I love Steven Colbert and Ricky Gervais. Their style of comedy appeals to my sense of humour. It’s entirely possible to appreciate the art and wit of people you don’t fully agree with – especially when it comes to faith and politics. Gervais is a committed atheist and Colbert is a committed Catholic. Watch their short debate about the existence of God.
There are four things in their conversation that I think are useful in further thinking through the God/science/culture conversation.
1 \\ THE TRINITY CAN BE MENTIONED ON LATE NIGHT TV
At [2:08] Gervais says that if there were 3000 different gods out there, Colbert already rejects 2999 of them whereas he merely goes the distance to reject 1 more. Gervais’ point is that Colbert isn’t far off from his brand of agnosticism. Colbert disbelieves in 2999 gods. Gervais disbelieves in 3000. It’s a pretty witty argument. And it’s at this point that the Trinity makes a late night tv guest appearance:
Gervais: You believe in one god I assume?
Colbert: Uhh…..in three persons. But go ahead. (audience laughs)
Whatever vague notion Western society has about God, Colbert doesn’t share it. And I guess for me it was fun to see the Trinity make a guest appearance on late night tv.
The culture says, “I don’t believe in God.” Christians need to ask, “Which one?” By talking about the uniqueness of the Trinitarian God, we’re setting him apart from the other 2999 gods that vaguely exist in people’s minds.
Which god do you think the people you know will turn to when they begin searching?
The one they are most familiar with.
The one that you are most familiar with.
2 \\ WHAT ABOUT BELIEF IN GOD No. 3001?
Gervais illustrates what’s problematic about postmodern thinking towards faith and belief – and that is the mistaken notion that believing in no god is equal to no belief at all. Or that by not believing you have a more objective view than those who do believe. But if you push a little more, you’ll discover everyone believes in something. Even Esqueleto from Nacho Libre believes in science!
Science is no god, but it’s something. If it’s not science, it’s astrology. If it’s not astrology, it’s animism. It’s a belief in something. Atheism happens to be a non-theistic belief like astrology or animism. Just because it’s non-theistic doesn’t make it not a belief.
So lets call this non-theistic belief system No. 3001. Belief system No. 3001 may or may not have a name and may or may not have a holy book, but trust me that No. 3001 has devoted followers as well. And just like any other belief system, No. 3001 can be doubted, deconstructed, and rejected like the rest of them.
You may not believe in God, but believing in something else doesn’t make you less of a believer.
3 \\ ACKNOWLEDGE THE OTHER’S CLEVERNESS
Gervais seems to make another clever point that if you burn up the holy books of each religion – which he means if we went back in history and these books were eradicated completely (which is a problematic thought experiment in itself because the more militant type of atheists think this way) that in a thousand years, these books and their religions couldn’t re-emerge. Meaning, religious movements based on holy books are just that and if you got rid of the holy books, that would be the end of it.
On the contrary, Gervais goes on to say that if we got rid of all science text books 1000 years later we’d still see the re-emergence of science text books. Science is based on unchanging axioms of the universe (or at least of the Earth) that human beings would once again rediscover and write about.
Colbert acknowledges his point and doesn’t push much on it. Maybe it is correct that religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam couldn’t exist without the Torah, the New Testament, or the Quran. If we rewound history to the moment when these texts were being written and we destroyed them (again a problematic thought experiment), maybe none of these religions would have ever existed. It’s hard to tell. But you can be sure the West as we know it wouldn’t exist. And that means that our modern brand of atheism wouldn’t exist as well.
So does Gervais have a point? Or did Colbert let his cleverness slide?
4 \\ IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST BE CLEVER
Something I wish Colbert would have done that he didn’t do was draw Gervais’ point to a final conclusion. Doesn’t science textbooks have the same problem as religious textbooks? If we were to rewind human history far back enough to the point when there was no human history just primordial history, by virtue of evolutionary principles, we could not and would not have the same world that we have today. Given a second chance, human life as we know it would not have evolved. In theory, a do over would mean a different path through the evolutionary journey which would also mean a new destination. And that probably means no science textbook because no human beings.
Or who knows, maybe we would’ve gotten to the iPad and autonomous driving a lot faster or a lot slower. But probably not.
At this point let’s concede that it’s really not helpful to argue hypotheticals and conjecture. Colbert was gracious enough not to call Gervais out on these points. Maybe he didn’t know to do it. But whatever the case, he was gracious enough to allow Ricky Gervais to share more of what he believed and why and how he came to believe this way.
Which I think is the point of this conversation and the point of this blog.