A Grand Atheist Assumption: Thoughts on Stephen Colbert’s Interview with Ricky Gervais

In case you didn’t see it, Stephen Colbert had a fascinating discussion/mock-debate with comedian and creator of The Office Ricky Gervais. The englishman has become known in recent years for moving away from his awkward persona of David Brent on the UK version of The Office and to a more offensive, vulgar, and usually celebrity trashing humor. With that move has come, at least to American audiences, more awareness of his personal beliefs about life and the universe, specifically his unabashed and (in typical British fashion) self-assured atheism. This became the focus of part of his interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Colbert is one of the best interviewers in my opinion on television, regardless of the channel or intended content. I wish some of the news personalities on Fox or CNN had his abilities. Colbert is also an interesting conversation partner as he is a fairly, by the accounts I had heard, committed Catholic. On his old show he had a fantastic interview with Bart Ehrman in which he showed his biblical and theological knowledge. Similarly, his conversation with Oprah at the advent of his new show displayed his ability to quote scripture near verbatim. And here, in this conversation, Colbert goes straight to the textbook apologetic argument—why is there something rather than nothing. While he is friendly and accommodating on the show, one gets the impression that he is no pushover in religious dialogue. I want to take the rest of this post and make observations about two points that Gervais makes during the interview.

The Big Question

Colbert opens the “debate” with the question of the existence of the universe (why is there something rather than nothing?). This seems to be the wrong direction as Gervais immediately states that the better question is not ‘why’ but ‘how.’ There are a few things to say about this.

First, ‘why’ is the big question, not ‘how’ because why is a question about meaning. ‘How’ can tell us the mechanism by which the universe came into existence (big bang or what have you), but ‘why’ tells you the meaning behind the ‘how.’ In a sense the reason that ‘why’ is the big question—and not ‘how’—is because the issue is not fully put to bed until the ‘why’ question is answered. Even if you do not believe there is a ‘why’ to the existence of the universe, that is still the more important aspect of the issue because ‘why’ tells you how to live. If the world was created during or in course of a “big bang” that tells you the mechanism of the universe, but if that big bang was the result of the work of one or many God or gods then we might expect to have some prescription for the manner in which we are to conduct ourselves in creation. As such, why is not, as Gervais says, irrelevant.

Second thing to say is that regardless of which question you put more emphasis on, even if you think the ‘how’ side of the equation is more important, that does not negate the interest or importance of the ‘why’ question. Grant that Gervais is not truly debating Colbert, but if he was (which I would pay to see) minus points for avoiding the question.

Outside Science and Nature

Colbert will not be thrown from his course and continues to pursue the question by astutely stating it in a different manner: “is there a prime mover?” Gervais says that he doesn’t believe there is outside of science and nature. Here is the real issue with the Ricky Gervais’s of the world (the same goes for the Richard Dawkinses and such) there is an inordinate amount of trust in science that is coupled with a definition of science that intentionally excludes the belief in God. This position is called Methodological Naturalism. It is the position that your method of scientific pursuit must be limited to providing answers which are natural rather than supernatural. In other words, the application of the term science to something presupposes naturalism and often physicalism and atheism as well. You see this in a few places:

First, Gervais’ explanation of atheism in a nutshell: “You say, ‘there is a God.’ I say, ‘can you prove it.’ You say, ‘no.’ And I say, ‘I don’t believe you then.'” Gervais assumes there is no proof or way to prove God. This is a crucial presupposition. If we could rewind the tape, it would be interesting to ask Gervais what proof would be necessary to convince him that God exists? Would it be enough to investigate creation and see that the entire world—from the salinity of the ocean to the distance between the Sun and Earth and the rotation and angle of the both—are precisely placed to accommodate human life? Or would it be enough that an astounding number of people have had near death experiences or witnessed documented miracles, which are scientifically and naturalistically inexplicable? Or would it be enough that approximately 2000 years ago a man claimed to be God, taught with a clarity and understanding that astounded his hearers, was murdered as a political insighter, and raised from the dead—all of which is more well attested to than the existence of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, and other major figures?

Second, Gervais’ comment that science is constantly proved over time. This is one of the most common and yet most fantastically wrong assumptions in the conversation about the existence of God. This is the grand atheist assumption. Stephen calls Gervais out on his faith in the abilities of well-known scientist, to which Gervais responds:

But science is constantly proved over time. You see if we take something like any fiction, and any holy book, and any other fiction [bit of a troubling assumption there, but let’s continue] and destroyed it, in 1,000 years time it wouldn’t come back just as it is. Whereas if you took every science book and every fact and destroyed them, in 1,000 years they would all be back because all the same tests would bring all the same results… So I don’t need faith in science.

Here is the problem with that. Science is not constantly proven over time. Science is constantly evolving as more studies and tests and research confirm or disprove preceding studies. Consider one notable example. A current debate within the science community over Charles Darwin and his work Origin of the Species and whether or not he proposed a process called Phyletic Gradualism, which simply meant that evolution to a slow gradual processes through mutation and adaptation. Basically, little by little one species changed into the next. Phyletic Gradualism was basically as settled as science gets from the publication of Origin in 1859 to 1972 and the publication by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldrege of the concept of punctuated equilibrium, a theory that the mutation and adaptations were of a much more striking and abrupt nature. Today this presents difficulty for scientists because PG is a theory without evidence. There are gaps in the fossil record that require assumptions driven by presuppositions  by scientists like Richard Dawkins to maintain the view. On the other hand PE is a theory crafted to fit the current evidence, but seems deeply flawed and highly debatable—especially for the damage it does to the base of evolutionary theory.

All this to say Gervais is indeed putting his faith in science, not just in science, but in a particular set of scientists. When he does so, the assumption is that science equals settled, but the history of science tells us anything but that. 

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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