(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
In a series of recent posts titled The Noble Lie (part 1, part 2, and part 3), I explored the idea of whether lies can have some positive benefits. The highly enjoyable film by comedian Ricky Gervais adds interesting perspectives to this question. (Note: Almost everything in this review about the film can be seen in the trailer below, so there are no real spoilers.)
For those not unfamiliar with the film’s premise, it uses the alternate reality concept that starts by assuming that the world is pretty much the same as it is now, except for one key feature: people don’t tell lies. Everyone tells the truth. The concept of a lie is unknown to them. As a result, people live miserable lives because there is no escape from reality. The idea of a ‘white’ lie, told with good intentions to cheer someone up, is totally absent. People tell each other the truth about what is on their minds, however brutal and unkind it might be, such as that they are ugly or losers or that they hate them. Old people in nursing homes, for example, are told that they are going to die soon. What would seem to us to be cruel or callous behavior is normal in this world.
Invariably telling the truth also leads to some comical setups. For example, there is no such thing as fiction or feature films or TV programs as we know them. They do have films and TV but all they show are people reading scripts that describe actual historical events. They don’t even have re-enactments of real events. The stars of these films and TV shows are the readers and the scriptwriters. The ‘advertisements’ of products are hilarious because they tell the truth about them. For example, a spokesman says that Coke is nothing but brown sugared water and causes obesity but that he hopes people will continue to buy it.
The film starts with Gervais’ character Mark Bellison being fired from his scriptwriting job because he had the misfortune to be assigned to write scripts about the 14th century and the depressing events of that period about the plague and so on did not attracts lots of viewers. He is also not physically attractive, being fat with a snub nose, as the attractive woman he is wooing repeatedly keeps pointing out to explain why she cannot have a relationship with him.
Unable to pay the rent and in danger of being evicted, he goes to the bank to withdraw the last of his money. The computers are down and the teller asks him how much he has in his account. As he is about to answer truthfully, there is a misfiring of synapses in his brain and he blurts out a figure that is way more than he knows he has. Although the computers start working at that point and give a much lower figure, the teller assumes that the computer must be wrong and he is right, and gives him the larger amount he asked for.
Stunned, Bellison tries to digest what had just happened and tries out various lies on people to see the effect. He finds that he can be successful and make other people happy by, for example, telling his depressed and suicidal neighbor that things will get better. He spreads sweetness and light all around by telling the kind of white lies that we all tell to those we know and love: that they look good, that their clothes suit them, of course they have lost weight, and so on. So these lies have a positive effect and Bellison enjoys spreading joy.
Here’s the trailer:
What the trailer does not hint at is that the second half of the film has a lot to say about religion. It happens because Bellison’s attempt at spreading joy by telling little white lies snowballs into eventually telling people the Christian myths about heaven and of god as an omnipotent invisible man in the sky, although of course he does not use the words ‘heaven’ or ‘god’ because those words and concepts did not exist prior to his invention of the myths. When the people are told for the first time about the invisible man in the sky, they ask obvious questions, such as: Where in the sky? In the clouds? The troposphere? Deep space? Bellison makes up stuff as answers and the people believe him.
Gervais is making some interesting points with this film. One is that although Bellison’s lies result in something that resembles the claims of the religions we have today, the big difference is that in our reality, children are indoctrinated with these stories at an early age and are discouraged from questioning them, so that as adults they either unquestioningly accept them or accept ‘answers’ that are riddled with contradictions, and told to have faith that it will all make sense after they die. A second point is that although little white lies can bring about happiness, the big lies about heaven and god eventually lead to unhappiness as people now focus on the promises of heaven and how to get there, rather than living in the here and now.
The Invention of Lying is a very clever film. It is not easy to make alternate reality films that change just one key element of life as we know it now without creating gaping plot holes or inconsistencies but Gervais manages to pull it off pretty well. The film makes important points about religion while not losing sight of the fact that it is a comedy. It stays funny and does not become preachy. The fact that I agreed with the point of view of the film about the essential falsity of religion undoubtedly increased my enjoyment of it, and people who are religious may not like it as much.
But it was refreshing to see a film that treats religious beliefs without bogus or fawning reverence. The Invention of Lying tells the truth.
POST SCRIPT: Upcoming speaking engagements
On Saturday, February 20, 2010 at 10:30 am, I will be talking about the continuing efforts to undermine science to the North Coast Fossil Club at the Cuyahoga County Library in Parma, 2121 Snow Road, OH.
Then on Monday, February 22, 2010 I will be on a panel called Mythbusters: Religion Edition where people from various religions (and myself as the atheist) will briefly speak about one or two major misconceptions about their religions (or atheism), and then answer questions from the audience. This event is at 8:00 pm in the Great Room of House #4 of the Village at 115 (the new apartment-style dorms at Case Western Reserve University) at 1665 E. 115th Street, Cleveland.
Both events are free. The first one is open to the public while the second (Mythbusters) event is for students and faculty and staff at Case.