An Open Letter To Ricky Gervais (And Atheists Everywhere)

First, let me say... I love Ricky Gervais. He is a very funny and intelligent man that often does incredible work that I think makes this world a better place. He is also a very outspoken "atheist." Here is a tweet he just posted: Tweet

I wanted to respond to the tweet, but I saw no way of doing so within 140 characters. Of course, I don't really expect him to hear or care about my response. But I have some thoughts about it that I feel like expressing. So here we go.

That statement that Ricky tweeted is, I guess, a way of saying something like "I don't BELIEVE that there is no Santa Clause, I just don't believe in Santa Clause."

I think that's fair to a certain extent. The lack of belief in a specific concept is not necessarily belief in another one. But the concept of "God" is a little trickier than your typical concept because there is no universally agreed on definition of "God".

Not believing in Santa Clause is not necessarily a belief system in itself because there is a pretty universally agreed upon concept that is elicited with the name "Santa Clause", i.e. a fat guy in a red suit that flies around the world giving Christmas presents to children. To not believe in Santa Clause, I don't necessarily have to have a robust belief system in place to fill in the gaps. All I really have to believe is that the presents that children received were actually provided by other sources than the aforementioned fat, flying man.

But when you talk about “God”, things get quite a bit more complicated. As soon as you bring up the word “God”, you are now playing on the existential playing field. Now you are talking about metaphysics and the meaning or lack of meaning of life and so on. I think a lot of modern day atheists like Ricky don’t often acknowledge this complexity. They don’t acknowledge that they do operate within a system of beliefs just like everyone else does. They do BELIEVE in a system that allows them to think they have a level of understanding about the nature of reality. They BELIEVE in an actual universe, and one that has the ability to give rise to itself (not a small leap of faith). They BELIEVE that their senses and rational mind are able to accurately perceive that universe. They BELIEVE that science can potentially make accurate and complete descriptions of the universe. On and on these beliefs go. Most, if not all, of these beliefs are generally considered to be “reasonable”, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t beliefs. There are possible other ways of seeing. One has to choose how he or she will interpret the sensory input that he or she experiences. That is what belief is.

I think this is why theists often posit that atheism is a belief system. It's not so much that the absence of a belief in "God" is a belief as much as the other beliefs that must exist in order to replace the existential hole that is left when a theist removes "God" from the equation.

But that's not even my primary problem with Mr. Gervais' tweet… The bigger issue here is that "atheism" is an essentially meaningless term and the kind of invective that many of its adherents commonly spew (like this tweet) actually fosters and strengthens fundamentalist thinking on both sides of the theism/atheism divide, and therefore it is destructive for humanity.

Let me explain.

I don't believe in Bob.

"Well," one might ask, "what the hell does that mean?" Who, after all, is this "Bob" that you don't believe in?

Well, let's say that in my mind, Bob is a supernatural being that flies through space and makes planets with his thoughts. And I don't believe in him.

Fair enough. The problem is… To many other people, the name Bob elicits many other things…like people that they know named Bob.

Here's my point. You can't meaningfully say you don't believe in "Bob" if there is no universally agreed upon concept connected to the word that you are saying. For some people, "God" is a really powerful guy "up" in some place in space called "Heaven" that looks down on us and sometimes interacts with us depending on what sort of mood he is in or whatever. For some, there are lots of gods that do all sorts of things like send rain or make the crops grow. For some people, God is not any sort of being at all, but simply a word for the central essence of reality. For some, God is a word that they use to recognize the beauty of everything that they see. Love, infinity, the creative life force that holds the universe together…..The viewpoints and definitions are endless. The point is, the word "God" doesn't universally mean anything.

So when you, Mr. Gervais, say that atheism is simply a result of thinking, what does that actually mean, for instance, to the person that would define "God" as "existence" itself? To this person, saying "God does not exist" is the equivalent of saying "existence does not exist." That is, of course, a meaningless thing to say.

This may sound like semantic games to the atheist. It is not. "God" is not as simple of a concept to be dismissed as many of these "new atheists" seem to think. There have been plenty of theologians through the centuries who have argued that God does not "exist." This is why you can't say that "atheism is not a belief system", but is simply "the result of thinking" as though you are talking about not believing in Santa Clause. If there were thousands of different definitions and interpretations of "Santa Clause", it would be equally as difficult to dismiss the existence of "Santa Clause".

So what are we talking about when we talk about God?

This is a more interesting conversation, in my opinion, than arguing about whether or not God "exists".

It is very easy to set up straw men arguments about a silly being in the sky who created the world six thousand years ago and then tweet from your ivory tower that "God" obviously does not exist. Well, if you have any belief in science, which I do, then of course that God does not exist. But that's as meaningful as a statement as "Bob does not exist."

The problem is that this sort of talk creates strong emotions in everyone and we all fight about it. "Of course God exists!" "Of course he doesn't!" Blah, blah, blah. And everyone digs in their heels and simple, dogmatic, fundamentalist, black and white thinking is strengthened on both sides of the fence. And we don't even know what the hell we are actually fighting about. The atheist feels he is fighting against ignorant thinking about some flying spaghetti monster, and the theist feels he is fighting about all that is good and beautiful in existence. And it's because we are fighting about the wrong question. Fighting about whether Bob exists or not is a meaningless conversation. Fighting about what the nature of reality is, whether love is worth it or not, whether we should follow the cue of evolution and fight for the survival of the fittest, or whether we should fight against that impulse…those are more interesting conversations. "Who or what is God in your perspective and experience?" is a far more interesting and meaningful question than "Does God exist?"

So, Mr. Gervais, I love your work. I think you are brilliant, but I would love to challenge you to take a moment of thoughtful reflection about what you think you are saying when you tweet things like that. Not everyone defines God the same way that you do, and while this may not bother you, perhaps the truth that you are actually strengthening the arrogant, ignorant fundamentalism that you rail against should give you pause. "God" bless. ;)