Ricky Gervais, the creator of both the British and American versions of The Office, is an outspoken and articulate (and funny) atheist. He lets his feelings be known in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal yesterday.
Why don’t you believe in God? I get that question all the time. I always try to give a sensitive, reasoned answer. This is usually awkward, time consuming and pointless. People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary. They are happy with their belief. They even say things like “it’s true to me” and “it’s faith.” I still give my logical answer because I feel that not being honest would be patronizing and impolite. It is ironic therefore that “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe,” comes across as both patronizing and impolite.
Arrogance is another accusation. Which seems particularly unfair. Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence -- evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold on to medieval practices because they are tradition. If it did, you wouldn’t get a shot of penicillin, you’d pop a leach down your trousers and pray. Whatever you “believe,” this is not as effective as medicine. Again you can say, “It works for me,” but so do placebos. My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.
While Gervais breaks very little new ground in terms of arguments against the existence of God in his piece, there are a few points that I think are worth responding to.
He is spot-on when he says that the existence of God is "not subjective." It is either true or it is false. But when he wraps his claims in the deceptively warm blanket of "science" he walks on to a very rickety plank. The small sliver of explanations that science can give us for how the laws of the universe (i.e. gravity) work is, to my mind, greatly over-shadowed by the fact that scientists will never be able to answer the all-important "Why?" question. And eventually we come to realize that the "Why?" question is everything. Someone who is simply satisfied to learn how wildebeests migrate, or stalactites form in a cave, or when to hit the cut-off man in a play in the outfield is the kind of un-thinking, dispassionate person I don't want to ever be. I want to know why I am here. Science has no answers in this regard and, therefore, is helpful only up to a certain (and definitive) point.
And let me quickly (and forcefully) state here that science is in no way contradictory to a belief in God. Was Newton being a hypocrite when his passion to learn and study God's creation led him to the "discovery" of physics? What about all of these guys? No good, because they believed in an Intelligent Designer?
He pits the two against one another purposefully, as most secularists do, so that younger people will be intimidated away from challenging science/scientists or coming up with new ideas on how the natural world points to a Creator for a new generation. If you can silence the voice in someone's head that has questions about science, while at the same time discouraging young people from thoughtfully investigating faith, the ruminations of a stand-up comedian (as well-read as he may be) sound much more official and intellectual.
Belief in science alone is a belief too. To say that there was nothingness in the non-universe, and that something came from nothing and made everything is a belief. I don't care who you are, or how funny your sit-com's have been. It is a belief, plain and simple. And even when you look at basic scientific facts - take the human cell, for example - we see a complexity and creativity that points directly to a complex and creative mind/purpose/being. Please understand that I'm not jumping to the Christian God of the Bible here: just defending the existence of a Higher Power.
Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith.” If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”
The "burden of proof" Gervais is really alluding to is the concept that is known as "the problem of evil." And it is an entirely fair thing to bring up. How could a good God allow such pain and suffering to exist? When atheists talk about proof for God, they almost always are inferring this deeper question.
This is neither the time nor the place to tackle that immense and heavy issue, but for the purposes of this brief response to Gervais, allow me to fully embrace that the Believer does (in a sense) have a burden of proof in the "Does God exist?" debate. We must give an account for suffering and why bad things happen. But the atheist and non-believer must give an account for why all good things happen. Where does love come from? Why are we happy? Why do people willingly sacrifice their lives for their nation? Why do we weep when when our child gets married? How could the power and complexity of emotions, emotions that lead us to make choices that harm ourselves for the sake of those we love, be said to be nothing more than "natural selection" doing "its thing"?
As an atheist, I see nothing “wrong” in believing in a god. I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me. I would never deny your right to believe in a god...
You see, growing up where I did, mums didn’t hope as high as their kids growing up to be doctors; they just hoped their kids didn’t go to jail. So bring them up believing in God and they’ll be good and law abiding. It’s a perfect system. Well, nearly. 75 percent of Americans are God-‐fearing Christians; 75 percent of prisoners are God-‐fearing Christians. 10 percent of Americans are atheists; 0.2 percent of prisoners are atheists.
Atheism, in the cool, hip, trendy sense of the word, is a relatively new concept. In the 20th, and now 21st, century people like Gervais love to retro-actively re-write history, and this history always makes the free-thinking atheist look progressive and the reason we have light-bulbs and sliced bread (while belief in a Higher Power would have, so the argument goes, kept us in the Dark Ages). Religious people have been at the forefront of every great scientific, societal, legal, political, and cultural movement of the last 2,000 years. Atheism brought us Marxism, Communism, Socialism (something a Brit like Gervais knows all about), and more than 100 million murdered human beings in the last century alone.
The God-less Soviets (from 1917 to 1987) murdered at least 62 million of their own people. Between 1948 and 1987 the Communist leaders in China murdered more than 75 million of their own people. You can find some other fairly staggering statistics at this site, run by University of Hawaii's Professor Rudolph J. Rummel.
So to throw around numbers of those incarcerated who claim to be religious seems silly. If only 10% of people are atheists, and yet they managed to murder more people in a shorter amount of time than any other group in human history...I'd say a "I rest my case" is in order.
My point isn't that Believers are guiltless or are instantly better people or anything of the sort. But to pin all crime and human suffering on the religious, while atheists get to wear really neat-looking scarves and drink lattes and condescendingly poo-poo the out-dated notions of Neanderthals like me because of incorrect or out-of-context "facts" isn't going to cut it in the world of serious discussion and discourse. Not on my watch.
Gervais goes on to give the account of the day he stopped believing in God. He was 9 years old, he claims, and sitting at the kitchen table drawing pictures of Jesus for a Bible-study lesson his mom had him do:
There I was happily drawing my hero (Jesus) when my big brother Bob asked, “Why do you believe in God?” Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. “Bob,” she said in a tone that I knew meant, “Shut up.” Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong it didn’t matter what people said.
Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.
So much of who we are goes back to the experiences of our childhood. Gervais was soured on religious faith early in life because no adults in his life could give him solid, thoughtful answers for why it was they believed in God. So along comes his "cheeky" brother who lends some influential advice about God's existence and now, some 40 years later, we are treated to an editorial from the man whose brother, had he been a thoughtful Christian, might have inspired his sibling to be the next Charles Spurgeon instead. I'm not trying to defeat Gervais' arguments by point to his childhood, but I do think it important to note that he even admits that the genesis for his skepticism (and eventual atheism) were the under-informed beliefs of his poor religious mother and the "witty" interjections of his equally under-informed (but much more influential) older brother. Young boys want to be like their brothers or older guys they know, not like their mothers.
Wow. No God. If mum had lied to me about God, had she also lied to me about Santa? Yes, of course, but who cares? The gifts kept coming. And so did the gifts of my new found atheism. The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. I learned of evolution -– a theory so simple that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals and us –- with imagination, free will, love, humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza are all good enough reasons for living.
Those are great things to be enjoyed in life, but they are also utterly meaningless if we are here by chance and turn into worm-food when we die. Without a God, without a Higher Power, there is no purpose. Plain and simple. You can "create" your own purpose and live for that, but the intellectual honest atheists acknowledge that life is dead if there is no God. Sure you can have fun and enjoy beer and pizza, no matter what you believe. But again I ask: why should there be any good, enjoyable things in this world at all? We know there is pain and suffering, and we know there is joy and love, but why? To what end? If nothing happens when I die, and this life is as fragile and relatively insignificant as the atheist makes it out to be, why waste my time on beer that will give me a headache, pizza that will give me a stomach ache, and love that will give me heartache?
And what is more, atheists in modern times seem unwilling to "eat, drink, and be merry" and rather choose to be involved with the removal of God from our money, national anthem, court-houses, historical narrative, and national consciousness. They are not content, as Gervais insists, to eat pizza and drink beer and listen to killer tunes. They are all the time and actively attempting to undermine religion, push social and political causes, and lecture the rest of us on the morality of "going green" and "saving Darfur."
But why take care of a planet that houses empty souls? Why save people from genocide when it would take troops and money and time that we shouldn't waste if we really believed all humans are collections of randomly gathered protoplasm?
The moment we begin to describe something as "good" or "bad", "right" or "wrong", we are now talking about something bigger (and beyond) man.
I think Gervais is sincere in his beliefs, but they are just as readily described as "beliefs" as anything I (an evangelical conservative) claim to be true. The best defense is a good offense. If you are religious, know what you are talking about. Be ready to give an account for the things you believe. Little kids like Gervais are listening and absorbing our conversations. They are judging whether or not the things you teach actually mean anything to you in your personal life, and if you can explain (and defend) them in your public life.
Ricky Gervais doesn't believe in God, but God, who is good, still believes in him.