Stephen Colbert Ricky Gervais Theism Late Night Talk Show

Stephen Colbert and Ricky Gervais Talk about God

Famous comedian Ricky Gervais appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to discuss the topic of religion. Even though this wasn’t a formal debate, I wanted to respond to a few of Gervais’ comments. You can watch the video here.

The Question of Why?

Colbert started with the age-old question: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” This was a question posed by the 17th century German philosopher, Leibniz. He argued that the answer to this question was found in God. His reasoning came to be known as the Leibniz’ Contingency Argument. The argument is as follows:

Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.

Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.

Premise 3: The universe exists.

Conclusion: The explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This is a deductive argument, meaning that if the three premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. The logic is sound and all one has to do for the argument to be successful is to show that the premises are more plausibly true than false.

Now I recognize that Colbert didn’t give this whole argument but he does ask the question behind the argument. So what was Gervais’ response? He argues that asking “why” the universe was created is irrelevant. Instead we should just be asking “how” it came about. To Gervais, the question is basically meaningless. So then they move on.

Not so fast.

We can’t just brush off the “why” of the universe.

Going back to the first premise, everything that exists has an explanation of its existence. To illustrate this, imagine that you and a friend are hiking in the woods and come across a blue ball. You start to think about how the blue ball came to be there. What if your friend turned to you and said, “The blue ball just exists. There is no explanation for how it came into being. Stop worrying about it.” Would you shrug your shoulders and move on?

Now imagine that this blue ball was bigger. In fact, imagine that it was the size of the universe. Would it still need an explanation for it’s existence? Absolutely! So we cannot say, “The universe just exists. There is no explanation for how it came into being. Stop worrying about it.”

The “why” question is important.

Prime Mover

Colbert pushed back further and asked if there was a Prime Mover that started it all. Gervais responded, “Outside science and nature, I don’t believe so.”

But here’s the problem. As Gervais agrees, science tells us that the universe began to exist. So we are left with two options: either the universe came into being uncaused or something outside of the universe brought it into existence. There is no third option. According to Gervais, science and nature is all that exists. Therefore we are left with a universe that came into being on its own.

We see again the force of the argument. If something begins to exist, something outside of it had to bring it into existence. Why? Because something cannot create itself out of nothing! In order for something to create itself, it first has to exist! Since this is impossible, something outside of nature had to bring the universe into existence.

So what could have caused the universe to exist? The cause has to be immaterial since matter came into being at the beginning of the universe. The cause has to be spaceless and timeless, since space and time also came into being with the universe. The cause has to have enough power to create our large universe out of nothing.

Theists call this immaterial, spaceless, timeless, and powerful being “God.”

Agnostic Atheism?

Gervais goes on to describe himself as an agnostic atheist. He says “Atheism isn’t a belief system. This is atheism in a nutshell: You say, ‘There’s a God.’ I say, ‘Can you prove that?’ You say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe you then.”

To me, this position describes an agnostic more than it does an atheist (but I digress). Even if Christians cannot prove that God exists, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist! If all of the arguments for theism fail, the default position is agnosticism, not atheism.

Gervais later goes on and says that there are around 3,000 gods to choose from. Gervais states, “You don’t believe in 2,999 gods and I don’t believe in just one more.” In other words, Colbert is an atheist in respect to the other 2,999 gods.

Now this is a clever statement that I have heard many atheists make before. So much could be said about it, but here are a few thoughts.

Theism Versus Polytheism

When Christians say the word “God,” they don’t mean a being with superhuman abilities or something like that. Theism proper is the belief that there is a capital “G” God. This goes back to Anselm’s view of God as the “greatest conceivable being” or a “maximally great being.”

God in this sense has the classic attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. God is the First Cause or the “Prime Mover” as Colbert says. By definition, there can only be one God in this sense. All three major monotheistic religions hold to this view of God.

A polytheist, on the other hand, holds that there are multiple lowercase “g” gods. These are gods like Zeus and Thor of ancient times. It is misleading to categorize the monotheistic God with these types of gods. According to Christianity, if the Christian God is true, then all other views of God are false. So the Christian can hold to his belief even if he doesn’t know everything about the other 2,999 gods.

Atheism Versus Christianity

Atheism is the belief that there is no God or gods, while Christians believe that there is a God. A Christian is not an atheist in any sense of the word since he or she affirms the statement, “God exists.”

Atheists technically believe in one less God than Christians, since Christians believe in one God and atheists believe in zero. But as Graham Veale puts it, “This is rather like arguing that a triangle is a square with one angle fewer, or that a bachelor is just a married man without a spouse.”


Again, I recognize that their conversation wasn’t a formal debate, but many of the things that Gervais said are popular among skeptics today. I applaud Colbert and Gervais for having a dialogue about religion on national television in such a charitable way. I think they demonstrated how these conversations ought to take place. Most importantly, I hope it got people thinking about the important question of God’s existence.

What did you think of their conversation? Let me know in the comments below!



15 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert and Ricky Gervais Talk about God

  1. The trouble is: there are three distinct questions that we can ask about existence (or the universe), and each leads to a sort of explanation.
    We an ask what it is, how it works, and why it is.
    We can know the whole truth about what it is, a flawed truth about how it works, and nothing – in principle – about why.
    The situation which you describe, where there is timeless, spaceless, limitless God at the bottom of it all, answers none of those questions. You are faced with the same problems that interactionist substance dualism confronts in the philosophy of mind, but universe sized. Those problems can be summarized: What sort of explanatory role does the separate substance play?
    The situation you describe only posits that there is a why; it can go no further.
    That is why claims to know the telos have always been considered the greatest blasphemies.


    1. Thanks for the comment! So if I’m understanding you correctly, you are saying that positing God as the explanation for the universe’s existence doesn’t answer the question because I can’t explain how an immaterial being interacts with the material world? In my mind, the argument still holds. Because we are still left with two options: either the universe came into being uncaused or something outside of it caused it to exist. I think that something causing itself is self-contradictory, so that means something outside of the universe had to create it. The only things that fit that description are God and abstract objects. Surely things like numbers cannot create anything, which leaves God as the explanation.
      So why do I have to know how God created the universe in order for the argument to go through? If all the other options are impossible, then aren’t we left with the only possible option, no matter how much we don’t understand it?


      1. Not exactly. The exact mechanism is immaterial :). That would be physics, not metaphysics.
        The problem is how what you propose would stand as an explanatory cause.
        It seems that our notion of causation precludes it.
        I think you are forced to claim a miracle, and of course, that is the end of the conversation.


      2. I’m enjoying our discussion but we may just have to agree to disagree on that. To me it is not inconceivable to think that God could create an immaterial universe even though they are radically different. I mean a magnetic field can move a tack even though it’s very different. We can see that the magnetic field causally interacts with the tack even if we didn’t know how the interaction takes place. Also, I think our notion of causation also demands a metaphysical explanation, since the universe began to exist. So if God is not the explanatory cause, then what would you propose that it is? The argument narrows down the options to three: God, abstract objects or the universe creating itself. So which one do you think it is, or is there another explanation that you would posit? Or which premise of the argument would you reject?


      3. Likewise.
        Premise one is the problem. When L. said “everything” he referred to discrete things, and subsequently equivocates on the universe as a discrete thing.
        The universe is not a discrete thing, like the blue ball. It doesn’t exist in relation to anything within it.
        For instance, when we speak of spacetime expanding, it is not expanding ‘into’ anything – not even nothing!
        I don’t think we can claim to know, in principle, what was before the beginning or outside of everything. Those are kind of nonsense phrases.
        As these issues pertain to God, part of what makes magnetism a property of certain spatial relations of charges is its effect on the iron in the tack.
        Do you really want to say that God stands in a similar relation to anything? Seems to me that’s it for aseity if you do.


      4. So sorry for the delayed response. I don’t think I understand what you are saying. What do you mean by discrete? Proponents of the argument usually differentiate between necessary and contingent beings but I haven’t heard of the discrete term before.
        Also, I used the magnetic field analogy just to say that we can recognize causation without knowing all the details of how it works and even though the cause and the effect are two very different things. How does saying that God created the universe take away from his aseity? I believe God had the complete freedom to create or not create and that He still sustains the world and is self-sufficient. I may just not be understanding you though.


      5. Things which exist in relation to other things.
        I agree with you – the mechanism is not relevant, only the causal relation is relevant, because it lends identity to the cause and the effect.
        It doesn’t matter how the magnetic field moves the tack. It matters that the tack’s movement belongs to that magnetic field and vice versa.
        If God stands in a causal relation to something – even if God’s internal structure is completely unchanged – then God does not fully explain God.
        Unless one says that God stands in a ’cause-like’ relation with its effects. But that’s no different than saying God is incomprehensible.


      6. I don’t see why causal relation lends identity to the cause and effect. I still think God can cause the universe and still be independent of it. I think God is self-sufficient and had the freedom to create or not create. Nothing outside of God caused Him to create. And after the universe was created, that didn’t change.


      7. Well, what makes a thing, a thing? Take the blue ball – it is what it is because the atoms in it’s surface are at the particular spot where the ball is and not where the ground is. Its being the ball is determined by those circumstances.
        In fact, those circumstances necessitate the ball, and vice versa, existentially.
        That doesn’t change the ball, no matter what it does or what subsequently becomes of it.
        How is God different, as a creator? God’s independence, existentially, would seem to be no different than the ball’s.
        There must be some internal context for creation – God was ‘moved’ to do it, had an intention, etc.
        One can say that there is no pre-creation God distinguishable from post-creation God.
        But that is saying that God didn’t create as we understand creation, but ‘did’ something analogous.
        Which is another way of saying that God is basically incomprehensible – not necessarily impossible or even non-existent – but nothing we could know.


      8. I would say that God is very different than the blue ball in at least two ways. First, God is a personal agent instead of an inanimate object. And secondly, I would say that an inanimate object cannot be a necessary cause, but can only be a contingent one. But a personal agent like God can be a metaphysically necessary cause. So the ball needs an explanation for its existence outside of itself since it’s contingent while God is metaphysically necessary.

        But anyways, we may just have to agree to disagree again haha. I’ve enjoyed our conversation and you made some great points and got me thinking a lot. Feel free to come back whenever and comment on my posts! And you can have the last word on this thread and I’ll leave it at that. Thanks!


  2. Seems like Gervais is just being intellectually lazy by saying, “who cares?” Where’s the vigorous curiosity? Isn’t that the allegation atheists level against Creationists? Good disection of the arguments.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is what I put in the comment section of the YouTube video: “I don’t really think this is a way to start a conversation on religion and God, but I understand many folks would start it this way. I kind of feel like it is unfair to put people on the spot (in front of any kind of audience) and have an actually honest discussion on religion with them.”

    Good post though!

    Liked by 1 person

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