Ricky Gervais recently penned a little Christmas message in the Wall Street Journal. He’s the creator of the show “The Office” and a talented comedian. I’m a fan.
In it, he declares he’s an atheist. And Merry Christmas.
It’s the holidays. We want to sell a few papers, and everyone wants to know what celebrities think about God. For every Christmas, the culture wars get a little heated up, fundamentalists and atheists slogging mud at each other, pained at each other’s existence, and the conflict is, in itself, entertaining. Even recently, atheists have organized to buy advertising on buses and conservative Christians have gotten offended.
I’m for more atheism in the public sphere. Most of my friends outside of the church are non-believers. A few of my friends IN the church are non-believers. Few have a deep historical and theological understanding, but for most of them, church is not where they are, or where they’re friends are.
At one time there was greater public dialogue. Our founding fathers were far more open about religious faith. They were generally not believers in the sense most atheists critique “belief.” They had far more honest conversations about the role of religion and religious institutions in society. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some atheists had great popularity. And religion was not aways a part of political conversation. It was not always demanded of our presidents before Jimmy Carter. It may have been the language of civil society, but only a few of our presidents have been religious in any serious sense of the word. Atheists were rarely persecuted in any serious sense; but they may have joined churches.
And granted, I’m embarrassed just considering conversations between Christians and Atheists. I pity the Christian, eager to please and convert; I empathize with the atheist, surrounded by idiots and hypocrites, insisting on using an obscure language created somewhere on the Alien Planet of the Past. I think there are plenty of different ways to have conversations about religion and faith, but usually they end up being variations of “you’re an idiot” vs “you have no soul.”
Nonetheless, I was disappointed. It wasn’t that Gervais had once loved Jesus and then abandoned him at the age of at eight. Hell, I first gave him up when I was four. The bible itself for me was a weird, incomprehensible document, confused on the number of animals in the ark or where Jesus was really from. When I asked my father about God and Jesus, he gave me a book about Greek myths. At nine, I confronted a Methodist pastor, a friend of my Atheist father, about dinosaurs. ”Do you really believe that the earth was created in six days?” After all, I knew better. The pastor, by the nature of his profession, an idiot. He came back with “It’s a story,” he said. ”I believe in Dinosaurs also…. It’s a story that we interpret.” But there he was – a living breathing thinking Christian.
I didn’t give up my atheism there, but realized that I was doing a grave disservice to myself if I thought that religious people were as simple as Gervais presumes.
In plenty of churches, people don’t believe in a God that looks like the God he describes. So when Gervais argues we’re more like atheists, I wonder if he has read the pagans who accused Christians of precisely this: our God was more like no-God than the imperial God. Who are the clergy and lay people who believe in an anthropomorphic God? No clergy I know; and my unscientific internal polls of my own lay people indicate they’re much more skeptical than your average Ayn Rand reader.
God made him an atheist? Well, yes. That’s actually the way Christians have typically described faith – as a “gift.” It’s the challenge inherited from both Calvinism and the idea of the “invisible church.” His funny retort has been a theological response to understand unbelief.
He compares science’s gifts over the comforts of religion; identifies of cultural taboo with religious creed. All trite; and all ignorant. Not even a passing understanding of the church’s contribution to astronomy; or it’s doctrinal antagonism toward folk superstitions. I don’t need every atheist to get the history right, but it remains disappointing when someone who loves truth can’t get his own facts straight and seems to believe that the content of religion is found mainly in the propositions people make about their faith. Most clergy would cheer his brief proclamation of the beauties of truth.
Religious people do not oppose evolution. We enjoy “imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer and pizza.” A few of us are unimaginitive puppets without heart or joy who won’t watch a Lions game at the local pub. But Jesus at the right hand of the Father is a place in our imagination that refers to a particular understanding of relationships; we haven’t given up on free will as a way of explaining evil; and we’ve got some pretty great music. Our heaven is like a wedding feast. We also had something to do with making beer and wine. Just a little homework, Ricky, and you’ll find that boozing and Godding have a long, intimate history. Some would argue that without religious institutions, we’d be far more sober than we’d enjoy.
His pedestrian confusion of faith and the afterlife confirms he knows only one sort of believer. How many mainline Christians actually believe in fire and brimstone? I asked my senior posse that question a couple years ago. Not one of them did, although they did express a wish that some people would go there. They were much closer to the traditional annihilationist conception of hell without any formal classes in theology. They had just spent probably 10 minutes more time thinking about the question than Gervais.
And last, I just wish he were funny. But perhaps this is an improvement. Atheist comedians can now be as unfunny and thoughtless as all the other pundits. I guess I’m going to have to lower my standards.
But until then, I’m sticking with Woody Allen.