With thanks to Paul Handover of Learning from Dogs for pointing me to the thought-provoking piece below. (There’s also a ‘Best of Ricky Gervais on Religion #1‘ and a ‘Best of Ricky Gervais on Religion #3‘, if you want more!)
Ricky Gervais: In the greater scheme of things, there are probably worse things than people believing in all the different gods. It doesn’t affect me because I’m free, and liberated, and safe. But, yeah, you can still be annoyed. It’s ignorance that annoys me more than anything. I don’t want to keep going after religion because that’s only one form of this belligerent, willful… And it’s not even that: you can’t sort of help what you believe in. Most people aren’t going around thinking, “This’ll annoy people, I’m trying to oppress people’s rights”, they just think, “I believe in God, because that’s how that’s how my brain worked when I was little, and now I think, yeah, there’s probably a God.”
And most religious people aren’t crazy; it’s something else. We worry about the people who believe the bad bits in their Holy Book, as well as the good bits. Most nice people who believe in God, they can tell the difference: they cherry pick, and they know the nice bits from the bad bits. They don’t do the bad bits. And my point is: if you know the bad bits from the good bits, you don’t need the ‘holy book’, you know? You’re already a moral person.
I think it’s very important you challenge your own beliefs. I mean, that’s what science does, really: it doesn’t constantly try and prove itself right; it follows the evidence, whatever that is. In fact, it tries to prove itself wrong. It doesn’t sulk: when science thinks something and then it discovers it was right, it doesn’t sulk because it found that out, too.
This is the question I often get: people say, “Well, you’re an atheist, you’re close minded.” No, I’m not. You know, that’s a strange thing to say; I think the opposite is true. I’m going to always follow the evidence, whatever that is. And they say things like, “If someone proved to you God existed, would you believe?” Well, of course I would, by definition. In fact, it would be the greatest scientific discovery of all time. Scientists would celebrate. They’d run round. At the moment, we have no evidence for the existence of any god or anything supernatural. Never have. Possibly never will. But who knows, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. When someone puts forward a ‘Jar of God’, we’ll test it for its godiness, and if we find there’s anything godly in it, we’ll write it down.
I think that’s really important, and it comes back to the point we made earlier about ideas not having human rights because I think people think when we criticize religion, we’re criticizing people who are religious, which couldn’t be further from the truth because we think they’re victims too.
Richard Dawkins: Absolutely. I mean, the word ‘Islamophobia’ is all about that. People think that if you criticize Islam, you’re criticizing Muslims. Quite the contrary: they’re the primary victims of Islam.
Ricky Gervais: Well, this is the other thing; sometimes I say to Christians, “Why do you believe in that god?” And they say, “Well, it’s the only God to believe in.” But if you were born in Delhi, you wouldn’t believe in that god, probably. If you were born in Ancient Rome, you certainly wouldn’t believe in that god.
Richard Dawkins: You believe in the god of your parents and your grandparents. Most people do.
Ricky Gervais: I think so, yeah. I mean, you know, there’s conversions and many people that seek one; they window shop, thinking,
“What can you do for me? What do I have to do? – Forget it.”
“What do you do? I can still smoke and drink? – I’ll have that one.”
Richard Dawkins: There are people who say, “Well, I was on a quest and I tried Buddhism and it was all right, but I thought maybe I’d try again, so I tried Hinduism.”
Ricky Gervais: Yeah, “Well, which one spoke to you?” Yeah, I know. It should be irrelevant, but it isn’t because it does infringe on peoples’ liberties, certainly religion – not spirituality; you know, someone believing in God, that’s fine.
Richard Dawkins: Harmless.
Ricky Gervais: Absolutely. Doesn’t bother me at all. Religion isn’t harmless. It’s when your god starts telling you that you should kill homosexuals –
Richard Dawkins: Exactly.
Ricky Gervais: – that’s when it’s not harmless anymore.
I think religion’s greatest trick wasn’t convincing some people that there was a god who was all-powerful; it was convincing everyone else that you couldn’t ridicule that idea. It’s when you get them: I think there’d be more atheists and less faithful, if you weren’t allowed to teach anything, you weren’t allowed to mention any gods or any beliefs or atheism, right, until they were 20. I think we’d see a different pattern. The human brain, when it’s young, is a sponge. It has to be. It has to take in all the information; it has to trust its parents, its elders, to survive. Without question.
“Don’t touch the fire.” “Why not?”
“Don’t go near the cliff. Don’t go near the wolf. Don’t touch that spider with a red dot, don’t touch that.” “Why not?” “Just don’t!”
“There is a God.” “What?” “There is a God, and if you’re bad, you’ll go to Hell, OK?”
And if that’s constantly confirmed, like all the other things, wolves eat you, black widows kill you, fires burn you; if it’s given that same level of credence and truth, you’re never going to get over it. It’s going to be a lot harder to undo that.
I think the myths came up, you know, often as a stopgap to knowledge until we find out more, you know: “The Earth is flat, and now we’ve proven that, OK, the Earth’s not flat, we were wrong.” OK? But that’s not personal; you don’t take that personally. It doesn’t affect you; it doesn’t affect your afterlife, you know? And so, they often want to hold on to that, but only because of the way they’ve been conditioned. We know it’s fun to tell children there’s a Santa Claus, and there’s fairies at the bottom of the garden, and all these cute things. It’s cute till they’re seven or eight. If they’re thirty-four, it’s a bit embarrassing, socially.
“This is my son.”
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s looking for fairies.”
“Is he? OK, we’d better leave.”
If you’re born in India, you’re probably a Hindu. If you’re born in America, you’re probably a Christian. If you’re born in Pakistan, you’re probably a Muslim. That’s a coincidence, isn’t it, that you’re always born into the right god? Always. Isn’t that lucky? “I was born into The Right God. All those others are going to Hell, but I was born into The Right Religion. I’m going to Heaven.”
It’s strange that we hold on to these sort of medieval beliefs. You know, “Where did the universe come from?” “God made it.” Which doesn’t solve the problem for me because we straight away say, “Well, who made god?” and if they say, “Well, he’s always been around.” “Well, let’s just say, the universe has, then.” Let’s just cut out the middleman: it saves time.
Yes, if we accept that we don’t know if it’s a default, we don’t know. No one’s come back from heaven. No one’s proved it. You can’t prove the non-existence of something. And why would you? If the periodic table of non-existent things is infinite, you know, it’s like… So, if we accept that, that’s a knowledge, that’s a category of knowledge. But if you just say, “What do you believe?” Yeah, you have to step up to the plate, you have to say what you believe. And if you don’t believe in any god, you’re an atheist. That’s the other misconception: people think that atheism is denying the existence of god. It’s not: it’s just not accepting the claim that there is a god.
Richard Wiseman: But if there were three doors, which are ‘god exists’, ‘god doesn’t exist’, ‘I don’t know’…
Ricky Gervais: That doesn’t make sense.
Richard Wiseman: There’s three doors: it says ‘god exists’, ‘it doesn’t exist’, ‘I don’t know’…
Ricky Gervais: But you not knowing is irrelevant to whether there is or isn’t a god. Again, you’ve done a sleight-of-hand there on a category mistake because one is knowledge and two are beliefs, right?
Richard Wiseman: I haven’t even finished my question!
Ricky Gervais: No. What? No, no. I’m saying, ‘three’ is always there. If you had to choose one, it’s: ‘I believe there’s a god’, ‘I don’t believe there’s a god’… ‘I don’t know’ is irrelevant then, isn’t it?
I think they have to lump us in with, you know, agnostics, which again, I keep trying to explain that on Twitter that they’re not mutually exclusive; you know, one deals with knowledge, one deals with belief. And so, people say on Twitter, to me, “It’s illogical to be an atheist, you should be agnostic.” And I say, “Well, I am, I am – as well.”
Richard Wiseman: Don’t agnostics get on your nerves a bit?
Ricky Gervais: Well, no, because we’re all agnostic, aren’t we? We’re all agnostic by definition. If we accept that no one knows knowledge, I’m being very diplomatic here, but if we accept that no one knows that there’s a god or not, we might be wrong; we’re 99% sure. But let’s say we don’t know: we’re all agnostic. So, take it out, it doesn’t matter. Now we ask about belief: “What do you believe? What’s your best bet?”
Richard Wiseman: But when someone says they’re agnostic, isn’t it sort of tempting to go, “Why don’t you just think about it a bit more then?”
Ricky Gervais: Yes, but there’s a category mistake. Some people do do it because they don’t want to say they believe in God, you know, but you shouldn’t ask an agnostic if there’s a god or not, you should ask them, “Do you believe there’s a God or not?” Because then they can’t say, “I don’t know”, because that doesn’t make sense: “What, you mean you don’t know whether you believe or not?” Right?
The transcript above was made with the help of Sonix, which did most of the donkey work for a tiny fee (I did have to spend some time tidying it up). Note that I do not have the copyright owner’s permission to publish this transcript here. I’ve investigated the copyright rules regarding transcriptions (more about that here), and one thing I’ve learned is that it’s no defence to make a disclaimer like “these aren’t my words, no copyright infringement intended.” However, I offer the transcription here as a service to society (especially the deaf community). I do hope the copyright owner won’t object. And I hope that you find this video as interesting as I did.