In a documentary called “The Unbelievers,” atheist comedian Ricky Gervais lays out his philosophy about religion. In what many atheists claim is an intellectual dismantling of religion, he makes many fallacies and one massive outright contradiction.
His first point is that people wouldn’t be as inclined to believe in God if no one was allowed to teach them about God until their ’20s. He says that religion relies on arbitrary dictate from parents or teachers: “There is a God.” “What?” “There is a God. And if you’re bad you go to Hell.” He likens this sort of unquestioning instruction to other commands that don’t require discussion: “Don’t touch the fire. Don’t go near the wolf. Don’t touch the spider.”
Well, there are reasons why you don’t touch a fire or go near a wolf or touch a black widow spider. Parents don’t say, “this tin foil hat will protect you from the fire” or “squawking like a monkey will make you impervious to the spider, and there is a god.” They actually tell the child the truth and believe it or not, some actually give reasons for it. Don’t touch the fire because it will burn you. Don’t go near the wolf or spider because they will bite you.
In fact, children test all of these commands anyway. As anyone with a toddler will understand, telling one to not do something is likely to make him want to do it more. And when the toddler tests it and gets burned, they learn. Unfortunately the type of burning involved with not believing in God comes when it’s too late, so the analogy is imperfect.
A better would be with the belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, which Gervais makes throughout the interview. What inevitably happens to people who are taught falsehoods like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy is that they disbelieve eventually. But belief in God persists in many intelligent people. Could it be because there is a good reason for that belief?
“Always born into the right god”
His next argument is that people typically believe the God that they are taught in their surrounding culture: Americans are typically Christian, Indians are typically Hindu, and Pakistanis are typically Muslim. “Isn’t that lucky? I was born into the right god. Everyone else is going to hell.”
This is a strong argument for the cultural origins of religious belief but there are two answers. 1) It could be explained as the local interpretation of the same God. One could say if you’re born in India, you probably like Indian food, if you’re born in the US, you probably like American food, if you’re born in Pakistan, you probably like Pakistani food. Liking different styles of food doesn’t discount the fact that everyone still needs to eat to live.
2) Cultural genesis works in totalitarian societies and those without religious freedom, but not so much in the West. According to this concept, free countries should be 100% atheist, but that’s not the case. We do see a mass abandonment of Christianity in Europe, but it’s perhaps stronger than ever in the United States. Additionally, religion persists in atheist countries like China and the former USSR. A strong atheist culture and threat of death by the government didn’t sink religion entirely in those countries. Perhaps religion is more than cultural coercion?
“God made it.”
His next argument is a blatant straw man: “Where did the universe come from? God made it.” Here, Gervais is trying to claim that all believers adhere to the God of the gaps philosophy in which God is everything we can’t explain. It’s very lazy and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard someone leave it at that. In fact, Gervais suggests an even lazier answer by saying nothing created the universe.
A much more nuanced approach to the origins of the universe is the Kalām Cosmological Argument, which is as follows:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
The universe began to exist.
Therefore, the universe had a cause.
To avoid an untenable infinite regression and the nonsensical universe-begetting-universe argument, we must conclude that there was an uncaused cause (Prime Mover) which caused the universe to come into existence. We call this God.
“There shouldn’t be a word for not believing in God”
Gervais then goes into an odd argument saying that there shouldn’t be a word for not believing in God: “We’re all born atheist.” Perhaps, but we’re also all born completely ignorant. We need to be taught that the Earth is round as much as we need to be taught about the origins of the universe. The default is atheism, just as the default is flat-Earthism. While moral theology may be written on the heart as is the innate understanding of a higher power, the specifics of theology need to be taught.
“I’m always going to follow the evidence.”
Gervais likes to pose as a scientific mind and says that he always follows the evidence. But is that true? In the early 1900s, the conventional cosmological model was the steady state model in which the universe had always existed and was in a “steady state”. Proponents like Einstein thought this made sense and proposed what he later called his “biggest blunder”, the cosmological constant. Later a Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, working inductively from the idea that God created the universe proposed that the universe was expanding and following it back in time, one would find a “creation”. Edwin Hubble’s red shift discoveries later showed Lemaître’s Big Bang theory to be correct. Ever since, science has continually shown more evidence for the existence of God. In fact some of the theories that physicists are proposing to explain a godless universe are so bizarre and far-flung that it takes considerably less faith to believe in God.
At the end of the interview, Gervais says you can’t be agnostic about God if you’re not about Santa Claus. If you can definitively say there’s no Santa Claus, then you must definitively say there is no God. This statement, however, contradicts his earlier statement where he defined atheist as someone who simply doesn’t have a belief in God. The difference is subtle, but not having a belief in God is different than positively believing there is no God. I don’t have evidence about any life that may live at the bottom of the ocean, but I cannot say that there is no life at the bottom of the ocean.
Gervais should take a cue from an institution that he supposedly appreciates: science. Science never proves anything—it only disproves—and as a result, scientists are all agnostic.
We didn’t expect a truly thoughtful examination of religion by Gervais, but it would be great if atheist fanboys didn’t act like it was. As a protestant minister once quipped, “If you rely comedians to learn about religion, don’t be surprised if what you believe is a joke.”