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Talking to the Dead
James Van Praagh Tested

James Van Praagh and other practitioners of so-called “channeling”—communicating with deceased people—have consistently avoided James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge test to prove their psychic abilities. In this video, Miklos Jako, a knowledgeable layman, tests Van Praagh’s ability simply by having a session with him and analyzing what went on. The results, though not strictly scientific, are pretty conclusive, as well as entertaining.

Miklos Jako is a retired teacher, who has investigated religion and related topics all his life. He is the author of Confronting Believers (Infinity Publishing). He graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, and Colby College, ME.

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Daniel Loxton (left) and Donald Prothero (right) at The Amazing Meeting 2013 (Photo by David Patton)

Daniel Loxton (left) and Donald Prothero (right) at The Amazing Meeting 2013
(Photo by David Patton)

Return of the Revenge of the Son of the Bride of MonsterTalk

MonsterTalk returns from its break with guests Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton who introduce their long-awaited book Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

Could it be that geneticists, biochemists, zoologists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists, ecologists, comparative anatomists, physiologists, and cosmologists are all wrong about evolution? In this week’s eSkeptic, Ingrid Hansen Smythe reviews a documentary film by Ray Comfort called Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith. The film makes the audacious claim that “there is no evidence for Darwinian evolution; that it’s not scientific.” Watch the trailer and then read the review.

Ingrid Hansen Smythe (BMus, BA, MA) is a freelance writer, playwright, and the author of three books—Dwynwen’s Feast, Stories for Animals, and Poetry for Animals. Visit her at www.ihsmythe.ca.

Guess Who Wins

a film review by Ingrid Hansen Smythe

“I believe it’s going to take down evolution. It exposes it as bogus science. That sounds like a bold claim, but it’s true.”1

—Ray Comfort

“There is no refutation of Darwinian evolution in existence. If a refutation ever were to come about it would come from a serious scientist—not an idiot.”2

—Richard Dawkins

Ray Comfort, the professional preacher and proselytizer best known for his unwitting invention of the banana fallacy, is on the attack once again with his latest film Evolution vs. God. According to one reviewer this is a powerful film that leaves evolutionists “clutching at straws,”3 and Ray Comfort himself has issued a warning, saying, “I would say not to watch it if you are someone who believes in evolution, but you are weak in the faith.”4 Creationists claim that ever since the film’s release evolutionists have been in “damage control”5 and most significant of all, there’s been “an eerie silence from Professor Dawkins.”6 One imagines the beleaguered Dr. Dawkins sweating and grimacing in his underground biology bunker, surrounded by troll-like Darwinians all frantically trying to get their stories straight. “All right, people, next on the agenda is the doctrine of speciation. Who has faith in that godless heresy? Can I see a show of hands, please?”

Evolution vs. God (DVD cover in 3D)

It is astonishing to think that, of all people, Ray Comfort (now commonly known as Banana Man) has discovered, through his own tireless research, that the geneticists, the biochemists, the zoologists, the biologists, the geologists, the paleontologists, the ecologists, the comparative anatomists and physiologists, the cosmologists—the whole lot of them—have been entirely mistaken all this time. And if Ray’s film does what it claims, it will mean a scientific revolution on a scale the like of which has never been seen in the history of humanity. Note too that, in this film, Ray doesn’t interview any “creation scientists” as they rather comically call themselves,7 but only experts in the relevant disciplines, finally letting the godless Darwinians speak for themselves. How amazing that the Everest-like mountain of hard evidence for evolution might be razed to the ground in one brief 38-minute film by a man with only a high school education and a reputation for being, as Dawkins says, an idiot.8 Truly this is the mother of all David-and-Goliath tales, and so it was with great expectations that I settled in with my peanut butter and banana crackers and watched Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith.

Well.

If you haven’t seen Evolution vs. God, you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that this is a truly excellent film—if by “film” you mean a thin haze, blur, mist, cloud or veil—i.e., something that’s abnormally opaque, as in “a film of horseshit.” However, if by “film” you mean “movie”—or, in particular, “documentary” (i.e. a work of nonfiction)—then I’m afraid you might be a trifle disappointed with what Ray has to offer. Of course there’s the obvious point that evolution vs. God is a false dichotomy to begin with, and that millions of people are perfectly capable of believing in God and simultaneously accepting evolution as a fact. Trouble only arises for fundamentalists like Ray, but all other believers accept both ideas to be true without their heads exploding from the pressure. Even the Pope’s on board with this one and believes that the process of evolution brought all life into existence, except human souls of course, which the Church believes are specially created by God—and who are we to argue with the claim that an insensible agent manufactures an insensible product? That’s just hilarious, not necessarily an immediate threat to the scientific endeavour.

So besides the whole enterprise being hopelessly flawed from the get-go, what else is wrong with Evolution vs. God? It’s not that the production values are so terrible—the lighting is good, for example, and the music sets the right emotional tone of looming hellfire—but the shooting angle is bizarre as the camera is often set very low and pointed upwards (toward heaven, presumably) and so most of the movie is shot up people’s noses, presumably by a dwarf. Thankfully the four experts that Ray interviews had no unruly nose hair, but that’s about all Gail Kennedy, Craig Stanford, Peter Nonacs, and especially P.Z. Myers have to be thankful for.

That’s because Ray’s idea of consulting with the experts is to give them fewer than five minutes of total airtime between them and to keep them occupied the entire time with asinine questions that—due to his use of voice-overs and selective editing—may, or may not, have been the asinine questions he actually asked.9 Dr. Peter Nonacs, for example, gets a grand total of 53 seconds to summarize his vast storehouse of knowledge—but, of course, he’s not actually given a chance to talk about anything meaningful at all. All of his time, and everyone else’s, is taken up answering Ray’s fruitless questions—“Have you ever stolen anything?” “How would you make a rose?” “Is rape wrong?”—at which point Ray captures the scientist’s bewildered expressions on camera as they apparently ruminate on Ray’s brilliant gotcha questions (though in reality they’re probably thinking that Ray’s brain is a great example of a vestigial organ. It might have been good for something once, but…).

Ray’s habit of asking leading questions in conjunction with close-up headshots is also disturbing, and poor Dr. Gail Kennedy gets the worst of it as she appears to be pinned against a wall in an interrogation room. Dr. Craig Stanford is literally cornered as Ray shoves a microphone in his face (his interviewing technique with all his subjects)—a microphone that simply screams “phallic symbol” and reminds one of the Latin word irrumo (i.e. “mouth-rape”). “Here,” Ray seems to be saying, “I’ve got some words to put in your mouth.” Yuck! It’s all kind of creepy, especially when Ray asks questions like, “Have you ever looked at a guy with lust?” (“Not recently,” Gail quips drily.)

Stylistically, Ray is careful to keep his scenes short, snappy, and pointless.

Begin scene.
Ray Comfort: You think you’re a primate?
P.Z. Myers: Yes I am.
Ray: Are you a talking primate?
P.Z.: I am.
Ray: Are you a cousin of bananas?
P.Z.: Why yes.
End scene.

This is what Ray understands to be plumbing the depths of the expert’s knowledge. Another example:

Begin scene:
P.Z.: Human beings are still fish.
Ray: Human beings are fish?
P.Z.: Why yes of course they are.
End scene.

Something tells me that Ray has never heard of Sarcopterygii (the clade that includes both the bony fish and terrestrial vertebrates). But even if a sarcopterygian snuck up behind him and bit him on the bum, I have a feeling that Ray wouldn’t give a toss because his obsession, from which he cannot be diverted, is asking the question, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian evolution where there’s a change of kind?” He asks this question repeatedly, but note that by “kind” Ray doesn’t mean “species” because, as he patiently explains to the dumbfounded Dr. Stanford, there are 14 different definitions of the word species. (Who knew?)

No, Ray wants to see a change of kind, a weasel word that he uses to mean kingdom, genera, species, or whatever suggests itself in the moment. Essentially what Ray wants to see is a magic trick where a dog changes into a cat before his very eyes. He wants a couple of twigs at the tips of a cladogram to bring forth each other, rather than tracing both species back to a common ancestor. Peter Nonacs explains that what Ray is describing is macroevolution, which necessarily takes millions of years, but this just confirms Ray’s boneheaded understanding that if we can’t observe it directly, it’s not science. Ray doesn’t understand that science involves more than just observation. It involves logical inference and collecting data to support one model or another, but even when the scientists try to explain that we can observe changes in bacteria, in fish, in birds (and that any mutation makes evolution impossible to ignore, because the difference between micro and macroevolution is simply one of scale), Ray turns a resolutely deaf ear.

When he isn’t busy asking the experts pointed questions like, “How do you spell shop?”10, Ray is preying on fresh-faced college students who are even more easily stumped by his irrelevant and misleading questions, most of which have nothing to do with evolution. That’s because, perhaps surprisingly, Ray Comfort doesn’t give a monkey’s uncle about evolution. He’s interested in using the word “evolution” without the meaning behind it and then promoting a cartoonish, slapstick, knock-off version, as in this highly amusing example taken from his blog:

All animals, all fish and reptiles have the ability to reproduce of their own kind because they have females within the species. No male can reproduce and keep its kind alive without a female of the same species. Dogs, cats, horses, cattle, elephants, humans, giraffes, lions, tigers, birds, fish, and reptiles all came into being having both male and female. If any species came into existence without a mature female present (with complimentary female components), that one male would have remained alone and in time died. The species could not have survived without a female. Why did hundreds of thousands of animals, fish, reptiles and birds (over millions of years) evolve a female partner (that coincidentally matured at just the right time) with each species?”11

Here we see Ray’s preschool education paying off royally as he refuses to be taken in by such malarkey. Who in their right mind would believe that a mature female (we’ll call her Eve) just happened coincidentally to evolve at precisely the same time as the male (we’ll call him Adam) in order to keep the species going? This kooky vision in which distinct species arise one at a time, rather than emerging from breeding groups that eventually diverge, is a preposterous one, as Ray has cleverly deduced. Of course nobody does believe it given that this scenario bears as much resemblance to evolution as the laws of nature in a Roadrunner cartoon resemble the laws of physics in real life. In fact, one can easily imagine that Ray might have made a film called Physics vs. God in which we see the coyote suspended in the air for a full three seconds after the rocky overhang gives way, and the voice over saying, “Gravity? There’s your gravity! Now that takes faith!”12

No, Ray Comfort isn’t interested in evolution. The following quote indicates what’s really on his mind:

Today, atheists are pushing Darwin’s little theory and it has opened the floodgates to abortion, fornication, pornography, homosexuality and adultery. If there is no God and we are just primates, then there’s no ultimate right and wrong. Anything goes as long as it gets society’s smile.13

Ah ha! It’s the age-old, muddled, morbid fascination with sex that’s plagued Christianity ever since Mary said, “Well, all right, as long as I’m still a virgin afterwards.” Essentially, creationism is holy; evolution is skanky. The thinking goes like this:

I choose to believe blindly in evolution because I’m hellbent on denying the existence of a God who demands that I NOT THINK ABOUT SEX. Fornication, homosexuality, adultery, pornography, and abortion—these are all very bad things and God says I mustn’t have anything to do with them. Sadly, however, I’ve either participated in all these things or they’re on my bucket list. A couple of them I’m even hoping to do at the same time. And that’s why I believe in evolution.

That’s a fair representation of the argument, and if it makes no sense to you that’s your problem and you’re going to hell. Ray seems to honestly believe that the reason people think evolution is true is not because of the evidence found in, say, our genome or the fossil record; no, people choose to espouse evolution wilfully in order to kick that Giant Celestial Funsucker out of the equation (even though they know in their hearts He’s real), thereby temporarily relieving the need to be accountable to Almighty Him. In one of the only decent complete thoughts that wasn’t edited out of the video, Craig Stanford says, “What Darwin showed in his work on evolution and natural selection is that we don’t need to invoke any supernatural force or power to account for the development of life through time on Earth.” That’s why Ray’s knickers are in a twist. No need for God means we make our own morality and this leads directly to what Ray calls the sins of the flesh, and the rest of us call a normal life.14

Ray Comfort is possibly the best example ever of the phenomenon Michael Shermer describes in his book The Believing Brain—that a person arrives at a belief first and only then (in Ray’s case in particular) bumbles about looking for all the evidence to back it up, no matter how nutty the belief may be.15 For example, “We are not animals”16—this is one of Ray’s claims and it’s an excellent example of just what you’d expect from a person picking a position, in the same way a person picks a sports team, and then sticking with that position dogmatically, even in the face of the evidence (not to mention the face in the mirror). And because he utterly ignores the evidence, Ray mistakenly thinks this is what we all do—but no matter how many times it’s pointed out that the scientific method is the great corrective to this pitfall, and we have to be aware of our biases and properly agnostic about that which we cannot know, Ray doesn’t get it, as evidenced by the following exchange:

Ray Comfort: Peter, could you be wrong about God’s existence?
Peter Nonacs: Yes. And could you be wrong about God’s existence?
Ray Comfort: No.

Ray’s cognitive style includes a childlike trust in authority, an intolerance of ambiguity, a tendency to be convinced by easy answers and suspicious of answers that are complicated, an inability to draw a straight line from cause to effect, and binary thinking on a truly grand scale.17 For Ray there are no continuums, no gradations or sliding scales. Everything is good or bad, right or wrong, my way or the highway. Understanding evolution by imagining his mother holding hands with her mother, who is holding hands with her mother, and so on back down the ancestral line until the hands aren’t hands anymore but something like paws, and then something like fins, and then something else entirely, is an exercise that’s impossible for a guy like Ray. Imagining that we’re all transitional species—we’re all intermediaries—is not something Ray can do. It’s undoubtedly what Dr. Kennedy was getting at when she said, “The problem with those who are unable to see evolution, I think, is they don’t have imaginations.” Ray thinks he’s scored a victory here, equating the imaginative person with the fantasist, but only a man who lacked imagination would think so.

And speaking of imagination, I conclude by envisaging an alternate account of the creation story in the book of Genesis. Suppose for a moment that the Bible said something like this:

Genesis 1. In the beginning was a BANG, and lo it was big, and it was called the Big Bang. And all things proceedeth out of the mouth of the bang, except the Lord thy God, who awoke saying, “Whence cometh that bang?”; and the wife of God answered, saying, “What bang? Quit asking about bangs already”; and the Lord rolleth over and snoreth much, so that the drapes wafteth in the breeze and the dresser drawers goeth in and out. And the Lord thy God sleepeth heavily through the ages with many zzzees shooting from His lips, while the stars formeth in the heavens, and life evolveth on the Earth; from the creeping things, to the flying things, to the typing things. And yet God slept, waking only once to flood the Earth, which was better than the night before when God had gotten up at least five times.

2. And when God awoke He looked upon the Earth and shaketh His head, saying, “Intelligent design, my arse.” And the Lord flew down to Earth and asketh Mankind, “What giveth thou the idea that the Lord thy God had anything to do with this giant turd?” And Mankind did point to a book, saying, “But thou said—”; and God picketh up the book and swatteth Mankind over the head, saying, “Thou callest this journalism? I never said any of this stuff!” And Mankind did scuff its foot, and mutter “Aw shucks,” and stare embarrassed at the ground.

3. And the evening and the morning was the first day.

If that was the Biblical account, Banana Ray would be the captain of Team Evolution and his latest film would have been called Evolution vs. Satan—but, no luck. We’re stuck with the Bible as written with its damaging origin myth, which not only gets evolution wrong but, worse still, imagines women created as an afterthought out of a rib, thereby giving the nod to several thousand years of sexism, patriarchy, and its inherent abuse.18 And we’re also stuck with God’s representative on Earth, Ray Comfort, who believes that creationism is scientific because it can be observed (every animal bringing forth after its own kind) and therefore doesn’t require faith—but that evolution is unscientific because it can’t be observed (at least, he can’t see it) and is therefore the faith-based stance. It’s a hopelessly twisted position, born of ignorance, inflamed by fear, and perpetuated by a man so clueless, he thinks his pathetic, wandering argument is actually significant. It’s silly, it’s virulent and, most unfortunately, it’s dangerous. In fact—you might even call it bananas. END

References
  1. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/07/10/evolution-vs-god-movie-so-popular-it-crashes-evangelical-leaders-website-its-going-to-take-down-evolution/
  2. Richard Dawkins discussing Ray Comfort in an interview with CNN. November 25, 2009.
  3. http://www.onthebox.us/2013/07/words-of-comfort-from-ken-ham.html
  4. Ray’s Facebook page, 28 June 2013.
  5. http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2013/07/10/evolutionists-already-trying-to-do-damage-control/
  6. Ray’s Facebook page, Saturday 13 July 2013.
  7. One wonders what creation scientists do in their labs all day, besides rereading Genesis and waiting for God to plop a new species on their lab bench.
  8. Dawkins’ claim is backed up by an unusual amount of evidence. See the original banana video here: http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Banana_fallacy
  9. Ray often uses voice-overs so it’s impossible to tell if the respondent is replying to the question asked or a different question entirely. For an egregious example of Ray’s editing style, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=GW05npbQHVs#at=131
  10. Seriously. Ray asks Peter Nonacs to spell “shop” and then asks him what he does at a green light. When Nonacs replies “Stop” Ray couldn’t be more delighted, his reasoning being that scoring small, pointless victories will somehow add up to one big victory. Sadly for Ray, however, the only thing that piling up stupid little arguments ever resulted in was a bigger pile of Stupid.
  11. http://www.pulltheplugonatheism.com/art02.shtml
  12. Ray should know better because he claims to be a lover of science. And he did read The Origin of Species, apparently, but he wasn’t impressed. This tells you nothing about The Origin of Species, but it does tell you a thing or two about Ray. In fact, he calls The Origin of Speciesthe world’s most boring book,” which seems ironic considering the Bible’s reputation, even among the faithful, as a “2,000 year old sleeping pill.” (Reverend Lovejoy, The Simpsons, Season 13, episode 6.)
  13. http://crossmap.christianpost.com/news/evangelist-ray-comfort-seeks-to-debunk-evolution-in-new-evolution-vs-god-documentary-3664
  14. Ray’s biggest concern is lust, which he understands to be morally wrong and punishable by eternal hellfire. The trouble with this position is that to be anti-lust is to be anti-life. Every one of us, without exception, is here because Dad got a boner. Seriously, how does Ray think he got here? Special creation? Oh, please. Just look at that face. Ray clearly belongs to the great Family Hominidae, just like the chimps, the bonobos, the orangutans, the gorillas, and your mom.
  15. Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2011), p. 5.
  16. Ray’s Facebook page, 27 June, 2013.
  17. Ray falls into every intellectual black hole possible, as listed in Stephen Law’s book Believing Bullshit (New York: Prometheus Books, 2011). These include, but are not limited to, moving the semantic goalposts, claiming “I just know!”, relying on pseudoprofundity (i.e. sounding profound while actually babbling about nothing), and playing the mystery card.
  18. Not to mention mankind being given “dominion” over the other animals, thereby validating speciesism and resulting in thousands of years of unspeakable misery for countless trillions of our sentient cousins.
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