Why Ricky Gervais is wrong on Religious Violence

A basic truism of New Atheism is that religious commitment will inevitably lead to religious violence. Or, at the very least, they believe that the virtues of religion are soundly outweighed by its evils.

Ricky Gervais, whose work I find extremely amusing in almost any other context, has become increasingly recognised as a soldier of the New Atheist movement, interweaving his caustic religious commentary into his comedic material. While many of his observations are light-hearted, such as his point by point mockery of a literal interpretation of the Biblical book of Genesis, Gervais is obviously a sincere and dedicated critic of all forms of religious commitment. He is well known to the twittersphere as a prolific atheist tweeter.

A recent tweet of Gervais has become a minor internet sensation amongst the ‘freethinking’ community, even going so far as to be exhibited on the popular ‘Being Liberal’ facebook page (where I saw it), which takes no official theological position:

'I see Atheists are fighting and killing each other again, over who doesn't believe in any God the most. Oh, no...wait..that never happens.'

While any discussion of religion in popular internet forums will almost inevitably be a repulsive quagmire of non sequiturs, faulty logic and hyperbole on both sides, a quick read through the comments below this post indicated that Gervais’ supporters believe he has hit upon something profound here about the nature of religious violence.

I think it is worth having a closer look at the implications of what Gervais is actually saying, and consider whether it is worthy of those twenty-two thousand ‘likes’.

The first thing to say is that this is not a philosophical statement, in the sense that it has nothing to say about the relative truth-values of either atheism or theism. Even if we were to take Gervais’ statement at face value, it should by no means deter us from religious commitment. Surely the only good reason for either embracing or rejecting theism hinges upon whether it is true or false, rather than its social consequences. Obviously, Gervais does not believe that theism is true, which makes religious violence all the more heinous to him. However, he does not deal with this here.

Secondly, even Gervais’ most ardent supporters must concede that his statement is not particularly realistic. Gervais conveniently overlooks the fact that almost all religious violence (in our present day) occurs amid political instability and poverty, and is usually at least partially motivated by secular ambitions. This should be underscored by the fact that systematic religious violence in well-educated, stable Western countries is almost unknown. Your average Western atheist may decry religious violence, yet I suspect you would be hard pressed to find one who has actually observed a holy war in their backyard, or personally known someone who has lost their life to religious zeal. I certainly don’t wish to deny that religious violence occurs, however, these facts should cause us to stop to consider whether violence inevitably follows from the belief that God exists. An Australian Christian would be equally justified in tweeting: ‘I see Australian Christians are fighting and killing each other again, over whose denomination is the correct one. Oh  no...wait..that never happens.’

However, leaving aside these two points, I wish to concentrate in this article on the logic of Gervais’ tweet, and consider the implications of what he is actually saying.

I suggest that Gervais’ logic would be dismissed as absurd and farcical if applied to any other form of violence.  Suppose that Gervais had instead issued the following statement:

‘I am saddened by the persistence of political violence throughout the world. Therefore, I have decided to abandon all political principle, and adopt complete civic indifference.’

Gervais’ audience would be rightly perplexed. They would surely point out that Gervais had only to forswear political violence to make his point. Others would argue that Gervais’ stand was unlikely to improve matters. Why not become a pacifist? Why abandon politics altogether? Are apathy and extremism really the only two alternatives? Far from becoming a facebook hit, I suspect that Gervais would be roundly condemned for such a foolish resolution.

Similarly, suppose I declared that, in response to a rash of sexual crimes in my neighbourhood, I had decided to become abstinent, and encourage others to do the same. ‘Together, we can eradicate sexual crime once and for all!’ Despite the obvious silliness of this, one might well be alarmed by the implications. What grave flaws in my character prompted me to take such a drastic step? Was I not able to trust myself to enjoy a healthy sex life without becoming a violent predator? Such teetotalism implies a certain pessimistic scepticism that the human spirit is capable of principle without extremism.  It is little more than a ‘slippery slope’ argument: ‘Once humans get going with something, they don’t know where to stop.’  The Muslim who clutches his Koran is no more destined to be violent than the Socialist who clutches her Marx, or the democrat who clutches his Paine, and yet who could deny that the causes of Socialism and Democracy have seen and perpetrated their share of violence?

The basic logical flaw here is a classic false dilemma: ‘do you intend to be a peacemaking atheist or a violence extremist?’ Faced with these choices, most of us would opt for the former. But surely, only the most devoted ideologue could believe that these were the only options. Gervais simply cannot abide the possibility of peaceful religion, anymore than my imagined alarmist could believe himself to be a moderate politician or a gentle lover.

It is no great surprise to find that atheists spurn religious violence. This may have less to say about a person’s character than their priorities. The atheist who scorns Jihad may equally molest children, rape women, or kill for political or philosophical causes (Obviously, most of them don’t, no more than most people of faith torture or kill for their theology). Of course people are not inclined to exhibit violent or extreme behaviour toward matters to which they have no interest or commitment. I am not likely to join a football riot any time soon, because I can’t tell a Chelsea jersey from an Arsenal one, but is this really a virtue? Surely one’s restraint is better tested by matters which inflame one’s passions, rather than those which have no personal significance. I am not to be congratulated for my restraint from violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as I have no personal commitment to either side.

The basic logic of Gervais’ contribution seems to be that path to a peaceful world lies with the elimination of all things which incite human beings to violent passion. Indeed, I imagine a world in which we had eliminated all forms of religion, politics, diversity of culture, tradition, wealth, nationality and romance to be a very peaceful one indeed. It would, however, be a rather bland one, which would yield precious little material to our comedian friends.

Surely it is no great leap of faith to believe that religion, like politics and culture, can exist peacefully, even if its extremists labour at the edges. It is a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people like Gervais substituting glib mockery for cool logic and open-minded engagement with religious communities.