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Was Stephen Hawking a Dog?

When physicist Stephen Hawking died last week, a number of Christian and Muslim apologists rushed to social media to proclaim that Hawking is now burning in hell. Evangelist Ray Comfort then had the audacity to express surprise at the reaction his Facebook post got from atheists.

But instead of engaging with his critics, seeking a healthier way to communicate, Comfort doubled down. In a blog post on his website Living Waters, Comfort jumped to the conclusion that they were fundamentalists like him, but of a different religion.

It was as though I had blasphemed their holy prophet. To these believers, every word uttered by Hawking was divine.

Not content merely to draw a false equivalency, Comfort went on to define the tenets of this new godless fundamentalism.

It’s an irony that atheists are upset about anyone’s death. According to their beliefs, Stephen Hawking was just an animal. He had no more worth than a dog.

The real irony is that Comfort thinks he knows what atheists believe, without apparently having ever had a real conversation with one. I've had several conversations with atheists—both online and in real life—and if there is one characteristic they all have in common, I'd be very surprised. But many atheists, including Hawking, do believe life can be meaningful. And if you don't think atheists are capable of seeing an individual as more than just an animal, take a look at the Friendly Atheist's tribute to Hawking, or Neil deGrasse Tyson's tweet. Ray Comfort is not going to win any converts by insulting them.

Jesus himself couldn't win an argument by comparing people to dogs.

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

--Matthew 15:21-28

And surely Comfort has been at this long enough to know this strategy doesn't work. Fear of punishment might be an effective motivator for toddlers, but it's not the way rational adults make moral decisions. So why does he persist? Two reasons, I think.

First, because according to fundamentalist dogma, atheists are resentful toward God. Their angry replies to his posts simply confirm Comfort's worldview, in his mind. And of course, in his mind, their anger is not a response to his poor taste and lack of tact but to his faith and conviction which they can't match. (But if you think atheists can't have conviction, you can easily be disabused of that notion by reading something by Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, or any number of others.)

Second, whether Comfort and other evangelists acknowledge it or not, their apologetics are directed not toward nonbelievers, but toward fellow fundamentalists who might be wavering in their faith. When you start to question the logic behind your beliefs, but aren't ready to let go, it can be a—pardon the pun—comfort to find someone who can put those beliefs in a positive light. It's the theological equivalent of partisan political spin.

But it isn't an acceptable form of discourse in a civil society.

And as if he hadn't burned enough bridges already, Comfort went on to say, "However, as a Christian, I believe Stephen Hawking had great worth." But does he? Mocking someone who has just died, and insulting those grieving the loss: Is that how we treat people of great worth?

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