The funny new face of atheism?

Ricky Gervais comes out as godless -- but not as some angry, shrill Christmas hater

Topics: Atheism,

The funny new face of atheism?

The most dynamic, persuasive atheist in the world isn’t Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. It’s not a scientist or Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s the person who took the comedy of discomfort to unparalleled heights as the creator of “The Office.” It’s the stand-up comic who’s hosting the Golden Globes.

In addition to his upcoming gig steering the Globes, Ricky Gervais is currently gearing up for a new season of his animated series, just aired a recent stand-up special on HBO, and is probably blogging, podcasting or directing something hilariously brilliant right this moment. And as the current most ubiquitous person in show business (non-Disney payroll division) he is also a man who consistently infuses his public persona with a refreshingly steadfast, rational and profoundly empathetic brand of godlessness.

Unlike those who would rub what they want you to “know” in your face, Gervais has a gentlemanly, eminently British way of conveying his philosophy. He considers the astonishing number of animal species in the world and understatedly muses that perhaps the story of Noah’s Ark “isn’t totally accurate.” He refers to the Bible as “a dusty old book” that sounds “a little bit farfetched.” And in a highly entertaining “holiday message” for the Wall Street Journal this week titled “Why I’m an Atheist,” he wrote, “I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true.”



But Gervais isn’t some Christmas killjoy, here to wag his finger at those stupid, stupid fans of the baby Jesus. He says, in fact, with breathtaking sanity, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me. It’s when belief starts infringing on other people’s rights when it worries me.” That’s an important and respectful distinction, one that many people — atheists, skeptics and those of us who call ourselves believers — would do well to embrace. There’s a difference between espousing an ideology and using it as an excuse to bully, exploit, condemn or simply put down others.

It helps his case considerably that Gervais is a comedian; he tempers his strong opinions with all the giddy subversiveness of a naughty schoolboy. But while other comics have long mined the rich fodder that religion provides — it’s been generations since George Carlin described himself as someone who “used to be Irish Catholic, now I’m an American” — few do it with what can only be described as Gervais’ pure grace. Atheist Bill Maher took aim at a wide variety of institutions in “Religulous,” but he seems permanently incapable of wiping that smug “I’m so smart and everybody else is a moron” look off his face. And though Louis C.K. did a daring, downright terrifying episode of “Louis” about Catholic school and God in general earlier this year, Gervais never seems exceptionally battle scarred about some bad church experiences or bitter about institutional corruption.

He is instead the optimist who gave us the uneven but terrifically sweet “The Invention of Lying,” a movie about a guy who misguidedly dreams up a “man in the sky” to console his dying mother. He can explain that “it’s strange that anyone who believes that an all-powerful all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens, would also want to judge and punish people for what they are,” because he understands that whatever you believe, being right isn’t the same as being kind.

Sure, he paints in comically broad strokes — not all of us who espouse a spiritual philosophy take the story of the Ark literally, or boil faith down to trusting blindly in an “all-knowing, omniscient power responsible for everything that happens.” But when Gervais says, “no one owns being good,” it’s not a putdown. It’s an expression of hope. Because if no one owns being good, then all of us can, whether we’re atheists like Gervais or Sunday school teachers like Stephen Colbert. And if a guy can laugh at the absurdity of organized institutions, speak out against hypocrisy and intolerance, and still possess boundless compassion and the most wickedly infectious giggle on the planet, he may not win any converts, but he can surely open a few minds. I still believe in God. But I’m a steadfast believer in Ricky Gervais too.  

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>