Stephen Fry is a national treasure. His encyclopedic knowledge is regularly on display in QI. His wit is the toast of most of the world's award ceremonies. If you need a British Prime Minister in a series of 24 or a brother for Sherlock Holmes then here's your man.
Fry's atheism has been out in the open for a long time but his recent outspoken outburst in an interview with Gay Byrne for RTE Ireland has caused a stir. Perhaps it's because of his tone – he's usually mild mannered; mischievous often but almost always polite. This time we get this:
The first thing to say is that it's an odd question. "You walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God, what would Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?" The question assumes that, in the end, Christianity is really all about where you go when you die. Sadly there has been a sub-brand of evangelical faith that has presented life after death as the central concern of Christianity. But Jesus had a lot to say about what it means to live in relationship with God in the here and now.
It's also worth asking whether the venom expressed in Fry's answer is as a result of personal pain. "I will say bone cancer in children, what's that about?," he says. "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?"
When I first heard this I was angry. It seemed like Fry was lashing out and insulting God just to be provocative. I count it a great privilege to call God my heavenly father and to hear this kind of disgust directed at him is distressing. But then I caught myself. Perhaps Fry has lost someone close to him with bone cancer and he needs my sympathy and care for his grief rather than my offence? Nevertheless I would still like to respectfully offer a few points in response.
1. Atheism has no response to the outrage you feel.
Fry describes the existence of bone cancer in children and other underserved misery as "utterly, utterly evil." This is an interesting moral perspective, especially when viewed alongside Richard Dawkins' comments on the problem of suffering:
"In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."
Dawkins helpfully articulates what happens if you take God out of your view of the world. 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? Fry's clear anger and moral outrage hints at something that CS Lewis said in a series of radio broadcasts in the second world war, which I will deal with now.
2. You might be closer to Christian faith than you realise.
Why does Fry, and indeed most human beings, feel a sense of outrage at the suffering and injustice in the world? In Mere Christianity CS Lewis describes his own conversion from atheism to Christianity and it bears some uncanny similarities with Fry's outburst.
"My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: A fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple."
As we see, Lewis eventually concluded that outrage at the suffering in our world is better understood within the intellectual framework of Christianity rather than atheism. The early line of argument, so eloquently put by Lewis, is so close to Fry's current position I wonder whether Fry might follow suit.
3. Are you rejecting a flawed view of Christianity, rather than Christianity itself?
Look closely at Fry's argument towards the end: "The God who created this universe is a maniac, an utter maniac, utterly selfish. We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him. What kind of God would do that? Yes the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children to make them blind. They eat outwards to make them blind. Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn't exist. It is simply not acceptable."
At the heart of the Fry's argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.
According to the Christian faith, this world is not as God intends it to be. But rather than abandoning us when we messed up, God stepped into our history. Jesus lived a life of love and grace and died on the cross to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. He promises a future where evil is finally overthrown. The job of Christians in the meantime in our broken world is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, showing the same love and grace to everyone.
I'd love the opportunity to hear more from Stephen Fry about whether personal suffering has lead him to such an emotional outburst. I wonder if he might follow the logic trail that CS Lewis has walked ahead of him? I wonder if he is closer to faith in God than he realises?
Dr Krish Kandiah is President of London School of Theology and founder of Home for Good.