And about Ricky Gervais…

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a number of good friends who are either atheist or agnostic. Over the past few months a few of them have sent me the link to Ricky Gervais’ Holiday Message.  I realized that after my last post, this was as good a time as any to address the points raised in his message. Overall, the points he makes have been made elsewhere by the atheist authors I have been discussing in this series. However, there is one argument that he makes that I would like to discuss here, because at first glance it seems very powerful.  Here is Gervais’ version of this argument:

Why don’t I believe in God?  No, no, no, why do YOU believe in God?  Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.  You started all this.  If I came up to you and said ‘Why don’t you believe I can fly?’  you’d say, ‘Why would I?’  I’d reply ‘Because it’s a matter of faith.’ If I then said, ‘Prove I can’t fly, prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?’ You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘F—ing fly then you lunatic.’

So, I definitely give Gervais points for humor. However, he gets no points for either originality or logic.

The argument Gervais is making here is a very common one made by atheists. My favorite version of this argument is the one cited by Richard Dawkins where he argues that believing in God because there’s no evidence God doesn’t exist is the same as believing that there is a flying spaghetti monster because we have no evidence to the contrary. Another version of this argument recently presented to me was the ‘celestial teapot’ – that there may be a celestial teapot orbiting the earth, and we can’t  prove that it isn’t there, so perhaps we ought to believe in that too (this example was shared by an atheist blogger who made some great comments on one of my posts back in November).  Gervais’ version of this argument is actually weaker than the celestial teapot or the flying spaghetti monster because, as he notes at the end, it’s not hard to muster the necessary evidence to disprove the ‘I can fly’ claim, while ‘Pastafarians’ everywhere remain hopeful that the flying spaghetti monster exists.

However, the problem with all of these examples is that they are straw men. Yes, it would indeed be pretty silly to believe in the celestial teapot, or that Gervais can fly (especially because he’s a bit chunky, isn’t he?) But I am not arguing for belief in some ludicrous concept. I am arguing, or more accurately, exploring, the nature of my own spiritual experiences and questions about the core meaning of existence. When pushed sufficiently, the atheist answer to questions about ultimate meaning always comes down to ‘things just are the way they are’, and ‘life is just random’. I just don’t understand why those answers are inherently superior to answers that claim that there is some ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives.  Perhaps the only advantage of the ‘life is just random’ answer is that it is the one that is best supported by scientific evidence.

And speaking of scientific evidence: the reason I thought that now was the time to respond to Gervais is that my last post explores another item that is not supported by scientific evidence: free will.  If Gervais claims that one should only believe in those things that have been proven to exist by science, then to be consistent he would have to reject the existence of free will.  So by this logic, those folks who annoy Gervais when they ask why he doesn’t believe in God have no choice but to ask him that question. And those folks he criticizes for stoning others because of their sexuality (a criticism I fully support) can’t really be criticized – because their act of stoning isn’t in their control. I am guessing that Gervais would have a much harder time embracing this aspect of his worldview.  But as I wrote in the last post – the Materialist position – that the only reality is the one that can be supported by scientific evidence – logically will lead to a rejection of free will. This seems to me a real problem for Materialism. So that’s all for this post – I gotta go throw Gervais out the window now (I have no choice!)

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5 Responses to And about Ricky Gervais…

  1. Gervais,as well as the others that you listed, didn’t even offer an argument. They are simply stating that the onus of proof rests on theists and that atheists cannot proof for a non-belief. Furthermore, the only evidence you provided was anecdotal evidence. And why does life have to have meaning?

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hi! Thanks for reading and responding to the post. Maybe we are not seeing eye-to-eye about what constitutes an argument. An argument, to my mind, is any set of logical statements that support a certain claim. So, the ‘argument’ that I was responding to here is the following made by Gervais, Dawkins et al: 1. Certain believers claim that they believe in God (at least in part) because there is no proof that God does NOT exist. 2. If you believe in one thing because there is no proof that it does not exist, then 3.You must belive in anything (even things that are clearly bizarre or ridiculous).

      In this post I attempted to challenge this argument, because I don’t think point 3 necessarily has to follow from the other points (because believing in God – or at least certain conceptions of God – is not the same as believing in some of these other bizarre things). However, I did not explicitly state in this post that most believers do have other reasons for believing in God beyond just ‘there’s no proof to the contrary’. This leads into the other points you made in your comment:

      1. Gervais does also indeed make the point that the onus is on the believers to prove God’s existence. I actually agree with this point – if I were going out there and saying ‘everybody MUST believe in God because God definitely exists’. I am not making that claim. Rather, as you note, I am merely noting that I have personally had some experiences that have pushed me towards belief. I fully acknowledge that many others have not had such experiences, and therefore lean in the opposite direction. Both ‘leanings’ (towards belief, or towards agnosticism) make sense to me. Where I think the logic breaks down is at the extremes of the spectrum: those who think they have an airtight argument for why God does NOT exist, or for why God DOES exist. I don’t think you can prove either. I have been reading a lot of atheist literature as a way to test this recent change in my own attitudes (I used to be agnostic) and I have been surprised by the logical problems I have found within the atheist arguments. This is my goal of this current series on my blog, to explore these logical problems (and to have others such as you help point out the flaws in my own logic – which can be very helpful).

      Finally, regarding your question of why does life have to have meaning. Um – well – I guess it doesn’t have to for everyone. However, I think most folks need to feel like there is some reason, some purpose to their lives. I am guessing perhaps you meant to ask why life has to have some ‘ultimate meaning’ – some universal purpose that transcends the individual meanings that we choose to give to our lives. You know – it doesn’t have to – it could indeed turn out that the universe, and our existence, is totally random – and all we can do is try to muddle through it all as best we can. See my response to my friend Laurie’s comment on this post for some of the reasons I think this conclusion is problematic. I suppose that a further issue is that I just feel like it’s an intellectual cop-out. In the same way that scientists get annoyed when people use ‘God’ as explanation for complex physical phenomena that we don’t yet understand, I feel like ‘randomness’ is an intellectual cop-out for the philosophical questions about the meaning of life (see my post ‘Diving the Iceberg’). Thanks again for your thoughts and looking forward to hearing from you again.

  2. Laurie says:

    Louise,
    I think I’m probably one of the atheist friends who sent you this . . . One thing stands out to me about your post – you set up a dichotomy between the “life is random” argument and the idea of life having “ultimate meaning and purpose.” I think this is a false dichotomy — as there are many more explanations about the nature of life with and without a Supreme Being that can fit in between those two descriptions – and I also question why the “ultimate meaning and purpose” to life must include God. I understand that for you, and countless others, it is essential. But surely, as you’ve acknowledged before, life can be rich with meaning, purpose, morality, and good – without God. So, anyway, you just got me thinking early on a vacation morning. Looking forward to discussing this more in person sometime soon!
    Best,
    Laurie

    • seeingfaith says:

      Laurie! So good to hear from you – I am so glad you posted. Yes, you are absolutely right that ‘life can be rich with meaning without God’. However, that meaning is one that you choose to create. Any given meaning that a person chooses to give to their life is something they choose to create – it is not something that can be ‘proven to be correct based on scientific evidence’. So – here’s my logic (and please tell me where it’s flawed):
      1. Strong atheism (atheism that is convinced that God does not exist) is based on this claim: one should only believe in those things that can be supported by scientific evidence.
      2. In asking questions about why the universe was created, why life exists, why we have consciousness – there is no scientific evidence to support any answer beyond ‘it just happened based on chance’ (OK – there are more complex scientific explanations but these explanations still all have to do with probability theory – that given enough chances, our universe, and life as we know it, would just happen).
      3. Therefore, there is no scientific evidence that there is some absolute, universal meaning or truth about our existence.

      Most of the atheist authors acknowledge these points (I particularly like Richard Dawkins chapter in The God Delusion called ‘A much needed gap’?) His response to this -which I think is yours as well – is that this frees us all to simply create our own meaning for our lives. I have no problem with that – I’m trying to do pretty much the same thing. In fact, my view of religion is that it really represents the efforts of peoples and cultures throughout time trying to answer these questions about meaning. However, the reason I have issues with the strong atheist or Materialist view is that:
      1. In practice, I think most atheists go ahead and create ‘meaning’ for their lives that is also not ‘based on scientific evidence’. For instance, what scientific proof do we have that the exclusive purpose of our lives should be to live for our families? We can show the evolutionary basis for such a drive, but that doesn’t prove that this is the optimal solution for us and the rest of humanity (in fact, moral philosophers can show plenty of cases where such orientation is sub-optimal). Regardless – this seems to me to be a logical inconsistency. If you truly believe that you should not embrace anything that cannot be proven by scientific evidence, I would think you would need to apply that same criteria to whatever systems of meaning you create for yourself.
      2. It seems to me that this approach means that you must be a moral relativist. If we are now free to create meaning for ourselves, then on what basis can we make any claims for absolute truth, or absolute right or wrong? That is why I find Sam Harris so odd – he is a professed atheist who is fighting against moral relativism. He tries to base his absolute truth on science in his new book The Moral Landscape, but I really don’t think this works (see Kwame Anthony Appiah’s review of his book in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/books/review/Appiah-t.html ) . Anyway – I think Harris does a great job in his book of highlighting the problems with moral relativism – I totally agree with him about that.

      Anyway – I could not agree more with you that any one religious explanation of why life has meaning may also be wrong (in fact, I’m quite sure some of them are wrong). But I do think that all religious views are in some ways resting on something that is more authentic – that provides a stronger basis for absolute truth. OK – gotta run now to go tubing – I hope you will poke holes in my argument so I can come back and reply later. Thanks honey and hope you are having a great vacation!

      • seeingfaith says:

        Hey Laurie, so I was thinking more about this and realized later that I didn’t really respond to your comment very well. Your core question is why we have to assume that God is behind any meaning we ascribe to our lives or the universe. So, to directly answer that question: I am not at all sure that any one specific conception of God is behind the meaning we ascribe to the universe. But what I am trying to do is starting from the opposite end of this argument. Rather than try to prove that a given conception of God is correct, I am trying to figure out whether I can accept strong Atheism (a complete rejection of any kind of non-material entity or force). In other words, what are the implications if we believe that there is definitely nothing more to existence than matter (Materialism)– if we are ourselves are no more than brains and bodies (Reductionism), and the universe is nothing more than random forces that for no good reason spontaneously created all we see, and which consists of natural forces that determine everything around us (Determinism). Based on the reading and thinking I’ve done, I think this worldview is deeply problematic – it seems to me to fail the test of a philosophy we can live by. So, if one rejects this worldview (rejects strong Atheism, Materialism, Reductionism and Determinism) this means that there must be something more to our existence that is not covered by these theories. What that ‘something else’ is, is totally up for debate and by definition is not really resolvable (since this ‘something else’ is non-material and thus can’t be proven using hard evidence). However, as soon as I wrap up the exploration of some of the issues with strong atheism in the next few posts, I am going to start exploring these questions about what that something else might be. I figure that ought to keep me busy for awhile!! Anyway, thanks for challenging me and getting me to think about this stuff..I hope you will keep doing so!

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