Film Review: The Atheist Delusion

Christian evangelist Ray Comfort asks the big questions. Well, one question (and it kind of has to do with the small): Is DNA intelligently designed?

In the words of PZ Myers, the answer is, “No.

Comfort’s newest film, The Atheist Delusion (now available on YouTube), hopes to explain “why millions deny the obvious”—namely Comfort’s version of the Christian God and biblical Young Earth creationism—by appealing to atheists with already debunked arguments about intelligent design.

Fellow Young Earth creationist Matt Barber writes in his review of the film that many self-described atheists will be “well on their way to admitting His existence…toward film’s end.” But I’ve watched the film. Twice. Against overwhelming odds, I remain theologically unmoved. In truth, any nontheist who has ever challenged a creationist’s beliefs should handily survive Comfort’s onslaught.

The film begins with a hyperbolic introduction featuring an action-movie soundtrack and slow-motion nature filmography. (Neither of these are appeals to emotion, oh no. This is Comfort’s scientific question.)

The substance of The Atheist Delusion begins with a rather short “Meet the Atheists” segment. “David” has been an atheist since age twelve. A man at the beach thinks religious belief is based on fear of death. In a minute, nine nontheists fly past. Comfort slows down to ask his final four freethinkers whether they’re open to evidence. Each answers in the affirmative. Watch out! Now that you’ve admitted to being rational, Comfort is in position to pounce.

Argument 1: The Watchma – uh, Book-Binder Analogy

Comfort approaches each interviewee. He hands them a book and narrates:

Flick through the pages of the book that is put upon your lap, look at the color pictures, and I’ll ask you a question. Do you believe that book could happen by accident?…. That red, orange, green, blue, indigo, violet ink fell from the sky and formed those beautiful pictures? And then black ink fell from the sky, or from nowhere, and formed itself into coherent words and sentences, capitals and periods and commas, making sense?….And then it bound itself…without work, and then we have a book?

Here Comfort mixes a cocktail of bad reasoning I like to call Darwinism on the rocks. It’s equal parts argument from incredulity, appeal to beauty, Watchmaker Analogy, and Gish Gallop. It’s easy on throat, rough on the mind.

In case you got lost in the thicket of questions, Comfort makes sure to tell us the right answer: the book was intelligently designed. And Comfort attempts to assert that the complexity of a book is the same as the complexity of a living being, taking video excerpts of Joe Hanson’s TED Talk and David Attenborough calling DNA “the book of life” out of context in an attempt to borrow authority from people who, if asked, would starkly disagree with him.

Then Comfort asks people if the book they’d flipped through could have happened through random chance. Nobody thinks it likely; nor should they. The last atheist quite specifically states that it would be like “an explosion caused everything that makes a 747 airplane to all just come together by accident.” It’s also a gross misrepresentation of what Comfort is criticizing, because evolution is neither “random” nor “accidental.” As evolutionary biology Richard Dawkins puts it in Climbing Mount Improbable:

Darwinism is not a theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection.…Natural selection…is a non-random force, pushing towards improvement.…Every generation has its Darwinian failures but every individual is descended only from previous generations’ successful minorities.

But hold your debunking horses. When one atheist rebuts that DNA “developed over the course of many, many millennia of evolution,” Comfort switches focus to the concern of DNA instead of its origin:

DNA exists in every living thing. Its origins don’t matter. The fact that there is intelligent information tells us that there must be an intelligent designer.…[T]he point I’m trying to make is very simple: book, book designer, bookmaker. DNA, intelligent designer, God.

But as many of us know, we have no “reference frame” for an intelligent designer. We can compare a book with nature and see it has distinctively “human-made” qualities. What can we compare nature to, to see if it has distinctively “intelligent-designer-made” qualities? Nothing. To compare, we need something that is known to be un-designed. Yet no such thing exists. And if we cannot compare nature to something un-designed, we cannot know if nature is designed or not. It’s possible that nature was designed, but we’ve no way of knowing so.

Argument 2: Irreducible Complexity

This time, Comfort asks another “conundrum” of atheists:

Explain to me how a program could make itself out of nothing on how [sic] to make a human eye, giraffe’s eyes, elephant’s eyes, cats, dogs, puppies, flowers, birds, trees. Every living thing has DNA that’s so complex, it’s mindboggling. It must have been a genius beyond any human reasoning that put it together. And to say that it happened by chance is infinitely sillier than saying if [sic] your book happened by chance.

Damn. DNA is just too gosh darn complicated to happen without a creator. Pack up your nonbelief, nontheists—we’re done. Or we would be, were Comfort’s argument not fundamentally incorrect.

Far later in the film, Comfort interviews physicist (and 2015 Humanist of the Year) Lawrence Krauss who explains that, like DNA, the snowflake—for all its beauty, its complexity, its order—spontaneously forms according to the rules of chemistry. There is no purpose, there are only natural laws.

Comfort rejects this. While snowflakes are “chemical reactions repeating over and over,” DNA contains “specified information, like the information found on a book or a computer program.” He further explains that DNA’s information is “external” and “its origin is certainly supernatural.”

Yet he never explains how DNA works. And if he did, it would destroy the illusion. As reviewer Garrett Griffin writes:

[E]xplaining that DNA determines how our cells grow, change, and function is as far as Comfort will go in his explanation of what DNA is, relying on vague terms like “letters.”…Why not explain that the “letters” in the “book” are adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine, chemicals held together by sugar phosphate? Why not describe purines and pyrimidines, the organic bits that make up the chemicals?

If Comfort’s “instructions for life” are just mindless chemicals, just ordinary biology, then DNA is not supernatural—and a designer would not be needed.

Moreover, he asserts that DNA cannot arise on its own, to which I say, au contraire, Monsieur Comfort. There is an enormous body of scientific literature investigating and supporting abiogenesis, the process through which early life and the first RNA and DNA strands formed. While we may not know exactly what occurred on Earth 3.5 billion years ago, there’s no need to suspect an intelligent designer was involved. As but one example, a team from Georgia Tech found just two weeks ago that if you put common molecules in a thickener solution, strands of RNA can “copy” themselves spontaneously. This experimental environment is not unlike that of Earth, and yet “information” arose without a designer whatsoever.

Argument 3: The Cosmological Argument

Comfort presses the atheists on the Big Bang:

What caused the explosion? And where did the materials come from? From the explosion? And why is there such incredible order from the explosion? Every explosion I’ve heard of creates chaos, not order.

There’s a lot to unpack here—but Comfort doesn’t give his atheists any time to respond. Let’s help them out, shall we?

  1. The. Big. Bang. Was. Not. An. “Explosion.” And it didn’t produce order, it just produced energy. Galactic evolution and stellar evolution produced order; Comfort mentions neither.
  2. Science is not now certain what, if anything, created the universe. It is dishonest to claim that, because we don’t know, we need a God of the Gaps.
  3. Comfort repeats again and again that “something cannot come from nothing.” I ask him, then, from whence his Creator comes. (And if his creator “transcends time,” I’d direct him to Stephen Hawking.)

Comfort spends the remaining half-hour of the film trying to convince his interviewees to turn to Christianity for the sake of their souls. Of the selection, he has quite a few successes, and some of the self-professed atheists become self-professed Christians.

But Comfort’s video fails as a scientific, rational criticism of atheism. It raises only three old and debunked arguments for God and tries to appeal to our emotions (through music, through imagery, through word choice) instead of our rationality. It uses the conversion of a few atheists—and the constant threat of death and hell—to put pressure on us to convert. It is a pseudoscientific movie claiming a scientific mantle.

To learn why millions of people doubt or deny the existence of a god, skip Comfort. Try Pew Research Center’s “Ten Facts About Atheists.”

And if you really want to learn about intelligent design, skip Comfort. Try William Paley’s watchmaker, Philip E. Johnson’s intelligent design, Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity—or browse this index of creationist claims.

But to learn what creationists think of atheism, give The Atheist Delusion a whirl. Comfort pulls no rhetorical punches, even though they lack the science to make any impact.