Stephen Fry’s atheism is well known. The problem of suffering is also well known. So why such a fuss about Fry’s recent comments suggesting that suffering shows that God either does not exist or is ‘capricious, mean-minded [and] stupid’?
Perhaps in part because Fry was so quick to reach his conclusion and seemed so utterly assured of it. The implication seemed to be not only that atheism was correct, but that any thoughtful person need only list some of the terrible things that occur in the world in order to see that this is obviously the case.
It would be very surprising if a question that so many thoughtful people have come to such a variety of opinions about across so many centuries could be settled by anyone in under a minute, however. The unsurprising truth is that there is much more of consequence to be said on both sides of this debate.
Without even starting on the question of why a divinely created world might include suffering, there are a host of questionable assumptions in the vicinity of Fry’s comments that require digging out. In this limited space, let me mention just four of them.
1. AN EVIL CREATOR
We might be tempted to think that anyone who knowingly creates another person in an environment that includes the possibility of severe suffering is evil. But based on that reasoning, any human parents who wilfully bring a child into this world are evil. That doesn’t seem right, though. We would have to ask other questions of the parents: are they willing to suffer alongside their children? Are they willing to make personal sacrifices when that’s what it takes to help their children through a period of suffering?
2. IT’S ALL ABOUT ME
We might think God should have created us in a world that didn’t include the possibilities of suffering that our world includes. But a bit of reading around the philosophy of personal identity will quickly suggest that in the alternative world we think we wish God had made, our parents never would have got together, they never would have conceived at the time that they did, and resultantly we – the specific individuals that we are – never would have existed.
3. RECOGNISING EVIL MEANS RECOGNISING GOOD
We must agree with Fry that there are things in this world that are truly and utterly evil. But this raises questions regarding where we are to find a stable, objective standard, according to which things are rightly termed utterly evil, and why one should think human cognitive functions produce reliable beliefs about what is good and what is evil.
Based on atheistic evolutionary assumptions, our cognitive functions are aimed solely at survival, not at truth, and hence relying on them for truth sounds a bit like stepping on the scale and assuming it will tell you the time. Might one actually need to assume the existence of God in order to make the argument that Fry thinks disproves God?
4. WE SHOULD KNOW
Here is a fourth big assumption that underlies Fry’s comments: if God has good reasons for allowing suffering, we should know what those reasons are. But why think that? Our perspective is limited in at least two major respects: time and intellect. If God exists, we see only the smallest fraction of human existence. Are we in a position to evaluate the author when we have only read the first page?
We are also limited in intellect. As Timothy Keller puts it: ‘If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing suffering that you can’t understand’ (The Reason for God, Hodder & Stoughton).
Recognising our limitations raises this question: who would one have to be in order to confidently conclude that suffering disproves the existence of a loving God? Someone with an eternal perspective? Someone with limitless intellect? God himself? My experience of creating and sustaining a universe is zero. So personally I find myself not wanting to be too quick or too strong in my speculations about the sort of world God should have created.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world
Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state
You may never know that Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have
Corrie Ten Boom
One natural way of developing the reasoning behind Fry’s comments would commit him to procreation being immoral, to wishing that he and those he loves never existed, to the existence of God himself and to his own divinity!
Now, I’m not saying that Fry is committed to any of these things. But that exposes the exact problem. Because he was so quick in reaching his conclusion, we don’t know what assumptions underlie his reasoning, and therefore we have no way of assessing it. He characterised his comments accurately on Twitter when he said: ‘Oh dear, I did give poor old god a bit of a kicking here, didn’t I?!’
Taking the time to listen to those who disagree with us and to spell out our assumptions invites honest conversation and, often, deep friendship. And if we are concerned about suffering, that is a far better approach than giving anyone a ‘kicking’.
NOT A KNOCKDOWN ARGUMENT, AFTER ALL
The assumptions I have highlighted show that the relationship between the existence of suffering and the existence of God is much more complicated than Fry has suggested. For thousands of years, professional academics have debated whether suffering is evidence against the existence of a loving God, and no obvious answer has presented itself.
In fact, in professional philosophy there are currently two primary arguments from suffering against the existence of God: the logical argument from evil, which claims that the existence of evil and suffering in the world makes the existence of God impossible; and the evidential argument from evil, which claims that the existence of evil and suffering in the world makes the existence of God unlikely.
Today, most philosophers agree that the logical argument has been defeated, and most philosophers struggle to know what to say about the evidential argument.
I recently had the pleasure of discussing and debating the challenge of suffering with atheist philosopher Julian Baggini. I find him to have great integrity as a conversation partner. He is willing to listen, willing to take seriously positions he disagrees with, and willing to concede points. I very much hope he would say the same about me. Baggini has thought long and hard about the various responses to the problem of suffering, and he was upfront about the fact that suffering does not provide any sort of knockdown argument against God.
SUFFERING DOES NOT PROVIDE ANY SORT OF KNOCKDOWN ARGUMENT AGAINST GOD
DOES GOD MAKE A DIFFERENCE TO OUR EXPERIENCE OF SUFFERING?
I have continued to think about one of the challenges Baggini put to me. This had to do with the question of whether, moving beyond the theoretical debate, God makes a practical difference to how we deal with personal suffering. Baggini suggested that perhaps God does not make as much difference as we might think, and as evidence he cited the fact that profound grief is common to both atheist and Christian funerals.
The Problem of Pain
(Harper Collins) CS Lewis
(Faith Words) Ravi Zacharias & Vince Vitale
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
(Hodder) Tim Keller
When Faith Gets Shaken
(Monarch) Patrick Regan
Recent events have caused me to circle back to this question in a very tangible way. Two weeks ago, one of my students found out that she has a rare medical condition that makes her brain prone to bleeding. The condition is currently inoperable, and as a result her life expectancy has been cut very short.
My wife and I visited her last week, and she shared with us that there was a point in the first few days after she received this news when she found herself staring at herself in the mirror. She can remember thinking: ‘Is this the strongest I am ever going to be? Is this the smartest I am ever going to be? Is this the prettiest I am ever going to be?’
Then she told us of the peacefulness that came with her answer to those questions. ‘No. Absolutely not.’
She spoke about the joy of knowing that one day her body will be able to do far more than it ever has before. I know she loves to snowboard, so I asked her if she thought there would be snowboarding in heaven, and I wish you could have heard how unhesitatingly and how confidently she responded, ‘Absolutely!’ I also wish you could have seen the smile on her face as she said it.
What a blessing to know in your heart that you are not headed for death, but that every day you are headed for greater and greater life. The problem of suffering is an important intellectual problem. As a philosopher, I believe that and I believe the Christian God offers compelling responses to that problem.
But there is also the problem of how we are going to deal with suffering, and that is a problem for every one of us, regardless of what we do or do not believe about God. If God exists, I would expect him to meet the challenges of this problem as well and, increasingly as I live the Christian life and live alongside others who are doing the same, that is exactly what I find. Rather than suffering pushing me away from God, I find it is precisely my concern about suffering that leads me to trust a God who can do something about it.
DR VINCE VITALE teaches at the University of Oxford’s Wycliffe Hall and is senior tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics (OCCA).
Watch his debate with Julian Baggini at Unbelievable?