понедельник, 6 февраля 2017 г.

"What about the stars?" (a response to Ricky Gervais on the Comedy Central show)

Confession: I am a huge fan of "The Office." In that series - the UK version - Ricky Gervais mastered the character David Brent. "The Office" isn't just hilariously funny; in my view it shows penetrating insight into individual and social psychology, issues such as the nature of leadership, the roles people assume in society, coping with change, responding to right and wrong and male-female relationships. The culmination of the series is when David Brent and his colleague, Tim, find and are united with their soul-mates.

Sometimes it is difficult to tell them apart: the actor/comedian Ricky Gervais and his most famous character, David Brent. Particularly when Ricky Gervais is ambitiously casting for a role to which he is far less suited: that of an evangelist for Dawkins-style new atheism.

Ricky Gervais is neither a philosopher nor a natural scientist and it tells. He also has an axe to grind in respect of his former church connection and an eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of life to justify ("I don't want to give up drinking and eating - what's the point?"). But since he is popular for his comedy he is guaranteed a hearing - most recently on US late night show, Comedy Central, hosted by Roman Catholic, Stephen Corbert.

In their brief 'debate' on atheism, Ricky Gervais' strongest line was as follows:

"… Science is constantly proved all the time. You see, if we take something like any fiction, any holy book… and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time, that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book, and every fact, and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would [produce] the same result."

These are clearly the statements of a non-scientist. The overstatement of the scientific endeavour and its achievements ("proved... all the time... same result") give away that Ricky Gervais is not himself engaged in scientific experiment or its analysis.

Leaving that aside, what can we make of his central assertion? 

The contrast it seeks to set up is between evidence-based scientific tests and their results on the one hand and non-evidence-based holy books on the other. In his worldview the former are objective and repeatable, while the latter represent fiction and are therefore unrepeatable.

So where do those holy books come from? What, if any, is their source?

Ricky Gervais would say they are fiction, the product of imagination. I would say they are a subjective response to something objective, which I would identify as revelation. 

To answer this qustion we need to distinguish between General Revelation (there is a God who created everything) and Special Revelation (God has been involved in human history - supremely in the person of Jesus Christ).

Let us consider the first, General Revelation. This is what God has revealed about himself to all people, regardless of whether or not they have access to the Bible. The fact that there is something, rather than nothing (the Kalam or Cosmological argument). The design apparent in the natural world and in our own bodies. Our conscience which gives us a sense of right and wrong - which cannot be reduced to Darwinian survival instincts. This evidence is very much repeatable. It does not rely on a print run - and is unassailable even in the event of a mass book-burning or internet shut-down. Responding to this objective evidence we believe that there is a God who created all things. 

Now the second aspect is Special Revelation. This is what God has revealed in human history over time and supremely in Jesus Christ - as recorded in the Bible. These historical events - and records of them - are the basis for our belief in the Christian God, the God who not only is, but also acts in history. So the question is: is it possible to obliterate historical events by destroying all records of them happening? It should of course be pointed out that destroying records of events doesn't mean the events in themselves didn't happen. Historical events are, of course, unrepeatable. But the events of the past continue to be accessible to us in a whole host of ways and we are able to study the past by means of historical research - just as we are able to study the natural world by means of experiment. In respect of the particular events of special significance for Christian faith, supremely the life of Jesus Christ, Christians would add that God has and will ensure that those records do make it to us - and they have in the form of the Christian Scriptures. Responding to this objective evidence we believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

So my answer to Ricky Gervais would be that his hypothetical mass destruction of all religious literature - presumably along the lines of 1792 or 1917 - is not the knock-down argument it might appear to be. The Holy Book of the Christian faith, the Bible, is not a work of fiction, but a record and a response to objective evidence in respect of the universe (not dissimilar to the empirical evidence on which science is based) and to objective historical evidence (which is accessible to historical enquiry). These don't necessitate religious faith; you are free not to believe. But they do provide an objective basis for believing. And the reflective atheist would do well to interact with that evidence rather than suggesting that only their worldview has any objective basis.  

I am reminded of a conversation said to have taken place in the wake of the Terror following the French revolution. Someone was allegedly boasting, "We will destroy every single religious symbol in France." A wise contemporary retorted, "What about the stars?" 

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