I have a long history of being annoyed by Ricky Gervais, going back way before I saw this meme — but only in his chosen context as a commentator on religion, not his animal rights activism nor his show business persona. I think he’s a comic genius, and I have always loved his work on programs like “The Office” and “Derek.” I wish he would stick to that and stop belittling good, genuine people with his blanket mockery of religion. His approach is confrontational and competitive, and doesn’t advance the conversation much.
Taken by itself, removed from the context of New Atheism of which he is one of the louder, higher-profile spokespersons, his rhetoric is appropriate enough for the majority of believers who know there is something not right about exclusivity and already have space in their intellect for a good wedge to be inserted. But these are the people most likely to advance religious concepts beyond literalism through progressive influences like pantheism, and he’s encouraging them to give up the game entirely. But these aren’t the jihadists or science deniers; they don’t constitute the clear and present danger of religion. It is fundamentalists who will hear his message as a threat, reject it and become all the more convinced that the secular humanist world is an abomination. In all cases, confrontation is just not a good strategy for reaching religious folks of any ilk.
But that isn’t what makes Ricky Gervais an intellectually stifling danger in his own right. It is his extreme positivist belief that all beliefs are wrong, and that only a nitwit would entertain any of them. Self-contradiction is one thing, and hardly unique to New Atheists. It is the trademark snarky air of superiority that makes them uniquely annoying. To wit:
Actually, Ricky, every one of those 3,000 deities (some would prefer to be called goddesses) are very real, man-made portals to aspects of a Oneness of being that the human brain, operating in the fog of its self-imposed isolation, is otherwise too limited in scope to comprehend. This is an important psychological function that has the potential to snap us out of the mental claustrophobia that results from labeling things “silly” or “nonsense” or “Ricky Gervais” and thinking that you have defined them through this labeling. That is called fundamentalism, which is the essence of what distorts Reality into fiction, Nature into the subnatural.
Every one of those 3,000 deities is a metaphor, either for Nature itself or an aspect thereof. A metaphor is an acknowledgment that Reality cannot be contained by our labels, but that it can be pointed toward, in a way that draws attention to it but preserves the ability for direct experience of Reality itself. You cannot grasp the moon and hold it and share it with others as your possession. But you can point to it, drawing the attention of others, letting them experience it on their own terms or simply gaze and lose themselves in the union of seer and Seen. In the words of someone who put a lot more thought into this than you have:
“Mythology is not a lie. Mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” —Joseph Campbell
Omniperennialism, on the other hand, is the study of the world’s mythological constructs — not excluding secular philosophy and the findings of science — as a collective, singular phenomenon with many modes of expression. Its relativism is like that of the multilinguist who comes to see that language only points us toward direct experience of the thing-in-itself we call Reality, and that there are many ways to point to the same Reality.
By showing us that asking “what is the right religion” is no different than asking “what is the right language,” the 3,000 deities allow us the whole resplendent variety of metaphorical languages and images with which to pitch our minds beyond the edge of any subnatural overlay created by human culture, into what can be known but not told — Reality itself. This is the key to progressing beyond mere tolerance of cultural differences (which always invites intolerance when the going gets rough) and into actual transcultural understanding and collaboration.
But you, Ricky — you fear religion so much that you would have us all become illiterate mutes, devoid of any choices for metaphorical language, capable of understanding Reality on only one level — which, not so coincidentally, is your own. Hmmmm….closet fundie much?
We agree on one thing: that there is a lot of danger in believing exclusively in one deity and rejecting the 2,999 others as silly made up nonsense. But how is that different than accepting only one view of Reality and rejecting 3,000 others? That’s a step backwards intellectually, my friend.
Fundamentalism obviously isn’t limited to religion (cuz if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow). What we need to make the world a more harmonious and wise place is a revolution, not just in what we think, but far more in the way we think –a sharp turn away from the fundamentalism that wants to dominate not just what other people experience, but to define how they experience Reality. Religion can be an extremely useful and dynamic teaching tool. If we learn about how to use it properly and educate ourselves about its metaphorical power, it actually functions simultaneously on many levels with various entry points (making it more democratic than most social institutions) and can point us in a direction away from the subnatural, fundamentalist mindset that has dogged us since we started trying to cram Reality into words.
Ah, but you get more laughs by making fun of others who aren’t as smart as you. Got it. Carry on, then. We’ll just hang out on the same plane indefinitely, butchering each other over which of the 3,001 gods is real. Allahu Akbar!
11 thoughts on “Why Ricky Gervais is a Dangerous Fundamentalist”
So are you saying they are all real? That they exist in reality?
No, I’m saying that they all *represent* Reality itself, or (especially within polytheist traditions) aspects of Reality that are ineffable, numinous, and/or simply beyond the comprehension of the culture and era in which they were used.
I think to question what is “real” and what isn’t would be to engage in a level of representation that Gervais didn’t and probably wouldn’t intend. I’m reminded of something else Campbell said “It is a fool that says in his heart that there is no god but there is another kind of fool and it is the one that says there IS a God and it is the one that I worship.”
Good, enjoyable and intelligent commentary
That was an excellent piece, very much better than I was expecting. Yes metaphor, you have this correctly. Ricky is correct in that all beliefs are incorrect because they all contain mind-closing bias. The only way to discover the actual true nature of reality is with a mind that continues to be completely certain that it has no idea which if any of the various religious claims might possibly be correct.
Actually the meme does not show Ricky saying that all of the rest of the 3,000 deities are false. He is reflecting that such is the attitude of most theists.
Too many Christians deny Allah without ever knowing that quite literally they are worshiping the same being by another name. And many in our society open my scoff at the beliefs of other societies. Relatively few believe in the old gods today. Most look down condescendingly on those who did – forgetting that our society is based upon theirs. That many Catholic saints were once gods and goddesses in their own right, and that most of our holidays were once pagan feast days!
Would you agree that militant atheism is so much safer than religious fundamentalism?
Yep. Still waiting to hear about some attack on a town by militant atheists. I doubt it will happen.
“Militant atheism”….would that be something like Red China during the Cultural Revolution? The Soviets under Stalin?
I can hear the objections rising already so let me clarify what I mean by that: the militancy is a political stance, not a religious one per se. Of course religion often adds another very dangerous element to identity politics, and that is a big part of the purpose of this site, to advance our religious ideas beyond identity politics. But a militant ideology based in part on a LACK of religion can be just as dangerous in combating those that it “others” –just ask the Tibetans and (mostly Orthodox and Jewish) Russian peasants. Again, the danger comes not from being theist or atheist, but from being militant.
Gervais and Dawkins and other high profile atheists have no political reason to be militant –their successful careers as public figures have led them to lives far more comfortable than, say, someone born in Syria or the Gaza Strip. The same could be said of middle-class Muslims in places like Dearborn, Michigan, and the growing majority of non-religious folks in Scandanavia and parts of Western Europe. Violence between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland subsided in the late 1990s, not because the sources of the sectarian tension changed in any way, but because Ireland was becoming a wealthier nation. It’s amazing what a little prosperity will do to a person’s willingness to risk his own life to harm others.
One final point that I hope does not get lost in the discussion of which pole of the dichotomy contains a lesser evil: why do we need to settle for fundamentalism of *any* kind? As much as its adherents like to portray it as otherwise for sake of oversimplification that allows them to be right by virtue of the other side’s wrongness, a/theism is not an exclusive set of options; at very least the option for agnosticism (let alone pantheism) breaks down that nice neat dichotomy, and shows certainty to be a far less scientific and intellectually rigorous position.
Well reasoned. I identify as a Buddhist but am willing to believe that only my god exists as does only your god. As in, to me my perception of divinity and beliefs makes it look like my god. Your perception and belief make it look like your god to you. Allah exists to Muslims. He is Allah to them. I see Allah as an Avatar of Buddha. They are not the same. It’s somewhat like a kaliedoscope. Each sees something unique to themselves. Besides, there have been too many instances within my family of dead appearing in dreams asking for specific rites – heck, to children even – for me to not realise that somewhere, a greater force does exist.
This is a trash take.
That’s cool. You know what they say about “one man’s trash…” Thank you for offering yours, though in all fairness, it could have been a *little* more substantial.