There are some great lyrics in ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’ by Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip. “Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries as to those that occur in English speaking countries,” advises Pip – and I nod sagely in agreement. “Thou shalt not buy Coca-Cola products. Thou shalt not buy Nestle products,” he says – how often do you hear calls to boycott unethical products in a pop record? Brilliant. But then there’s a line that doesn’t make as much sense to me… “Thou shalt not question Stephen Fry.”
Now, I like QI as much as the next bloke, but I’ve never really understood the hero worship that Fry seems to evoke. It’s become even more difficult to understand this week as a video of Fry explaining what he’d say to God, given the chance, went viral. “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”
Strong sentiments, but nothing that hasn’t been thought before by atheists and Christians alike. In fact, the Psalms are full of such rants against God and against the circumstances God allows us to go through.
But it wasn’t that video that got my goat especially. It was a series of videos made by the British Humanist Association – voiced by Stephen Fry – that were released a couple of years back, one of which was shared by a friend on Twitter this week. Stephen asked: “How can I be happy?” and: “How do we know what is true?” These are great questions that have been asked by philosophers and ordinary people – I suppose it’s possible to be both a philosopher and a normal person – for thousands of years.
But a couple of the videos make me shout so hard at the laptop screen the neighbours must have thought I was re-watching the men’s 4×400 metres relay at the 1991 World Athletics Championships – seriously, one of THE great sporting moments. Youtube it. Now.
In, “What should we think about death?” Fry tells us that life after death can’t possibly make sense because we can’t experience anything if we’re “disembodied.” Well, fine. But that’s not the Christian claim. As Tom Wright has spent much of the last few years telling anyone who’d listen, the Christian hope is of a bodily resurrection and a new heavens and new earth.
So far, Fry’s set up a straw man. But where he goes next is equal parts patronising and astonishing. To summarise, because Fry, and the BHA, think there’s no life after death, you should all be free to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” – in the words of the risible ‘Atheist bus campaign’ of a few years ago.
Why does this make me so angry? Because it’s aimed at a small, privileged elite of Western people in the 21st century. Stop worrying, says Fry. Forget about God and life after death and finally you’ll be free to enjoy life. Well, sorry Stephen, but if you take away God and the hope of a life to come, then the majority of believers you’ll be ‘setting free’ aren’t privileged, Western people who’ll be released into a life of self-gratifying loveliness. In fact, they are mostly poor, the majority are women and they are clinging onto their hope and faith for all that they’re worth. Think of Christians in Syria, DR Congo or North Korea. Think of the hell on earth some them are experiencing. How dare Stephen Fry tell them that life would be so much better if they gave up on their silly faith.
The reason the bus adverts were so incredibly stupid was that it’s obvious to anyone who’s lived in the real world for more than five minutes that getting rid of faith in God doesn’t mean that happiness is just round the corner.
I’m afraid this rant isn’t quite over. There’s another video. “What makes something right or wrong?” asks Fry, that fount of all knowledge. Apparently, believers just “take commandments for granted.” Ah, yes – we just take stuff for granted don’t we? Silly me for thinking I was baptised. Instead, I was clearly lobotomised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, destined never to have a rational thought as long as I may live…
Fry tells us morality is “not something that comes from outside of human beings.” Well Stephen, that’s fine. But if that’s the case, on what basis did you describe the actions of God as “evil” this week? If you don’t believe in an independent source of morality, that’s ok, and philosophically consistent. But don’t then appeal to concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to describe things you approve or disapprove of! That’s having your cake and eating it.
Even more extraordinarily, Fry says morality is “invented” by us. Well, if that’s the case, then there really is no such thing as objective right and wrong. Once again, the strong and powerful will get to define what is ‘right’ and the weak and vulnerable will just have to deal with it. That’s the logical conclusion of Fry’s DIY morality.
I’m sure many atheists, humanists and secularists will also have their head in their hands when watching these muddled videos. We need to have an honest conversation between those of us who profess a faith and those who don’t. The Christian faith is capacious enough to allow for many unanswered questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is pain allowed? Why won’t God just click His fingers and stop it all? These are good questions and the Judeo-Christian world has been wrestling with them for centuries. But what we really don’t need is three-minute animated videos claiming they’ve got all the answers sewn up, because Stephen Fry said so.
There are a couple of wise and gracious responses to Fry that are worth reading, from the brilliant Dr Krish Kandiah and Madeleine Davies. Or, if you want to read a much calmer version of some of my arguments, I recommend the recently published Theos report ‘The Case for Christian Humanism.’
This post originally appeared on Threads.
Andy’s a writer and broadcaster and works for the Centre for Theology and Community in London’s East End.