Stephen Fry, Giles Fraser & the capricious God.


In what has become a sort of viral must-see recently, Stephen Fry took to RTE Ireland this week to express his views on the Christian concept of God, to ‘Meaning of Life’ presenter, Gay Byrne. When asked what he’d say to God, if he met him at the pearly gates, Fry replied:

“I will say bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you, how dare you create a world that has such misery that is not our fault. It is not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is full of injustice and pain?”

– Naturally, this has caused a flurry of responses across media platforms. I thought I’d address a few of the points raised in a couple of those responses.

Over at ‘Christian Today’, author Krish Kandiah says:

“In a godless universe we lose any concept of ultimate justice, good or evil. The universe is ultimately impersonal and indifferent to any of these concerns. For Dawkins, atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering is basically “Tough luck. Bad things happen. Deal with it.” Why should anyone expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal, randomly generated universe?”

– Firstly, I’d be quick to note that ‘atheism’s answer to the problem of suffering’ is not “tough luck” at all. We atheists say that we as humans must keep searching, studying, inquiring, testing, and developing answers and cures to nature’s hideous diseases. The responsibility is ours. No matter how hard you try, you wont find a cure to illnesses (including psychological issues that have taken on the religious-like phrase ‘evil’) by praying, or searching through a book of ancient Palestinian myths. The choice is not ancient deities or “tough luck”. The dichotomy is entirely false.

Secondly, the key problem you’ll note with Kandiah’s position, is that Kandiah expects the universe owes something to humanity. He asks; why should we expect anything other than blind indifference from an impersonal universe? I’m not entirely sure why we’d expect help from outside anyway? It strikes me as a case of passing the buck. He delegates responsibility away from humanity, to a concept that he doesn’t actually prove exists first, and cannot seem to understand that we as humans can and should assume responsibility that we’d otherwise hope an invisible force might sort out for us in an afterlife. An indifferent universe is irrelevant. Humanity is not indifferent. The indifference is in a man expecting everything to be okay in an afterlife, and so passing responsibility on from himself.

Thirdly, it is simply wrong to imply that without a divine law giver, we ‘lose any concept of justice, good, or evil‘. He has simply rehashed an old argument for God, based on morality. But on the contrary, morality does not require God. In fact, any definition of morality that predates Darwin is entirely incomplete and can – and should – be dismissed as such. Kandiah ignores human evolution entirely in his idea of human morality, ignores our survival as a group species, the evolution of empathy and so forth, and instead implies it is entirely reliant on a supernatural force. Essentially, the God of the gaps. Incidentally, for my take on the evolution of morality, see here.

Over at the Guardian, Church of England Priest, and journalist Giles Fraser tried his hand at criticism of Fry’s comments. In it, Fraser bizarrely says:

“For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity.”

– It’s true… you really do have to “think metaphorically” (in other words, dismiss what it actually says) in order to believe the God of the Bible promotes “love“. It takes a real creative mind, to imagine that God’s request to Abraham that he sacrifice his son to prove his devotion, before stopping him at the last minute, or insisting Jephthah follow through on his promise to sacrifice his child in return for victory in battle, is anything but a show of cruel self indulgence, from a God whose idea of “love” is completely linked to just how willing others are to murder for His glory. It seems self evident to me that a finite human being, with such precious little time on this Earth, offering to spend that time loving you for just being you, is a far greater love than an infinite being, unrestricted by time, offering to love you or torture you depending on how well you adhere to His list of demands, and the hideous sacrifices you’re willing to make to show your devotion to Him. Therefore, the human capacity for love, is far greater and far more advanced than that of the God of Christianity.

Secondly, Fraser completely remodels the Christian God by taking away His implied omnipotence. Suddenly God is one with humanity, restricted by natural laws, and completely at the mercy of the forces of woe that he is unable to control. He ‘suffers’ with His creation. This strikes me as defeating the point of a universal creator in the first place. I’ve always been under the impression that the Christian concept of God begins at the premise that He created everything, that He can see everything – from the beginning of time until the very end, that He can intervene at any moment (and in fact, has done, several times) and by doing so, He can transcend natural laws, implying that He is not governed by those laws. He cannot possibly suffer, given that He is the grand designer of the chain of events that lead to that suffering in the first place, and – given that He can see all of time (because, again, He isn’t restricted by time) – He knew it was going to happen this way. And so, if Fraser is correct and if God cannot be accused of the cause of humanity’s suffering, we are left with three options;
1) God is the all knowing, all seeing creator, natural laws flow from Him, and as such, He is not restricted by those laws. Time itself, is His creation, meaning that Time is a tapestry that He has full control over (otherwise, He cannot be described as all-powerful). This further implies that He knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, including centuries of violent oppression, and – as Fry points out – cancer in children, all to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal until we’re dead. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing, all-powerful God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice.
2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, suffered with humanity, and is not responsible for human suffering at all, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful, is restricted by natural laws and time, and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. For this – the God of Giles Fraser – we need to completely dismiss the Christian concept of God right up until Giles Fraser re-imagined Him to suit a weak argument criticising Stephen Fry.
3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings.

The concept of the God of Christianity, as with Judaism & Islam is simply a personification of the moral & social fabric and upheaval of the time in which it was conceived. This naturally brings issues with it when humanity inevitably outgrows those moral ideals of that single time and place. Indeed, most – if not all – religious folk have outgrown the moral framework laid out by their Holy Books centuries ago, which is why we end up with very absurd arguments desperately re-imagining God, like Giles Fraser attempted to do in his article. Stephen Fry is right to suggest that a God – with the traditional attributes set out above – is nothing more than a capricious maniac.

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3 Responses to Stephen Fry, Giles Fraser & the capricious God.

  1. K P Spong says:

    The two gentlemen’s responses remind of Orwell’s remark about nationalists being haunted by the belief that the past can be altered, “that they are actually thrusting facts back into the past.” The form of nationalism known as religion started the ball rolling millennia ago. The Hebrew word for “a young woman”
    became the greek word for “a virgin.” The eternal, perfect god changed(!?) from a from “happy is he who dasheth your little ones” to “god is love”.
    More Orwell, “One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish.”

  2. Jesus Lives! says:

    Fry’s argument is so vacuous its reaches to the point of condension. The “why does God allow suffering” discussion has been debated and put to bed over the centuries by academics far smarter. It’s time the atheists came up with something new for us to chew on. Bring it on…

  3. I missed the outcome of all those centuries of debate, Jesus Lives! How did that go again?

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