Multi award-winning stand-up comedian, screenwriter, and actor Ricky Gervais received the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award in London on September 3, 2019. The Richard Dawkins Award has been given since 2003, but this was the inaugural award under auspices of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). New guidelines for the award, drafted by Richard Dawkins and adopted in June 2019 by the CFI board (on which Dawkins serves), state that “The recipient will be a distinguished individual from the worlds of science, scholarship, education, or entertainment who publicly proclaims the values of secularism and rationalism, upholding scientific truth wherever it may lead.”
Gervais is known for his brilliant wit, often deployed in his public appearances to advocate entertainingly for science, rationalism, critical thinking, and secularism, always with humor and a ready smile.
We asked CFI CEO and President Robyn Blumner, who introduced the evening event, for her first-person report.
The event could hardly have been more spectacular or entertaining. On September 3 at the Troxy Theatre in London, Ricky Gervais was awarded the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award before a sold-out crowd of 2,000.
The award was given to Gervais in recognition of his outspoken atheism and his wonderfully comic defense of rational thinking. He joins other winners, including Bill Maher, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, and last year’s winner, Stephen Fry.
In bestowing the award during the Center for Inquiry–sponsored event, Richard Dawkins gave a moving tribute, calling Gervais a “witty hero of atheism and reason.” And Dawkins mined some of Gervais’s most profound and profoundly funny comments about the absurdity of religion, the defense of atheism, and his philosophy of life.
About life and death, Dawkins pointed to Gervais’s spot-on observation that “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for. We have everything to live for.” Dawkins also delighted in this Gervais gem: “That’s the best thing about being dead. You don’t know about it. It’s like being stupid: it’s only painful for others.”
And, Dawkins said, “I’ve never known quite how to cope with the retort that it’s only extremists who get a religion a bad name. Ricky’s retort hits the nail on the head: ‘You could easily spot any Religion of Peace. Its extremist members would be extremely peaceful.’”
The evening’s main event was a conversation between Gervais and Dawkins, moderated by best-selling author and psychology professor Richard Wiseman. (Dawkins and Wiseman are both fellows of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.)
That’s where Gervais disclosed that when he first came to America he was told not to mention that he was an atheist because it could put his audiences off. “It’s the first thing I did!” he said, demonstrating his celebrated fearlessness.
The discussion included some of the more ridiculous and clueless questions about evolution that have been asked, such as whether a “Croco-Duck” is possible. This led the conversation to an exploration of the oddities of the platypus, which, as Gervais pointed out, is a mammal that lays eggs, producing both eggs and milk. “It could make its own custard,” he quipped.
When Wiseman asked Gervais, “In what direction do you see yourself going in the future?” He said, without missing a beat, “Downhill.”
Well, there’s no sign of that. Having Gervais and Dawkins on stage together made it historic. Their wit—and that of Richard Wiseman—made it also grand fun.