The God Problem by Barbara Nadel

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Last week, at the Golden Globe Awards in America, the British comedian Ricky Gervais made a bit of a gaffe. Mr Gervais, the compare for the evening, is well known for his sometimes cringingly cruel humour and so everyone was expecting shots at people like Robert Downey Jr about his drinking, drug convictions etc. What no one could have anticipated however was what Gervais said as he finally left the glittering Golden Globe Stage for the last time. ‘Thank God for making me an atheist,’ he said. It was a throwaway remark that was greeted by murmurs of shock and open-mouthed disbelief. This was then followed by a slew of complaints to the network.

Ricky Gervais has been ‘big’ in America for some years now. In fact he spends more time there than he does back here in the UK. Unless he deliberately wanted to put his career in jeopardy he should have known better. In the USA one doesn’t ‘dis’ God and one certainly doesn’t publicise one’s atheism if one wants to be liked. Although officially a secular nation, the USA is actually a very religious country. The UK, by contrast, and in spite of actually having a state religion, is a very secular place indeed. Over here a crack like ‘Thank God for making me an atheist’ would attract peals of laughter. No one would complain about such a comment and the number of those shocked by it could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. In common with our other western European neighbours, the UK is a country where religion is viewed as something that is a matter of individual choice and belief. Only on rare occasions will you be judged and criticised because of your lack of religious faith and, in some spheres of operation, secularity will actually be encouraged.

As well as Ricky Gervais’ gaff we also had ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair having his moment in the great sun of cringing embarrassment this week. Called back to the inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War, Mr Blair was pushed even further towards the admission that, should it ever inadvertently slip from his lips, will have people in this country baying louder than ever before for some sort of retribution. He told the inquiry that the UK entered the war alongside the USA because he personally had promised ‘our’ support to George W Bush. He was only a whisker away from going into his ‘divine destiny’ shtick. Oh my God.

Mr Blair has always been very open about his Christian faith. Not everyone was comfortable with that as British politicians, unlike their American counterparts, are not supposed to ‘do God’ publicly. In spite of the state religion thing, we are a multicultural nation which means that our Prime Minister must represent not only Christians, but Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Atheists and Agnostics – you name it. Basically he or she must show his or her impartiality.

I think that most of us would have forgiven Mr Blair ‘doing God’ if he hadn’t taken this country into war. For his friend George W Bush, the war in Iraq was a mission, a crusade laced with religious rhetoric and images of noble Christian warriors freeing the oppressed peoples of the Middle East from their barbarous dictators. It was, as now even the most Bushophile of all Bushophiles must know, a massive error. If, as Bush has said openly and Blair has implied, God was indeed guiding their efforts, what was He thinking?

As a woolly agnostic of course, I haven’t a clue. But one thing I do know is that feelings and opinions about God do not travel easily to and fro across the Atlantic. Here in the UK we may share a common language with most Americans, but our cultures and especially our religious conceptions are very, very different. ‘Do’ God too much in Western Europe and, more crucially ‘do God’ and mess it up royally and you will end up, like Tony Blair, looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life. In the States, don’t ‘do’ God and be very public about that and pay a heavy price. Blair and Gervais are very different people but they both, basically, made the same gaffe for exactly the same reason. They both entirely misread the cultural norms of the people they were ‘playing’ to. Of course ego played a very big part in this too as did, I imagine, some misplaced feelings of invulnerability. But both Gervais and Blair were wrong. No one is as ‘big’ as whoever and/or whatever God may be and no individual can possibly trump a whole nation however witty and clever he or she might be. Europe and the USA are two great continents separated by, amongst other things, their very different conceptions of the Almighty.

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