An Aesthete’s Atheism: Stephen Fry on God’s Caprice
If God exists, says Stephen Fry, then he is an ‘utterly evil, capricious monster’. It is worth bearing in mind that, in the context of his interview for Irish television’s (RTE‘s) The Meaning of Life, Gay Byrne was not asking Fry to speculate on the concept of a Creator in the vague terms sometimes proffered by Hollywood celebrities. Byrne began, ‘Suppose what Oscar [Wilde] believed in as he died… suppose it’s all true and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him?’
Now, Oscar Wilde died a Roman Catholic and Byrne was asking Fry about the Judeo-Christian God. Indeed, Fry later declared that, ‘If it were the twelve Greek gods then I would have more truck with it, because the Greeks didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness’. His beef, it seems, is with hypocrisy and injustice and he lambasts the Christian God for creating parasitic worms that blind children. His indignation is palpable and his seeming sincerity has been an important reason for this interview being viewed more than five million times. Sincere though his response may be, however, it is hardly novel. Fry‘s demeanour and his passion certainly influenced the interview’s impact more than the logic of his arguments.
If ever there were good reasons not to believe in the God of the Bible, I suppose apparent injustice and hypocrisy might feature high on the list, so it is possible to have some sympathy with Fry‘s point of view even if one disagrees with it. Nonetheless, following C.S. Lewis one is left wondering how, if the world is so monstrous and God no more than a figment of men’s imaginations, belief in God has survived for so long? Even Fry‘s choice of affliction, the blindness-inducing parasitic Loa loa fly is actually found in West Africa which is hardly a global hotbed of modern atheism. Man might indeed be a fool, but can he really be as idiotic as Fry implies?
If there were no God and no order in the universe our world would be naught but a rather perplexing accident, so why should humans not be foolish? Fry sees neither rhyme nor reason in the universe. There are many splendid things in it but the disorder of an innocent person suffering is contrary to right reason, something an all-powerful, all-loving God would surely put right.
Fry appears to concede that without God there can be no real order in the world, even if there may be many good things in it. Moreover, the implication is that we do not have to consider injustice because without order or God injustice can be significant only for those who think it significant. Shorn of God and religion (and here we recall that Fry was responding to a question about the Christian religion), the reasonable person’s response to a child dying of cancer cannot have any general human or, dare we say, cosmic significance. Even the light of justice by which we can recognise injustice must be dispensed with for the same reasons as the notion of cosmic order. For Fry, however profound our feelings on the matter may be, we must remember that they are the results only of interactions of hormones and synapses and not so serious that we need pay much attention to them.
Stephen Fry does not believe in God, and Gay Byrne’s question was hypothetical. He finds no order and no justice. Children suffer for no reason for there is no reason for their existence in the first place. Yet the same man’s passionate denunciation of the ‘monstrosity’ of an all powerful Creator who invents parasitic worms gives him away. He seems in fact to possess (or to be possessed by) profound nostalgia for a justice that existed when man still believed in the God he rejects. If he is right, then the very depth of feeling that drives his impassioned response is of no consequence, but rather a simple affectation, sentiment or feeling. It is the morality of an aesthete, and certainly not that of a thinker.