Stephen Fry, an avowed atheist with undoubted wit and encyclopaedic knowledge, has hit the headlines again, this time with an unexpected left field response to what was probably intended to be a standard type frivolous light-weight introductory question. In this instance Ireland’s RTE television station interviewer, Gay Byrne, began by asking Fry to humor him and suppose for a start that God really does exist.
“Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, or it?” Although we cannot be certain what Byrne was expecting by way of response he appeared totally gob-smacked at the direct reply.
Fry said he would respond by asking:
“Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?” ….. and…. that was just the start.
His next imagined response to God…… “How dare you create a world where there is so much misery! It’s not right, it’s utterly evil”.
This was followed by: “Why should I respect a capricious mean minded stupid God, which creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
The interviewer Byrne then asked if this might then disqualify Fry from entering heaven.
Fry’s response? He wouldn’t want to get to heaven on God’s terms because those terms are wrong!
I am afraid I cannot join in the chorus of apoplectic protest criticizing Fry for being unthinking and irreverent. I would however like to suggest that no matter how frivolous Stephen Fry might seem, he raises a very critical issue. If we assume that creation is designed with love for humanity in mind, it would take someone either very hard hearted or alternatively very obtuse not to notice the blindingly obvious. The problems and suffering are not fairly distributed. A traditional creator God who is wise and loving and who intervenes in response to prayer would not fit the world we encounter.
If a faith is first and foremost tied to ancient tradition, Fry has a point. A pre-scientific age where disaster and illness are associated with malevolent forces, or for that matter, good fortune attributed to the favor of a interfering and sometimes capricious God, is not the age in which we live. If such a notion of God and nature was still all we had, then we would be stuck with having to placate such a being as best we might. But surely this is failing to recognize the world and the universe for what they are now known to be.
First and foremost we now know the whole show is not designed with humans in mind. Those who claim that disaster is God’s way of visiting punishment on naughty people who don’t follow his law are shutting their eyes to the obvious. Despite many claims to the contrary, most of us most us now realize examples of disease and most catastrophes in the natural world already have explanations related to the workings of nature. Cancer is not linked to sin, but it is linked to DNA mutation and genetic damage. Chalking crosses on doors to ward off the Black Death is inexcusable in an age when our scientists can identify and treat the causes. Earthquakes and storms are now understood to be natural phenomena. Putting it another way, storms on Venus or Jupiter have nothing to do with homosexuality or witches.
Where I do take issue with Fry, is in his apparent rejection of a picture of God from another age. While it is true that creationists and Bible literalists are still with us, I would have thought that for most modern Church leaders, their theological education of the 21st Century had been designed with contemporary knowledge in mind. If Stephen Fry thinks that what he is criticizing is mainstream Christian understanding, perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we have not made the contemporary understanding better known.
We might also need to remind ourselves that the problem of suffering is not a novel question and many thinking religious thinkers and philosophers have faced this as an issue many times through the centuries. Whether earlier responses are still relevant is a matter of opinion.
Now for the challenge. Since the aim of this site is not so much to state the truth as to encourage the visitor to think, the challenge is to come up with a coherent response to Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Byrne. Is there anyone out there prepared to give this a go?