Sunday, November 1, 2009

To Mr. Ray Comfort: A Lesson on the Proper Use of Metaphor in Argument

So, if you don’t know who Ray Comfort is, be glad. Comfort is a religious man who for the last couple of years has been providing arguments for Creationism/Intelligent Design. You might know him as the banana man.

Recently, Mr. Comfort decided that he would issue a version of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species with a foreword of his own. He intends to hand this out at universities. Mr. Comfort’s Origin has caused a bit of a hoo-ha, especially among the skeptical community which opposes people like Mr. Comfort.

This post isn’t actually about evolution or the evidence for it. There are many people who are much more qualified to explain why evolution works than me. The only thing I would like to say that Darwin and the Origin of Species is not the be-all end-all of evolution. A 150-year-old text is not the only thing you should be reading if you want to learn about this subject.

But, as I was saying, I am not going to talk about evolution. In this post, I will respond to a pair of grievous errors in Mr. Comfort’s forward to his edition of the Origin of Species. I feel qualified to respond because they relate to stories and writing.

Here is the text, so you can read it for yourself, if you wish.

After a brief biography of Darwin peppered with dour photographs of the man*, Mr. Comfort’s forward begins: “Darwin’s work has helped fuel intense debates about religion and science…” a mild and even-handed beginning. The end of the foreword, however, sounds like this: “…there’s nothing more important than where they will spend eternity. Thank you for reading this.”

From these quotes, you can tell what happens within this foreword. It goes from introducing Darwin to an extended argument for becoming a Christian of the same type as Mr. Comfort. It is in this section that Comfort makes his two errors.

The first is a mistake in storytelling. Comfort makes a common mistake of many people who are not particularly familiar with storytelling. I see it a lot among young people who aren’t very strong writers. They overlook a crucial detail that is there in their head, but somehow never made it onto the page. The result is nonsensical to the reader.

Both of these occur later in the foreword, when Mr. Comfort has started his conversion attempt.

Here is the quote (pg 44):

To say that there will be no consequences for breaking God’s Law is to say that God is unjust, that He is evil. This is why. On February 24, 2005, a nine-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Homosassa, Florida. Three weeks later, police discovered that she had been kidnapped, brutally raped, and then buried alive. Little Jessica Lunsford was found tied up, in a kneeling position, clutching a stuffed toy.

How do you feel toward the man who murdered that helpless little girl in such an unspeakably cruel way? Are you angered? I hope so. I hope you are outraged. If you were completely indifferent to her fate, it would reveal something horrible about your character. Do you think that God is indifferent to such acts of evil? You can bet your precious soul He is not. He is outraged by them. The fury of Almighty God against evil is evidence of His goodness. If He wasn’t angered, He wouldn’t be good. We cannot separate God’s goodness from His anger. Again, if God is good by nature, He must be unspeakably angry at wickedness.

What is missing? Do you know?

Comfort begins by telling a story. He goes onto to draw the conclusion than God is outraged by this. But he doesn’t give the bit of the story that tells how we know that God is outraged by this. I’m not entirely a proponent of show-don’t-tell, but in this case, I feel that it would be a good thing for Comfort to look into when telling his stories and making his argument.

The way it is at the moment, it sounds like Comfort knows somehow that God is angry, but that that’s it. He was angry. Surely there is more to the story, Mr. Comfort? Or it seems God is about as good as any one of us who are equally and impotently outraged by this incident. God in Mr. Comfort’s world begins to look like this guy, and surely that’s not what Mr. Comfort was going for.

The second mistake involves metaphor and is another common mistake. Metaphor is great for making arguments because it creates a story that can be used to clearly compare arguments. However, it does contain one pitfall we should all be wary of. Many people, and Comfort is one of them, get so into their metaphor that they forget that it is just an invented metaphor—they start to get carried away.

Comfort’s metaphor compares death to jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet. In this metaphor, Christianity is a parachute (sorry, I spoiled it for you) and—to give another example—Islam is flapping your arms as you jump. You get the idea.

But Comfort begins to take this metaphor and draw conclusions from the metaphor as if it were the argument itself. Saying that you would regard a parachute as crucial in this situation (pg 47) demonstrates what you think of Christianity, but it doesn’t mean that this metaphor can be turned around the other way to prove that Christianity is like a parachute and Islam is like flapping your arms. Metaphors should only be used to convey an idea in a clear fashion, not to make arguments themselves. They only come out of the argument—the argument cannot come out of them. Ray Comfort has made this mistake in his foreword.

In conclusion? Don't forget to take this into account when you are writing using metaphors. Be sure to use metaphors only to illustrate and not to draw conclusions from. In addition-- read over your stories. Have you got all the necessary details? Especially all the cause-and-effects. Without them, your argument, like Ray Comfort's will have nothing to hold it together.

Finally, in parting, a little quote that’s slightly amusing also taken from this metaphor (pg 47):

You know that the law of gravity will kill you when you jump.

* Another side note. Darwin is a favourite photograph of people who wish to dismiss the theory that he proposed. There is a particular photograph of him as an old man, looking a bit sad, a bit pensive, aged, tired, cynical. This is what happens, we are meant to believe, when we become atheist and/or believe in evolution. Lawl.

1 comment:

Mitchell Gerskup said...

You say sad/cynical/pensive... I say 'awesome beard'.