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.
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.”
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!