Many of us Catholic pop culture buffs love watching Stephen Colbert put his Catholic education to use to defend the faith in the world of show business. It, however, appears that he got stumped on a point in his debate with famous British atheist comedian Ricky Gervais.
Ricky defends his skepticism as such: “If we take any fiction and destroyed it, in a thousand years time it wouldn’t come back. If we took every science book and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back because every test would come back with the same result”.
Colbert lacks an appropriate response to this only to nod and say “that’s really good”.
His conclusion, begs the question, however. It’s worth examining the claim a little bit further, and one can come at this from various angles.
First of all, from the point of view that scientific facts cannot be erased, this is not an argument that would contradict a belief in God, for the universal lawmaker sets down universal laws by which matter behaves. We surely would see same results given the same experimental conditions to recreate them. If you ask me this indicates a constant cause for reality. Gervais is not interested in that, as an agnostic he only wants to rely on these observations.
However, theories that explain these observations would not necessarily come back. Particle and molecular theory keeps on changing. Heat used to be described as a liquid, and quantum physics is just beginning to emerge. There is a growth to understanding such that we cannot reliably say that our models to explain reality would come back in the same form if we erased them from our collective memories. To many extents our popular models for gravity, motion, natural sciences are an arbitrary product of our unique minds and imaginations, much as models for philosophy: of truth and existence and morality.
With regards to his valuation of things that can be recreated, Christians’ faith is admittedly very much dependent on a single moment in time and the events within that time – the Incarnation and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Erase this from our collective memories and there surely cannot be a Christianity. But our understanding of God is not only arbitrary. Gervais argues that atheists deny the (ballpark) 3,000 divine claims there only disbelieve 1 more god than the 2,999 that Christians do. This is not entirely true as many faiths’, ancient and modern, understanding of God is arrived by deduction – a creator who is omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent. We do not reject what is true within the claims of other religions, except that we do have an understanding of reality through the lens of revelation, which we accept as a gift.
Why only place value on the repeatable, the mundane, and thus ignore the fantastic unique experiences like the Incarnation and the Resurrection? What about memories of Gervais or his family? What of human history? Our belief in a liberal democracy and the value of humanity is a product of these non-repeatable events and insights.
While Colbert might not be able to take down the claims of atheism in and of themselves, the reminder that our values in a vibrant culture are more than what is only repeatable and observable may have stopped the diatribe much earlier and given Gervais to pause and reflect on his own insufficient view of the world and his own self-worth.
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