It was hard not to feel some admiration for Ricky Gervais’s speech at the Golden Globes this year, when he took Hollywood celebrities to task for rank hypocrisy. On the woke posturing of the same A-Listers who work for ethically dubious corporations, Gervais commented: “If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent”. On the actors’ nauseating political speeches: “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything, you know nothing about the real world”.
But this was also Gervais the militant atheist, something more difficult for Catholics to stomach. He told the winners to “thank your God”, and made a tasteless remark about the film The Two Popes.
In his Netflix sitcom After Life, Gervais the atheist certainly dominates. He plays the middle-aged Tony, whose wife Lisa has prematurely died of breast cancer. Tony spits acid cynicism at the world as he wallows in suicidal grief.
His work as a feature writer on a freesheet in the fictional small town of Tamworth has the funniest moments. He reports on a patch of mould that looks like Sir Kenneth Branagh, and a comically obese boy that can play a duet of “London’s Burning” on two recorders, one placed up each nostril.
At its worst, the dialogue in After Life feels staged to provide a platform for Gervais’ ire against religion. A supporting character – a colleague at the newspaper named Kath – provides a foil for Tony to deliver diatribes against belief in God.
At first, Kath is belittled after mentioning crystal therapy or the interpretation of dreams. But sure enough it moves into conversations involving the well-worn tropes of that generation of atheists to which Gervais belongs, the so-called “New Atheists”. So he’s asked how he can act morally if he doesn’t believe in heaven and hell, and he presents God as an imaginary friend for those who cannot stomach the unquestioned “facts” of scientific materialism.
After Life only has 30-minute episodes, so it might be churlish to belabour the lack of intellectual sophistication in those exchanges. But these conversations are only a part of the atheistic message. Behind the explicit condemnations of religion, the entire series – including its title – is actually premised on a key feature of hardline atheism: the unwillingness to entertain any notion of an afterlife whatsoever. It tells the story of Tony’s life after his loved-one has gone. Any question about Lisa’s afterlife in another world is dismissed as absurd and naïve.
As with the Golden Globes speech, however, Gervais makes important points alongside all the atheist potshots. He eventually emerges from his suicidal grief and cynicism by performing generous and thoughtful deeds for those around him. He even learns to love the ridiculous local characters he writes about. His work stops seeming meaningless because he gives these farcical people a moment where they feel acknowledged, when they can say “I was here”.
It is therefore a shame the dialogue is littered with cheap gags at the expense of people of faith. Indeed, the more meaningful moments display elements of atheist humanism which are actually derived from Christianity.
For instance, Tony believes that life on earth is meaningful because it is the only life we have. But history suggests this idea comes naturally to a Christian civilisation. The ancient Israelites and early Christians fought against a number of Eastern-type sects with beliefs in reincarnation and a cyclic view of time. It was the Jewish and Christian God that declared this life to be infinitely precious precisely because it is unrepeatable.
It was the same God that said compassionate and loving deeds focused on the good of others are a primary source of value and meaning, and that all people share a profound dignity – even someone whose only claim to fame is playing the recorder through his nose.
These Christian origins of humanism were something Pope Benedict XVI often reflected on. It was, for instance, one reason that Benedict entertained doubts about Turkey joining the EU. (Although he became more sympathetic over time.) He saw Enlightenment principles as rooted in Christianity, so if they were to take hold in a Muslim country they must develop organically from within that context, not be superimposed.
But another aspect to the series is also worth commenting on. Cardinal Sarah has said he wishes the atheist Albert Camus had moved from a place of “refusal” to “renunciation”.
Something similar can be said about those who suffer the most heart-breaking and inexplicable losses – as Tony does in After Life, before reacting with anger towards religion.
Pastorally speaking, there is much to be said for giving the bereaved space to voice their rawest, most anguished feelings to God. Gervais’s brutal portrayal thus feels refreshingly honest, much better than our clumsy attempts to invoke comfort with epithets about a “better place”.