I'm starting a bit of a tradition here. Whenever Ray Comfort posts about atheists (he's rather obsessed with us, some might claim it's to the point of protesting too much), I write a response and as he's not always keen about posting dissenting views, I copy it over here to our blog.
Ray's latest post is partially correct and partially incorrect - but it's worth offering some commentary. Give it a read and enjoy the response below...
I care very little about whether or not any of these individuals were atheists or not. The truth of a concept is not at all influenced by the number of people who accept it, nor their popularity, nor the strength of their conviction.
It's very telling, though, that you do seem to care - as if you're bound and determined to show the 'truth' of Psalm 14:1 (the second, lesser-quoted half of that verse, in particular).
I'm not surprised that you'd want to make veiled appeals to authority, but it seems very dishonest of you to point out reasons why these people weren't atheists when it is clear that they weren't believers in anything remotely resembling the God you believe in...which makes them atheists with respect to your God, just as you're an atheist with respect to Zeus.
That said, there is a slight bit of anachronism and selective quoting going on here. You seem to overlook many things, not the least of which is that a human life can't be summed up in a simple quote. People change. People represent themselves differently, at different times, to different people. People express ideas using the conventions of their contemporaries - and people, for various reasons are not always comfortable publicly expressing their most private thoughts. The common views about gods during the lives of the individuals you cite were very different from those of today and it is a disservice to misrepresent this.
For example, you may be able to find quotes from me from when I was a Christian. You may even be able to find people who knew me during that time, and quote their assessment of my thoughts and beliefs. That doesn't change the fact that I'm an atheist now. Additionally, I find it curiously hypocritical that you might claim that I was never "really" a Christian - as evidenced by my eventual apostasy - and yet you attempt to twist the views of the individuals above in order to make them appear less atheistic.
I have no reason to debate whether or not these individuals were atheists, agnostics, deists, Christians or whatever - because it doesn't matter. We can't know what was in their minds (or hearts, if you prefer), we can only take the information available and make a reasonable guess at what they believed, or disbelieved. By picking and choosing quotes from different eras of their lives, one could easily make a case for any number of beliefs.
I'm curious though, do you think any of these individuals were Christians when they did their greatest works? Do you think they believed in the 'one true God' you believe in? If so, how do you explain their clear contempt for Christianity and the God of the Bible? If not, what Biblical basis do you have for holding them in a significantly different light from atheists?
As far as I can tell, the Bible is pretty clear about which God is real and how Jews and Christians are expected to view the character of those who reject that God in favor of other gods or no gods.
If the individals in question are all, according to your belief, given over to a reprobate mind and destined for hell - why would you bother to attempt to venerate them and reclaim them from the 'atheist' label?
Despite that, here are some quotes and comments on the individuals above, just to stretch the point. I am not claiming these people as atheists, I am simply providing reported quotes that give us more information about what they did or didn't believe. Additionally, these quotes may not be correct as the internet (as evidenced by this blog source) is cluttered with good information and bad:
"My mind is incapable of conceiving such a thing as a soul. I may be in error, and man may have a soul; but I simply do not believe it."
"I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God."
"I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul.... No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life -- our desire to go on living -- our dread of coming to an end."
About Col. Ingersoll (The Great Agnostic), Thomas Edison wrote:
"I think that Ingersoll had all the attributes of a perfect man, and, in my opinion, no finer personality ever existed. Judging from the past, I cannot help thinking that the intention of the Supreme Intelligence that rules the world is to ultimately make such a type of man universal."
"There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him--early."
"If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be--a Christian."
"The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive...but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before Christian religion was born."
"I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Diety. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible. We (that one and I) could never respect each other, never get along together. I have met his superior a hundred times-- in fact I amount to that myself."
Robert Frost reportedly became more pious in his later years, although...
"Elinor Frost, his wife, thought he was, like her, an atheist. In 1920 (the couple had then been married twenty-five years) Frost confided to Louis Untermeyer:
'Elinor has just come out flat-footed against God conceived either as the fourth person seen with Shadrack, Meshack, and Tobedwego [sic] in the fiery furnace or without help by the Virgin Mary. How about as a Shelleyan principal or spirit coeternal with the rock part of creation, I ask. Nonsense and you know it’s nonsense Rob Frost, only you’re afraid you’ll have bad luck or lose your standing in the community if you speak your mind.'"
With regard to Susan B. Anthony, I have no reason to doubt that she was a deist. Her continual references to Providence and the God of Providence represent the common language of deists in her time.
Finally, it's curious that you acknowledge Hemmingway's atheism only to use it as a tool to imply that this is a testimony to the truth of the words of Jesus and the perils one finds in a life lived without a personal relationship with Jesus - yet, you just finished pointing out that these others were also lacking this personal relationship, yet they didn't suffer the sad fate of Hemmingway.
You go from implying that belief in some sort of deistic god is enough to justify good works, and then spin the final assessment as testimony to the futility of a life without Jesus.
This is the grand lie. This is hypocrisy at its finest. It's this self-righteous, selective thinking that you engage in to malign those who don't share your views. It's transparent and pathetic. And while you may not print this, it doesn't change the fact that while some atheists may have misrepresented these historical figures as atheists (a charge that may or may not be accurate depending on the quotes used and the definitions involved), you've made an accusation of intentional falsehoods - while presenting a convoluted mess of misrepresentations that either represent the grandest lie or an intellectual laziness of staggering proportions.
Which is it?