Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reposted (Dec 2010) British comedian/writer, Ricky Gervais’, letter on why he is an atheist. I wanted to write a line by line response to some of Gervais’ objections and points, but I thought a letter would be more appropriate. It’s not comprehensive, but it’s how I would respond to such a letter or perspective if it were from a person I really knew. Here goes:
Thanks for the straightforward and even-keeled demeanor of your letter. Before I respond to anything, let me just say that I really enjoyed your pioneering role in the Office. It’s a shame that your show didn’t make as much headway with a mainstream American audience as it did when Steve Carrell “Americanized” it. I feel like I’ve seen your face in a lot of different movies, but was surprised that I couldn’t recognize your body of work. Weren’t you in the British comedy movie, “Hot Fuzz”? (Sorry, I guess I’m demonstrating exactly why British films/shows don’t always take off in American circles.) Anyway, I really enjoyed that movie – too bad you weren’t in it.
As you’ve been bold enough to be honest and non-patronizing, I will attempt the same (forgive me if that doesn’t come out – you’ve had a lot more experience at writing in the public forum than I have). I will come out from the start and say that I do believe in God – the God of the Bible [Old & New Testament], Triune, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Infinite, Transcendent and Immanent, fully revealed in the resurrected person of Jesus Christ, the whole shabang. It is a faith commitment for me, yet not without its reasonable propositions. I certainly didn’t check my brains at the door and take a blind leap. Like you, I don’t get offended when new facts come along, and also like you, I attempt to connect those facts to my extant worldview framework. (Occasionally, I have to rework major parts of it, but still the framework holds more or less trustworthy.) I don’t believe in God because it works for me. In fact, quite often, my belief in God and particularly in his holiness and designs for mankind make me the object of scorn, ridicule, and marginalization. Utilitarianism is not a sturdy foundation for faith or ethics for that matter (as Wall Street might attest) – it works because it is true, not the other way around.
You lost me in your argument of the burden of proof and the flying example. I reread it several times in order to understand what you were you getting at. So I won’t try to comment on that except ask for another example so I can understand how you’re trying to prove where the burden of proof lies? In talking with other friends about atheism and theism, I often find myself coming to the place that we can’t convincingly prove one way or the other that God does or doesn’t exist. There’s just too much data out there, but I’d love to consider your argument for burden of proof.
That said, I feel that your portrayal of science is biased. Your “science” is not nearly the objective, disinterested observer that you claim it to be. In fact, you seemed to assign agency to science as if it was a being when in fact, science is only as good as the individuals and community that commits to practicing it. And those individuals and communities have prior commitments, just as religious individuals and communities do. No one is a disinterested observer. Historiography pre-WWII and post-WWII demonstrated that to claim objectivity is a tragic mistake. The truth is that even science requires a faith commitment – a commitment to extrapolate and generalize principles based on limited experiments, a commitment to believing the reports and methods of other scientists, and a commitment to place our ethics and existence on the implications of that science. I wish that you would recognize and honestly call it what it is – a faith commitment. There is no 100% certainty, no matter how many repeatable observations and tested hypotheses. There’s always the chance, even if it is minute, that something could go different. While I would agree that we can approximate towards a rational belief in some natural law or principle, to brazenly declare that we have something completely figured out is a bit naive, don’t you think? I think the reason that both sides would describe the other position as arrogant is too often we boast of 100% certainty. I wonder if the conversation could be a bit more fruitful if both of us came to the table with a humility that doesn’t suppose to know it all. Rather, could we both recognize our firmly held beliefs are just that – beliefs? You may say that it doesn’t change much and maybe it’s just semantics, but as long as one side thinks his is definitive (isn’t that exactly what a dogma is?) than meaningful conversation can’t happen. It’s one thing to be convinced. It’s another thing to be dogmatic. I think it has more to do with attitude than anything else.
Another thing I think you overlook is that faith is only as strong as the reality of its object – otherwise it’s wishful thinking. I agree with you that believing in something hard enough doesn’t make it true. (This is where I would go back to your flying illustration). However, you come across as patronizing in permitting faith on moral grounds. You permit people to believe even if they are wrong. While I appreciate your openness and charity to that, I think it’s immoral to believe in something that has profound ethical implications if it simply isn’t true. If God doesn’t exist, and we spend our lives living out his moral will in as self-sacrificial a way as the Bible commands, then by our world’s standards, such belief does do harm. It makes us pitiable, close-minded, and intolerant (which, come to think of it, is exactly how caricatured Christians are portrayed), and this kind of lifestyle is exactly what you denounce. So which will it be? Live out your beliefs to the fullest or don’t? This compromising, belief to a certain extent doesn’t cut it for me (and I think that’s the real problem with religion, but that’s another story).
That leads me to another thought. Your belief that it’s ok with people having religious beliefs as long as they don’t infringe on other’s beliefs is infringing on my religious beliefs. I know that it’s a maddening and over-used retort, but I think it holds true nonetheless. If, as I stated above, we can both come to the place of recognizing the inherent “faith” commitments of our perspectives, I think you might see the strength of this argument. It could be seen as hypocritical for you to decry infringing religious beliefs as your infringe others’ beliefs with your own. And this leads to the maddening cycle (quite logical really) of having no standard by which to evaluate and definitively defend/espouse a certain ethic (be it atheist or theistic or polytheistic). Your relativism doesn’t do anything but rehash the same cycle you are speaking against. In the end, you can’t definitively prescribe anything; you can only suggest things (which, to your credit you are consistent in for the most part.) You said it yourself, “but living an honest life – for that you need truth.” I agree wholeheartedly.
Finally, I wonder how you would define “virtue”. You seem to be drawing on some universally agreed upon concept that I may or may not be inclined to agree with. Forgiveness, and the humility that it would require, certainly wasn’t one of the cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy (at least the humility part). In fact, for the great Greek thinkers, humility was a sign of weakness, a sure way to prevent eudaimonism (human flourishing). But again, that’s for another cup of coffee.
Out of everything you said, I most appreciate you being vulnerable enough to share your story. I regret that a perceived paranoia in your mom caused your faith in Jesus to unravel. I know it’s hard to put down in a blogpost, but is there more to the story than just a simple question from your brother? Just wondering…I’d love to hear more about it some time.
Thanks for hearing me out. I’m not a scholar in these matters, but a sojourner like yourself who has thought about these things, and who wants to live honestly and enjoy the beauty of this world as I prepare for the next (which, by the way, the Bible doesn’t describe as some lofty, ethereal, non-physical existence – it’s a new heavens and new earth!) I would love to continue this conversation as I’m sure it will add to my framework. I only hope that I might be able to add to yours in a generous spirit of friendship and truth-seeking.