’s time. God can make edits to the book, and if He does, we won’t perceive anything as having changed – from our point of view, it’s always been like that.

But such a God has His own timeframe, and therefore maybe some kind of beginning. So I don’t think this is what Comfort is imagining – although he may be. The book doesn’t go into the metaphysical mechanics of time; instead we get this:

The Christian is told that he understands “by faith.”…

…the promises of Almighty God are utterly trustworthy. This may be hard for you to appreciate at this time, but I want to encourage you to have an open mind as we look closely at the subject of atheism

I don’t follow this at all. I don’t understand why coffee doesn’t kill me; I don’t understand how the taxi driver manages to navigate me safely to my destination. I don’t understand surgery very well. I have faith in all of those things. In the everyday case, faith and understanding seem diametrically opposed. How’s God different? How can I understand by faith?

I don’t believe in atheists. This isn’t because I haven’t met people who claim the title, but because such a person cannot exist.

This is really the core claim of the book so it’s very disappointing that it’s only given 3 pages. Flicking ahead, the rest seems to be about evolution and other peripheral stuff like how to be a good Christian. I was worried that this book would turn out to be the usual evangelical creationist stuff dressed in a catchy and provocative title page. Still, let’s see what it has to say about atheists not existing.

First, do you know the combined weight of all the sand on all the beaches of Hawaii? I think I can safely assume that you don’t. This brings us to the second question: Do you know how many hairs are on the back of a fully grown male Tibetan yak?

I don’t, but I can’t help shake off the feeling that these would make excellent topics for a game of paranoid debating.

The point, which I of course accept, is that the professed atheist doesn’t know everything.

If I were to make an absolute statement such as, “There is no gold in China,” what is needed for that statement to be proven true? I need absolute or total knowledge.

Again, I agree with the thrust of this – God might be hiding in some hard-to-find place, and so we can’t ever say for certain that He doesn’t exist.

Owing to a lack of knowledge on your part, you don’t know if God exists. So, in the strict sense of the word, you cannot be an atheist.

I’m not sure what sense of the word Comfort has in mind here. Wiktionary’s narrow definition is “a person who believes no deities exist”. That seems to leave scope for:

  • Someone to believe that God doesn’t exist, but not possess a proof of this
  • Someone to believe that God doesn’t exist, but be wrong about this
  • Someone to believe that God doesn’t exist, but only with 95% certainty

I’d call such people atheists, but I guess Comfort would only call them professed atheists, or agnostics? I’m fine with that terminology, although the only thing we’ve really accomplished so far is playing with the definition of words – I don’t feel the book has taught me anything yet.

In any case, that’s the first claim dealt with – that atheists don’t exist.

The second claim is that professed atheists just don’t want to admit that there’s a God.

It’s not that a person can’t find God, but that he won’t. It has been rightly said that the “atheist” can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman. He knows that if he admits there is a God, he is admitting that he is ultimately responsible to Him.

I can’t say why, but I like the policeman analogy. It’s a shame the book doesn’t go into this further, but I can give my own thoughts on the subject.

Clearly the analogy isn’t exact – while a thief might have trouble finding a policeman (except during his time off), the thief certainly doesn’t have any trouble recognizing that the policeman exists. But there are still various things this could mean.

  1. Atheists do realise that God exists, subconsciously. This is difficult to argue against, so I wish the book would have made this point so that I could have tried.
  2. Just as policemen police the world, so God polices the mind. If a thief stumbles across a policeman he’ll end up in jail, so if an atheist stumbles across God in his mind he’ll end up in… church? Mind-jail? This is again difficult to argue against but doesn’t exactly make a great selling point for God.
  3. (Possibly combined with point 1) Atheists don’t respect the authority of God just as thieves don’t respect the authority of policemen. This is certainly true, but doesn’t have much to do with belief itself.

Chapter 1

  • points out that the world is full of war, disease and chaos and offers atheism as a candidate reason for this, without convincingly showing why the atheists are wrong.
  • tells us that faith is something mundane, basically equivalent to trust, but at the same time can be used to gain “understanding” without giving a mundane analogy as to what this kind of understanding means
  • describes God as outside time, but using language that makes it sound like God has His own kind of time
  • attempts to prove that atheists don’t exist. It does this by implicitly defining “atheist” to be something that can’t exist, contrary to the normal use of the word.
  • say that God is to atheist as policeman is to thief, without elaborating on this.

Chapter 1 hovers over interesting philosophical ground. Each of these bullet points could have easily filled up a chapter and made a more interesting book. But all we got were a couple of sentences. This is not a very philosophical book.

Some possibly good points raised in chapter 1:

  • Either there is a God or there isn’t. Both possibilities are frightening
  • Atheists might believe in God subconsciously
  • We can’t say for certain that God doesn’t exist

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