Recently a video clip of an interview with atheist comedian, writer, and activist Stephen Fry has been making the rounds on Facebook and, I assume, other social media. On Facebook alone on just one of the pages that shared it, the video has (as of now) 9.5 million views 173,374 shares, has 16 thousand comments, and 75 thousand “likes” in the 8 days since August 19th. Clearly, the interview struck a chord with many people. Why?
In the video, which is a clip from the show “The Meaning of Life” with Gay Byrne on Irish TV, Fry is posed the question of how he would react if he comes face to face with God when he dies. One might naturally expect the answer to such a question to be “Oops.” Or perhaps one might echo Bertrand Russell’s famous “Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence!”, which is how Richard Dawkins responded when asked that same question.
Not Stephen Fry, however. Stephen has moved well past the idea of investigating the existence of God using reason or evidence as a standard. Instead, he responds by challenging “Bone cancer in children? How dare you?” and berating the suffering that God permits in the world. His answer is, in short, an appeal to the problem of evil – not apparently for the purpose of disproving the existence of God, but of shaming him. His answer is rhetorically and emotionally powerful. Most of us, by the time we are adults, have seen a great deal of pain and misery – if not in our own lives, then in the lives of others – and we have grappled with the question of why there is so much suffering “not our own fault.”
And yet, while Fry comes off as a champion for standing up to God with righteous indignation that may persuade people emotionally, his logic leaves something to be desired. There are several big problems with this video.
The first and most fundamental problem is that Stephen Fry is trying to pull a sleight-of-hand move by removing God from the equation and then getting upset about a moral issue. However, there is even more of a problem of evil for Atheism than there is for Christianity. If Atheism is true, then it’s “life sucks and then you die.” There’s no way to really make a case that God would be immoral for allowing children to have bone cancer when, given the atheist viewpoint, there is no foundation for ethics. In the words of Dostoyevski, “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” This isn’t to say that atheists can’t, in some sense, be moral. What it means is that there is ultimately no basis for a coherent and sufficient ethical system if atheism is true. Here’s a brief video exploring this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxiAikEk2vU
But where’s the sleight-of-hand I mentioned? Just because the atheist doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean that he can’t raise the problem of evil as an issue for Christianity, right? After all, it is possible to say, “Well, I don’t really think there’s anything morally wrong with the suffering of children, but this would cause an internal problem- an internal logical inconsistency, if you will – within Christianity that shows that Christianity is incoherent or at least factually false.”
Sure, you could make that argument. Here’s the problem, though: If you attempt to criticize a position based on its own perceived internal inconsistency, you are committing to work (at least for the sake of your argument) within that position. You’re saying, “Ok, suppose I was a part of that system – suppose I play by your rules. In that case, here is a problem with your rules.” And that’s where Stephen is trying to pull a fast one. Attempting to show that there is an internal inconsistency is fine, but Stephen is unwilling to actually commit himself to listening to the answers to his challenge that the Christian faith offers. He simply doesn’t want to hear them, and that’s hypocritical. He’s all for trying to show an apparent problem or contradiction within the system of Christian faith, but he’s not willing to look at the solutions that that very same system offers. To use a Harry Potter term, he’s splinched himself, because he can’t make up his mind where he wants to be (and Stephen isn’t alone in that matter!). Is he adopting a theistic framework in order to have access to the objective moral values necessary to offer an internal challenge? Then he needs to be willing to adopt a theistic framework when it comes to solving that internal challenge. Is he unwilling to consider theistic responses to the problem of evil? Then he needs to recognize that his own worldview provides no basis for an objective complaint about suffering.
So that’s the first problem: Stephen must decide whether he’s going to offer his critique from an external atheist position (in which case, he doesn’t have a coherent ethical framework for claiming that children suffering is wrong), or if he’s going to offer his critique as a problem with the internal logic of Christianity (in which case, he is hypocritically ignoring the Christian answer to his challenges).
The second problem is that Stephen has an enormous head. Fellow atheist Peter Boghossian has (in a stunning lack of self-awareness) defined faith as “Pretending to know things you don’t know.” This doesn’t fit the Christian definition of faith well at all, but it does make sense in Stephen Fry’s case. Think of the things Fry is absurdly claiming to know, without offering the slightest reason as to why he should be justified in claiming these things: 1) There is no redemptive purpose to pain, 2) That God could have no possible morally good goal that justifies allowing excessive pain, 3) that “excessive” pain even exists and (similarly) 4) The pain that exists cannot be explained as the result of human free will, and 5) that there can be no adequate reward or compensation for pain in the next life.
That’s a lot of very, very tall claims, and he pretty much committed himself to each of them with his brief, impassioned (but erroneous and hypocritical) statement. How on earth can he claim to know all of these things – particularly if Christianity were true?
Third, there are two points regarding pain I want to talk about within a Christian perspective. There are many components to the Christian response to pain and the problem of evil, but since Stephen appears to be ignorant of these points and is making tall claims without any foundation, I think that at least these two should be brought up.
1 – Jesus suffered immensely. He gave up his inherent power and glory and (if you will) comfort and instead chose to become human and to serve others and to show compassion on the lowest and weakest people on earth. Then he chose to die a humiliating and literally excruciating death after having been betrayed, unjustly accused, deserted by his friends, scourged, and forced on a march to carry his own instrument of torture and death.
Jesus – God in the flesh – did that. Stephen Fry wants to spit in the face of this suffering man, if not literally, then figuratively. He self-righteously demands of God an explanation as to why he allows death and suffering when God subjected himself to the worst humanity had to offer in order to save humanity itself from the destruction of its own making.
2 – Suffering, even what people think is excessive or unjustified suffering, does serve a purpose. Yes, it serves a purpose to us, by creating growth. I could elaborate on that for quite a while, and use cool analogies and stuff. And yes, we could talk about free will and the nature of love, the effects of the fall, etc. But there’s another, lesser known purpose, brought out by the book of Job: Humiliating Satan
As Clay Jones writes, by continuing to honor God, “Satan would be humiliated because it would not only prove him wrong but, even more importantly, it would prove that some beings will serve God even if their lives are miserable.”
Jones elaborates on this point elsewhere, “those with the least amount of evidence of God’s goodness and power who, nonetheless, continue to honor Him are always in a position to judge those who had even more evidence but disobeyed.” If this seems like a strange point for me to bring out about in response to Fry’s charges regarding suffering, it should make sense in my concluding paragraphs.
(By the way, Clay Jones in general does awesome work on the problem of evil – he easily dismantled Bart Ehrman’s book on the subject in a 21 move-combo that drained Ehrman’s HP to zero within seconds, demonstrates just how much suffering humanity has caused, and that “We Don’t Take Human Evil Seriously so We Don’t Understand Why We Suffer”, and even has an article specifically dealing with the heartbreaking issue Fry raised of child death.)
Finally, I want to encourage you check out the faith story of this 7 year-old boy who died a month ago from neuroblastoma, a type of adrenal cancer. It’s hard. It’s very sad and his family is hurting. This is the type of boy Stephen Fry wants to use to try to shame God. And yet, this family is full of faith, and are honoring God even though they are hurting. I can’t shake the idea that this beautiful seven-year old boy, the very boy that Stephen Fry wants to use to condemn God will, in the judgment, condemn Stephen Fry.