But Ricky Gervais also has another string to his bow. He is an atheist.
There is nothing wrong with holding that conviction of how to interpret the universe. Thankfully he and I share a country where freedom of belief is, well, sacred! And in the country he was speaking in on Sunday night it is even enshrined in a written Constitution.
However, if one wonders whether or not Ricky Gervais is on something of a (thankfully non-violent!) crusade to persuade the rest of us that we, too, need to be atheists, consider his closing remarks at the Golden Globe awards. He thanked God for making him an atheist.
If there is one thing that you can say about the humour of Ricky Gervais – whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent to it – it is always original. His Hollywood insults certainly were!
But there is nothing original in that closing line. Just put “thank God I am an atheist” into Google and you will get tens of thousands of results from singers, to t-shirt slogans, to wise men who actually thought it up themselves way back.
So why did he add it? Was it to impress such a large live audience, perhaps larger than he has ever had before, with his dearly held theological view?
If he just did this to enlarge the sphere of his equal opportunity offensiveness, I don’t think it should be a problem. If people like me who believe in God get offended by anyone saying that there is no God then we probably need to check the basis of our own faith rather than railing against the opposite faith of another.
But if it is the sign of a crusading mentality then I would say that maybe there is some cause for concern…
Because any crusading attitude risks a degree of blindness, whether in the religious or in the non-religious. To the extent it assumes a monopoly to the rightness of one worldview it fails to see, acknowledge and act on a more nuanced narrative of life.
This is evident in “a Holiday Message” that Ricky Gervais recently wrote for the Wall Street Journal called Ricky Gervais: Why I’m an Atheist. Reading it, certainly makes it plain that Mr Gervais is seriously convinced that there is no God, and I can – and do – respect that sincerely held view.
But here’s the problem with it. It makes many good points about bad religion. Using a highlighter pen on his article, there was much in the detail that I agreed with about what is wrong with religion. But the article interpolates that to presume that all religion is bad, rather than seeing the vast good that comes from it, and thus holding a more constructive concern with the question of how to isolate the bad and change it for the better.
On the other hand, it makes sweeping points praising the scientific method – which the author holds as dear as many people hold their religious convictions – rather than having the needed nuanced sense of that.
I, for one, love the scientific method when it is properly applied to things to which it makes sense to apply it. That has resulted in all the technology I love to use, the airplanes I fly on, the structures in cities that I love to photograph, etc. It has undoubtedly brought improvement to people’s lives in terms of water decontamination, increased food production, and so on.
But the scientific method in relation to medicine, for instance, is on far shakier ground. It has a growing body of internal critics who do bring a more unbiased sense of it to their conversation about it. A couple of articles pinpointing this have appeared recently in the Atlantic (“Lies, damn lies and medical science”) and the New Yorker (“The truth wears off”). Reading these articles doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with every word they say, but it should promote a thoughtful discussion about the extent of faith one puts into this one way of assessing the world.
On the other hand, those who are employed to apply the scientific method often have an open mind to the reach of God into our daily lives, as is indicated in a survey reported in the Orlando Sentinel article Does your doctor believe in miracles? You might be surprised.
Religion deserves its critics. The religious need to be open to constructive criticism. But so does a “scientific method” that can be flawed by conscious and unconscious bias and, I would say, could do a better job of thoughtfully considering the possibility that “thought is the patient” (as a colleague of mine once suggested in a talk called The spiritual essence of the writings of Mary Baker Eddy at a Harvard medical school continuing education course called Spirituality and Healing in Medicine).
We all have things to learn. Let’s agree that sweeping dismissals of the views of others are usually unfounded and unhelpful, whether in religious or anti-religious fervour. Let’s shoot for the kind of constructive dialogue that can improve the relationship between, and the practice of, both science and religion.
“Nothing is worthy the name of religion save one lowly offering — love.” (Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellany, p. 258)
Here is a classic bit of Ricky Gervais on Sesame Street: