Ricky Gervais distinguished himself well yesterday by savaging the same people who usually savage us, the ordinary Americans. The video makes for somewhat uncomfortable viewing, since the victims of Hollywood’s barbs are usually sitting anonymously in theaters and living rooms, not in the same room in which the insults are being issued. Hollywood’s stars expected a cute celebrity roast and got, instead an auto de fe.
Watching Gervais, who is a very talented man, got me thinking about another aspect of his performance — his aggressive atheism. I understand atheism. I was an atheist for most of my life, and have now moved to theism. Although my theism is informed by being Jewish, the fact is that I don’t hew to practice or doctrine. I float freely, acknowledging that atheism is a lonely place to be, and one that doesn’t explain the world before the Big Bang, but not ready to commit to any definitive view of God.
What I never was, though, was an aggressive atheist. I never felt the need to proselyte my lack of religion. After all, what in the world was I selling? There was no alternative vision. There was just plenty of nothing. No meaning or morality in this life, and no hope for the afterlife. More than that, I didn’t see that the world would be a better bargain if everyone thought as I did. Sure, I’d like to get rid of poisonous religions (you know what I’m talking about), or poisonous practitioners of decent religions, but I didn’t see a virtue in going beyond that.
The fact is that, even in my most atheistic days, I never lost track of the incredible stability and safety that the modern Judeo-Christian tradition provides us. Gone are the days of witch burning, homosexual stoning, wife beating, and nation conquering Judaism and Christianity. What we have, instead, when we look at cultures that hew to the Judeo-Christian traditions, are law, justice, grace, morality, generosity, etc. Sure, not all people rise to those standards at all times, but they are the standards by which we measure ourself.
What do practitioners of aggressive atheism — the ones who savage religion and belligerently advertise their lack of same — get at the end of the day? Where do they see Western society if they achieve their goal of proselytizing all of us into a complete lack of faith? Will we be more moral? I doubt it. More generous? Probably not. Find more meaning in our lives? Get real. Fear death less? Not likely. Get along with each other better? It is to laugh.
Atheists are selling a travel destination that no one, least of all the atheists themselves, would ever want to visit, let alone call home. If you’re a “sophisticate,” it can be fun and can make you feel like a really smart logician to point out inconsistencies in the Bible (both Old and New Testament), or to point to the hypocrisy that mere mortals periodically bring to their understanding of religion. Nevertheless, that intellectual superiority doesn’t offer any substitute for what it seeks to destroy through ridicule and logical argument.