I mentioned that I’d be writing about this essay in an earlier post, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.
First off, read this essay
by British comedian Ricky Gervais
about why he is an atheist. Go on, read it. I’m not afraid it’s going to destroy your faith, and you shouldn’t be either. Read it twice, in fact, and make sure that you’ve got the basic gist of what he’s saying. When anyone takes the time to explain what they believe and hold deeply true, it bears listening carefully to. First, it’s a matter of respect for the other person. Secondly, we need to be able to know if a response is necessary, and if it’s necessary, how to best approach it.
I see two major points that back Gervais’ atheism (and his not-so-backhanded assertion that everyone else should be one too). First, there’s the issue of lack of empirical, scientific proof of God. Secondly, there’s the issue of how religion can make people behave badly, which he is firmly against.
Before we come back to those two basic arguments, let’s scan through for some salient comments on the essay.
His first paragraph assertions that “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence” sticks in my craw, but I fear it’s probably a lot more true than I’d like to think it is. I believe that we do need proof of God’s existence, but the issue becomes what constitutes proof? Gervais has one standard – empirical scientific observation. I have a different one that has to do with the integrity of the Bibilical witness to what I experience in myself and in the world around me. Mine involves the issue of a historical person who is alleged to have been resurrected from the dead and seen by more than 500 witnesses after his death. This is a historical allegation that while often scoffed at, has never been adequately explained or written off. Despite a lot of people with a lot of reason to want to discredit this claim, nobody in 2000 years has effectively done so. Combine this with the rest of the Biblical narrative about our world and how it accurately describes not just the world around me but me as I experience me, and I’m more than convinced of adequate proof of God’s existence. Not in a subjective, arbitrary sort of way, but in the way He’s revealed Himself.
Every Christian ought to demand proof of what they believe in. The key is what you deem to be proof. Demanding that you don’t require proof is not only foolish, it leaves you open to be taken advantage of by any televangelist or other huckster with a smooth line and a compelling smile. Gervais’ clearly thinks that theists are fools, and that adjective has never been one I’ve been very happy being saddled with. You shouldn’t be comfortable with it, either.
His second paragraph extols the virtue of science as an impartial, unbiased, balanced march towards truth. this is hardly the case. The recent hub-bub raised when it was discovered
that there was an effort in one part of the scientific community to systematically discredit
scientists who raised objections to the official Gospel of global warming is adequate proof that scientists are every bit as prone to pride and arrogance and fear as the rest of us. They’re human, after all. Or there’s the matter of a British scientist who was formally censured by the academic and scientific community for his studies that asserted a link between vaccinations and negative health side effects such as autism. I’ve looked and looked for the articles on this story (within the last couple of years), because the scientific community has recently reversed their decision and decided to reinstate the researcher. Again, what seemed to me to be a curious case of less-than-objective actions on behalf of scientists that Gervais seems to credit with almost divine selflessness and singlemindedness of purpose.
I believe that as human beings, scientists are prone to the same temptations the rest of us are. The only people who need to see science as some sort of pristine effort, void of human temptations and weaknesses, are those who rely on scientists to save us from a Biblical God to whom we might be accountable.
Next he switches to pushing the burden of proof to theists. Fine. I find plenty of proof in the amazing diversity and complexity of creation. In the intricate details of cellular functioning – details that from their current arrangement and our understanding of them, seem impossible to have evolved separately or without one another or to have developed without one another in lockstep. Only those who have not investigated the truly awe-inspiring complexity of our world could possibly feel comfortable with the scientific alternative to intentional creation – that it was all just a big accident that happened right over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
My proof explains why I’m a jerk and I know I’m a jerk and yet I know I ought to be better than I am, and why pretty much everybody on earth experiences this same duality between who they are and who they feel they ought to be. My proof explains a beautiful earth that is also tragically destructive. My proof explains why the overwhelming majority of all of the earth’s inhabitants believe in some sort of higher power, even if they attempt to describe it differently. My proof rests on a sacred text that also happens to be without equal the most accurate historical and geographical document of the ancient world, and that has been demonstrated to have been passed on with mind-numbing accuracy and consistency for at least 2500 years or more.
I have proof for why I find Christianity to be true. But it’s not the same type of empirical,scientifically observable proof that Gervais is suggesting. It is not that we will catch God sneaking around with our satellites and telescopes and particle accelerators. That would imply that God is somehow detached from creation, that creation is somehow separate as an entity from God. God is not the same as creation, but God infuses and sustains all of creation. If God were a wholly separate entity, I seriously doubt creation could be sustained. Creation and God are so intricately woven together, that once we’re all able to see clearly on the other side of eternity, I suspect we’re going to smack our collective foreheads and our communal cry of “D’OH!” will be heard across eternity.
Gervais’ critique of Christians as being only slightly more atheistic than he is is humorous but also accurate. We are not pantheists, and we ought not to be universalists. We ought not buy into the thoroughly moronic assertions that all religions are equally valid and true. Two things that contradict each other cannot be said to be equally true. A is not non-A, as any intelligent person should be able to tell you. Unless of course, you don’t really believe that either of them is true – in which case both share in the underlying truth that both
are false. Christians believe in one single God as revealed in Biblical Scripture, and who clearly is not the same God as Allah or the Buddhist conceptions of a non-personal entity that manifests all of reality. To assert that they are the same requires completely tossing out the writings and beliefs and assertions that both sides hold dearly to. Believing that only one of these 3700 descriptions of the divine is not relative atheism, it’s merely being intellectually consistent.
The rest of the essay is anecdotal. It’s insightful, poignant even. It’s not proof, it’s simply something he experienced and that has led him in a profound direction. It’s a tragedy that his mother apparently wasn’t able to give a better reason for her faith, or point him to a priest who could address his desires for proof. Truly tragic.
As for the last bit about forgiveness, forgiveness is not a virtue, nor is it expressed more clearly or more forcefully outside of Christianity. Forgiveness is totally contrary to human nature. Nobody wants or believes in forgiveness. They want justice. They want compensation. They want things to be made right. This is not the same as forgiveness. I’d argue that Gervais doesn’t really understand the depth of the Biblical demand for forgiveness.
So, back to the two main points – no proof for God, and religion makes people do bad things. We’ve really already addressed the first issue. Gervais isn’t interested in any proof, but only a very specific and incredibly narrow form of truth. He wants to be able to measure God in some sort of scientific way. He certainly can’t be asking to just see God, to have Jesus appear to him and show him the nail marks, since I’m sure Gervais wouldn’t trust his own eyes. He wants some other form of objective, measurable proof of God. And the earth and his body and his love for his mother and his insistence that there is such a thing as objective good are all dismissed as the wrong kind of proof. Unacceptable. He wants a bit of God in a jar, or on a microscope slide, or in a centrifuge.
Which is to say he doesn’t want a God to worship and adore and be thankful to and to love with all his heart, mind, and soul. He wants something that can be analyzed, because if we can analyze it, there’s hope that we can manipulate it and control it.
As for religion making people do bad things, this is somewhat true. He makes the pithy comment about how few prisoners are atheists. I’m not sure that has to do with much of anything. People are bad. I’ll happily maintain this assertion about myself as well as pretty much everyone I know. People I love and respect and think highly of are still bad. Fundamentally flawed. Fatally flawed. Unable to really be the people they ought to be. They may act properly, but their thoughts and emotions betray their badness, as mine do.
As such, religion is just one of many ways that people act badly in. Some of the worst atrocities and genocidal policies of all human history were perpetrated by governments that asserted there is no God, and acted accordingly. Religion does not make a person bad, people are bad. True religion however is the only thing that holds the hope of making them any better. Psychology and psychiatry hasn’t accomplished this – they’ve only vastly expanded the number of classifications of badness and brokenness that people deal with.
Gervais rejects God in part because he finds the judgmental aspect of God to be puzzling. Yet I’m sure that Gervais wouldn’t hesitate to swat a dog that he had trained when it misbehaved. If he had children, he would discipline them when they acted inappropriately. I’m sure he feels that murderers and rapists need to be punished. He’s not questioning whether a God would be morally consistent in punishing evil, he simply fails to see the depth and pervasiveness of evil in himself and those he loves. He’s nearsighted – fatally.
I expected a bit more from this essay. It’s a shame that such a flimsy assertion can be deemed worthy of publication in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s a shame that undoubtedly many people have been affected by reading this.