Friday, February 6, 2015

The Meaning of Stephen Fry

As readers in Ireland will know by now, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry recently appeared on the Irish television show The Meaning of Life and provoked quite a blizzard of discussion. The Meaning of Life is a rather amiable show on which Gay Byrne, the elder statesman of Irish broadcasting, interviews various celebrities and asks them about their beliefs, religious and otherwise. One question that is always asked is what the interviewee would say to God should he or she come face to face with Him.

Mr. Fry rather lashed out at God in his reply, castigating the Omnipotent for creating a world where children suffered from bone cancer, and where some insects' "whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind". He called the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition a "maniac", "capricious", "mean-minded", and "stupid", and objected to the idea of spending his life on his knees thanking Him.

Obviously, there is nothing new or particularly shocking here. The problem of evil, or the problem of pain, is a subject that has haunted humankind for as long as it can remember. There is hardly a religious believer in the world who hasn't wrestled with it. The Bible is full of references to it-- particularly in the Book of Job, in many of the Psalms, and-- most harrowingly of all-- in Christ's cry from the cross, "Oh Lord, oh Lord, why have you forsaken me?". The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually emphasises its centrality: "To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice....There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil." (That sentence is actually italicized in the Catechism itself.)

For my own part, I never struggled very much with the problem of evil. Perhaps that is a sign of my own shallowness rather than anything else. But the answer given by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans-- "I consider the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us"-- seems entirely satisfactory to my intellect, if not always to my emotions.

I first heard Stephen Fry's diatribe on the Marian Finucane show on RTE radio, before the TV show itself had been broadcast. The first thought that struck me was one that has often struck me before; that is, that it seems very odd that the suffering and evil of the world only seems to become unbearable (at least to atheists like Stephen Fry) when God is brought into the question. People who believe that the horrors of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Black Death, and every other tragedy in human history are destined to go unavenged and unredeemed, and that the only fate of their victims is eternal extinction, seem to have no great difficulty living with this knowledge. They laugh, make merry, watch gameshows, get excited about the World Cup, and generally make the most of life. Theodor Adorno famously said that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. Mere decades later, who still feels like this?

But once you suggest that suffering, injustice and evil are not meaningless, or the last word-- that there is a Providence watching over the world, and that victims of the Holocaust and the Black Death and every other tragedy in history are not doomed to extinction-- then suddenly, in the eyes of the angry unbeliever, all the pain and anguish of the world becomes unbearable. This makes no sense to me.

Another interesting reaction to Fry's diatribe-- and an all-too-predictable one-- came from the secularists and militant atheists who seemed to think that there was something daring or transgressive about Fry's outburst. One letter-writer to The Irish Times wrote: "This must surely cause offence to many religious people and how could it do otherwise. This is the definition of blasphemy under the Defamation Act 2009. Are gardaí about to raid the offices of RTÉ to seize the programme, as allowed for in the Act? Are they about to raid my home to seize my Sky box where I have a copy of the programme, as they are allowed by the Act?"

The thing is, there was never the faintest possibility that such a thing would happen, nor did I hear the slighest suggestion from Irish Christians or other religious believers that it should. The radio show on which I first heard the clip was indeed flooded with responses; but, though many of them were robustly taking issue with what Fry had said, it didn't seem like anybody was angry or offended with him for saying it. The closest thing to this was when one listener texted in to ask whether Fry would dare to say the same things about the Prophet Muhammed. (A rather tired and tiresome comeback, in my view; even if the answer is "No", what does that prove?)

Fr. Brendan Purcell, a philosophy lecturer whose classes I once attended, and who is a regular in the Irish media, was interviewed about the clip on the same radio show. His response was rather mellow and genial; he described Fry's performance as "great entertainment", or words to that effect, and spent a few minutes discoursing on the Christian philosophy of finding meaning and solidarity in suffering.

This is the thing; Christians (and other religious believers) generally like talking about these things. Christians generally like talking about their beliefs and their reasons for holding them. They even like talking about the most challenging aspects of the Christian mystery-- which are, very often, also the deepest and most meaningful aspects. Stephen Fry himself, in a later interview, acknowledged that "many Christians have been in touch with me to say that they are very glad that [these] things should be talked about.”

As for the infamous blasphemy law mentioned by The Irish Times letter writer, this only ever seems to be invoked by members of Atheist Ireland and by like-minded individuals, with whom it is, indeed, a near-obsession. Christianity, the Catholic Church and religious belief itself are lampooned and attacked in the Irish media, and in Irish public life in general, on a daily basis. I can't remember ever hearing any Irish religious believer calling for anyone to be prosecuted in response. A recent 'Constitutional Convention' recommended that Ireland's constitutional prohibition against blasphemy should be replaced by a prohibition against incitement to religious hatred; a referendum will soon be held on the issue. I would not be surprised if many Irish Christians vote for this change-- if only because they are sick and tired of listening to Atheist Ireland's belly-aching on the subject.


  1. Nice post.

    Just so you know I included you on my blogroll under "Other sites."

  2. Thanks and thanks! I saw that on my statistics.

    I've often wondered what your alias is a reference to?

  3. I think a big part of Fry's problem with God is down to his homosexuality. He has pretty much said so himself in barely subtle ways from time to time.