Ricky Gervais is an outspoken atheist. He is also a comic, actor and producer. His latest television project is Derek. The first season is out on Netflix and on YouTube. Derek is a character that Gervais has portrayed for years. He calls Derek a funny little nerd who is the kindest person in the world. In fact, he saw Derek as such a hero, as someone that he would want to be, that he created the show in order to bring his message to the world.
One of the difficult places of friction between theists and atheists often is the question of how one can develop a moral code without a belief that it comes from a higher being. Gervais gives us his take on that in the voice of Derek in the next to last episode of season one:
I don’t think it matters if there is a god or not. I’ve met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I’ve met people who don’t believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I’m good. Not cos I think I’ll go to heaven but because when I do something bad, I feel bad. And when I do something good, I feel good.
I can’t say that I have an argument with that position. The Apostle Paul had something to say about living without being good when he said that if he had all knowledge and all faith and even sacrificed himself for a cause, but didn’t have love that he was little more than a noisy bell perhaps attracting attention but accomplishing nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). No, encouraging others to be good for goodness sake is something in my theism that I share with Gervais in his atheism. Another thing we share in common is the methodology of sharing that message. I imagine he would agree that story telling is more likely to motivate change than simply giving the instruction “be good.” Perhaps one of the gifts of failed just-pray-the-sinner’s-prayer, words only evangelism is remembering that we have a treasure trove of stories that we, like Jacob encountering the angel, can and should wrestle with.
Derek is a character that from the accepted standards of success would be judged a failure. But his friends know that that is simply not true. In his failing to accomplish things in the expected and accepted manner, Derek finds the gift of the best shortcut there is. Near the end of the first year finale (if you care to watch just this portion, it begins at 19:43 in the video embedded below), Derek’s friend Kevin names that gift:
I always try the easy way out…always what I thought was the easy way out, always look for an angle, look for a shortcut. I should have tried, have worked hard. I gambled and I drank. I begged and I hoped. I’m a coward, a failure I guess. I’m not a failure ’cause I didn’t succeed. I’m a failure ’cause I didn’t try. I’m just glad I met Derek, you know. Not cos he’s better than me, cos everyone’s better than me…cos he makes be feel better…c0s he’s better than everyone. Derek took the best shortcut you can, the only shortcut that’s good, the only shortcut that works…and that’s kindness.
My belief in God comes from a personal experience that ultimately will only convince me of God’s existence. You need to confirm or deny that for yourself. But surely none of us would care to deny the great power of love to transform this sometimes hellish life into what might be the only heaven we ever know. I call that power God and I look to be inspired by the stories my faith tradition has passed on to me. There are plenty of folks like Ricky Gervais who are OK with kindness without a divine label. I don’t need him to agree with me about the existence of God in order to receive the gift he offers in his art. He may have “failed” at theism, but he didn’t miss the gift.