Stephen Colbert vs. Ricky Gervais: The Late Show Atheism Debate
On February 1, comedian Ricky Gervais appeared on CBS’s The Late Show where he and host Stephen Colbert discussed God and atheism:
Regardless of how you feel about his theological views, Colbert is probably the most famous U.S. celebrity who stands up for the Catholic Faith. His interviews on The Colbert Report with Bart Ehrman and Philip Zimbardo display some of this wit in top form. But Gervais, as opposed to a straight-laced academic, is a fellow comedian whose quick wit made him a formidable opponent. Here are a few of the arguments he made:
The 'One Less God' Objection
"So you believe in one god, I assume. . . . But there are 3,000 to choose from . . . so basically, you believe in—you deny one less god than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 gods. And I don’t believe in just one more."
The problem with this argument is that it’s like saying to a prosecutor of a murder trial:
"You believe John Smith killed this man? Well, I don’t think anybody killed this man; he died accidentally. I mean, think about it. There are 7 billion potential murderers out there, and you believe that 6,999,999,999 of them did not kill this man. I just believe in one less murderer than you do."
Of course, thoughtful atheists will say, “That’s a bad example! We know murderers exist, but we have no proof any gods exist.”
But that’s not the point.
In the murder example, we know the skeptic is wrong, because, contrary to what he asserts, the prosecutor doesn’t just arbitrarily pick one suspect out of billions, each of whom is equally gulty. Instead, she has good reasons for choosing this one suspect out of all the others. Just because there are thousands of false gods or billions of people who are innocent of a certain crime, it doesn’t follow that there is no true God or no single person who is guilty of a crime.
Christians believe in their God because they have philosophical evidence to show God must be an infinite, self-explained act of being (which disproves the finite gods of mythology). They also have historical evidence that this God uniquely revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. You can dispute that evidence, but you can’t just dismiss it by pointing to large numbers of claims that compete against it.
The 'Science Wins' Objection
"If we take something like any fiction and any holy book and any other fiction 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."
Gervais said this in response to a salient point Colbert made that Gervais’s explanation that the universe came from a tiny atom apart from God was based on Gervais’s faith in physicists like Stephen Hawking and was not something he could prove himself. Gervais seemed to sense he was in trouble, so he pivoted to the explanation that science has a built-in corrective mechanism and so it will eventually be able to prove itself true, whereas religion can do no such thing.
First, this does not answer Colbert’s original question, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”, since we can still ask, “Why was there a primeval atom instead of nothing at all?” It also doesn’t refute the argument that God created the universe, because—as I show in my book Answering Atheism—science and philosophy point to a beginning of the universe not from an eternal shrunken atom but from pure nothingness, which would require a transcendent cause.
Second, Gervais has created a false dilemma to allow science to claim victory over religion.
He is correct that fiction, which is something an author creates, is not a law or natural feature of the universe. If every copy of Shakespeare, along with every memory of his works, were destroyed, it is extremely unlikely the works of Shakespeare would come back (though similar stories may appear in their place).
Likewise, its true that if we erased the work of Isaac Newton, that wouldn’t erase Newton’s laws of motion. Hopefully they would be rediscovered and, if that happened, they would likely end up being called something else.
But here’s the false dilemma: either truth is scientific and can be proven in a laboratory or else it is unprovable fiction. Since Bible accounts can’t be confirmed by science, they must be fiction.
Imagine a thousand years from now I wanted to prove the statement, “Ricky Gervais was a well-known comedian in the twenty-first century.” If you destroyed every one of Gervais’s television appearances along with every review written about him and also purged him from people’s memories, then I couldn’t prove he existed. Of course, that wouldn’t prove Gervais was a fictional character.
The same is true of the Bible, which is not a scientific explanation of the world but rather a collection of historical testimonies about how God created the world and revealed himself to mankind. If the Bible and everyone who remembered it were destroyed, then, barring more divine revelation, its contents would be forever lost. But just because a statement can’t be demonstrated in a laboratory doesn’t mean it’s not an important truth about the world or humanity itself.
The 'Redefining Atheism' Gambit
"So, this is atheism in a nutshell. You say, 'There’s a god.' I say, 'You can prove that?' You say, 'No.' I say, 'I don’t believe you then.'"
Atheism is either the strong belief God does not exist or the weaker belief that there is no good reason to believe God exists. It’s convenient in Gervais’s example that the believer doesn’t say, “I can’t prove it mathematically, but I have evidence that God exists.” The atheist could still say, “I don’t believe your evidence,” but if he doesn’t give a reason as to why he finds the evidence unconvincing, then he has simply revealed his own pre-conceived notion that God doesn’t exist.
That’s why I like to ask atheists who say there are no good reasons to believe God exists, “What is the best reason someone has offered for believing in God, and what’s wrong with it?” This allows atheists the opportunity to carry their burden of proof and demonstrate that there are no good reasons to believe God exists.
For example, if I said, “There’s no good reason to believe in the Loch Ness Monster,” that would be my opinion. It wouldn’t become a statement about reality worth examining until I provided evidence for it, such as by explaining why the famous “Nessie” photographs are fakes.
Likewise, an atheist who says there’s no good reason to believe in God gives his opinion, but that’s it. If he picked even one strong argument for the existence of God and showed why it fails, then he’d have evidence to support his opinion and encourage others to adopt it. And that’s basically what Gervais did at the beginning of the interview.
When Colbert asked, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”, Gervais waved away the question by saying the “how” is more important than the “why.” But as the late, world-renowned philosopher Derek Parfit once said, “It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no minds, no atoms, no space. When we imagine this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Why is there a universe?”
This shows the question deserves an answer, and that answer may include an ultimate, infinite, self-explained reality that philosophers have traditionally called God.
Claims from atheists like Ricky Gervais that “there is no evidence for God” or “science makes God unnecessary” are merely assertions. And, as the late atheist Christopher Hitchens once said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
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