Atheist Comedian Gets It Right

Here is an interview with my favourite public atheist Tim Minchin. By favourite, I mean least obnoxious and most entertaining. He seems to realise that bilious verbal attacks and endless sarcasm do nothing to endear oneself to those you disagree with, and certainly do nothing to change their minds. He has the whole Tom Lehrer thing going too (although his graduation talk was a paint-by-numbers affair).

What strikes me about Tim Minchin is not only that he understands that mankind does not really have “free will” in the sense that it is commonly believed, but that he acts on this understanding. He doesn’t just assent to it as a fact, but it affects how he relates to people; specifically, with much greater compassion than most of his atheist associates and fanboys.

From the interview:

I don’t believe I deserve credit for anything I’ve done, because I don’t really believe in free will. Not that I’m a determinist, but it’s all luck, one hundred percent luck, and if I work hard, I was lucky enough to be taught to work hard.

He is ahead of many theists in this regard; theists who believe (somewhere, deep down) that they chose to turn to God – the right decision – and that whilst they are totally “saved by grace”, it did in fact depend on their own volition in some way (though they would never admit it). And that they are “free moral agents”, such that a child soldier who was kidnapped as a toddler and taught brutality all their lives can “choose” love and mercy and to turn to Christ as easily as a middle class child raised in comfort and attending weekly Sunday school.

Obviously, the different between me and Tim (other than the hair, and the creative disparity, and the accent) is that he believes the zillion influences that undermine our “free” will are luck or un-luck respectively, whereas I would suggest that God has something to do with it.

But he seems to deal with people compassionately, on the basis that “there but for the (luck/grace of God) go I”, and whilst individuals can make choices and do take responsibility for those choices, ultimately there was a long and near-infinitely complex series of events, experiences and reactions that led them to make that decision. Why one choice, seemingly baffling to someone else, is the most obvious and reasonable one for that person to make.

He says:

We excuse ourselves from culpability by going “that’s an evil person – Rolf Harris is evil, we thought he was good but he’s evil, he sold us a lie” – and that’s just not how humans work, there’s no such thing.

…and so he echoes Francis Spufforth, who I’ve commented on in the past.

The fact that we are all flawed – and that the degree to which this is displayed or hidden is largely incidental/environmental – is nothing new. Paul writes:

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart… For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? Corinthians 4

Although in the context of this letter he was speaking about receiving the gospel, surely it is relevant to any way in which one person seems more fortunate than another.

When we succeed, the correct response is not pride but thankfulness. When we see wrongdoing, compassion should temper our anger. And when we fail, we should remember that we were met while we were yet far off.