In quick succession I came upon a series of unconnected posts in which atheist comedians have a go at God and religion. I don’t mind in principle—there is plenty in religious spheres to critique and to poke fun at—but two of the bits that I saw most recently claim as a weakness things that are actually among the greatest strengths of Christianity.
Dave Foley: Faith is like belief in Santa Claus
Dave Foley is perhaps best known for playing a lead role in the vastly underrated 90s sitcom News Radio. His stand-up seems not to have hit News Radio heights, and in this mostly awkward sketch (among other things) he describes people of faith as ‘creepy’, and compares believers to grown people who believe in Santa—adding that we’d be treated as lunatics if there weren’t so many of us.
I’m not sure why this analogy is so widely thought to be valid. Perhaps it is due to the common mistake that atheists make of conflating all religions together as though Jesus and Jim Jones and Juno are all basically the same. The example that Foley gives of religious craziness is that of transubstantiation in Catholicism: the bread and wine actually (not figuratively) become Jesus’ body and blood (though not in any way that affects taste or form). But this was the kind of thing that the Western world fought a fairly well-known war over in the 1500s. The Protestant world told the pope that we’re tired of this nonsense about 500 years ago.
The comparison with Santa is a false one for several reasons, but the most important one being historicity. Even if Saint Nick was a real person, Santa mythology about the North Pole and the world’s worst commute on Christmas Eve has no basis in reality. Believing it would be an act of willful self-delusion. And perhaps most religious beliefs are of the same order. The point is that the Bible has always differentiated itself from ‘the gods of the nations’ because of God’s acts in history. The old prophets repeatedly mocked people who cut down a tree and used part of it for the fire and part for furniture and part to make a god to worship. And the whole argument of Christianity from the minute it left Jerusalem was that Jesus rose from the dead and brought forgiveness, as he said he would—something has happened in history.
Disbelieve it if you like, but unlike Santa, the existence of God is not a priori an irrational idea, and unlike Santa, Jesus’ resurrection is an historical claim for which there is evidence to be weighed. I know it is annoying to have to carefully dismiss evidence that you have no interest in believing, but in much the same way as the argument ‘Evolution is stupid because just look at the human eye!’ is really annoying, atheists should stop doing a discredit to themselves by trying to make the Jesus-Santa link stick.
Eddie Izzard: God’s plan
Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian, and as much as I wanted to hate ‘Glorious’, his deeply irreverent take on history and the Bible from the 90s, it is undeniably funny. His famous quote about God’s plan is doing the rounds again, and while I can imagine it being hilarious when he says it, it surely doesn’t take too long to realise that this is actually a rather foolish critique.
The main reason why it doesn’t work is that the ability to understand a plan demands several things that Eddie Izzard does not apprehend. One needs firstly to understand the problem that the plan addresses. In the case of the biblical storyline, the issues are human rebellion, consequent disruption of divine-human relationship, and the problem of evil and death that result from that. Eddie doesn’t say what he thinks the problem is, but I would put money on it not being the one that God’s book identifies. I suspect what people such as Izzard usually think the goal should be is total human happiness and otherwise being left alone, which ironically cuts against what God is trying to do quite severely.
Secondly, understanding a plan requires a grasp of the ‘rules of the game’. Complaints about the problem of evil usually demand that God should intervene in history in order to stop bad things from happening. However, these complaints rarely get specific about how God should go about doing this. Seeing as most of the world’s evils are human evils, God would seem to me to have two major paths open to Him to stop human evil. He could kill the wrong-doer without delay, which would mean the death of Adam & Eve and (however literally you take that story) the eradication of humankind. This would mean the failure of His goal to restore divine-human relationship. So delay then.
The second route is to miraculously intervene every time someone is about to do something bad so as to prevent the crime (a bit like Minority report). But then it doesn’t take too much thinking before one realises that this would need to be carried out on the level of speech, and probably even on the level of thought (because most evil actions begin there). So God would have to remove the consequences of our evil impulses either by miraculously staying our hands and tongues, or by eradicating the freedom of will altogether. Again, this would be failure of the goal, because it replaces relationship with slavery. So a cure then.
If it’s to be a cure, then that’s what Christianity has always said He’s always been doing. You may protest that He’s taking awfully long about it, but again as has long been said, if God is taking His time at least it means you have the opportunity to take part in the cure.
The final thing that one needs in order to understand a plan is a grasp of the strategy by which the goal is being pursued. This is the part that Izzard clearly has an issue with, but is there any surprise in that? Does Izzard expect that his casual glance at the facile number of things that he or any of us understands about human history should yield clear apprehension of what is being done and should be done?
If one takes chess as an example, there are very limited parameters and relatively few variables, but great players are still able to think so far into the possible futures of each game that they can come up with strategies that catch their opponents by surprise. In the ‘Game of the Century’, for instance, Bobby Fischer faced world-champion Donald Byrne, and chose to sacrifice his queen. To chess imbeciles such as myself, allowing the capture of your most powerful piece would represent a mistake, but Fischer ensured that the cost of her capture was so high that the game would be his anyway. His strategy was so far beyond what other people expected (including his opponent) that it made certain individual actions seem nonsensical.
When one extends the number of variables to human history, the ability to map possible futures is surely out of our grasp—even that of Eddie Izzard. Funnily enough, this is exactly the point of one of the oldest extant discussions of the problem of evil, known as The Book of Job. In the story, Job suffers a crushing series of unjustified evils, and his friends all tell him that God is just and so it must be punishment for something that Job has done. Job protests that he is innocent. When the verdict comes, Job is proven correct, but the rebuke for all parties is that they are all passing judgement on matters about which they know nothing.
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:1-5)
There is a plan—and we know more of it post Jesus than Job did—but don’t expect that all of it should be obvious to you, me or Eddie Izzard.
It is the business of comedians to take cheap shots, I suppose, but surely (having claimed the intellectual high-ground as their own) atheism can make arguments to match. It seems to be everyone’s loss when we stop discussing and start playing to the crowd.