If you haven’t seen The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais, I highly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, Gervais and his supporting cast are extremely talented, and it’s very funny. It’s set in a world where no one has the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth, all the time. In fact, not only can people not lie, they don’t even seem to have the ability to omit the truth.
Gervais discovers fairly early in the film that he has the ability to lie. This is so revolutionary that his attempt to explain it to a friend is couched in the terms you or I might use to describe the sudden acquisition of a superpower. And his friend literally cannot comprehend the concept that Gervais could say a thing that is different from what he did.
Very soon Gervais, who is a decent man, is using his power to make people feel better, including his dying mother. He tells her that she will go to be with a Man In The Sky after she dies, and soon religion is born, as Gervais story catches on and spreads, and he is acclaimed a prophet.
The obvious message in the film is that religions are spread by the clever to the gullible and that we should stop being stupid. But I somehow think the film’s creators didn’t realize just how badly they undercut their own point, here. Gervais’s character can only become a prophet because he is born the sole liar in a world where deception is literally unimaginable. It’s funny because it is so different from the world we inhabit: a world where everyone is conditioned to tell social lies (Don’t believe me? Try out what happens if you respond to “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine” or “Great” when it’s not a close friend talking to you) and we are bombarded with lies from every angle. From people who want to sell us their products, their politics, and, yes, their religion, we swim in a sea of lies, because the alternative is to drown in them.
How much sense, therefore, does it make to conclude that all religion is merely a pack of lies foisted on gullible people? The film shows the tactic working, yes but it works only because these people have no concept of what a lie is in the first place. I suppose that it is very tempting to believe that somehow we are smarter and less gullible than our ancestors, but such a view is more a measure of our own gullibility and ignorance than it is of theirs. The ancestors we think of as ignorant and gullible raised Stonehenge to observe the stars, kept astronomical tables accurate to thousands of years, and were very well aware of the tendency of those in power to lie, and to use religion to shield their lies, as a cursory reading of both the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament will show. Such people were certainly not going to believe, on the face of it, any smiling prophet who just showed up and said, “God told me.” Oh, they believed in God(s) without question. But there’s a big difference between that and giving a prophet carte blanche to fool you. The idea that are ancestors were dumb and we are smart is nothing more than bigotry, encouraged by the fact that dead people don’t protest slander against them.
Of course, none of this proves that any given religion (or all religion) is not a lie, or is not a mistake. But if so, it must be an exceedingly clever lie, or an exceedingly persuasive mistake. Stupid prophets do not found major religions. Stupid prophets drink their own Kool-Aid, or wind up immolating themselves and their followers, or slaughtered by their own angry and disappointed disciples. But it is always comforting to imagine that the people you despise and fear are stupid, because if they are, then they deserve no sympathy and are ultimately harmless to you. It’s also usually a mirage, giving its adherents the confident belief that they can attack their enemies without hesitation because victory will be easy over a foe too cowardly to fight and too stupid to win. Such attacks usually end badly for the attackers: Sedan, Leningrad, Kursk, Pearl Harbor.
Recent attacks on religion, and especially Christianity, betray the same sort of fanatic confidence. They begin by asking us to believe that Christ was merely a man, which does at least make a kind of sense, and end by asking us to believe that he never existed at all, and was a kind of myth, generated by a shadowy cabal of cultists. The evidence for this is convoluted and negative at best, and ignores a very central historical fact: the rise of the Christian Church. The physical and textual evidence for Christ’s existence is only shaky if one ignores the overwhelming historical record of His Church. After all, by AD 60 there were already enough Christians in Rome for Nero to blame a fire on them.
It is an extremely disingenuous tactic of the antireligious, who so often pride themselves on their reliance on evidence, to insist that religion alone begins out of pure delusion. A group of frauds make up a story, and a group of idiots believe it, and suddenly, you have a major religion, so their story goes. But I have to ask, in what other field of endeavor do we see humans in large masses believing something that is based on a mere story that people made up? And not only believing in it, but giving their lives for it and building whole nations and governments to support it? As far as I know, there has never been an empire founded without an emperor, or an army led by a general who didn’t exist. I am open to correction on this point.
It is, of course, possible to find records of legends that people later believed to be true historical characters: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Prester John to name a few. But while people have searched for evidence of these men and come up short, no one ever encountered entire living societies that believed strongly in the truth of these figures. Perhaps the best example of such a teacher in a position analogous to Jesus would be Socrates (whose existence is in doubt, but is hardly disproven). The words of Socrates, if he is indeed a fictional character, have certainly influenced many. But while Socrates himself was willing to die for the truth and the good, very few, of any, have been willing to die for the teachings of Socrates. There are no temples to his name, and no teachings of his church. And there never were. It is possible to imagine communism without Marx, perhaps, but it is impossible to imagine Marxism without him.
And so we are forced back to the obvious conclusion: that Jesus was a real man, and that something more complex than a simple lie convinced people to believe in His resurrection. For me, it takes more faith in the incomprehensible to imagine that a band of people would face death at the hands of at least two major competing powers for decades for the sake of a fairy tale they believe in, let alone a cause they knew to be false, when belief in that cause brought them so little reward. Eventually, of course, propagating a “myth” of resurrection might bring great wealth an power to the Church leadership, but no one suffers death, torture and deprivation for the sake of strangers centuries in the future who might become insanely wealthy and powerful. The power of lying is great, but it is, in the end, only a lie.
About the Author
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.
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