Ricky Gervais and the F-word

December 30, 2010

Ricky Gervais, co-creator and writer of the funny, pessimistic BBC series The Office, on which the funnier, more optimistic American version was based, wants you to know why he’s an atheist. There’s nothing enlightening about his argument: He’s an atheist because “there is absolutely no scientific evidence for [God’s] existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe.”

Let’s take the first part of that sentence: “There is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence.” The proper Christian response is, “Of course there isn’t! What’s your point?” The second part of his sentence points to the reason why: God is not a part of “this known universe.” If God were a part of it, God would be one thing among other things. And God is not a thing at all. If God were a thing, God would be less than God.

And because God is not one thing among other things in this universe (i.e., God is transcendent), God is not something that science can ever “see” or pass judgment upon. There is no scientific evidence for God, by all means! But there is also no scientific evidence against God. Science, which by definition limits itself to physical phenomena in this universe, is agnostic on the question of God. (See this blog post for further discussion. I love that quote, attributed to Merold Westphal: “Anything my net doesn’t catch isn’t a fish.” Science isn’t the kind of “net” equipped to apprehend a transcendent God, but that hardly means that God isn’t real.)

Atheists—at least the ones like Gervais who get media attention—usually fail to appreciate this limitation of science. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes this mistake. He first defines God, in part, as “supernatural,” but then spends the rest of his book talking about God as a being limited to nature’s laws—as if God were just a more powerful, more complex, and more highly evolved version of ourselves. Christianity has never proclaimed such a God. Whatever we are, God is something else entirely.

Regardless, Gervais concedes that having faith is well and good for some people: “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.”

Come again, Rick? Aren’t you a man of science who lives by the cold, hard facts and says, “Show me the evidence”? What are these “rights” of which you speak? How do you determine what they are? Why is it wrong—there’s a loaded word!—to “infringe” on the rights of others? Prove, scientifically, that such things are real or have any meaning. You started it. Remember what you said? “You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.” What are the facts?

Further contradictions abound:

“‘Do unto others…’ is a good rule of thumb.” What is good? Prove that acting in this way corresponds to it.

“Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is.” Does science teach this? After all, it’s not even clear that forgiveness-as-virtue represents a consensus among the world’s religions—much less some kind of scientific truth. It was hardly self-evident to most people of the Greco-Roman world of the early Christian era.

“You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.” Why? Prove scientifically that we ought to be kind.

I could go on—in addition to love, compassion, and justice, Gervais seems to be a big believer in honesty, integrity, freedom, and courage—but you get the point. This essay proves that Gervais, like those of us who believe in God, is a man of great faith.

Unlike us, however, by his own principles he has no reason to be.

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