Reverend Calls Ricky Gervais the ‘Jerry Falwell of Atheism’ for Mocking #PrayForOklahoma

I appeared on a HuffPost Live segment yesterday in which Ron Lindsay and I (and two Christians) spoke about the #PrayForOklahoma hashtag.

See if you can spot the moment when I go silently crazy because one of the guests argues that Ricky Gervais is almost like the “Jerry Falwell of atheism” for sending out this tweet:


Apparently, we’ve been defining “prayer” the wrong way this whole time. Prayer, you see, *includes* taking action. (Go, Ron Lindsay, for remaining calm the whole time while I was about ready to flip over my laptop.)

At least the host made the point that there are many Christians out there who really do believe that their prayers will have an effect on other people.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Rain

    Now that I look a it again, Wolf is extremely pushy with that question. It does seem kinda suspicious. Or maybe Wolf just says spontaneously irrelevant things from time to time. I don’t watch him very much. Maybe he always projects his religious beliefs onto everyone he ever frakkin interviews in the entire bleeping universe? I don’t really know. Hopefully the “Blitzer buffs” can chime in here and let us know.

  • C Peterson

    So… doesn’t that comment insult both Ricky Gervais and Jerry Falwell?

    • Pseudonym

      I suppose that had Falwell tried to host the Golden Globes, it would probably have been less of an embarrassment.

      Having said that, I do find it encouraging that comparing someone to Falwell is considered an insult.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Great interview, Hemant!

    • Rain

      Yeah I liked the part where the theologian said that serious theologians never say anything that says God ever actually does anything at all (or words to that effect).

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I have to acknowledge that Rev. Punnett has a point that it is a strawman to imply, or to passively allow the implication to stand, that prayer is always or too often a cheap substitute for real-world helpful action, and so results in less real help being done. But it’s also a strawman, as I think I heard someone point out, to assume that all such statements about the inefficacy of prayer are saying that those who pray do nothing else to help.

    Unless there’s a good body of research that I never heard of, we just don’t know how often praying acts as a cheap substitute, soothing and reducing a person’s urge to do something actually helpful, and/or how often, as Prof. Gay suggested, praying focuses a person’s thoughts toward others’ plight so that they’re more likely to actually help, and that that help will be more generous. I don’t think it has ever been measured.

    I don’t know how such a study could be designed, but the data would be fascinating. There have been studies showing the inefficacy of prayer for those for whom the prayers are said, but this would be a question about if and how does praying affect the real-world helpful behaviors of those who pray for others in need.

    • Alice

      Yeah, it’s like the quotes “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” and “Prayer doesn’t change things. It changes people, and they change things.”

      Prayer has a strong psychological effect, and I agree it would be interesting to see if it tends to make people more complacent or stir them to action.

      • http://www.facebook.com/katherine.hompes Katherine Hompes

        I would like to point out that the placebo effect of prayer has been empirically tested… It didn’t make any appreciable difference.

        • Pseudonym

          That’s not really what Alice is talking about, though. You do need to compare like with like.

          There is plenty of evidence, for example, that psychological preparation techniques which are very like prayer/meditation do help elite athletes perform better. They’re not a substitute for physical training, controlled diet and so on, but all other things being equal, athletes perform better if they do it than if they don’t.

        • Michael W Busch

          Not quite. Prayer has a measurable placebo effect if the person being prayed for knows about it (sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s negative). If the person being prayed for doesn’t know about it, there is no effect – which is why we can class it as a placebo.

          But that’s not quite what Alice is talking about. The question is more like “if someone prays for positive outcomes, are they more or less likely to take actions that would produce those outcomes?” .

      • Spuddie

        That’s all well and good but prayer is no substitute for showing enough concern to donate something of actual value for disaster relief. Gervais was snarky and dismissive, but he had a point.

    • http://www.dougberger.net Doug B.

      It doesn’t matter if prayer “works” or not because it is being used as a cheap way to say “I feel for you” like when people say “Bless you..” when you sneeze. Christians don’t want to have a deep look at if prayer “works” because they refuse to acknowledge when it doesn’t. If people were praying for the children in the Tower Plaza school why did seven of them still die or why did the atheist survive if God listened to prayer???

  • anniewhoo

    “I can’t answer to your cynicism”… apparently he couldn’t answer to your very straight forward comments either. Well done Hemant!

  • Glasofruix

    Well i really do believe i can win the lottery, but it’s not going to happen (because i’m not playing).

  • Guest

    I find it amusing that a Christian guest uses the name of another Christian (still respected by millions of evangelicals) as a negative example to compare Ricky Gervais to but I still don’t get *how* Gervais resembles Jerry Falwell in any respect.

    • JET

      Thinking they’re both equally obnoxious? If that’s the case, it’s nice to hear a preacher say something derogatory about a major evangelical preacher. I wish more of them would speak out.

      • Mario Strada

        Except that one of them is a comedian.

    • Pseudonym

      That makes sense, since the “reverend” in question (not named in the article, you will notice) is almost certainly not one of those “millions of evangelicals”.

      Falwell is just as much of a joke in mainline Christian circles as in atheist circles. Possibly more so, if you consider that Falwell was friends with Hugh Hefner.

  • JET

    I think I heard the Reverend say that prayer was just a way for people to get their thoughts organized and decide what course of action to take. I can’t argue with him there. Unfortunately, many theists actually think they ARE doing something productive by praying and that’s who Ricky Gervais was tweeting about. And since when does a tweet or a FB post count as a prayer? I don’t remember reading about that in a Bible. But maybe God went and got himself an iPhone…

  • compl3x

    Does anyone else agree that many people who post things like #prayforoklahoma probably don’t even actually pray for Oklahoma? It’s just some stupid retweeted hash tag people do as an exercise in conformity?

    Gervais and Falwell are nothing alike. Silly comparison.

    • JET

      Yes. It’s just their way of showing their friends how good and compassionate they are. And I think he was saying that both Gervais and Falwell tweet stupid things.

      • Pseudonym

        Falwell died before Twitter made it big, but if he meant they both say stupid things in public… I guess that’s a fair cop.

      • compl3x

        I don’t think Falwell ever tweeted and I can’t see anything stupid about what Gervais tweeted.

    • Cafeeine

      If I can use my own memories of when I was a theist, I often considered the good thoughts I had, or my desire or wish that said bad thing didn’t happen to count as prayer, without going through with the ritual. The idea was sorta that desiring a prayer was equivalent to a prayer.

      Then again, it was this kind of chipping away at ritual that eventually led to my atheism, so YMMV.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    I find it amusing that a Christian guest uses the name of another Christian (still respected by millions of evangelicals) as a negative example to compare Ricky Gervais with but I still don’t understand the allusion. Did he mean that a typical Jerry Falwell comment was “fairly obnoxious… intended to provoke… but I don’t think it actually informs anything?” If so, then at least the Rev. Punnett and I have *some* understandings in common… about Jerry Falwell anyway.

  • wanderer

    yeah I wish he’d had an evangelical on there. would have been a WHOLE different debate.

  • DaveDodo007

    I thought it was funny and understandable to see Hemant nearly flip out. :-) That Ron Lindsay guy seems totally unflappable, it must be a great help to have such an impressive guy by your side even when taking on liberal Christians.

  • Robster

    According to the Iron age peasants that made the nonsense up, aren’t those afflicted with christianity supposed to do their prayer ritual in private? Surely if the old book of myth says so, it must be done, or does it? Come to think of it, they mostly ignore the stuff that doesn’t reflect their own mores.


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