Gervais on Colbert

 In this YouTube video put up two days ago, comedian Ricky Gervais discusses nonbelief with Stephen Colbert. While it’s not clear how much of Colbert’s shtick, and his critique of atheism, really represents his own views and how much comes from questions that he thinks might interest his audience, I suspect that Colbert, a liberal Catholic, really does mean some of the questions he asks. To wit:
  •  Why is there something instead of nothing? Why does the Universe exist? Is there a prime mover?
  •  How can you be convinced of your atheism? Isn’t atheism just a matter of faith? We’re just atheists because people told us to be, right?
  • Colbert’s strong desire to direct his “gratitude for existence” towards something or someone—an entity Colbert calls “God”.
But at least he’s respectful of Gervais’s views, and Gervais handles the questions very well, especially the one on “faith” in atheism. I have to say that I’m getting a bit weary of the “I-believe-in-one-god-less-than-you-do,” but it is a penetrating argument, and perhaps hasn’t spread as far as it should.


  1. Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink


  2. Billy Bl.
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Gervais’ bit on the Bible in his “Animals” stand-up show is priceless.

  3. GBJames
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Colbert is a smart guy. I suspect that if he really thought about it he would figure it out. At some point he’ll figure out the whole god thing is just a lot of “truthiness”.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Also, calling it head to head as they do is hardly correct. If they want head to head, they need some of Hitch’s YouTube to review. This was more a conversation.

  5. Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    There’s a second YouTube video that may have been a continuation of the same discussion between Gervais and Colbert. Also worth watching. And, no one does or did it better than Hitch.

  6. Curt Nelson
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    His argument that scientific truths are constant and would be rediscovered if lost but religious ones won’t, was really good. I’ve never heard it put that way.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Though I do believe certain “religious truths” like the Golden Rule would be rediscovered. This isn’t because of religion though, but because of evolutionary biology and game theory.

      • Posted February 3, 2017 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        I wouldn’t even call that a “religious truth” to begin with.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      That is from Dawkins. A couple of his points were extracted from different sources, although done very well.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Whose idea is it? I instinctively said Nel DeGrasse Tyson, but a bit of thought suggested such a philosophical experiment would be from Harris.

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      I too had never heard this superb argument. It would be great to have a “chapter and verse” text reference for it, or a minute-and-second YouTube reference for its prior use. If it is of Gervaise’s own devising my already great admiration for his talents would noticably increase.

      • Posted February 3, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        The argument can be extended by positing a mass extinction event (asteroid, comet, global thermonuclear religious war, runaway global warming). Millions of years hence the then ascendant intelligent species may have invented religion, but they won’t have Jesus, Mohammed or YHWH. But the scientific facts they will discover will eventually be the same as ours, including evolution.

        • Posted February 3, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

          Not the Big Bang apparently or at least other galaxies. I believe I read Krause where he said that because of the expansion of the universe, eventually we’ll be receding faster than the speed of light (relative velocities of our galaxy and others) and light from everywhere won’t catch up. One billion years think? We and the Milky Way will appear all by our lonesome.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      Oh! Was it Penn Jillette?!

  7. Stackpole
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Gervais’s best point (as Colbert acknowledged) was about the content of religious books vs. science books a millennium hence. All or mostly different, vs. just the same.

  8. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Gervais is about as good in debate as he is doing his prepared material. That’s terrific. I enjoy his stand up stuff. The bit he does about Noah’s Ark is a lot of fun.

  9. Martin X
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I-believe-in-one-god-less-than-you-do,” but it is a penetrating argument”

    I see it as less of an argument than an effort to get your conversational partner to look at his beliefs objectively, in the same way he would if he were to examine the beliefs of someone else.

    I don’t think the statement succeeds in that task, because it comes across as a bit too cute and turns it into a math problem, which cuts off intuition.

    I would probably say something like “You think that atheism is an abhorrent position, but you’re an atheist, too, when you consider gods like Thor. Why am I different from you?”

    • Posted February 3, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      People forget Thor was a demi-god, fathered by Odin with his mother being Joro(sp?) kinda like Jesus, whose Dad was a God but Mother was a mortal but your point is taken and is the same.

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry to have missed the airing of this episode. I like Colbert, but I honestly think he does have faith, and i guess that is just one those puzzles since he is also very bright and penetrating.

  11. garthdaisy
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Colbert needs to read more about evolution by natural selection and he will not find his innate “desire to be grateful to something” so mysterious that he needs to call that something God.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    What is most exciting to me about this short bit, which appears to be Gervais on his toes and – to TV standards, “on the spot” – is that (1) it is on TV in the US – I want to say this is a milestone for hearing these previously argued but still strong arguments simultaneously for atheism and against faith, and (2) I want to say Colbert reaches a very large audience. I should add (3) Colbert, though by default gracious to any host, and possibly rehearsed by both, encapsulated in his demeanor and the whole bit, exactly what is a productive dialogue about a topic that by no means guarantees productivity…. sorry that sentence was so long, if grammatically correct….

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      guest not host.

  13. Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    This is excellent, and I have no doubt that both Colbert and Gervais are expressing their beliefs accurately and, more important, respectfully. Colbert remains one of the best interviewers on the planet, though I doubt that he’ll last as the host of the show. The writing for his monologues and skits has gone down dramatically from the old Colbert show. I detect Jon Stewart’s hand in this decline. They’re both smart guys; the difference is that Stewart is mean-spirited and Colbert is not, so the words Stewart puts in Colbert’s mouth don’t ring true. I loved the old Colbert show but fast-forward through much of the new one to get to the interviews. It’s a shame.

  14. Walt Jones
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I was happy to see this when it aired. Colbert knows the arguments against faith (see Dawkins’s appearances on the Report), and he uses them to give the guest a chance to refute them. Whether he believes is less important than his providing a forum.

  15. veroxitatis
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    “We’re just atheists because people told us to be, right.”
    Well no. My parents were Christians and had many Christian friends. They were good people (I am positive they would have seen through a charlatan like Trump in a moment!) I attended Sunday school and church. I was even “converted” during the mass hynosis of a Billy Graham campaign in Scotland in the mid 50s. I would have been 9 or so. However, somewhere around the ages of 11 / 12 I slowly came to the conclusion that there was no God and Jesus and all that stuff was unfounded. I drifted away from church, finding many excuses to absent myself. By age 13 / 14, I just stopped attending. I had many arguments about religion with my parents but both they and I continued to respect each other. They didn’t cease being good people because they belived things which I did not. They never attempted to force me to attend church.
    I am sure many adolescents can tell a similar tale.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Almost exactly the same story, finally deciding I was an atheist at about 16, and refusing to become a member of the local CoS congregation.

  16. KD33
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Interesting the applause in the audience in response to Gervais affirming he’s an atheist.

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      I was surprised by that, too. We seem to be making progress.

  17. Andrei
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Ricky Gervais dodged the question about why there is something rather than nothing. This one is actually easy: if you have nothing, then what exactly can prevent this “nothing” to turn into literally anything? Nothing! In our everyday life we have laws of conservation which prevent this from happening, but if you have nothing, not even laws?

    There was a better “philosophized” version of this argument somewhere in Richard Carrier’s blog, IIRC.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      And if there is nothing, where does god come from. Turtles > > > > > >

    • Posted February 6, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Running the conservation law argument “backwards” is enough.

  18. BJ
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people dislike Ricky Gervais, but I’ve always been very fond of him and his comedy. He’s extremely intelligent and witty, his stand-up is excellent, and his show, Extras, was hilarious. I also like that he has never been willing to give in to the politically correct crowd.

  19. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I thought the best part was when Mr. Gervais said if you destroyed all the holy books, if they came back in a thousand years, they would be very different, but if all science writing was destroyed, in a thousand years it would come back the same. Colbert applauded his point.

    I’m sure it’s not original with him, but I can’t recall having heard the argument quite that way before.

  20. Greg Geisler
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    It’s always sad when you see someone who you know is of above-average intelligence who has religious faith (particularly the Trinity). And why doesn’t Colbert direct his “extreme gratitude” toward other humans (or animals) instead of a God who wouldn’t need it anyway.

    I adore Ricky Gervais.

  21. Posted February 3, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    “I’m getting a bit weary of the “I-believe-in-one-god-less-than-you-do…”

    Me too, because although this line of argumentation has a fairly profound effect on critical thinkers who might have heard it for the first time I believe it has no effect on a faithhead because faithheads believe that the historical examples were not really goawds in the same sense that theirs is.

    Faithheads believe that their gawd really is the one and only true gawd. Zeus a god? “Oh, how silly” is their typical dismissive retort. They just don’t get it.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      I think it is more effect when quoting popular “current” religions, like Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism.

  22. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted February 3, 2017 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Excellent! And Ricky’s point about the science being the same in 1000 years, the first time I’ve heard it put that way.

    Kudos to Colbert for making his points and letting Ricky answer them (I couldn’t help thinking what a fiasco Bill O’Reilly would have made of it).


  23. Posted February 3, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Even if atheists are wrong, why should we be afraid of Satan? I imagine he’d be pretty chuffed that we’ve been giving the mean old b*****d upsatairs a hard time for all the pain he’s caused.

  24. Posted February 3, 2017 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Colbert did admit to agnosticism in this bit, which is much MUCH more than most theists will do. I suspect some of his questions were a part of his schtick.

  25. Posted February 4, 2017 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    He needs to talk to someone like Sean Carroll really about this. I love Gervais, but he’s just a comedian. Not really academically qualified to be responding to questions of this nature but he does a fair job for a layman.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      Errm, what academic qualifications does one need to be an atheist?

      I’d suggest, to successfully debate the topic on TV, one just needs to have read an adequate amount on the subject (so you know the most common arguments), be good with words, and have your wits about you – all of which Gervais has. (Bear in mind that the more abstruse philosophical arguments are just going to ‘lose’ the audience so enormous erudition is *not* an advantage in a setting like this).


      • Posted February 4, 2017 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

        My thoughts exactly. I don’t think I need academic qualifications to call a horoscope bullshit. Same with religion. It doesn’t take academic qualifications to ask someone to provide evidence when the burden of proof lies with their claims. Religious institutions sure as hell don’t require credentials. They’re happy to let a five year old kid accept Jesus but then tell adults we can’t reject their claims unless we read another 6000 works of theology. It’s all utter nonsense.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      A likable public figure like Gervais probably is far more effective at spreading the word than an obscure scientist or professional atheist. So, the fact that he may not have been quite as successful should be put up against his broader reach.

      • GBJames
        Posted February 5, 2017 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        A bit of a false choice there, richfilck. There’s no need to choose between Gervais and obscure scientists or professional atheists. All of them have useful roles.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted February 5, 2017 at 8:04 am | Permalink

          I don’t understand some of these comments – do I have it right that the idea is that Gervais is OK, but he’s no so-and-so, the arguments have already been made before, and he’s on … (shudder) … TV…?

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted February 5, 2017 at 8:05 am | Permalink

            ^^^ meaning not in general but specifically on this clip? So he did OK on this clip, but imma let you finish, Sean Carroll had the best talk of all time?

          • GBJames
            Posted February 5, 2017 at 8:31 am | Permalink

            I think that was the gist of ‘Fizicks’ comment upstream at #25. And, perhaps, rickflick’s. (But I don’t know for sure.)

  26. steve
    Posted February 4, 2017 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Colbert would be more honest and accurate if he were to direct his gratitude for existing to his biological parents instead of to “god”.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 4, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s not quite what Colbert was saying. His parents are responsible for his immediate existence, but they can’t be credited with everything else in the world.

      It’s more like “Thanks to whoever made *all this*”

      I agree with Colbert, when you contemplate the good bits and the lovely bits (not the nasty bits) there is a sense of wonder and it seems a little unsatisfying to say ‘well it just happened’.

      (Dawkins notes that sense of wonder and suggests that knowing *how* it all came about in the physical sense can convey that. I agree that’s satisfying to know, but it doesn’t quite fully satisfy the feeling of awe. That doesn’t mean I have to fill the gap with Yahweh).

      I note that Gervais did seem to dodge that question (‘why is there something rather than nothing’) – in fact I’m not sure there is an answer other than ‘that’s the way it is’ or ‘if there was nothing we wouldn’t be here to ask why’ – both of which are perfectly valid but feel a little bit like skirting the issue. I’m not sure there is an emotionally satisfying answer to that.


      • Posted February 4, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        Well, the problem is that the answer is longer than the question and more complicated. Krauss answered the question but it took him an entire book to do it. Even having read the book, it is still tough to articulate in simple sentences. Best I usually come up with is that in quantum physics, it happens all the time.

      • steve
        Posted February 6, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        I gathered that! But why real point was to provide as trite an answer as he did. Because we don’t know is not sufficient to fall back on the weak “God did it” excuse.

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