How do you want me to start this? Do you want me to start with “I’m surprised Ricky Gervais is more like David Brent than I imagined?” or “Ricky Gervais, his teeth freshly capped for Hollywood, smiles with his gleaming new incisors”?
My favourite one was the journalist who got the day wrong, and I said: “We’ll have to do it over the phone now.” I did the interview. It starts off: “Ricky Gervais sat back. He put his feet up.” So she made it all up.
“Sitting in filthy underpants and an old T-shirt, Ricky insists on doing the dance from The Office over and over again.” Will that do?
You seem to have been more vocally atheist this year.
I say that’s not true. My atheism might be higher-profile than other people’s atheism, but it’s not high on my agenda. But it’s the thing they always pick out. I can do 30 tweets of my cat, a bath pic, a Karl [Pilkington] quote, plugging. The one tweet that’s … I mean, I don’t even know what an atheist tweet is. Sometimes they’re scientific tweets that oppose some of the “facts” in the Bible. And I get: “Why do you keep going on about atheism?” One of [the questions] is “Why are you obsessed with God if you don’t believe in him?”, and I want to say: “I’m not obsessed with God, I’m obsessed with people who want to do things in his name.”
Another one is: “Why are you obsessed with only the Christian God?” How many times have I stated that I don’t believe in any God? There are possibly 3,000 so-called deities. If we’re talking about monotheistic gods, I believe in one less god than you. When they say, “Why don’t you believe in God?”, I often say, “Which one?”
So why do people seem to be calling you out more about it?
Let’s get this out in the open as well – there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist. That’s the other ridiculous, moronic tweet I get: “Doesn’t denying God prove his existence?” I don’t know where to start with that.
The American talking head Ann Coulter said: “They said it’s possible to believe in God and believe in evolution. It’s also possible to believe in Spider-Man and believe in God. That doesn’t make Spider-Man true.” It’s hard to know where to start …
If I had one ambition left it would be to explain to everyone in the world what the burden of proof is. It’s a ludicrous notion, where people say: “Prove to me my God doesn’t exist.”
Do you do it to have fun, to annoy, to persuade?
Loads of reasons. Sometimes I’m incensed. And again, let’s get the difference between spirituality and religion settled right. I have no problem with someone believing in God, any god. But religion is something else. Religion is basically telling people the upshot of their belief. It’s laying out a set of rigid rules that don’t flow from the evidence.
Has spending more time in the USA, where there is more fundamentalism, fired you up?
This is very important – there is a difference between people who happen to believe in God, for whatever reason, and the very small minority of crazy, mental, psychotic people who use their religion as a conduit for hate.
There is a difference between people who think, “I’m going to go to heaven and see my relatives” and people who say, “If my son is born homosexual, I’m going to murder him.” There is a chasm. Fundamentalists have no more in common with the average Christian, Muslim or Jew than atheists do.
Being a good person has nothing to do with believing in God or following any religion, OK? There are good people that believe in God, and there are bad people that believe in God. And there are good atheists and bad atheists. The big difference is, no atheist does things in the name of atheism. There’s no such thing. This myth that atheism is a religion, it’s ludicrous; [atheism is] the absence of belief. Atheism is a religion like health is a disease.
Agnosticism queers the picture a little bit because they are technically right, that you can’t know in a very hard sense whether there is a God or not. But when I ask someone and they say they’re agnostic, I change the question. I change it from “Is there a God?” to “Do you believe in God?” because the answer for that can’t be: “I don’t know.”
You’re allowed to say, “I’m 99 per cent sure there is or there isn’t,” but you can’t say you don’t know if you believe or not. Someone sent me a tweet saying, “Well, that’s not fair, because I could ask you now over Twitter whether you think I’m wearing a red jumper and you couldn’t really have an educated guess either way – it’s not based on anything.” I said, that’s true. Now tell me your red jumper created the universe. Now tell me your red jumper’s telling me to stone people to death.
What do you believe in?
I believe in “do unto others”. That’s the other thing – religion comes along and claims stuff. It steals, it mugs. These virtues were around long before anyone organised a religion.
From an evolutionary perspective, killing everyone is always going to be a disadvantage for community growth.
Some people almost admit that if they didn’t think God was watching them they’d be horrendous. I don’t need God to be watching me to know that I shouldn’t be going out raping and murdering. It’s an odd thing to believe. Some people don’t believe you can be good without God because there’s no paradigm for goodness. They say, “Who makes the rules?” I say, “We do –we always have.”
This ludicrous belief that there’s an absolute morality … There’s not an absolute morality; things have moved on. There’s nothing in the Bible about animal welfare. With an absolute morality, we’d be still stoning someone to death for adultery. Things move on. We decide.
It’s [John] Rawls’s theory of justice. If you could make the perfect world for everyone, you would come up with a perfect world for everyone because you wouldn’t want a prejudiced society, you wouldn’t want a racist society, you wouldn’t want a sexist society. You’d want everyone to be OK.
For me, the enemy is dogmatism, when people say, “Ah, but Stalin was an atheist.” If your system is “obey without question” then it’s a betrayal of human potential.
But that’s pretty fundamental to religion. It’s how spirituality was mugged and made into religion. Spirituality was for the individual, religion was to control people, and the power was in the people who controlled religion.
It’s no coincidence that Mormonism was invented by a married man who read: “I’ve got to have more wives.” Oh really? That’s interesting. He didn’t come back and say apparently you’ve got to have loads of men. It’s not the word of God. Some bloke wrote that.
But when I’ve talked to vicars they’re often more racked with doubt than anybody.
But it doesn’t make sense, Robin. When the religious start to use science to their own ends, it’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing they say that evolution’s just a theory. They don’t know what a theory is.
So they get these little nuggets: they say things like, “What, you believe the universe came from nothing?” I go: “Well, again, we have to start defining what nothing is and what you mean by it. And also imagine we don’t know anything about the Big Bang or where everything came from. God doesn’t solve anything. What, was he there? Did he do the Big Bang?” It doesn’t solve anything; it just puts a full stop – it’s like they’ve just closed a door. That’s all they’ve done, and they’ve signed it off. Argument done. We never have to think of anything again. God did it.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about humanity’s ability to exist without rigorous rules, without a sense of something that is beyond them, that might take away their responsibility?
I have ultimate hope in humanity, yes, because I have ultimate faith. You’re allowed to use the word “faith”: again, they stole that. [Laughter]
I have faith we’ll either survive or we won’t. I think we’ve got to do it right to survive. And again, we don’t know what way that’ll go. Religion is so … transient. It’s like, how many have there been? If you were to destroy every single reference book in the world now, wipe everyone’s mind … including religion, no religion would come back the same. But in 10,000 years’ time, we’d have the same periodic table, we’d have the same laws of the universe, we’d have the same real knowledge. Because it’s consistent, whatever we know is irrelevant.
The delight of science is that there is never a conclusion – it must keep moving.
When I was like five, six, seven and I’d heard about the universe, I used to lie awake at night and try to imagine it. When I got to where I thought was as big as I could get in my head, I’d put a wall round it, but I’d soon realise there was something over the other side of the wall and I’d have to start again.
So do you think that organised religion is assurance in an uncertain universe?
I’ve swapped the word “God” with luck/nature and it works perfectly. Everything works perfectly. God created the universe, God is good to me, sometimes he’s bad to me. And I was thinking about this the other day – the other thing I think you can swap the word “God” with is the phrase “I don’t know”. If you swap “God” with “I don’t know”, it explains an awful lot, in terms of epistemology, not in terms of morals or upshots.
What created the universe? I don’t know. Why did I get cancer? I don’t know. Why are some people born into countries of starvation? I don’t know, I don’t know. It works.