A friend invited me to watch Ricky Gervais’ Religion vs Atheism Youtube video. I enjoyed it. Ricky is a brilliant communicator. And then I wrote a response to some of the early arguments. Each heading below aims to capture the heart of his idea and then I aim to show you why it shouldn’t persuade you. Not without some more thought.
1. Religion’s success comes from convincing other people that you can’t ridicule the idea of God.
I really like how Ricky plays the victim here. It’s a great move in the 21st C. The idea he wants you to accept is that religion is oppressing people by stopping them from speaking out.
Apart from the issue of compressing all religions together (see below point 3), it just isn’t true of Jesus. It wasn’t Jesus who stopped people speaking out against God. It wasn’t Jesus who mocked people or stopped them hurling abuse. It wasn’t Jesus who crucified others. Rather, Jesus was mocked, abused, beaten and crucified.
A little bit of reading on the history of Christianity and Ricky would see that Christians often spoke truth to power, not perfectly and not always – who could over 2000 years of history – but those who did were mocked, abused, beaten and even killed.
2. There is only belief because the kids have been brainwashed
His argument is that children have a religious belief because their parents tell them ‘There is a God’ and once this is told to you, with various threats, you’re never going to get over it. He wants you to accept the idea that atheism or unbelief is the ‘natural state’, without saying this plainly and clearly. Ricky is wrong on this point.
Research by Olivera Petrovich has shown that the ‘natural inclination of children is toward a belief in some kind of Creator.’ In other words, the natural state is the opposite. It is a leaning towards a creator. This makes better sense of the world. If it were not the case, why is it there are so many people believe in some kind of power? Why is it that so many parents believe such that they instruct their children? This doesn’t make these beliefs right or true. But it does dismantle Ricky’s move that all belief is just brainwashing.
The apostle Paul offers a much more compelling picture in Romans 1. He argues that each person knows the reality of God. Not completely but enough. However, we suppress this reality because of its implications that we are answerable to the creator. And so, we invent religions and many other beliefs as a means of sidelining and limiting the reality of God.
In other words, our natural state is towards God but we muddy the waters ourselves, rather than being brainwashed.
3. Religion as a stop gap for knowledge
Sigh…oh, Ricky. Surely you can stop repeating this nonsense. You pull a trick here – you bundle all religions together, when they are not all the same. Animism is not the same as Christianity and is not the same as Buddhism which is not the same as Wiccan which is not the same as atheism or Islam. The differences make a difference. But this trick of bundling them all together enables you to say that religion stops knowledge. Some religions might. Some might not.
In the case of Christianity this has been proven to be patently untrue again and again. Scholar after scholar – religious or not – from science and all sorts of related fields such as history, sociology etc. recognise that Christianity and its worldview were and still are a key ingredient in the rise of Science. I could quote some scholars or point to research about how many Nobel prize winning scientists are theists or Christians but I don’t think you’d let these truths influence you, so I won’t bother.
4. Religion is purely cultural
The argument goes - if you’re a Hindu it’s because you were born in India. And if you’re Christian it’s because you are born in America. His argument is that someone’s religious beliefs are entirely cultural. It’s not about truth. It’s just what you were told to believe.
But the argument falls down. How is it that millions of Hindus have become Christians? How is it that hundreds of thousands of members of diverse indigenous tribes including Aboriginals in Australia, who had their own powerful and integrated belief system have become Christians? How is it that many children don’t believe what their parents believed? If religion was purely a matter of cultural influence no one would ever change beliefs. But people do all the time.
The second problem with Ricky’s argument is that he is denigrating our human capacity to think. His argument is that people just believe because of their culture. In other words, people don’t decide on truth– they are only influenced by culture. If this holds true for religion, it must hold true for other areas of human life and culture. Is that what he really thinks about people – that we are just cows who wander around after our cultural herd? Mere, unreasoning animals? This would be ironic, since he thinks religion kills thought. But not only that, it would mean that cultures and societies can never change or improve.
Third, if Ricky is right, reason plays little or no part in what we believe, then why should we think that atheists’ reasons for rejecting God are right. Or, are they the only ones who reason while the rest of us are cultural dupes? And if this is so, why do they spend so much time arguing against Christianity if we are all just cultural cows? No, the very fact that Ricky is making an argument against Christianity shows that he thinks reason is involved. Significantly involved. He just shot his own point in the heart.
Finally, to prove to us that religion is purely cultural, he needs to prove to use that Jesus never lived and that our historical records of his words and deeds are unreliable.
5. Prove God by science
Ricky Gervais says, ‘yes he’ll believe’ if there is evidence for God. What kind of evidence does he want? Scientific evidence. Ricky wants a repeatable experiment that will prove the existence of God. He does not understand the limits of science. You can’t carry out a repeatable experiment to know if World War 2 happened. You can’t carry out a repeated experiment to know if Richard Dawkins loves his wife. Lots of things are outside the range of science. Science is brilliant at what it does but the assumption that science can prove or disprove the existence of God assumes that God is of the same order as gravity, atoms and chemical reactions. But science can’t prove the existence or non-existence of love or work out motives of the human heart or … so can it really be a reliable indicator to prove or disprove God? I doubt it.
But since Ricky feels he must get science involved, let me ask you Ricky, why it is that science works? Philosopher Thomas Nagel, by no means a Christian, allows that the idea of Creator God who made a rational ordered universe and gave rationality to people because he is indeed the great mind behind the physical reality makes profound sense of why science works. He doesn’t like it but he admits it has a deep consistency. We can do science because of rationality, an ordered universe and our own capacity to examine this universe. Where did this come from?
6. Religion doesn’t add anything to my morality
Ricky, ‘I’m good to people because it’s the way I want to be treated.’. No Ricky, this is just not true. This is a profoundly Christian idea. Ricky thinks he thinks this because he is good. But he thinks this because he has been profoundly and deeply influenced by his English culture which was deeply shaped by a Judeo-Christian framework. And maybe his ‘Christian’ upbringing could have had something to do with it with his moral standard. You might even say, if you were cheeky, he has been brainwashed. For it is Jesus who brought this truth to the world. Ricky’s morality is profoundly influenced by Jesus.
Again, Ricky needs to do a little bit of reading. Before the influence of Christianity – most cultures did not think ‘treat people the way you would like to be treated.’ The Romans when they conquered and killed millions of people didn’t think this. Nor did the tribes of headhunters and cannibals. Nor did the Aztecs who offered young women in bloody sacrifices. And yes, these past practices related to religious and cultural beliefs. That’s why the differences matter. And now, in the last 200 years, when ideologies have risen that explicitly reject the reality of the Christian God wholesale bloodshed has followed. Take just the case of the Nazis and Stalinist Communism. The differences matter and they change our morality.
I’ve been a bit cheeky to Ricky. Why? Ricky’s argument isn’t really an argument. It is a whole bunch of ideas presented with rhetorical skill. He is after all, a comedian. But they are really a bunch of cheeky moves without much substance once you think about them.
I cannot resist pointing out that if you’ve watched Ricky’s video, any YouTube at all, or most comedians, you’ll know there is no shortage of ridicule of the idea of God. The freedom to criticise Christianity is freely available in the west and has been for vast, vast swathes of history. But it works to play the victim.
 See, The Child’s theory of the world. Olivera Petrovich. https://www.publicchristianity.org/children-and-belief/?_sft_person=olivera-petrovich