The Invention of Lying

Last night I went out with some friends to see this movie. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s essentially a vastly amusing thought experiment put together by Ricky Gervais. The premise: Imagine a world where humanity never evolved the ability to deceive. Not only are people incapable of telling a lie, but they can’t even lie by omission – they basically say whatever’s on their mind. There aren’t even white lies, told to save someone’s feelings. The truth is just brutal and honest. And everyone believes everything everyone else says, since they can’t even conceive of the idea of “false.”

Now, introduce Gervais’ character, Mark Bellison, a screenwriter for Lecture Films, a hit movie company that makes… lectures about history, since fiction doesn’t exist. Bellison is basically a loser on his way down to the bottom, when in a moment of desperation he suddenly develops the ability to lie. Astonished at his ability to say “things that aren’t…” – never finishing this phrase, since “true” is meaningless in this world – he attempts to demonstrate his ability to his friends, but they simply accept all the lies he says as true, no matter how ridiculous, because they can’t even begin to detect that they aren’t true.

Eventually, Bellison uses his newfound talent to get rich and famous, after making the first fictional screenplay in the history of mankind (which everyone believes without hesitation). But when his ailing mother is close to death, he rushes to the hospital, and out of the anguish of hearing his mother speak of the eternity of nothingness to come, he invents heaven. He forgets that he’s not alone with his mother, and the hospital staff overhears.

Soon, the word spreads of this amazing news that there is something more after you die, and the entire world is literally waiting for Mark to reveal more of what he knows. In due course he invents God (the “man in the sky who controls everything”), religious doctrines about morality, and the ideas of prayer and hell.

That’s all I’ll give away. I strongly encourage you to watch this film.

Though it’s clearly fictional, this movie gives an interesting glimpse into some of the more biting criticisms of religion.

When Mark tells everyone that everything that happens, good and bad, are all because of the man in the sky, the crowd becomes enraged that he could be so callous, calling the man in the sky a prick and shouting that they should find him and stop him before it’s too late. But Mark quickly pacifies them by reminding them that there’s an eternity of good stuff waiting after a short life of bad stuff. I see this justification all the time from evangelical Christians; that we shouldn’t question why bad things happen in this life, because there’s an eternal reward afterward. Ignore the fact that any other being that did the things their god does would be considered a monster; since heaven is there waiting, God could be as much of a prick as he wants to be, and it would be inconsequential; the ends justify the means.

Two of Mark’s friends also decide that they’re going to spend the rest of their lives being self-destructive, since that would get them to their eternal happy place even faster. I’ve always thought this was odd: if Christians think that an eternity of bliss waits for them after death, why are they so eager to live as long as they possibly can? Could it be that there’s a kernel of doubt hidden away inside? Like comedian Doug Stanhope said, “If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?” Eternal life makes this temporary life nothing but a speed bump.

All in all, I really liked this movie. It’s equal parts sweet, funny, and thought-provoking. Needless to say, it’s raised a bit of a furor among religious circles. I’ve seen Christian movie reviewing sites who call it “anti-Christian” regardless of the fact that it’s about a generic deity (though to be fair, some of the sight gags are specifically related to aspects of Christian mythology). Many people are showing their aggravatingly typical fatwa envy: “Just imagine – if he did the same type of film regarding Islamist religion – he’d be marked for death!” (What is it about these people that makes them wish that their religion allowed for the murder of anyone who made something they find offensive?) I can understand the hurt feelings; I don’t think I would’ve liked this movie as a believer, and I’m sure I’d have been angry if not at least uncomfortable. But as an ex-believer, I found this movie intriguing. It’s not exactly Sartre or Nietzsche, but it’s a nice bit of pop philosophy nonetheless, and it made me think more than most movies do nowadays.

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