As Frys to Wanton Boys

“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport” Gloucester – King Lear (IV. i. 36-37)

A lot of attention is being paid to a clip of Stephen Fry talking about what he would say to God if he died and found himself at the Pearly Gates.

There’s a few things I want to say. Firstly, the problem of evil is generally recognised as a very difficult, even intractable, challenge to theism – perhaps the one challenge which is capable of shaking even the strongest believer’s faith. That doesn’t mean attempts haven’t been made to solve it – they are called theodicies (‘God-justification’), but there is a great deal of debate about whether they succeed. One problem with trying to answer the problem of evil and suffering is that believers often fall into the trap of platitudes which underestimate the experiential force of evil and suffering – platitudes such as “God moves in mysterious ways”, or “everything happens for a reason”. Clearly such responses are not sufficient and deservedly provoke the mockery of atheists. Most theists however, don’t do this – Byrne, whilst speechless, at least didn’t try, and neither have recent Popes when asked.

Probably because of the way he was asked the question, the particular form that Fry frames it in here is as a protest against a cruel and capricious God. This kind of standpoint is usually called ‘protest atheism’. According to this position, God is taken as existing, but then evidence such as Fry presents is brought to show that no-one could justifiably worship such a God – supposedly all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing – who could allow such things to take place in His creation. I would guess that most protest atheists who use this argument now do not actually believe in God – they just use the argument as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the believer’s view. And of course we know Fry doesn’t believe in the God with whom he gets so angry in this interview, so I guess we have to take that as a piece of acting on Fry’s part (to me this seems rather insincere and hollow, I suspect Bertrand Russell’s similar response to the same question was not delivered with quite the same sense of fake outrage, but then again, Russell was a philosopher who had thought deeply about these things, not a media luvvy and actor with a large vocabulary…I know; ad hominem….).

It is my view that the case for what is called protest atheism has not actually been put very forcefully here by Fry. It has been much more strongly argued by the character of Ivan Karamazov to his brother Alyosha in the Dostoevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky, a man of faith, could hardly be called a polemicist or apologist for theism, but he has crafted his novel as an exploration of themes of freedom, suffering and faith. After  detailed historic accounts of horrific torture of innocent children Ivan says:

“… if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Fry, in focusing only on ‘natural evil’ – bone cancer and worms that burrow into eyes – in his argument, probably wants to avoid the classic move of theists when asked about human evil – that it is the result of free will. But in doing so he is presenting a weaker argument. There are two points to make here. Firstly, in a universe where random material processes have combined to create the conditions for organisms to compete with each other in a struggle for survival, there can be no such thing as evil or good, or if there are such realities they are simply the result of human subjectivity projected onto the world – what is evil for the blind child is good for the worm. Some might simply turn the challenge on the atheist here for them to explain what in their world view leads them to believe in evil as a reality ( and it is worth noting that some theodicies would simply point to the fact that natural evil is largely the result of the fact that there are general laws of nature which we can sometimes fall foul of – but that is bound to be the case in a universe which has a ‘way things go’) . However, it is worth remembering that the argument is focused against the believer – and it is their account of God and their account of evil which are claimed to be at odds with each other.

But secondly, even if we grant Fry the point – natural evil undermines belief in a good God – we would have to say that the examples of intentional cruelty by rational human beings against innocent children given by Ivan Karamazov are far more compelling as a challenge, simply because here we confront the reality of human evil in all its horrific strength. We are precluded even from arguing that it is justifiable on the basis of God needing to grant humans free will, or God building a future utopia on it – as Ivan says “too high a price is paid for harmony” if that harmony will somehow come out of the undeserved suffering of innocents. Surely intentional cruelty by free beings (beings who could have chosen not to inflict that suffering, and who must have known it was wrong even whilst doing it, unlike unconscious worms)  is a much more difficult problem to solve than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’? After all, a flawed natural order is only one side of the coin – there is also the existence of beauty and harmonious cooperation in nature, and simply to emphasise one over the other is misleading. The evidence is ambiguous in ways that Fry won’t admit – he would be the first to talk of marvel at the intricacies of the natural order, but he certainly wouldn’t use that to point to God. He is however happy to use disharmony in the natural order to point away from God, or at least to accuse God.

A flawed natural order has been recognised as one of the signs of the workings of an evil force in a world destabilised from its original perfection by the Fall, which begins in the heavenly hierarchies of the Angels. What I’m saying here is not that people within Christianity have tried to give an answer to this problem, but that the whole Christian vision of the cosmos is based upon the reality of suffering, evil and death and the sure and certain hope that they will not have the last word, that in God, all things will be made new.

So okay, meh to Fry. He thinks he gave God a bit of a kicking. I don’t think he did particularly, when I consider how Dostoevsky answers the more serious challenges which he sets up through Ivan. I’ll explain in a bit.

His mention of the Greek gods was interesting, which is a belief he says is far more honest because they can be seen clearly for what they are – projections of human inclinations and obsessions.  He knows that he would have nothing to say about bone cancer and so on if he died and went to Hades and met Pluto; the Greek gods would inflict cruelty on mortals for sport or curiosity. The take-away from this is clearly meant to be – basically all gods are projections because we can clearly see our own needs and desires written in them – but that evidence points to a pantheon of gods like the Greek ones, limited, flawed superhumans – not to the Christian God, who is as Fry notes meant to be wholly beyond our limitations as humans. Indeed, it is this very transcendence which sets him apart from all pagan gods. However, what Fry doesn’t mention is that the Christian God also became human, vulnerable, poor, broken and took on all suffering and pain. Christ crucified – this fact St. Paul famously describes as a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks – their wisdom paradoxically kept them from seeing to the real meaning of the cross; God wants to deliver us from all suffering, but he can only do this through love, which is an abiding-with, even amongst the shadows of evil and suffering.

There is no straightforward answer to the protest atheist’s challenge. There are narratives within which we can perhaps make some sense of the challenge though. I mentioned the Brothers Karamazov above. In a future post I will attempt to show how Dostoevsky frames the challenge as a conflict between rationality and love.


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