The popular arguments for atheism are mostly tiresome and boring, chiefly because they tend to turn on the question of “science,” scare quotes deliberate. Your average atheist will tell you he believes in “science,” not God; that the practice of religion grew out of some prescientific understanding of the natural world; and that now that we’ve developed the study of microbiology and cracked the physics of elliptical orbit, we have no use for “magic sky fairies.” The implication seems to be: if only the authors of the Psalms had had access to quantum mechanics, they’d have known better!
I thought about this recently when Ricky Gervais appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night show to debate atheism. Colbert himself is a Catholic and performed the role of Defender of the Faith.
To start off, Colbert posed to Gervais that famous question asked by Leibniz—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”—to which Gervais responded: “Surely, the bigger question is not why but how. Why is irrelevant, isn’t it?” This is a preposterous and laughable response—“why” is not merely a bigger question, it is a qualitatively different one, and far more critical in its qualitative difference. “Why,” in this case, is the lynchpin for explaining the very existence of the universe—of all of space-time—in the first place. After all, if it can convincingly be demonstrated that all of creation sprang ex nihilo sine creātor, then surely atheists would consider such evidence far more consequential than the actual mechanics of cosmic inflation and nucleosynthesis, which are just dry scientific facts when you get down to them.
If, likewise, believers can provide a suitably logical justification for the existence of God, then surely nobody—not even Ricky Gervais—would consider that “irrelevant.”
Such proof does exist, in various forms and approaches and schools of thought—my own favorite happens to be the argument from contingency—but instead of examining those just now, I’d rather look instead at Gervais’s own flawed justification for his atheism, which, as is per usual, rests on what he calls “science” rather than any real coherent philosophical belief or logical proof.
It is worth pointing out that, in one particular sense, one does not need to “prove” to Ricky Gervais that God exists, at least not on the terms he is likely stipulating. When someone like Gervais asks for “proof” of God, they usually seem to want either a photograph of God or else some complicated mathematical theorem that proves He exists. But God cannot be photographed (the atheist knows this, even if he does not believe in God) and the sciences are not capable even in principle of adjudicating the question of God’s existence (any more than the sciences are capable of adjudicating any other philosophical proposal). As a result, in this case we should consider not trying to “prove” God’s existence to Ricky Gervais so much as demonstrate that Gervais’s own proofs against the existence of God are logically flawed and do not stand up to scrutiny. If you knock down enough logical fallacies and the only defensible belief left standing is an argument for the existence of God, then you have effectively proven the existence of God, at least as should be enough for someone like Ricky Gervais to accept (though it is doubtful he would do so on live television, as he might find it rather embarrassing).
So how does Gervais justify believing in “science” rather than God? As he put it to Colbert:
“Science is constantly proved all the time. If we take something like any fiction, any holy book, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was,” he said.
“Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would be the same result. I don’t need faith in science.”
There are two major flaws in Gervais’s little thought experiment, so let’s take them one at a time:
To the first, that “science is constantly proved all the time,” we’ll be charitable and assume that Gervais meant to say something like this: the scientific method is consistently demonstrated as a suitable mode of examining and discerning the natural world. No arguments there. But “suitable” is not synonymous with “static,” much less “perfect,” which is how Gervais seems to believe the scientific method works (“all the same tests would be the same result”). No serious student of scientific discovery, not even the armchair students, not even the tattered coffee-stained thrift-store-chair armchair students, believe this to be true. Subsequent tests of similar phenomenon produce disparate results all the time. To take one small example, the federal government recently reversed its multidecade-long position on cholesterol based on new scientific discoveries related to the controversial nutrient. For nearly half a century the conventional wisdom regarding cholesterol was seen as ironclad and indisputable. Now it appears to be changing.
This is to be expected—widely-accepted scientific knowledge changes and is constantly changing. But, consequently, the idea that “all the same tests [produce] the same result” is absurd and epistemologically nonsensical. Science is constantly revising, changing, correcting, examining, proving, disproving, relitigating, confirming, denying: it’s the nature of the industry.
Thus, because most established scientific belief may change at any given moment, the average person must simply accept what he is told about science at any given moment, believing the questions have been adjudicated by someone smarter and more thorough and more powerful than he. He has, in other words, faith in “science,” in the scientific method and the legitimacy of its results and the arbiters of the method itself. It is clear, then, that—contrary to what they say—atheists like Gervais simply trade one faith for another. But atheists commit a sin of willful ignorance, pretending that they are not “faithful” but rather rational and dispassionate. Clearly this is not so.
So we must ask this: if “faith in science,” so to speak, is perfectly acceptable, why not faith in God? Indeed, faith in the latter—Who by design is unchanged, unchanging, eternal, perfect, all-powerful and all-loving—makes much more sense than “faith” in the former—which is constantly in flux, heuristically fickle, subject to politicization, and largely uncertain, from day to day or even hour to hour.
Secondly, Gervais claims that if we took “any holy book” and destroyed it, it would never come back the same way. We will again be charitable here and assume that he is referring, at least in part, to the Bible, and at least in subpart to the Gospels. And one must stipulate that Gervais is indeed right—if you tracked down and destroyed every copy of the Bible, it “wouldn’t come back just the way it was,” if at all. But so what? If you tracked down and burned every history book—every David McCullough epic, every Schlesinger work, every tract of Herodotus, every last copy of Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking People, every Western Civ tome from McGraw-Hill—it is fairly certain that none of those books would come back the same, either, if at all. Would that mean that the history these books described never happened? Nonsense.
So it is with the Bible, or at least the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, which, though they are holy and describe a great many holy things, are also historical documents that describe real events that actually took place in human history. In effect Gervais is saying: “If you destroy historical texts, they don’t come back.” Well, boffo: the curators of the Library of Alexandria agree. What of it? That is why we preserve these historical works and protect them from destruction in the first place: they are precious and worthy of preservation and we don’t want to forget them. Destruction of recorded fact does not negate the reality of the facts having happened.
Gervais’s implicit counter-argument, contained within his implicit assumptions, seems to be this: that the Bible, or at least the Gospels, is not historical: that it is “fiction,” or—even worse!—a “holy book” which has little to no connection with historical fact. To which we might ask: where is his proof? A man so profoundly devoted to “science” must have at least some evidence that the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—along with the Acts of the Apostles and the various claims contained within the Epistles—are false or else wholly unreliable. But nobody has ever been able to prove to any satisfactory degree that there is any reason to doubt the central assertions of these documents—that Christ lived, died, was buried, rose again on the third day and was and is the Son of God. The non-Christian contemporaries of Christ and the Apostles were never able to disprove these tenets, though there would have been ample opportunity to do so in proto-Christian Judea, especially for the rich and powerful opponents of burgeoning Christianity. Modern skeptics and scholars have been unable to do so, either. Many of them insist that the Gospels are more myth that fact, born out of earlier god-man traditions of Egypt, Syria, Babylonia and elsewhere (right), that the original gospel stories concerned merely a charismatic rabbi and these stories were soon corrupted by tales of miracles and divinity. But curiously enough nobody has ever produced even a single fragment of a single scrap of papyrus detailing a non-divine Christ: for all the insistence that Jesus was simply a “great moral teacher” who was eventually mythologized by the early Church, nobody, now or then, Christian or atheist, Roman or Greek or Gervais, apologetic or antagonistic or agnostic, has ever once been able to offer any evidence to that effect at all, in any form, of any variety. If “science,” if proof, is so important to atheists, then for goodness’s sake, can’t they just follow their own advice and drum some up?
So, to recap: we have disproven Gervais’s claim that the scientific method invariably produces “the same result,” and thus we have established that any man’s monomaniacal reliance on science is in fact a “faith” in and of itself; we have established that the destruction of historical facts do not somehow magically render those facts as fiction; and from that, appendicularly, we have underscored the perfectly logical and reasonable conclusion, reached by thousands and thousands of scholars and historians and billions of faithful throughout the centuries, that the Gospels detail historical fact regarding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What next?
I am not satisfied by Gervais’s justification of his own belief system. Neither should you be. Neither should Colbert have been, though surely the time restraints of a late-night talk show factored into his rather milquetoast defense of his own faith. In any case, there may still yet be a good and robust defense of atheism out there, and I will be happy to listen to it if it comes along. In the meantime, I will continue to believe in God, and in Christ, and Him crucified, and risen. It is a wonderful faith, and also a perfectly logical one at that.