I love Ricky Gervais. I suppose this has a lot to do with The Office–the original one. That show was genius. Ricky Gervais is in my top ten “If you could have coffee with anyone living or dead” list. One of the things want to talk with him about is about faith and religion.
Gervais is a vocal agonistic atheist. In his movies, interviews and stand-up routines he often sets up and destroys Christian strawmen. So I have some understanding as to why he’s not Christian, but less of an idea as to how his atheism works for him and provide a moral foundation and purpose to his life.
His new Netflix series, After Life, which he wrote and directed, seems to give some explanation about the meaning of life for Ricky Gervais.
I liked After Life. I loved some parts, but there were other bits that fell short.
Meaninglessness is a Superpower
The main character, Tony, is devastated by the loss of his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) of 25 years to cancer.
“It broke me,” he says. “I just don’t see any point in living.”
The first five of the six-episode series show us that Tony isn’t dealing very well with the loss.
His nice apartment is a total mess and he’s eating cold curry straight out of the can.
He’s nasty to his co-workers; he heaps abuse on one because she’s boring another because he’s developing “neck fat.” He abuses shop keepers and engages in a pointless power struggle with his postman. Perhaps the pinnacle of his horribleness is when he threatens to bludgeon a 10-year-old with a hammer.
Matt (Tom Basden), his boss and brother-in-law, tells him, “You can’t just go around being rude to people!” Tony answers, “You can, though, that’s the beauty of it.” Tony explains. “It’s like a superpower.” Not caring if you live or die, gives him the power to say and do whatever he wants. This power is most often expressed by treating people like they are garbage.
Tony tells Matt, that because he, Matt, is a nice guy he, Tony, can do whatever he wants. He, Matt, won’t really do anything. He concludes:
“There’s no advantage to being nice, and thoughtful, and having integrity. It’s a disadvantage, if anything.”
Gervais seems to be acknowledging this moral cynicism as an unhealthy possibility in atheism. It doesn’t survive the series, but is there anything in atheism that will deter it? One of my questions over coffee.
Gervais is abundantly clear that Christianity is not an option. He gives Tony the occasional platform from which to present his atheist apologetic when challenged by the one explicitly Christian character in the show, Kath.
Kath is no match for Tony. He explains that he simply believes in one fewer God that she does. She’s not able to offer a meaningful challenge to Tony’s point (as I do here). Strawman Christianity is no match for Gervais’ atheism.
When Kath, asks, “If your an atheist, and you don’t believe in heaven and hell and all that, how come you don’t go around raping and murdering as much as you want?” Tony’s answer is, “I do. I do go around raping and murdering as much as I want, which is not at all.” This is a clever answer; it show’s Tony’s intellectual superiority over Kath who incorrectly thinks that Christian morality is grounded in a fear of hell. But he doesn’t really give an adequate answer to Kath’s question. What if you are the kind of person who likes to rape and murder? What’s to stop you if your an atheist? Another one of my questions over coffee.
Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity
Without Lisa, life is meaningless for Tony.
Tony has stepped into the book of Ecclesiastes.
He tries professional help. There are some really funny bits here. He tries drugs. I think he knew that would be a dead end. There is no meaning in his work. Tony writes for a small town newspaper, The Tambury Gazette–local stuff about nothing: “Local baby looks exactly like Adolf Hitler.” He could have advanced over his career, but he never wanted to: life was worth living because of Lisa.
His dog? There’s something here. Each time he takes a step toward the cliff of suicide, the dog pulls him back. The dog is the first of several honest and open relationships in the show.
Ricky Gervais and the Meaning of Life
“Once you realize you’re not going to be around forever, I think that’s what makes life so magical.”
Lisa’s grave is situated next to Stan’s. Tony has several conversations with Stan’s widow, Anne (Penelope Wilton) who helps him process his loss and helps him to move forward.
In episode 4, she explains to him that he’s completely self-centred, even in his grief. She tells him, “We’re not just here for us. We’re here for others.” Tony thinks she’s going to get all Christian on him and tells her so, but she assures him that the whole God thing is “a load of rubbish.”
“All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to help each other struggle through until we die, and then we’re done.”
She makes the point that if you love someone you delight in their happiness, even if it’s not yours.
For Gervais, loving and caring for others seem to be central to the meaning of life. Later, Tony admits that he doesn’t have a superpower because “You can’t not care about the things you actually care about. You can’t fool yourself.”
“Good people do things for other people. That’s it. That’s the end.”
So, a few more questions for our coffee”
What about the bad people?
It seems that Gervais has a pretty high regard for people in that there are very few bad people in the show. Quite a few stupid people, but only the only bad people I saw were muggers.
I’d argue that I’m a bad person. I fail to live up to the standard for goodness to which I hold others–especially when driving. I don’t know how I would have behaved if I were in, say the Warsaw Ghetto. So I think we’re all bad.
But even if Gervais is right, that there are only a few bad apples. What do we do about them? They do bad things to good people and often get away with it. What is their end? They get away with it until they die and then end up like everyone else.
Who’s to judge?
Tony gives a partial answer. He commits to continue “punishing the world, but I’m gonna punish the people that deserve it. I’m gonna use my superpower for good.”
So bad people will get what they deserve at the hands of the good people.
Who decides who is good and who is bad? Apparently, this all happens on an individual level. We each get to decide for ourselves who is bad and then dole out punishment accordingly.
Yeah, what could go wrong?
After Life: Like a Bad Christian Movie
One of my recurring nightmares is to be with a bunch of new Christian friends and the conversation shifts to movies, and someone starts talking about God is Not Dead or some such, even suggesting we all watch it together for our mutual encouragement and growth. I glance over at my wife who knows what’s coming and she’s already shaking her head. She knows I won’t be able to keep my mouth shut and that we will never see these people again.
At the climax of many bad Christian movies, one character tells another character that they are a sinner and need Jesus. There is, of course, a conversion followed by a happy ending. All the Christians leave the theatre with a warm, fuzzy feeling in their hearts. The hope is that all the non-Christians in the audience feel convicted of their sin and have taken a significant step toward their eventual conversion. That’s the idea. In reality, the movie is just bad because it doesn’t tell a story, it preaches a sermon and it reinforces ideas that are so simplistic, they are almost lies.
After Life is the atheist version of a bad Christian movie. The protagonist is intellectually superior to everyone else. Those with opposite religious beliefs are particularly dumb and offer up slow lobs for the protagonist to bash over the fence.
Like a bad Christian movie it’s got a preachy bit. The sermon is in episode 6, delivered to Tony’s co-workers.
As with bad Christian movies, the conclusion is convincing only to those who already agree with it.
Be nice to the nice?
Gervais’ answer to grief in a godless universe is a little too simple, and disappointingly limited.
I was waiting for something a little more poignant.
Over the six episodes, Tony finds meaning in loving and caring relationships. First, it’s Brandy the dog and his nephew George. Lenny, the drug dealer, and Roxy, the sex care worker are added to his sphere. Anne becomes particularly important to him. He eventually adds his father who suffers from dementia, his co-workers and even the postman. The possibility of a new romantic relationship with his father’s nurse rounds out Tony’s new larger collection of meaningful relationships.
It’s interesting that, at the end of it all, Tony finds meaning in relationships. Relationships are foundational to Christianity as well. Christianity is a little broader though–it goes beyond Gervais’ “love good people” all the way to “love your enemies.”
Gervais believes there is no evidence for God.
I know that I’m not going to convince him, but the beauty in the world, especially that which he finds in Brandy the dog and “good people” might be an indication that a something more exists–some transcendent good.
If that good happens to be a God who is so loving that he gives up his life to show us how to love others, and lives within us, then it’s possible for us to do the impossible–to love more than just good people, but also to love our enemies.
“Be nice to the nice?” can make a difference in people’s lives. Ricky Gervais has that right, love and caring do counter suffering, but individual contributions, even if many, won’t do much to alleviate the suffering in this world. I can’t even adequately deal with the suffering that I personally cause in the lives of the people I love. We need a far greater act of love. This is where Gervais doesn’t go far enough. For cosmic redemption, we need a cosmic act of love.
Ricky, I’m going to be in London this summer if you’d like to have coffee. And if you want, we can upgrade to a pint. Let me know.