The Challenge Laid Down by Stephen Fry

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?

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11 Responses to The Challenge Laid Down by Stephen Fry

  1. You have missed the key point. IF god exists, and exists with enough power to create a universe so that human personalities can be magically transported to an alternate dimension upon their bodily demise, this god is also responsible for the state the Earth is in in terms of natural disasters, evil, disease and so forth. You say that you don’t believe in natural disasters being punishment from god, but not more than a few years ago the Bishop of Carlisle from the United Kingdom said that floods were a punishment for homosexuality.

    You can say you don’t believe in all these archaic religious beliefs now, it’s easy now that science has shown truths that religious enquiry never could. Disease is caused by germs, but what Stephen is saying is that the creator of the universe created the universe in such a way that these things were not only possible, but thrived better than humans did.

    What you appear to be propounding – as a response – is a belief in a deistic god, and I grant, in that scenario, it makes no sense. But that is not what he was responding to.

    • peddiebill says:

      I accept there is confusion here and I suspect a good deal of it comes from the still popular blind acceptance of previous ways of viewing what God meant to Israelites living in a pre-scientific age. It may help you to realise that a good many modern Christians view the word God in almost a poetic sense. Jim Burklo recently wrote the following:

      ” The word God evokes highest aspirations. It suggests the whole, and what makes me whole. It delivers me into the rich darkness of mystery, the allure of the unknown. It provokes possibility. It aims beyond what I can explain. The word God invites me beyond what I can imagine. The word God hints at the personality of the universe. It touches me with all-surpassing Love. The word God invokes curiosity, creativity. My uncertainty about what the word God means spins me into a healthy, humbling disequilibrium. It leaves me giddy.”

      For me this evokes what Einstein was talking about when he talked of the “music of the spheres”
      If you dont believe in poetry and insist that words can only be used when there is something concrete to describe – perhaps atheism is your only alternative because the evidence for an actual heavenly person in the sky who controls all is simply not there.

      Whether or not such poetry is helpful may possibly be tested another way. Are those who subscribe to Burklo’s God in mystery and love, behaving in a more helpful way as a consequence.

      Unfortunately for every Pope Francis who seems genuinely focussed on compassion and claiming to be inspired by God, there is a George W Bush claiming God told him to go into Iraq!! This in my view is why we need people like Stephen Fry with what some commentators have called “a brain as big as Kent” reminding us why we should not put our trust in a God whose portrayal in tradition doesnt match some painful realities.

      • I understand there are those who believe in god in the way in which you have described. But again, that is not what Fry is responding to. He is responding to the illogical – and very real – existence of a belief that ‘guides’ idiots like Bush into believing their actions are ratified by an all powerful (as Christopher Hitchens put it:) celestial dictator. Though the Iraq war is something we could discuss at length another time.

        I’m not sure if poetry is something you ‘believe’ in. It is human communication expressed in very creative forms, there is nothing mystical or divine about poetry, it is just well designed presentation of ideas, which, being a social mammal, we enjoy. I love poetry, it captures emotion, it can be very witty, satirical, and/or make you think. This is not reserved for the spiritual among us.

        “the evidence for an actual heavenly person in the sky who controls all is simply not there”
        – Well, you said it. Forgive me if this is out of turn, but given this statement, you basically sound like an atheist. This is the statement that all atheists argue is the case. A wishy washy sort of ‘feeling’ that you describe with the Burklo quote is no deity, it is a sense of wonder and a love for life, an embracing of your human form and all its chemistry. He even says: “My uncertainty about what the word God means…” which says it all. I have to admit, I love the idea of the Greek pantheon. I love learning about it, I love films about it, I even have a small bust of Zeus in my bedroom. It fascinates me that these people believed in such entities. It was concrete and meant something very important to them. Now they are widely considered myths, and that places those gods on a pedestal, in a glass case to be marvelled at, understood, and taken as what they are now, an explanation when we had none other. The gap in our understanding that has now been filled. It demonstrates our progression as animals, it shows that we now know better. One day, maybe that will be the case for everyone.

  2. peddiebill says:

    If the Bishop of Carlisle did indeed make the claim that floods were a punishment for homosexuality I cant see why that should make me defer to his point of view. I happen to think such claims are pleasantly nutty!
    Just for the record, I think we are bound to accept the Universe the way it is together with the uncertainties and glimpses of the natural world by courtesy of the world of science. I personally prefer the sort of God Einstein talked about and, for me a deistic type of God doesnt mean a lot, particularly one who interferes with nature at will. I dont think science can be studied unless we first assume that nature is more or less predictable in the way matter and energy behaves.
    As to the notion of a God of Love. I struggle to find any meaning with this unless the Love part refers to human relationships. If the notion of compassion is followed eg the sort of behaviour Jesus taught, then I think everyone wins, but anyone who starts talking about heaven is into speculation of the sort where all assumptions are untestable. Since the notions of heaven and hell are not constant in the way they are presented in the Bible we can hardly pick a particular version and hold everyone to one particular notion.

  3. I’m glad to hear that you think they’re nutty, but my point wasn’t that you should believe that too, it was that there are still people who believe absurdities based on their religion, and we haven’t all moved past this primitive understanding of the world.
    I think you may can confused terms in the sentence: “for me a deistic type of God doesnt mean a lot, particularly one who interferes with nature at will” did you mean ‘theistic type of god’? A deistic one would not interfere at all.
    As for Einstein, he considered himself an agnostic and wrote numerous times on the naiveté of believing in a personal god. He does mention that if he were to think of a god it would be one like that of Spinoza, which is more of a pan-deist outlook: The universe is ‘god’. The problem with this though is that if everything is god, you’re basically saying nothing is god.

    The sort of behaviour Jesus taught is riddled with immoralities when it comes to talking about the supernatural “no one comes to the father but through me”; “I come not to bring peace but a sword”; the rather excessive verse about not being able to be his disciple unless you hate your entire family. Anything you find in there that you think is a good moral teaching and is attributed to Jesus in 1st century palestine, appears in non-religious texts at least 5 centuries before jesus. Look at Confucius’ Analects (550BCE), Buddha’s writings (500BCE), Seneca (about 4AD); these are non-religious and yet espouse more tolerance, love and wisdom than the anecdotes written by the four anonymous authors of the new testament.
    On your last sentence, I completely agree that the bible makes no sense for the amount of knowledge we have available and the knots that apologetics has tied itself into. Such as, if evil is the cause of free will, there is no free will in heaven, meaning everyone is just a robot – which is supposed to be the thing god was trying to avoid by ‘giving’ us free will in the first place. It makes no sense. But to cherry pick implies that one does not believe that the book is the word of the unchangeable, all powerful, all knowing god, and if it is not the word of god, then it’s just like Harry Potter – a story.

    Without meaning to promote my blog (which I’m not trying to do with this thread) I have got some posts referring to these issues if you would like more background on where I am coming from: Christianity as a form of Deism, and one on the problem of evil.

  4. peddiebill says:

    You make a number of interesting points and although I dont necessarily agree on all aspects of your response, I thank you for raising the issues. I suspect you are more focussed on answering me than answering Stephen Fry, and in this you may even be assuming I havent already researched the areas to which you draw my attention. I have taken a simplistic view about a deity cf the Wikipedia definition: In religious belief, a deity (i/ˈdiː.ɨti/ or i/ˈdeɪ.ɨti/)[1] is a supernatural being, who may be thought of as holy, godly, or sacred. Some religions have one supreme deity, while others have multiple deities of various ranks.

    C. Scott Littleton’s Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology defined a deity as “a being with powers greater than those of ordinary humans, but who interacts with humans, positively or negatively, in ways that carry humans to new levels of consciousness beyond the grounded preoccupations of ordinary life.”
    ………. In short my understanding of deities is that deities are commonly thought to interfere a great deal.
    I have written a great deal about Einstein in the past and am familiar with his view on Spinoza’s idea of a God. Can I suggest you read one of my articles on this topic on this site. I certainly dont say nothing is God, but I think we sometimes allow our metaphors to shape our thinking.
    As to the Bible making no sense in terms of the amount of knowledge we have available. My view is that for each one of us there is little that we have worked out for ourselves and everything else is dimly comprehended and second hand. This is not to say it is therefore nonsense. A little old lady who lives by some of the aphorisms in the sermon on the mount may respond by workingin a food bank, kniting baby clothes for the children of the poor, and visiting the sick. Surely this is positive by any measure.
    Of course some words attributed to Jesus dont quite fit our current understandings. But I still think we need to be cautious about rushing to judgement because we also know that for many years the books of the Bible were living in the sense that they were continually being edited to fit current needs of those who sponsored the editing.

    One scholar who has extracted some of the more inspiring ideas from the great religions in Karen Armstrong with her “Charter of Compassion” To her it is not nonsense. In the same way we continue to value (and teach) Newtons laws of motion even although Einstein shows how clumsy and primitive Newton’s ideas now appear.
    I suspect we ought to take into account the sociological purposes of religion and understand the place of the Bible in shaping common history. The Bible is certinly far more than a story because it is a complex mixture of poetry, history, inspired writing, mythology etc etc …. even mistakes. If you get a few spare minutes you might even like to check out an article “The Shaping of God” that I have posted on this site.

  5. I will read the articles you mentioned in your reply after this response to better understand your point of view, but first I must respond to these comments to keep it on a linear path for my brain. I do feel however that we are getting somewhat off the point of the original post!

    As for your definition of a deity, I would agree with what you said. But I wasn’t using the word deity, I was talking about deism which is related but has a separate definition – namely the one I gave in the post antedating this one. A god who does not interfere in the cosmos.

    Regarding sense of the bible, I again find myself in welcome agreement with you that it has been edited and changed, and even though you didn’t say this explicitly – had parts interpolated for political gain. However, I must object to the statement about the old lady. I find it hard to believe that had this woman never had the greek chiasmus that is, ‘the sermon on the mount’, she never would have helped anyone. If you are wishing to grant the good that people do as the doing of religion, then you must be willing to grant the bad as a direct result too. As Steven Weinberg said: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” There have been extreme regimes that have done lots of good work. Hamas provide charity, a certain German movement in the 30s reduced unemployment to basically nil, but this does nothing for the truth claims nor the necessity of them in society.

    Einstein showed how eloquent his theories fit, but I wouldn’t say by any stretch that Newton was clumsy. Science never discards theories, it simply expands upon them. F=ma still works, it’s just that Einstein came up with a more… comprehensive understanding.

    The bible is basically a collection of myths with some good words thrown in sometimes. Aesop’s Fables have morals but no one actually thinks that a fox tricked a raven into singing so it could get the cheese the bird had in its beak.

  6. peddiebill says:

    Although I hate to admit it, you are right on the topic of deism. I had not read on the topic recently!!!
    However I am rather more confident on the topic of scientific method and am curious why you say science never discards theories. Wasnt there once a theory that the world is flat, that the Sun goes round the earth, that the world was only about 6000 years old, and that fossils were created by divine fiat in situ as part of creation? Remember Newton wrote at least as much on astrology and alchemy as he did on gravitation and the laws of motion. I am unaware that alchemy has still anything to recommend it as a theory. Was Popper totally wrong when he said Science progresses when theories are falsified?
    I would have thought the Bible is much more than a collection of myths, and in fact contains amongst many other things, the then current science understanding of the day.

  7. Donna says:

    Taken as a simple, visceral response, Stephen Fry’s words were both appropriate and powerful. Faith is visceral, and theological hair-splitting is often irrelevant. For many, the Old Testament God is still the image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the old man with the beard, giving life to Adam. The father who guides and protects, and who has made man in his own image. He is also an angry God at times, but always loves his children. Jesus may have brought a new message of redemption, but his very existence supported the image of God as father.

    So, yes, Stephen Fry, rage against the father who causes pain to his children. Reality is inconsistent with a loving father. It doesn’t matter that disasters and diseases are natural, that we know the causes, that we have learned how things work. If man was chosen by God, created in his own image to be special, surely he can expect his protection.

    Or perhaps we created God in our image, and have become disconnected from the need we once had for a guiding and sometimes vengeful God. The more we learn about the world, the more we see the inconsistencies in the idea of intelligent design. We see, and understand, the afflictions Stephen Fry listed. For many of us, it makes any idea of God a difficult one to accept.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks Donna, I would be interested to see if others agree with your comments.

      I also wonder if the Israelites were practicising a form of primitive science when in the face of danger they experimented with different ways of placating what they saw as the author of their misfortune.(punishment?) The fact that nature has feedback mechanisms for restoring normality would have only confirmed that what they were doing as right when, (after acts of penance), the rains returned after drought, when health returned when the immune system kicked in, or for the Summerians when the monster apparently devouring the sun (the eclipse) left the sun alone when the priests directed much pot banging and shouting.

      I seem to remember a quote that went something like:
      “Man who cannot make a worm creates Gods by the dozen”

  8. Excellent comment Donna. That last paragraph especially, you really summed it up nicely.

    Peddiebill, I see what you mean about the Earth being the centre of the universe, the Earth being flat etc. but as we both know, they were not scientific understandings, they were philosophical interpretations. There was no scientific methodology applied to or investigation into the concept that the Earth was flat. Eratosthenes figured out that the Earth was the shape it was by doing an experiment, you can use his methods now and they will still provide you with the circumference of the Earth to within 1 degree. I don’t think Karl Popper was wrong, but the hypotheses that are falsified are not at the level of ‘theory’ whereby there is mountains of evidence supporting it such as the theory of gravity, relativity and evolution. These will not be falsified – although theoretically they could be – but may well be expanded upon. This does not mean science does not progress. Which leads nicely onto my final point. You are espousing a quasi-religious (I will go as far as to say deistic) point of view and I think that is to be commended because it is the only world view including a god of some kind that is still almost defensible, though it is usually based on an argument from ignorance. Stephen Fry is not responding to this more progressive view of god, but the god traditionally worshipped by billions around the world.

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