Ricky Gervais Makes the Usual Atheist Mistakes

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Ricky Gervais is a British comedian who some consider more influential among atheists than the famed Richard Dawkins. I guess that means the time had to come when I would respond to him here.

He had a short conversation with Stephen Colbert recently about God. He probably thought he scored some points on Colbert, a devout Catholic. Maybe so for entertainment value, but not much else, I’m afraid. He makes the usual atheist mistakes.

Let’s look at some of his main points.

“Not a Belief”

At 1:10 Colbert asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Gervais ducks the question, calling it irrelevant. Not much there.

At 1:36 Colbert asks, “Is there a prime mover that started everything?” It’s a great question that’s motivated tons of discussion among thinkers down through the ages. Gervais ducks it, too, answering simply, “outside science and nature I don’t believe so.”

But he doesn’t explain why; he only goes on to tell what kind of atheist he is: “Atheism isn’t a belief system; it’s only rejecting the claim that there is a God.”

That’s an all-too-common answer among atheists. “Atheism isn’t a belief, it’s a lack of belief.” The problem is, though, that for the great majority of atheists in the Western world, their atheism includes a belief in a purely materialistic reality, which makes it a belief system after all. Among other things, it’s the belief that:

  • Every religion is wrong.
  • The universe exists without any morality or intelligence at its foundation. It is a happy accident
  • There is no soul, so death is final; therefore there is no ultimate justice, no accountability beyond what we can see with our own eyes.

There’s a whole lot more I could add, but that gives you an idea of some of the kinds of beliefs most atheists hold but don’t want to admit to.

The Arithmetical Argument

At 2:20, Gervais says: “You believe in one God, I presume… But there are about 3,000 to choose from, so basically you deny one less God than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 gods, I don’t believe in just one more.”

I’ve heard this one dozens of times, too. I’m going to call it what it is, okay? It’s silly. Let’s look at it two ways.

Atheists love to tell Christians we’re just about as atheistic as they are. We’re atheistic about thousands of gods; they’re atheistic about thousands plus one more. The difference between their atheism and Christians’ atheism is mere fractions of a percent!

So then if God exists, then God is an atheist toward all gods but himself, and he knows about a lot more supposed gods than any of us ever have. That makes him atheistic about many more gods than any human. And therefore, if there is a God, then by the percentages he must be considerably more atheistic than any human but the purest anti-believer among us.

See, I told you it was silly. But the problem isn’t in the reasoning I’ve applied to it here. The reason the logic lands in such an absurd place is because it starts from an absurd place to begin with.

And there’s another problem. The difference between one God out of 3,000 and zero gods out of 3,000 isn’t just an arithmetical difference. The two views describe infinitely different sorts of reality altogether. One sees us as living under a wise, holy, loving, powerful Creator God, the other says we live in the uncaring, impersonal universe of the atheist belief system I talked about above. This is definitely not the inconsequential difference atheists want you to think it is.

Science vs. Holy Books

At 3:40 Gervais tries this zinger.

Science is constantly proved all the time. If we take something like any fiction, any holy book, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would be the same result.

Danielle Camorlinga, writing at Youth Apologetics Network, answers this wisely. If a history book were destroyed, it wouldn’t change the facts of history. It wouldn’t change the truth of what happened. Christianity is a religion based in what happened in history: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ above all. So Christianity would still be true, even if there were changes in the way we know about it.

I would add this: How does Gervais know the Bible wouldn’t be back? He can’t. He has to assume God wouldn’t restore it for us all. Of course that’s easy to assume, if start by assuming there’s no God. But that’s called arguing in a circle:

  1. Let’s assume there’s no God.
  2. Since there’s no God, then if the Bible were destroyed it wouldn’t come back like science books would.
  3. Since the Bible wouldn’t come back, there is no truth in God like there is in science.
  4. Therefore we should assume there is no God.

Colbert thought his holy books argument was “good, real good.” But Gervais is a whole lot better at comedy than he is at logic. Or religion.

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14 Responses to “ Ricky Gervais Makes the Usual Atheist Mistakes ”

  1. I pretty much agree with your response to Gervais. However:
    The problem is, though, that for the great majority of atheists their atheism includes a belief in a purely materialistic reality

    This is false. There are about 500 million Buddhists in the world, most of whom are atheists. They vastly outnumber the amount of atheists who are strict naturalists.

    By the way, you linked the wrong video. The video you reference is this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5ZOwNK6n9U

  2. Thanks for the correction on the video link, Skep. I got the one that loaded on the screen after this one ended, I think.

    The atheist population I was referring to was those in the Western world. I’ll edit it to reflect that.

  3. Actually it is quite easy to reject atheism because atheism is the rejection of a certain conceptualization or definition of the term God. Monotheism in the Abrahamic tradition conceptualizes God as the one source of all that exists. To claim that all that exists has no source or cause is simply to deny reality, most particularly, to deny science itself. Atheists can’t have it both ways: to deny that there is an explanation through science for all that exists and to deny that what we monotheists give the name God to as the source of all that exists Himself/itself exists. Atheism is inherently illogical and inconsistent.

  4. The “None”, the “Non-“, the Non-Theist:

    I never liked the term “A-Theist”. As others have alluded to it’s not really a claim worth unpacking in most settings. The report of a lack of evidence is fairly accurate on the more common definitions in general.

    “…..Properly to understand classical theism, the hostile atheist reader might even find it useful to put the word “God” out of his mind for the moment — given all the irrelevant associations the word might lead him to read into the present discussion — and just think instead of “the ultimate source of things.…..” (Feser)

    “Non-Theist” is more precise as it speaks not to a person’s (an atheist’s) self-report of insufficient evidence but rather it speaks to what he likes, to what he gives intellectual assent to, to what every possible metaphysic available to him necessarily lacks in its own frame. His is (necessarily) on all fronts either the unexamined frame or else his is that frame within which the logically compulsory forces either [1] GOD or else [2] Absurdity (….as in Sean Carroll’s illusory, or cosmically “useful but not true“….), and he has preferred the later. The “Non-“ presses in (there) upon reason’s relentless demands for lucidity.

    We see that same “Non-“ pressing in upon love and empathy too. Irreducible indifference is traded on in the Non-Theist’s polemical sonnets against Theism and in defense of love and empathy and when he finally realizes the painful import of that fact he again pulls whatever he can down from whatever winds are blowing over his head to keep the melody from stalling, else GOD.

    “Non- ’s” of all strips do our work for us here as they (“Non- ’s” of all strips) typically follow reason and logic and end up within various cousins of solipsism, both hard and soft, which of course is again what the Christian’s metaphysic predicts as that proverbial “Y” in the road between the Divine Mind (on the one hand) and that cosmically illusory or “useful but not true” or Absurdity (on the other hand) approach ever more rapidly.

    Reducibility, contingency, mutability, and brute fact just won’t do:

    The metaphysical absurdity which the “Non-“ is forever the victim of is his own attempt to make the difference between Being and Non-Being just a little less than infinite.

    It’s not what he rejects. It’s not “A-”

    It’s not his self-report on evidence. It’s not “A-”

    It is what he delights in, embraces, loves.

    It is the absurd, the loveless. It’s an irreducible substratum. It’s the “Non-”

    He’s a Non-Theist.

    Whether or not the “Non-“ specifically claims and/or dives into Panpsychism, Idealism, Buddhism, Naturalism, Materialism, Immaterialism, and so on does not change the fact that he [1] has his respective explanatory terminus and [2] said terminus is his respective irreducible substratum from which all definitions necessarily stream and [3] at some ontological seam somewhere his claims upon the fundamental nature of reality or of being will either trade away or else land within the Necessary, the Immutable, the Irreducible, the Self-Explanatory (….contra the Contingent, the Mutable, the Reducible, the Brute Fact…).

    Nowhere does this press upon us more relentlessly than in the elemental and irreducible processions constituting Love and Logic, or Reciprocity and Reason.

    Therein the “Non-“ becomes manifestly infinite.

    Therein (any) one’s metaphysical wellspring of all ontological possibility compels either closure or else insolvency.

    The nature of the question here has significant overlap with the “One Fewer God” challenge often foisted as a challenge against the Christian. The core of that is obviously fallacious given the fact that everyone has his or her explanatory terminus:

    “The reason is that for the classical theist, whatever else we mean by “God,” we certainly mean by that label to name the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things. Properly to understand classical theism, the hostile atheist reader might even find it useful to put the word “God” out of his mind for the moment — given all the irrelevant associations the word might lead him to read into the present discussion — and just think instead of “the ultimate source of things.” (Feser)

    A segue of sorts:

    The “Non- ’s”, the Divine Mind, Idealism, Time, and the Absolute’s Reference Frame:

    This is a segue of sorts – but – unpacking where and how it is in fact an aggregation of logically compulsory moves which carries reason (….in her proper roles as truth-finder….) into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic is not quite on topic here. That said, some opening roads into that segue are mentioned here simply to introduce the nature of the question on the table with respect to “Non- ’s” of all strips and their respective truth claims upon the fundamental nature of reality or of being – or of any X whatsoever. So with that said:

    Time itself is neither absolute nor the Absolute’s reference frame. Further, the Absolute’s frame of reference cannot be Self-Explanatory unless and until the Absolute is Self-Referencing.

    As for Consciousness in the Absolute, that is to say, as for the constitutions of “Irreducible and Infinite Consciousness” in what is necessarily nothing less than GOD / “Being Itself”, such is, to be sure, another part to this narrative as we are forced thricely into an infinite locus of consciousness each of which by necessity cannot be less than Being in totum. There’s much there to explore of course, but, for now, this:

    Consciousness in the Absolute, in GOD is not and cannot be on ontological par with any contingent consciousness for given what the term GOD necessarily entails, the Divine Mind necessarily entails three irreducible and Infinite Loci of that which (by logical necessity) cannot be “less than” that which is Infinite Consciousness. It is uncanny that while, say, “Power” or “Goodness” or “Truth” all speak to some contour within Divine Simplicity, such do not force distinct centers of consciousness, whereas, while still within that same landscape, we do eventually come upon the affairs of GOD vis-à-vis Infinite Consciousness and, once we arrive “there“, we discover that the Divine Mind necessarily entails three irreducible and Infinite Loci of that which (by necessity) cannot be less than Infinite Consciousness, which cannot be less than “Being In Totum“.

    The trio of the Infinite Knower (which in Infinite and Irreducible Consciousness cannot be less than Being in totum) and of the Infinitely Known (which in Infinite and Irreducible Consciousness cannot be less than Being in totum) and of all Communique/Procession vis-à-vis Logos therein (which in Infinite and Irreducible Consciousness cannot be less than Being in totum) carries – compels even – logic and reason into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic.

    Within the Christian metaphysic it is the aggregation of logical compulsory moves which carries reason (….in her proper roles as truth-finder….) into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic constituting the timeless diffusiveness of self-giving as such relates to the Ontic-Self in totum as nothing less than Being Itself presents reason with an irreducible substratum within the contours of Infinite Consciousness and it is both uncanny and yet expected that we find therein nothing less than love’s indestructible reciprocity. All definitions stream from that metaphysical wellspring of all ontological possibility such that the Imago Dei itself and Reason itself and the Beautiful itself and the Rational itself are – all – in fact ontologically seamless with what is nothing less than the Moral landscape.

    Paradigmatically speaking, such is a radically different explanatory terminus than we find in any Non-Theism. THE GOLDEN THREAD OF RECIPROCITY is affirmed by natural theology, is perceived by reason, is seen by Non-Theism, but Non-Theism must foist a metaphysical impossibility as irreducible self-giving trades on irreducible indifference and the convertibility of the transcendentals is finally illusory.

    The nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle presses in:

    As for Time and Fact and Observer and Reference Frame, we know that time is neither eternal nor absolute (….time is neither the Absolute nor the Absolute’s reference frame…). We also know by both reason and logic that at the end of all explanatory termini we are forced into either [A] final absurdity or else [B] the Absolute’s reference frame, which must by necessity be Self-Reference, which is a metaphysical absurdity – but for the triune God who meets us in Genesis.

    There is no frame of reference for “Self” but for the fact of “Other”, as the Absolute’s Self-Reference presses in:

    ….. we are forced to conclude that these are relational qualities and have no meaning in isolation. In other words, in God, qualities of personality can be actualized only if there is an actual, eternal relationship in him prior to, outside of, and without reference to creation. Only in that way would God be a personal being without being dependent on his creation. When Moses asked God for his name, the answer he got was least expected: I AM (Ex. 3:14). This amazing mystery of the name (identity) of God solves a problem that we may not always be aware of: God is his own frame of reference. We have already considered the fact that the infinite cannot be defined with reference to the finite. God, therefore, has to be self-referencing. This would be an absurd proposition but for the fact that, in the being of God, there is a plurality of infinite persons and each can define himself with reference to the other. God can truly be said to be self-existent only because he is the all-personal, all-relational being…” (L. T. Jeyachandran)

    The Self-Explanatory once again:

    “You want to endorse a form of naturalism according to which real explanations are possible at levels of physical reality higher than the level of the fundamental laws of nature, yet where these explanations rest on a bottom level of physical laws that have no explanation at all but are “brute facts.” But this view is, I maintain, incoherent. For if you endorse a regularity view of laws, then you will have no genuine explanations at all anywhere in the system. All of reality, and not just the level of fundamental physical laws, will amount to a “brute fact”……. You maintain in your most recent post that explanations legitimately can and indeed must ultimately trace to an unexplained “brute fact,” and that philosophers who think otherwise have failed to give a convincing account of what it would be for the deepest level of reality to be self-explanatory and thus other than such a “brute fact.” Unsurprisingly, I disagree on both counts. I would say that appeals to “brute facts” are incoherent, and that the nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle can be made intelligible by reference to notions that are well understood and independently motivated.” (E. Feser)

    Ontic closure in the Absolute’s Self-Reference, that is to say in the Divine Mind, that is to say in the irreducibly Triune:

    “God is his own frame of reference. We have already considered the fact that the infinite cannot be defined with reference to the finite. God, therefore, has to be self-referencing. This would be an absurd proposition but for the fact that, in the being of God, there is a plurality of infinite persons and each can define himself with reference to the other. God can truly be said to be self-existent only because he is the all-personal, all-relational being…” (L. T. Jeyachandran)

    But again: Unpacking where and how it is in fact an aggregation of logically compulsory moves which carries reason (….in her proper roles as truth-finder….) into a thoroughly Trinitarian metaphysic is not quite on topic here. That said, some opening roads into that segue are mentioned here simply to introduce the nature of the question on the table with respect to “Non- ’s” of all strips and their respective truth claims upon the fundamental nature of reality or of being – or of any X whatsoever.

    Finally, a very helpful comment:

    “Actually it is quite easy to reject atheism because atheism is the rejection of a certain conceptualization or definition of the term God. Monotheism in the Abrahamic tradition conceptualizes God as the one source of all that exists. To claim that all that exists has no source or cause is simply to deny reality, most particularly, to deny science itself. Atheists can’t have it both ways: to deny that there is an explanation through science for all that exists and to deny that what we monotheists give the name God to as the source of all that exists Himself/itself exists. Atheism is inherently illogical and inconsistent.” (by J.B.)

  5. scbrownlhrm, I have to admit: I usually don’t read your comments. They’re just far too long and seem intentionally obfuscated.

  6. Skep,

    If you see a specific sentence (…etc…) you don’t follow you can always ask ~~

    The quotes / content of Feser, Hart, Jeyachandran, and JB are admittedly tough to follow for many.

    More generally: The term Atheist just doesn’t capture the nature of the vacuity which the claim is actually embracing.

  7. I’m new to your blog, love reading your stuff, Tom. But I would disagree with you that being an atheist requires you to believe that ‘ There is no soul, so death is final; therefore there is no ultimate justice, no accountability beyond what we can see with our own eyes.’ Eastern religions disbelieve this, and some, like Jainism, are atheistic…

    In Gervais’ case, however, he definitely believes that to be the case, so I guess for him, it is something of a belief system.

  8. That’s right, which is the reason I said I was speaking about the beliefs of the “majority of atheists in the Western world.”

    Thanks for the encouraging word!

  9. IMO, it is very important to draw the distinction between religions and religious beliefs that are non-theistic and “atheistic.” Frankly, I don’t think any religion can be described as atheistic since atheism is not a religion.