Ricky Gervais’ witty and well-written defense of atheism has been getting a good airing on the internet for the past couple days. But the question remains: was it necessary, and if so, why? Do atheists feel, as do some of our more paranoid Christian brethren, that they are constantly under attack these days? Have legions of theists and deists been corralling recalcitrant secularists and forcing them to bow before the Supreme Heavenly Muckamuck? Um, not that I’ve noticed.
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have turned God-bashing into a nice little earner, but while Gervais was no doubt paid for his article, it couldn’t have been more than a pittance compared with his earnings from TV and film, so he clearly wasn’t doing it for the money. He claims that he felt he had to speak up because he was constantly being confronted by people wanting to know why he didn’t believe in God.
I can’t help thinking this might have something to do with Gervais himself, perhaps the attitude he exudes or the company he keeps, because while I get out and about a bit myself, I’m almost never asked to defend my views on God or if in fact I have any. However, since you didn’t ask, I’ll tell you anyway: I do believe in a power that is greater and better than myself. I prefer to call it God because it saves having to give a lengthy description of its attributes, but you might choose to think of it as nature, fate, karma, chi or The Force, not to mention Yahweh, Allah, Krishna, Vishnu or a 27-legged golden calf. It doesn’t much matter to me, because I don’t feel threatened by anyone’s beliefs or lack thereof.
Their actions–well, that’s another story, and I think Gervais has managed to conflate and confuse the actions of a minority of fanatic religionists with the majority of quiet believers. Yes, I’ll agree that few things are more annoying–or in some cases more frightening–than someone trying to dictate morality to you while fully convinced that he’s doing the work of God. But in the first place, most believers don’t do this, and secondly, it’s not as though atheists were immune from imposing their morality on the masses, violently, even murderously if necessary. I trust some of you recall the militantly atheist Soviet Union, for example?
In making his arguments, Gervais is charming and engaging, not at all like the street corner preacher who hectors you with the “good news” that Jesus Christ is offering to be your personal lord and savior, but essentially he’s doing the same thing: trying to convert people to a religious point of view. Enlisting “logic” and “science” on behalf of his argument makes no difference; plenty of pro-God preachers attempt to do this, too. The fact is that neither logic nor science have anything definitive to say about the existence or non-existence of God. Both require evidence that they simply don’t have before they can draw any worthwhile conclusions. Confronted with questions about the nature and origin of the universe, a scientist is in precisely the same position as a philosopher or a man of faith: like that of a flea standing on the corner of 34th Street and 5th Avenue trying to explain the Empire State Building. Except that the flea has a better chance of getting it right.