What Atheist Ricky Gervais Got Wrong Debating God With Stephen Colbert
Comedian and atheist Ricky Gervais recently squared off with comedian and Roman Catholic Stephen Colbert over religion during a recent taping of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." The exchange was brief and mostly unproductive in terms of articulating anything of value, but it did provide some insight into one of atheism's blind spots—teleology (the purpose of things). I encourage you to watch the video.
Not long into the discussion, Colbert presents Gervais with the philosophical question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Gervais immediately dismisses the question as making "no sense at all." Ricky Gervais then proceeds to change the question to "How is there something?" Going further, Gervais scoffs at the relevancy of even entertaining the notion of "why."
Obviously schooled in the Five Ways of Aquinas, Stephen Colbert allows Gervais to alter the original question and then astutely brings up the prime mover argument. After that point, the argument devolves into a series of mostly nonsensical and existentially based platitudes (minus Colbert briefly bringing up and then fumbling the concept of transcendent gratefulness).
But I want to focus on the dichotomy between "how" and "why" that Gervais introduced.
In 2010, Stephen Hawking published The Grand Design. In the book, the physicist concludes on page 180 that "spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." In other words, with his book's argument, Hawking grabs the "how" question by the neck and body slams it so deeply into the cosmic turf as to render the question dead. Or so he believed.
Roundly refuting Stephen Hawking, Oxford math professor Dr. John Lennox published God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? Dr. Lennox pointed out the obvious: that Stephen Hawking assumes the existence of the law of gravity in The Grand Design. Lennox muses, "Hawking appears, therefore, to be simultaneously asserting that the universe is created from nothing and from something [emphasis added]." Going back to the video and Stephen Colbert's initial query, the concept of nothing is problematic for atheists.
No matter how many epistemological pretzels they twist themselves into, atheists are reduced to pushing the concept of nothing further and further back. The incontrovertible truth is that something exists and something cannot come from nothing. Atheists are simply kicking the "nothing can" down the road as far as they are able. I'm assuming that they will continue to do so until King Jesus returns and stops that "nothing can" with His Word that He used to create everything.
Usually, when discussing the "how" question, the rejoinder is smugly tossed out that if nothing can't create something, then something had to create God. Sadly, I do not have the space to fully lay out a biblically orthodox doctrine of God. Pointing out, as does Aquinas in his version of the Cosmological Argument, that God is not a contingent being will have to suffice.
Ultimately, steering into the "how" question leaves atheists open to the response, "Yes, but what caused that thing that you are claiming was the first cause of everything else?" However, I understand why Ricky Gervais (and many other atheists) steer the conversation to the "how" and away from the "why."
As long as the discussion resides in the "how," atheists are able to cling to their life preserver called "science." As noted above, that life preserver is riddled with holes, but it provides spiritually drowning rebels something to grab. Sadly, the only thing faith in science provides is the delusion of safety as their sin continues to ensure that their ethical separation from their Creator deepens, ultimately ending in eternal destruction. Grasping at the "why" question doesn't even provide atheists the delusion of safety because their god of science is ill-equipped to even to begin answering the question.
According to the Bible, God created all things to bring Himself glory. When God called His creation good, He was referring to the functional readiness—the ability of creation to fulfill its intended function in the service of praising God and bringing Him glory. The rebellion of humans, more commonly known as sin, brought God's curse down on creation. Things and people no longer function the way they were intended. The reason that there is violence, oppression, and pain in this world is because creation's "why" has been perverted. Looking around at the world is all the evidence needed to reveal that something is wrong.
However, within that framework, the Christian worldview that's articulated in the Bible provides the answer. Among other ways, God reveals Himself in and through His law. Functioning as God intended in order to bring Him glory (the "why") has an ethical dimension. Humans are not to murder other humans because that's a sin that violates God's holy standard. Humans are not to dehumanize others through things like slavery and exploitation because doing so violates God's holy standard. Sadly, because of the sin that resides in our hearts, we are incapable of fully fulfilling God's intended purpose. But there's good news.
From before He wound the clock of time, God purposed to provide a way for His creation to be restored back to His intended function. That answer was revealed just over 2,000 years ago when God became man and Jesus was born. While suffering as we suffer and being tempted as we're tempted, Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to God's holy standard and then willingly mounted the cross in order to suffer God's just wrath that our sin deserves. Resurrected from the dead three days later, Jesus conquered sin and death so that those who repent of their sins and place their faith in him will be adopted into the family of God and be given new life.
In a nutshell, the three previous paragraphs are the Christian worldview's answer to Stephen Colbert's "why?" As an atheist, Ricky Gervais is unable to answer that question; of course it "makes no sense at all" for him. For atheists, acknowledging the "why?" question as legitimate automatically introduces a purpose for creation. That, of course, is incompatible with their atheism. Except, without a "why" the creation has no end game, no purpose; humans are free to define their purpose however they see fit. Social Darwinism becomes the only legitimate ethical worldview and the strong can do whatever they want to the weak because the universe has no purpose and no meaning. Without a "why" and an answer, morals have no objective basis and Nietzsche's will to power rightfully rules all. Because he is made in the image of God, that is a step too far for Ricky Gervais, who innately knows that there is a "why" that guides the ethics of creation. His atheism just doesn't allow him to acknowledge it.