When a YouTube video of Stephen Fry angrily denouncing God as ‘capricious, mean-minded and stupid’ went viral, the atheist TV personality seemed the most surprised of all.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 about the video’s popularity, Fry said he was ‘absolutely astonished’ by the reaction to his words. ‘I was merely saying things that Bertrand Russell and many finer heads than mine have said for hundreds of years, going all the way back to the Greeks.’
Within a couple of weeks the video, an interview with Gay Byrne for RTE’s Meaning of Life show, had gained more than five million views. The clip begins with Byrne asking Fry what would happen if he walked up to the pearly gates and was confronted by God. Fry’s reply was delivered with his usual eloquence, yet it was surprisingly emotional and angry.
‘I’ll say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I’d say.’
FRY VERSUS GOD
But why did the atheist’s response produce such a social media storm?
Fry has never shied away from speaking against religion, recently lending his distinctive voice to a series of videos by the British Humanist Association, aimed at explaining the values of life without God. However, he has tended not to speak as often or as vociferously as other contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins.
Perhaps aware that a fixation with denouncing the evils of religion tends towards a shrill fundamentalism of its own, Fry has for the most part been happy to cement his position as national-treasure-slash-clever-person rather than rail against God.
FIRED UP BY FRY
Stephen Fry has sparked a conversation about God. Here’s what some of the respondents had to say:
‘I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either’
Giles Fraser, The Guardian
‘To blame God for childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house’
Krish Kandiah, Christian Today
‘Who gets angry about an imaginary conversation?’
Timothy Stanley, The Telegraph
‘I’d rather like to hope that if Stephen Fry actually met God, he’d wait for the reply’
Rowan Williams, Newsnight
This helps to explain why his video produced such a dramatic response. The public has become used to the vilification of God by celebrity non-believers such as Dawkins, whereas Fry’s outburst was somewhat novel.
In doing so, Fry made the case not just against God, but for his own atheistic world view. He argued that while the world is ‘very splendid’, it contains too much incomprehensible suffering to allow for an ‘all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-munificent’ god to exist. Fry said: ‘So, you know, atheism is not just about not believing there’s a god, but, on the assumption if there is one, what kind of god is it? It’s perfectly apparent that he’s utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner; more worth living, in my opinion.’
AN ANCIENT PUZZLE
As he acknowledges himself, Fry is only reiterating the same line of thought as a million sceptics down the ages. The puzzling question of evil has occupied thousands of theologians who have, in return, suggested an array of ‘theodicies’: theories explaining why God might have good reasons for allowing suffering.
Philosopher, author and atheist Julian Baggini says he doesn’t like attempts at theodicy, and that the best Christians can hope for is to hang their hats on the peg of ‘mystery’ when it comes to evil and the nature of God.
Speaking recently on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show, Baggini said: ‘The puzzle seems to be that surely he could have created people in such ways that didn’t provide for as much egregious suffering in the world.
‘There’s the idea that we have to suffer in order to learn. But some things we don’t have to learn. Some things we learn easily. Why did God make us such bad learners that we really needed all this awful suffering in order to learn the important things about love?’
GETTING A REACTION
Whether the theodicies are compelling or not, Fry’s video interview has raised the God question all over again, prompting a flurry of online response articles and videos.
Comedian and self-styled social commentator Russell Brand weighed in, saying: ‘You can’t judge all religion on the most stupid bits. That’s like judging all football on the most stupid bits: “I don’t like football.” “Why’s that?” “Well, when Eric Cantona kicked that bloke.”’
Brand adds: ‘Yes there is suffering, and what can we do about suffering? We can help one another and we can love one another. Now, if you can do that through atheism, then do it through atheism. But a lot of people need to know that this is temporary; that we are the temporary manifestation of something greater; something complete and whole; something timeless and spaceless and absolute.’
Yes, it’s probably an ill-defined and nebulous ‘spirituality’ that Brand extols, but perhaps he speaks on behalf of the many for whom atheism does not offer Fry’s ‘simpler, purer, cleaner’ life. Christians may struggle to make sense of suffering, but in a godless world, suffering is simply senseless.
THE GOD OF ATHEISM
Part of the problem is that the deity Fry describes in his interview is not the God Christians actually believe in. For us, God is uniquely expressed in Christ, who enters a world corrupted by evil and chooses to suffer alongside his creation, redeeming it in the process. In contrast, the god of Fry and his fellow celebrity atheists is at best distant and inactive, and at worst a cosmic crackpot bent on maximising human suffering for his own devious ends.
The challenge for Christians is not to react with indignation but to treat the TV personality’s intervention as an opportunity.
YOU CAN’T JUDGE ALL RELIGION ON THE MOST STUPID BITS
Fry isn’t the only person to misunderstand God, and we have been handed a golden conversation starter for clearing up a few misconceptions.
So I welcome Fry’s anger. As the Archbishop of Canterbury wisely stated: ‘It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused improperly by Christians who are affronted as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ.’
Proclaiming the God revealed in Jesus Christ is, in the end, the answer to the god of atheism.