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.

Daniel Broadstock has an Honours Degree in History from La Trobe University and is studying a Masters of Philosophy at MCD University.

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3 comments

  1. I’m no expert on Gervais’ world view, but I think his point is that religious people claim their religion/ god is a moral authority and a template for virtuous behaviour. Therefore when they go around murdering or torturing or stoning or otherwise persecuting other people they are being absurdly contradictory.

    I would liken it to a group of vegetarians having a banquet which involves roasting a cow on a giant spit and the vegetarians failing (or refusing) to acknowledge the inherent contradiction and hypocrisy of their behaviour.

    “…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….”

    I don’t think Gervais is particularly concerned with arguing the realness/ un-realness of any of the thousands of gods belonging to any of the thousands of religions. It is *human* behaviour and *human* morality that he is commenting on and this qualifies it as a philosophical statement, albeit of the ‘soundbite’ variety (which is still valid).

    Philosophy is concerned with REASON and EVIDENCE. In this case the evidence is (1) what religious people claim in terms of morality (2) how religious people actually behave in real life. Reason comes into play when we compare and contrast the two, and then draw conclusions ie these religious people are being blatantly hypocritical.

    “….Why abandon politics altogether?…”

    Active participation in politics is inherently violent, because all political policies advocate, and indeed, require the initiation of force/ theft which is accepted as immoral behaviour by just about everyone except insane people.

    In terms of morality, there is really no such thing as ‘politcs’, just as there is no such thing as ‘religion’….. there are only PEOPLE interacting and transacting with each other. Neither ‘politics’ or ‘religion’ are capable of performing actions, only PEOPLE are. Therefore we can only apply moral principles to PEOPLE, and in doing so determine whether they are behaving morally or immorally.

    Whether or not they are behaving morally/ immorally in the name of a political party, a political ideology, a religion, a god, a rock band, a football team, a dream they once had, the voices in their head or a pink unicorn is irrelevant.

    “…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….”

    In this scenario the issue is rape (or some equally immoral sexual crime). The issue is not sex as a whole. Therefore the appropriate response would be to publicly reject rape, to condemn rape, and to encourage others to do the same.

    I don’t believe Gervais gives a hoot whether or not people are religious. He is condemning immoral behaviour – in this case violence/ murder etc – and that is all he is objecting to. The problem with a religious war is war, not religion. The problem with rape is rape, not sex.

    Gervais is pointing out that religious people preach moral standards and claim moral authority, while engaging in immoral behaviour. That is like preaching ‘free love’ and empathy while going around committing rape.

    “…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?…”

    This is why it’s important to focus on the person and not the abstract concept. Being religious, or being a socialist is irrelevant, it’s how we behave in real life that determines how moral/ immoral we are. There is nothing particularly immoral about being racist (ie having racist thoughts floating around in your head). But actually discriminating against people based on race IN REAL LIFE is obviously immoral.

    Also if religion X or political movement Y starts a war or persecutes people or behaves in some other immoral way it is impossible to support or claim belonging to that group without aligning yourself with that immorality.

    Why would a non-racist WANT to join or support the KKK? Why would a non-violent person WANT to join or support any religion or political party which engages in violent behaviour? The onus is on these people to explain themselves (and that includes Gervais). They need to explain their contradictory behaviour, much like the vegetarian chomping on a fried chicken leg.

    “…Gervais simply cannot abide the possibility of peaceful religion…”

    No, no, no. Gervais cannot SEE EVIDENCE of a peaceful religion. Show me a religion which has not waged war or persecuted others in the name of their religion/ god.

    “…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. …”

    No, no, no. The path to a peaceful world lies with not grabbing the nearest pitchfork and going off to murder people just because you happen to have come across something which incites you to violent passion.

    The whole point of virtue is being able to resist the temptation to act on your most base, reptilian brain instincts and drives. So a man sees a beautiful young woman and he resists the drive to harass her. The woman gets caught in traffic and she resists the drive to shunt the other cars off the road. The priest finds himself in the company of a young boy and he resists the temptation to molest him.

    “… 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…”

    A peaceful world is achieved by eliminating all forms of moral contradiction, moral inconsistency and moral hypocrisy. If we do that then there’s no need to ban everything under the sun.

    “…Surely it is no great leap of faith to believe that religion, like politics and culture, can exist peacefully…”

    Religion, politic and culture are abstract concepts and as such they cannot ‘exist peacefully’ because they are not alive. It’s like asking how math, jazz and literature can exist peacefully. It makes no sense.

    Only PEOPLE are alive and capable of actions, and so the issue is how can PEOPLE exist peacefully. And the answer is by accepting and adhering to basic moral rules, such as not initiating force (assault, murder, torture etc) and not violating property rights (stealing things).

    Gervais is simply pointing out that although all religions are based on respecting these two basic moral rules, religious PEOPLE routinely violate their own moral code, thus making a mockery of their religion, their god and their claim of virtue…… and creating a world of misery and suffering in the process.

    “…glib mockery…”

    It might be glib and it might be mockery, but his statement was backed up by reason and evidence, which in philosophical terms means it is a valid statement. You have failed to provide any reason or evidence to invalidate his statement.

  2. Thanks for such a detailed reply.

    I think we have a basic disagreement. You contend that I have misconstrued Gervais’ point, which you say is merely to point out that many people faith act in contradiction with their beliefs or values. I would wholeheartedly agree with this, however, it seems quite clear to me (and this is reinforced by what I know of Gervais’ other work), that his point is not merely to encourage religious people to act more consistently, but to encourage them to become atheists. If I am wrong in this, then I happily withdraw much of what I wrote here.

    In this article I hoped to show:
    a) that violence does not inevitably follow from religious or theistic commitment.
    b) the abstention of atheists from religious violence should not be counted as a particular virtue.
    c) Atheism is not the best (or necessary) response to religious violence. I pointed out that the equivalents of atheism (I took the examples of political indifference and sexual abstinence) would not be taken in response to other forms of violence.

    Due to our basic disagreement, much of what you have written seems to me to be basically in agreement with what I have written, but I will respond to a few points.

    “I don’t think Gervais is particularly concerned with arguing the realness/ un-realness of any of the thousands of gods belonging to any of the thousands of religions. It is *human* behaviour and *human* morality that he is commenting on and this qualifies it as a philosophical statement, albeit of the ‘soundbite’ variety (which is still valid).

    Philosophy is concerned with REASON and EVIDENCE. In this case the evidence is (1) what religious people claim in terms of morality (2) how religious people actually behave in real life. Reason comes into play when we compare and contrast the two, and then draw conclusions ie these religious people are being blatantly hypocritical.”

    I stated that Gervais’ comment was not philosophical only in the sense that it provided no reason to either affirm or deny the proposition that God exists. And nowhere in the article did I defend theists from the charge of hypocrisy (I would never do that!), although I do think that some do better than others.

    “Also if religion X or political movement Y starts a war or persecutes people or behaves in some other immoral way it is impossible to support or claim belonging to that group without aligning yourself with that immorality.”

    This is true to some degree, although its very much a question of scale. I don’t hold myself responsible for every Christian atrocity since Jesus, anymore than I associate Australian Communists with the crimes of Stalin, or French Republicans with Robespierre. It is possible to be a member of a large movement, while maintaining legitimate differences with other members (and historical figures) of that movement.

    “No, no, no. Gervais cannot SEE EVIDENCE of a peaceful religion. Show me a religion which has not waged war or persecuted others in the name of their religion/ god.”

    Then surely he is not being reasonable. Show me the atrocities of the Uniting Church of Australia, or the American Quakers. Peace is the norm for religion in stable, safe, well-educated countries. Religious violence (like every form of violence) diminishes as poverty, danger, inequality and instability recede. It’s not 100%, but the trajectory is good, and it should certainly deter us from believing that systematic violence is an inevitable feature of religion (or the behavior of religious people). Every person of faith I have ever met demonstrates to me that religion need not be violent.

    “No, no, no. The path to a peaceful world lies with not grabbing the nearest pitchfork and going off to murder people just because you happen to have come across something which incites you to violent passion.”

    I agree. I was extrapolating Gervais’ logic (that atheism is the solution to religious violence), which again goes back to our basic disagreement that I referred to earlier.

    “Religion, politic and culture are abstract concepts and as such they cannot ‘exist peacefully’ because they are not alive. It’s like asking how math, jazz and literature can exist peacefully. It makes no sense.”

    I am using the term ‘religion’ partly as shorthand for the behaviour of members of those religions. Religion and politics may not ‘exist’ peacefully, but they can be *conducted* peacefully.

  3. C. Nyrén · · Reply

    What irks me the most is that Gervais managed to say more with his two sentences than you did in 1239 words.

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