As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a number of good friends who are either atheist or agnostic. Over the past few months a few of them have sent me the link to Ricky Gervais’ Holiday Message. I realized that after my last post, this was as good a time as any to address the points raised in his message. Overall, the points he makes have been made elsewhere by the atheist authors I have been discussing in this series. However, there is one argument that he makes that I would like to discuss here, because at first glance it seems very powerful. Here is Gervais’ version of this argument:
Why don’t I believe in God? No, no, no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said ‘Why don’t you believe I can fly?’ you’d say, ‘Why would I?’ I’d reply ‘Because it’s a matter of faith.’ If I then said, ‘Prove I can’t fly, prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?’ You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘F—ing fly then you lunatic.’
So, I definitely give Gervais points for humor. However, he gets no points for either originality or logic.
The argument Gervais is making here is a very common one made by atheists. My favorite version of this argument is the one cited by Richard Dawkins where he argues that believing in God because there’s no evidence God doesn’t exist is the same as believing that there is a flying spaghetti monster because we have no evidence to the contrary. Another version of this argument recently presented to me was the ‘celestial teapot’ – that there may be a celestial teapot orbiting the earth, and we can’t prove that it isn’t there, so perhaps we ought to believe in that too (this example was shared by an atheist blogger who made some great comments on one of my posts back in November). Gervais’ version of this argument is actually weaker than the celestial teapot or the flying spaghetti monster because, as he notes at the end, it’s not hard to muster the necessary evidence to disprove the ‘I can fly’ claim, while ‘Pastafarians’ everywhere remain hopeful that the flying spaghetti monster exists.
However, the problem with all of these examples is that they are straw men. Yes, it would indeed be pretty silly to believe in the celestial teapot, or that Gervais can fly (especially because he’s a bit chunky, isn’t he?) But I am not arguing for belief in some ludicrous concept. I am arguing, or more accurately, exploring, the nature of my own spiritual experiences and questions about the core meaning of existence. When pushed sufficiently, the atheist answer to questions about ultimate meaning always comes down to ‘things just are the way they are’, and ‘life is just random’. I just don’t understand why those answers are inherently superior to answers that claim that there is some ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives. Perhaps the only advantage of the ‘life is just random’ answer is that it is the one that is best supported by scientific evidence.
And speaking of scientific evidence: the reason I thought that now was the time to respond to Gervais is that my last post explores another item that is not supported by scientific evidence: free will. If Gervais claims that one should only believe in those things that have been proven to exist by science, then to be consistent he would have to reject the existence of free will. So by this logic, those folks who annoy Gervais when they ask why he doesn’t believe in God have no choice but to ask him that question. And those folks he criticizes for stoning others because of their sexuality (a criticism I fully support) can’t really be criticized – because their act of stoning isn’t in their control. I am guessing that Gervais would have a much harder time embracing this aspect of his worldview. But as I wrote in the last post – the Materialist position – that the only reality is the one that can be supported by scientific evidence – logically will lead to a rejection of free will. This seems to me a real problem for Materialism. So that’s all for this post – I gotta go throw Gervais out the window now (I have no choice!)