The discussion of The Invention of Lying in our comments section, just as in the society at large, has largely taken quite predictable lines: delighted laughter from atheists at the presumed squirming of believers, and dismay from believers at feeling attacked by a person whom they like, the comedian Ricky Gervais.
But there is a good deal more to be taken from this film and the assumptions it conveys. To wit: that neither atheism nor theism has a lock on either reason or goodness.
A comment by Peter on my original article on this film brought the issue to the fore nicely. Peter wrote, in part:
I haven’t seen the film, but I’m not sure how it can be considered an attack on religion.
It seems to me that a society that tells only the truth can by definition only [tell] the truth that it knows. Atheism, like religion, is a belief. It may be a correct belief, but it is still a belief. It requires speculation about the existence or nature of a deity. A society with no fiction would not in the first place have presumed to speculate on such things – all their statements would be bounded by what they know. Effectively, such a society could have no beliefs.
We do not live in such a society. We have lies because we have beliefs and vice versa. How material in its critique of [our world] can a society be which functions so fundamentally differently from ours? However religion started in this alternate society, it didn’t start that way here. Indeed, the primary similarity between the two worlds would seem to be the very possibility that something could exist and be true without people knowing about it.
That may not be what Gervais intends for audiences to conclude from the film, but it is an important implication nonetheless.
It brings up what is at the heart of the film and the discussion of it: that either side–theism or atheism, or for that matter agnosticism–is based on assumptions about the degree to which human perceptions can apprehend all that exists.
That is really the center of the debate and always has been: what Peter describes as the very possibility that something could exist and be true without people knowing about it or being able to perceive it directly.
Atheists claim that it is not possible, but what actual evidence can atheists give to back up such a claim? None, by definition. For there is no more reason to assume that human perceptions can apprehend all truth than there is to assume that they can’t. There is no unassailable logical or evidentiary basis on which to make either assumption. Either claim is just an assumption, and by definition there can be no more evidence for it than the opposite assumption, and thus by definition neither is scientific.
Each side, then, is based on faith. Theists have faith that there is more to this world than we can ever see directly, and atheists have faith that there is not. Neither claim is conclusively provable in this world.
It truly is a matter of faith–on both sides.
Now, atheists have every right to hold their assumption about what exists and what doesn’t and to argue for it to their heart’s content. Likewise, theists have the exact same right to hold the opposite assumption and argue for it. What neither side has the right to do, however, is to claim that the other side does not reason rightly or is uniquely disposed to believe falsehoods.
On the contrary, each side can reason perfectly logically from its own basic premise, and has a perfect right to do so and to state their thoughts publicly.
And each side should be expected to defend its reasoning and show that it does not contradict the evidence of our senses.
The latter is a claim that atheists make about theism: that belief in the existence of God is irrational and that the evidence of nature shows that there is not a God. That claim is entirely false and cannot be justified. Nothing we can see can prove that there is no God. You must take that on faith, just as one must take belief in God on faith.
Theists, for their part, have no basis on which to take offense at people who freely choose to have a different assumption about the nature of the cosmos.
In sum, a truly reasonable discussion of the case for or against God can only come about if all parties recognize and openly acknowledge that their entire worldview is based on a fundamental unprovable assumption, and that this assumption colors everything they see and think. There is thus no room for triumphalism on either side.
There is no war between faith and reason, and there never has been. There is only a war in which reason is adduced by both sides, with continually varying levels of wisdom and grace displayed by the partisans of both positions. Those who would mock the other side as uniquely irrational only show themselves to be arrogant and unreasonable.
That is the one thing about The Invention of Lying on which we should all be able to agree. And, having done so, only then can we argue honestly, decently, fairly, and reasonably about this matter that affects literally everything we think or do.
–S. T. Karnick