The Certainty of Belief

Eddie Izzard is my favorite comedian right now, so we went to see his live show. Sometimes he performs in a sequined dress, but this time, when he appeared on stage, he wore jeans and a jacket with tails. Not animal tails, but tails like orchestra conductors wear. Perhaps that went without saying.

Eddie Izzard talks about a lot of things in his act, from the use of elephants in warfare to what it was like playing Scrabble before the invention of words. But, as in a therapy session, there's something ringingly significant about the first thing that comes out your mouth, and the first thing that came out of Eddie Izzard's mouth was this: "If God existed, he would have flicked Hitler's head off."

An hour or so later, between two wildly unrelated subjects, Izzard suddenly interjected, "You pray for something, and it happens. You pray for something, and it doesn't happen. That sounds very much like 'random.'"

Two funny observations -- or, more precisely, one funny observation and one mirth-inducing word picture. You can't help but be tickled, imagining some all-powerful Being placing His giant forefinger against His thumb, then releasing His forefinger, and flicking Hitler's head off. There it goes, a head with a rectangular mustache on it, bouncing along the cobblestone.

Izzard's later pronouncements capsulize the nonbeliever's take on the absurdity of prayer: a pithy dismissal of "Dear God, let me have this" -- or, in the case of some terminal illness you'd like God to take away, "Dear God, let me not have this."

When he did those jokes, I watched Eddie's face, and I listened to his voice. He seemed stricken. And alone, abandoned, damaged, and scared, which he covered with a studied irritation and a lofty disdain.

Of course, there is always the possibility that I misread the entire thing.

Izzard wanted God to flick Hitler's head off. And since God didn't come through, he feels royally upset. It occurs to him that his belief in a Supreme Being -- which we all have at some point, I can't imagine people are born atheists -- has been seriously misplaced. And he decides that he's not going to believe anymore.

He will punish the Supreme Being who didn't deliver by not believing in him anymore. That'll show him.

That will show someone you believe doesn't exist?

Izzard's not the only comedian who seems upset with a God he's convinced doesn't exist. On his HBO series, Bill Maher frequently "goes off" on the foolishness of believing, cranking up his wrath against organized religion and the devastation it's wrought in the name of whatever God the "True Believers" were slaughtering people to honor.

The second part, I agree with. Organized religion has a lot 'splaining to do, from the we're-holier-than-you-are-so-we're-killing-you mentality, to selling "indulgences" to their followers, bribes to get into heaven paid to authorized hucksters who had no control over the matter.

It's the first part I'm not crazy about. I've heard Maher equate the belief in the existence of God with the belief in the existence of Santa Claus. To which, I reply, in my fantasy where I'm a panelist on his show, "It's not the same."

"How do you know it's not the same?" he retorts, with practiced Maherian disdain.

To which I reply, "We know where the presents come from. But we don't know where we come from."

You can sense some appreciative murmuring in the audience, though nothing overt, because it's his show and his audience. Still, there's no denying that I'm right. Why? Because we know where the presents come from, and we don't know where we come from.

In my fantasy, Maher appears chastened but unbowed.

"I still think it's a load of shit", he replies, saving face, without disputing my argument. And saying "shit" because he's on cable.

I'm not a believer. Sometimes, I wish I were. I envy the comfort and community believers share. Maher will have none of it. He derides the religious people's certainty as an adherence to a dogma entirely lacking in verifiable evidence.

Which gets me thinking, "Who does that remind me of?" And then it hits me: him.

Earl Pomerantz's blog can be reached at