Ricky Gervais: Champion of ‘Science’?

Comedian, actor, show host…Ricky Gervais has a reputation for the provocative. So it’s not that surprising to find him sparking a few fires via the Twitterverse. In a tweet last week, he juxtaposed two recent news events: Austrian Felix Baumgautner’s successful parachute jump from an astounding 128,176 feet above the earth and a Taliban gunman’s brutal attack on a young woman campaigning for female education:

Dear Religion,
This week I safely dropped a human being from space while you shot a child in the head for wanting to go to school.
Yours, Science.

This isn’t the first time that Gervais has waded into these waters. A few thoughts in response:

1. True to a lot of pithy comments on a subject as large as the relative merits of “science” (here indicative of a scientific naturalism/materialism) and “religion,” this tweet is simplistic to say the least. I’m reminded of something one of my seminary professors said frequently: “I know what I mean when I say ‘x,’ but I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘x.’” In this case x = both “science” and “religion” since Gervais paints both with decidedly broad brushes. In that kind of light, one could just as easily ascribe to “science” the many people gravity has pulled to the ground with neither parachutes nor pity, as well as mention the many religious adherents who have sought to mitigate sickness, poverty, and grief in various ways.

2. Similarly, Gervais’ tweet follows the popular meme that religion and science are mortal enemies, diametrically opposed to one another in the attempt to explain reality. Never mind that this characterization is foreign to countless Christians, both now and throughout history. In fact, there’s a persuasive case to make that science arose predominantly out of a specifically Christian worldview. (See this previous post, also having to do with Gervais.)

3. Perhaps my biggest objection to Gervais’ comment, however, has to do with his logical inconsistency. In other words, his tweet suggests that (1) a worldview without God accurately describes reality while at the same time maintaining (2) that the Taliban shooter’s actions are morally repugnant. Make no mistake, on this second point I believe Gervais is quite right. But I fail to see how he can make the same claim given that he also believes the first.

In other words, on what basis can anyone, Ricky Gervais included, make moral judgments when he believes that we’re all merely combinations of matter and energy obeying natural laws of cause and effect? In a purely naturalistic worldview, one human being shooting another happens for the same reason lightning strikes a tree or a river overtops its banks. Any attachment of “right” or “wrong” is purely arbitrary. In fact, any such attachments are themselves another product of purely materialistic processes: affecting stimuli affecting chemicals in the brain, electrical currents, etc. And the blind, impersonal universe doesn’t care a wit. (Gervais, in fact, isn’t the only person that has recently run up against this logical difficulty.)

This stands in stark contrast to a Christian worldview, which understands that human beings make moral judgments because they’re made in the image of a transcendent being whose character provides the very definition of right and wrong. That provides a powerful explanation for why we feel moral outrage at the Taliban shooting and can accurately describe actions and events as tragic, reprehensible, commendable, and the like.

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