I like The Office, I really do. But lately people related to the show have me putting my face in my palm when they stray from comedy and into philosophy. Last week it was Michael Schur, this time it’s none other than the man himself, Ricky Gervais. First let me say that David Brent >Michael Scott, and I happen to like Michael Scott, although I quit watching the show a couple of years ago.
Anyway, I failed to notice this a week ago, but in the spirit of spreading holiday cheer, Mr. Gervais tells us why he’s an atheist at the WSJ. I’m all for hearing one’s reasons for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I think his arguments for being an atheist are dodgy at best.
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.
If Christians are saying “it’s true for me” in some sort of relativist type of terms, then why are they slandered as being narrow-minded? Theists are caricatured this way because they believe this is one way to God, whether they are Christian, Jew or Muslim. The Christian message is unpopular because it’s not something they think is true “for them”, but it applies in the absolute sense to all mankind. And please, I welcome whatever arguments against God that can be produced. I’m not afraid of them. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. By the same token, the unexamined faith is also not worth following. It’s not just blind faith for me at all; I am operating in my epistemic rights. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity is well-grounded in reason and logic. This is knocking down straw men.
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.
I’m all for science. I thank God for science. But science does not refute faith. In fact, science has strengthened my faith in many areas. All truth is God’s truth. One evidence of many in the case for God that has been augmented by science is that the universe came into existence, literally, out of nothing. I feel like I need my man-card revoked for dropping a reference from The Sound of Music, but when Maria sang “nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could” she was expressing some fundamental knowledge of metaphysics. Literally time, matter and space all came into existence at the Big Bang. In comparison to the alternatives, I find that the most plausible inference we can draw is that an infinitely powerful, timeless, un-embodied mind created the universe out of nothing. I would hope Mr. Gervais’ own experience tells him things don’t just pop into existence out of nothing. And if he does, holding such a belief does not make it true. Experience tells us that everything that begins to exist has a cause.
What Mr. Gervais seems to be saying is that he holds to scientism, which is the view that the sciences are the only way to know anything. I mean no disrespect, but this is also a faith, and the principal of empirical verifiability is not without its problems. In fact, it’s circular and self-defeating. The principal of empirical verifiability says there two sorts of meaningful propositions:
- Those true by definition.
- Those empirically verifiable.
Since the principal of empirical verifiability itself is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable, it self-destructs.
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.”
Cue the laugh track. Regarding the burden of proof, the assertion “there is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “God exists.” Both require justification. At least the agnostic is safe because she says she doesn’t know whether there is a God or not.
This, is of course a spirituality issue, religion is a different matter. 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. I would just rather you didn’t kill people who believe in a different god, say. Or stone someone to death because your rulebook says their sexuality is immoral. It’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-powerful all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are. From what I can gather, pretty much the worst type of person you can be is an atheist. The first four commandments hammer this point home. There is a god, I’m him, no one else is, you’re not as good and don’t forget it. (Don’t murder anyone, doesn’t get a mention till number 6.)
When confronted with anyone who holds my lack of religious faith in such contempt, I say, “It’s the way God made me.”
More sarcasm (he is a comedian, so I can forgive him for that) and more straw men, and a real lack of any basic theological understanding, which seems to indicate that either a.) he’s done little investigation of the bible of his own or b.) he got a dose of bad theology growing up. The latter, judging by his story, sadly, is quite possible, but that doesn’t let him off the hook.
Now on Mr. Gervais’ view, men are nothing but the byproduct of some sort of purposeless cosmic accident, and that man is really no different or more special than an animal. Only through a blind, unguided process do we have men who evolve from crumbs to comedians. But then Mr. Gervais seems to go on to say that it is objectively wrong to kill in the name of religion. I agree with him that needless evil tragically and inexcusably has been done in the name of religion, but on what grounds does Mr. Gervais have to condemn such behavior? If there is no God, then it seems implausible that objective moral values and duties exist. So what makes human beings special given atheism? Merely asserting that we are special doesn’t make it so.
To his point of God’s sovereignty, God is clearly not responsible for everything that happens, because we are not automatons. God does not make men to be atheists, but in His love and patience He gives them cognition and enough clues for them to reach out to Him if they’ll have Him. For Him to take away free will, that would be evil.
For the sake of length I’ll jump into Gervais’s own story of how and why he became an atheist.
But anyway, there I was happily drawing my hero 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.
Wait a sec. I thought he didn’t believe in God because of logic and reason? It looks like he became an atheist apart from science or logic, but more like on a whim based entirely on relationships. In giving us what he thinks are scientific reasons, he justifies a stance that he took long before he had scientific reasons. Isn’t that what exactly Christians are all too often accused of?
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.
But living an honest life -– for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity.
This is just so inconsistent. If life is really absurd, then you’re trapped with just the physical world around us. To try and create meaning, value and purpose is merely an exercise in self-delusion. You give your life one meaning, I give it another meaning, and no one is right. This is just playing dress-up; make believe, which is exactly what the theist is accused of. If atheism is true, then life is objectively meaningless.
Oh, and on naturalism (or at least consistent naturalism) love, humor, fun, etc. are all just chemical reactions in your brain, and you really have no free will. One of the core beliefs of most atheists is determinism (take Stephen Hawking, for instance)- the idea that every prior action affects human actions and choices. This means that human behavior is ultimately controlled by genes that control personality, by brain neuro-chemistry, and interactions with the environment.
“Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. But that’s exactly what it is -‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.
Why? If God does not exist, then life is absurd, and as Dostoyevsky said, “all things are permissible”. I’m not at all saying an atheist cannot be good. But if naturalism is true, “being nice” is really illusory. You’d have to borrow from the theistic worldview for such qualities of objective meaning, purpose and good. Anything else is just acting; kidding one’s self.
Anyway, I don’t mean to be all crusty and negative, but some people eat this stuff up and I just think arguments like these have gone unanswered for too long. My heart goes out to Mr. Gervais and those who swallow these bad arguments.