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Comedian Ricky Gervais and Atheism

July 20, 2012

This blog post is obscure, elitist and a bit odd. But if you’re still interested keep reading.

The comedian Ricky Gervais is an atheist. He is a witty, sarcastic, often hilarious- seldom reverent, unbeliever. Ricky is probably my favorite type of atheist. But sometimes he writes, or says things about God that make my cringe – on his behalf. Here is an excerpt from something he wrote:

“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”…

I can’t unpack everything that Gervais says above and it is probably unfair to subject his comments to rigorous analysis. His words are decent and honest. However, what he writes displays some common mistakes made by street level atheists that I’ve heard one to many times. It is tempting to get off on his first comments about believers not needing proof, or evidence. This is not an accurate description of Christianity and I wonder how many believers he knows? I think of many Christians in my personal acquaintance that bust free from the above stereo-type. But instead of going down a rabbit trail laced with anecdotal evidence I’d rather discuss the reasons he gives for not believing God. Are they reasonable? The first of the two seems the most important for Gervais b/c I’ve heard him say it more than once.

‘There is absolutely no scientific evidence for God’s existence’.

How should the believer respond? Firstly, one could point to scientific evidence that seems to suggest a creator (Fine-tuning of the Universe etc). This evidence has convinced many and I’ve written about that elsewhere. But that is not the approach I would take if I was sitting across from Gervais.

I think I would respond to Ricky with the question, ‘So what’? ‘So what if there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence’? ‘How does it follow from that admission that God doesn’t exist’?

One could imagine Gervais responding, ‘Scientific beliefs are the only kind that can be rationally held and defended’.

‘Ah ha’ The hidden assumption that underlies his comments is starting to emerge. What is the assumption? I think it is simply, ‘science is the only way we can discover truth, or reasonably claim to have knowledge about our world’. Therefore, if there is no scientific evidence for God’s existence there is no reason to believe that theism is true.

Let’s do the reasonable thing and examine the assumption. Is Science the only way to discover truth?

Certainly not. A true statement is one that corresponds with reality – it is to ‘say something is when it is and say something isn’t when it isn’t (Aristotle)’. Now, to say that science is the only way to discover truth is, in itself, a truth statement about reality. It is, however, not a scientific statement. This is clearly a self-refuting endeavor similar to claiming that ‘I can’t speak a word of English’. I’m refuting my very claim in the act of uttering it. Saying that science is the only way to find truth is a philosophical statement that if valid would imply that there are other ways of discovering truth besides science.

Oh, and here is a question that is seldom asked: ‘What is science, or the scientific method? What is the demarcation between science and non-science, astrology and astronomy? Anyone who is knowledgeable about the subject knows that the act of defining science is notoriously difficult, and is itself a philosophical endeavor… but I digress.

The atheist often speaks about reason. In doing so she assumes the validity of her reason – or that her cognitive faculties can produce, or discover true beliefs about our world. This assumption is fundamental to the scientific enterprise.

Yet, in the atheistic view matter precedes mind. Our reason is the product of irrational forces that didn’t have us in ‘mind’. Natural selection ‘concerns’ itself with beneficial traits thriving in certain environmental conditions – not true ideas. As a result producing true thoughts are invisible to the whole purposeless process. Given that atheistic, evolutionary presupposition, why then should we trust our reason to tell us truth about the universe? Charles Darwin was aware of this problem – showing clearly that this is not special pleading in favor of theism. Let me share Darwin’s doubt:

“With me the horrid doubt arises whether the convictions of the man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind”?

Thomas Nagel, an atheistic philosopher agrees with Darwin:

“There is a real problem about how such a thing as reason is possible. How is it possible that creatures like ourselves, supplied with the cognitive capacities of a biological species whose very existence appears to be radically accidental, should have access to universally valid methods of objective thought”?

Nagel ends up asserting that are ‘universally valid methods of objective thought’ are a ‘brute’ fact. A ‘brute’ fact is an explanation that doesn’t explain, similar to shrugging your shoulders and stating, ‘that is just the way it is’.

Gervais atheism contends that reason came from non-reason. But doesn’t that provide us with little ‘reason’ to trust what our reason tells us about that fact? That is faith of a high order. The theist, of course, is not surprised that we can know and discover truth having been made in the image of God. In fact, an argument could be stated in this form. It is more plausible on theism than on atheism that our cognitive faculties would produce true beliefs about our world. Our cognitive faculties do produce true beliefs about our world. Theism, therefore, is the more plausible worldview.

Once we understand this we can then discuss whether or not we can provide a compelling proof for God’s existence based on our current level of scientific understanding in regard to cosmology, or biology.

Lastly, consider truths of logic. In fact, when Gervais says that God’s existence is incoherent (which it isn’t) he admits the validity of logic as a means to discover truth. There are formally and informally valid arguments for the existence of God that are compelling to many and together provide a strong accumulative case for the existence of a Creator. In addition, there is the religious experience of the believer and the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection.

So to respond to the objection that Ricky never stated and the position he probably doesn’t hold: ‘science isn’t the only way to discover truth’. To be fair, I have no idea if Gervais thinks that science is the only way to discover and hold rational beliefs. But if he doesn’t think that I don’t see why a lack of scientific evidence for God should provide good reason to disbelieve in His existence.

Anyways, I would have let it go but Gervais often bullies believers in his comedy and it would be funnier if he knew what he was talking about. And he doesn’t. But he can be funny.

Let’s not be taken in by these simplistic God denying utterances that are spoken with such confidence but represent a faith and an ignorance that is often accused of only belonging to religious fundamentalists.

And let’s make sure we really love everyone including the Ricky Gervais’ of this world.

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