Evil and the problem of Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry… or do I mean, Stephen Fry and the problem of evil? Either way, one of the links which has been doing the rounds on Twitter today is that of Stephen Fry talking to Gay Byrne about God, and more specifically, about what he would say to God if Fry died and found out he was wrong about his atheism.

Stephen Fry’s answer focusses on the problem of theodicy, which is a philosophical term meaning the problem of reconciling evil with a good God. (There would be no need to reconcile evil with an evil God, obviously – the problem only exists if we start out by assuming that God is good).

Now good/evil and atheism are two subjects I’ve written about here quite often (e.g. whether secular society would be a good thing, and godless ethics), so here I’d just like to focus on one thing. Stephen Fry says that a God who allows (say) bone cancer in children would be “evil”.

My point is simply this: evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians. Whether you like it or not we live in a world where children do get bone cancer, where parasites exists, where ‘evil’ exists. I would therefore suggest the question is not simply ‘how could God let this happen?’, but rather ‘which worldview best answers the question of evil?’

Let’s think briefly about atheism. Atheism demands that there be no God, no purpose in the universe – we are simply the result of an accident, some sort of cosmic blip which caused everything that we see. In other words, you and I are nothing, we are simply the product of blind forces acting in accordance with the laws of an uncaring universe. What that means, and this is what Stephen Fry and others seem to have missed, is that bone cancer and parasites (etc) are completely natural. If atheism is true, then we are exactly the way we are intended to be: evolution just dumped us here, in a place where illness and death exist – the universe has no categories of right or wrong, it just simply is.

As Richard Dawkins famously said:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

So, my question for Stephen Fry, and others who share his opinion, is – from where does this category of “evil” come from? In the interview, Fry seemed to understand evil to be an objective thing, something which really exists. And yet, that cannot be if atheism is true, if – as Dawkins says – the universe has no design, purpose, etc.

I believe Fry has essentially contradicted himself in his answer: atheism does not and indeed cannot explain or account for evil. In fact, ironically, I think Fry demonstrates the truthfulness of Christianity in his answer because only the idea of a good God can give rise to the idea of an objective moral good and evil.

Personally I believe that Christianity is the best explanation that we have for the universe as we perceive it, evil and all. Very, very briefly: (1) evil is an alien intrusion into the world, caused by the Fall (see Genesis 3). This explains why we have a higher ideal for the world than the one we actually see – because creation is not as God originally created it. In other words, illness, death etc are not ‘natural’; (2) despite that, God promises that there is a purpose in all suffering – that “all things” work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28, see also Genesis 50:20 and elsewhere); (3) One day God promises to end all suffering (Revelation 7:17). To my mind that is a far more convincing and comprehensive answer to the problem of evil than anything atheism could provide.

The important thing to remember is that all of us have to give account for the world as we see it: it’s not a question of God being on trial, but rather – every view needs to be put on trial. I find it surprising that someone as intelligent as Stephen Fry should be so blind when it comes to critiquing his own views. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency and rigor?

Post script: I’m nearly finished working my way through Christopher Ash’s excellent commentary on Job. It deals a lot with precisely this question – how a good God can be reconciled with evil. I hope to be writing a review on it soon.

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36 thoughts on “Evil and the problem of Stephen Fry

  1. Without having actually watched the video, and basing my answer on just what was said here, I think one can safely say that Fry was speaking as if he was wrong – isn’t that the point? I’m not sure what his actual stance on the existence of evil is, but if we are starting from the premise that there is a God, then evil does exist, and he just can’t reconcile that. It’s not necessarily a contradiction to his own beliefs as the premise of the question is that what he believes was already proven false.

    • Hi Oscar,

      Thanks for your comment and you raise a good point. My impression from watching the video (which it would be worth doing – it’s only about 2 minutes long) is that Fry does seem to believe there is something about children dying of cancer which is *actually* wrong/evil, whatever you want to call it.

      In one sense he is speaking hypothetically, as you say, but I think he believes there is a weight to his argument which goes beyond the merely hypothetical.

      That is the sense I got from it, anyway; perhaps you would disagree with me if you watched the video?

      Phill

  2. “from where does this category of “evil” come from?”

    Humans.

    Where else would it come from?

    In a universe without humans (or without sentient life forms, human or not), then there is no good or evil. Because there would be no one there to define it as such.

    ‘Evil’ is a human concept that we mostly associate with harm or harmful actions, though we disagree one certain points. It really exists…as a concept. In the same way that the number six really exists…but as a concept. There is no ‘number six’ sitting around that we can pick up and examine, but it still exists.

    • So – if good / evil are purely human inventions – does that mean that our concept of evil might change? That, one day, conceivably, we may think of children dying from cancer as a good thing? I know that seems bizarre right now, but if good/evil are purely relative, we have to at least acknowledge it as a possibility.

      I don’t think Stephen Fry does believe it’s a possibility, he seems to believe that these things are evil/wrong in a way which transcends simple human definition. And if good/evil transcends human definition, then – how as an atheist does he justify that?

      One way of illustrating moral relativism – at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law – is to say, if Hitler had won WWII and brainwashed everyone into believing his programme of ethnic cleansing was correct and moral, would that have made it so? Frankly I find a morally relativistic world a very uncomfortable one.

      • “So – if good / evil are purely human inventions – does that mean that our concept of evil might change?”

        Looking at what some people do in the name of their religion and call good…I certainly hope so.

        “That, one day, conceivably, we may think of children dying from cancer as a good thing?”

        Given the history of our species and the almost universal desire to survive, thrive and reproduce, I highly doubt that specific example would ever happen.

        “if Hitler had won WWII and brainwashed everyone into believing his programme of ethnic cleansing was correct and moral, would that have made it so? ”

        To who?

        To me, existing in this outside timeline, nope.

        • I don’t think you’ve really addressed the substance of my reply.

          Do you believe in moral relativism? And, if so, what gives you the right to make any moral statements whatsoever?

          Even your first comment about what religions or religious people do assumes the fact that some things are more morally good than others.

          • I don’t know if I believe in moral relativism. Don’t really care.

            Rational discourse gives me the right to try and figure out what I think is moral and possibly convince or be convinced by others.

            My opinion is that some things are more morally good than others. And I’ve come to that opinion through investigation, thought and discourse. If you’d like to convince me I’m wrong you’re more than welcome to try.

          • The point is, if *you* think something is right/wrong, how do you convince someone else? What if they’re not convinced by your arguments and they disagree?

            The Charlie Hebdo killers the other week clearly believed they were doing the right thing. You think it’s wrong, they thought it was right. That’s a bit of an impasse, isn’t it? Who’s right? Or is no-one right, we just have to do what we have to do?

            Of course, nation states can make laws and enforce them – but if what’s right or wrong boils down to the whim of a nation, we’re back to the question of Nazism again.

            What I’m trying to convince you is not that you don’t know what’s right or wrong, but that you atheism does not give you grounds for having confidence in knowing what is right or wrong. I think many people who grew up in broadly Christian countries think what’s right or wrong is “obvious”, but a brief glimpse throughout history and throughout other countries will demonstrate that this is not the case.

          • Rational discourse and discussion is how I convince someone else. And I’m lucky enough (I don’t pretend its anything more than luck) that I was born and live in a country that supports the majority of the big moral positions I hold in law. Not all of them. But where they differ, I do my best to try and get them changed. (I’m against the death penalty, for one example.)

            “What if they’re not convinced by your arguments and they disagree?”

            Then they disagree. As I said, I’m particularly lucky in where I live and the state of the law.

            “That’s a bit of an impasse, isn’t it? Who’s right?”

            It is an impasses. And, obviously, I believe I’m right or else I wouldn’t hold the opinion I hold.

            “but that you atheism does not give you grounds for having confidence in knowing what is right or wrong.”

            Atheism also doesn’t give me grounds for having confidence that if I drop an apple it will hit the floor. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know about the theory of gravity or how it works.

            I understand morality through empathy, rational study and the investigation of secular ethics. And it doesn’t have anything to do with my atheism, which is fine with me.

            ” I think many people who grew up in broadly Christian countries think what’s right or wrong is “obvious”, but a brief glimpse throughout history and throughout other countries will demonstrate that this is not the case.”

            Agreed. Many, for example, think things like euthanasia are obviously wrong due to their Christian upbringing, but it isn’t obvious (or necessarily immoral) at all.

          • You still seem to be evading the main issue which is, do you think that morality is flexible and can be basically anything a society wants it to be? Do you think Sharia law (parts of it anyway) is wrong, or do you think it’s just an alternative in the big shopping market of moralities?

            Were the Nazis wrong, or was it just another way of looking at things? Were the bloodthirsty civilisations of the ancient world actually wrong, or were they just different?

            I find the idea of a morally relativistic world, the kind of world where what is right and wrong depends on personal preference, majority vote or the whim of the government deeply disturbing. But perhaps that’s just me.

          • First, to be clear, I’m not evading anything. I am attempting to answer your questions as I understand them. And trying to get you to understand my answers. Whether or not we succeed is up in the air.

            “do you think that morality is flexible and can be basically anything a society wants it to be?”

            I can speak about my personal morality and morality as societies view it. Societies can make whatever they want to be their morality. Mine is only as fluid as the argumentation used to convince me to change my mind.

            “Do you think Sharia law (parts of it anyway) is wrong, or do you think it’s just an alternative in the big shopping market of moralities?”

            I think that it is an alternative that is also wrong based on some of the things that I happen to value: health, happiness, . My morals are more likely to support the things I value than Sharia, as far as I have been able to tell.

            “Were the Nazis wrong, or was it just another way of looking at things?”

            Both.

            “But perhaps that’s just me.”

            I find the idea of a morality based off an old and outdated book to be deeply disturbing. But that’s just me.

          • It’s also interesting to note that you haven’t asked what I use as the basis for my morality. I assume you think it’s ‘atheism’, but it isn’t.

            It’s a mixture or empathy and an empirical understanding of harm and benefit. That’s my basis.

          • I don’t think it’s atheism. I know that atheism is not a replacement for religion.

            The reason I didn’t ask is because whatever you base your morality on is irrelevant to the discussion: if your morality is not based on the idea of there being an actual, transcendent morality (i.e. God), then it carries no weight, no moral authority.

            This is the biggest challenge for any godless ethical system – the question of authority. (There are other problems but that’s the biggest).

        • For some reason WordPress didn’t notify me that you commented so I can’t reply to your newest comment (2:59am).

          I appreciate you’re not *trying* to evade my question, but I don’t think you’ve really answered it. In fact, it seems to me you’ve contradicted yourself in your own reply.

          “I think that it is an alternative that is also wrong based on some of the things that I happen to value: health, happiness, . My morals are more likely to support the things I value than Sharia, as far as I have been able to tell.”

          Right. So you, personally, don’t like Sharia. Great. But there’s nothing inherently wrong about Sharia law, it’s just an alternative. So it seems that you do believe in moral relativism.

          Which makes your statement about the Nazis being ‘wrong’ puzzling. Why were they wrong? You can say why you personally found what they did distasteful etc, but they can just come right back at you and say they were doing what they thought was right.

          I think most people believe in an absolute right and wrong. I know, for example, if someone were to steal my car, I’d actually think they’d done something wrong which deserved punishment. Not that they were operating under a different moral code – I think they should not have stolen my car. Whatever society they came from. And I think the only reason I can ultimately give to believe that is that there is some good which transcends the both of us which I can hold the other person to account for.

          • “Not that they were operating under a different moral code – I think they should not have stolen my car. ”

            Why can’t it be both? I think they should not have stolen my car. They might also have been operating under a different moral code.

            All moral codes aren’t necessarily equal. Again, it comes down to what you value. If you value benefit over harm, for example, then both Sharia and Nazis fall short because they obviously cause harm.

            If you don’t value benefit over harm, however, I doubt we’ll ever be able to understand each other.

          • “Why can’t it be both?” – because that makes no sense. I might not have wanted them to steal my car, but perhaps they saw nothing wrong in the action. Again, if there is no transcendent morality, there is no ‘right’ here – there are only different perspectives. Either it was right/wrong, objectively, or it was an action which the two parties thought differently about and there’s no way of telling who’s right.

            Your usage of ‘harm’ is typical of consequentialist ethics. The thing is, harm is a slippery term. Parents getting divorced, for example, causes harm to their children – there is a mountain of evidence of evidence to back this kind of thing up. It’s bad for society as well. Should the parents be punished for it?

            Think about something like eugenics, which the Nazis were into. Eugenics isn’t about causing harm: it’s about trimming off the bad bits of society to benefit everyone. In other words, you can justify exterminating a whole bunch of people because it will improve things for everyone else.

            If you define ethics without a baseline (i.e. an ultimate ‘good’), you can define it any which way you want. And if someone wants to define it differently, that’s their lookout – even if they define it in a way you personally find morally objectionable. This is not the kind of world I want to live in.

          • “and there’s no way of telling who’s right.”

            There’s this thing we create, called a society, that we use to help us determine such things.

            “If you define ethics without a baseline (i.e. an ultimate ‘good’), you can define it any which way you want.”

            My baseline is an empirical understanding of harm and benefit.

            Yours is an old book and a god you think exists. Which is fine, until that god tells you that murder is hunky dory.

          • “There’s this thing we create, called a society, that we use to help us determine such things.”

            Oh, great. So, the Nazis were a society, they thought eugenics and murdering millions was OK – so they’re right too? Seriously, though, isn’t that the implication of your logic?

            “My baseline is an empirical understanding of harm and benefit.”

            Yes, and someone else’s baseline will be different. Like I said, eugenics thinks that murdering millions is actually worthwhile because it leads to a better result. You can’t fault the logic even if you might disagree. Your baseline has absolutely no authority over anyone other than yourself – and it doesn’t even have authority over you, if you change your mind.

            I don’t think I’ve mentioned any “old book” in our discussion so far. So far I haven’t got beyond the abstract concept of a good God. Whether the Christian God is that God is another discussion.

            I will say, though, it is interesting you think that commanding “murder” puts God into the immoral category. You think, maybe, there’s some transcendent moral standard God should keep? 😉

          • I said we form societies to help us. I never claimed societies or people were perfect.

            “You can’t fault the logic even if you might disagree.”

            Actually I can fault the logic because the fact is that the more variety leads to healthier people.

            “Your baseline has absolutely no authority over anyone other than yourself”

            So what? I’m not interested in forcing people to my way of thinking. I’m interested in convincing people to my way of thinking because it allows them to live longer, happier, healthier lives.

            “You think, maybe, there’s some transcendent moral standard God should keep?”

            Transcendent? Nope. Common sense, practical, pragmatic and empathetic? Yup.

            You don’t think that commanding a murder is immoral?

          • “I said we form societies to help us. I never claimed societies or people were perfect.”

            No, but that’s not the point. The point is that some of the most “successful” societies in the past have been the most brutal. And yet we consider them immoral. The Roman Empire, for example, surely one of the most ‘successful’ civilisations in history – we marvel at their achievements but we are horrified by some of their morality. And yet, they were just doing something differently. They didn’t put the same value on things that we do. You can’t say that they were wrong, they just reasoned differently. And they seemed to do pretty well out of it.

            Here’s an interesting hypothetical with eugenics. Let’s say the best scientific data available says that if we exterminate severely disabled people (i.e. people who are judged incapable of contributing anything to society), we will increase the happiness of society – more welfare money available, less drain on the health system, etc. etc. Let’s say it has been impeccably analysed by top scientists, mathematicians and so on and everybody agrees that it is best for “the greater good”. Is wiping out those people for the greater good moral or immoral?

            “I’m interested in convincing people to my way of thinking because it allows them to live longer, happier, healthier lives.”

            Many of the atrocities that happened in the 20th century were in the name of helping people live longer, happier, healthier lives. Not the people who were killed, obviously, but the rest of us…

            Incidentally, it’s interesting that the countries I bet you would probably consider most ‘moral’ are the countries which have been influenced most by Christianity. No country has developed morality by “common sense and empathy” or whatever your system would be.

            This is more or less what David Bentley Hart argues in Atheist Delusions (see my review here, which I would highly recommend (please don’t be put off by the title, it was chosen by his publishers who I think wanted to sell a few more books).

            Even atheist historian Tom Holland acknowledges the debt that this country pays to Christianity – see what I wrote about the ‘Christian country’.

          • “”successful” societies in the past have been the most brutal.”

            You’re referring to the dead ones, right?

            “Is wiping out those people for the greater good moral or immoral?”

            Ask the disabled people their opinion, then get back to me.

            “No country has developed morality by “common sense and empathy” or whatever your system would be.”

            Actually they all have. A lot then added religious nonsense to it, Christianity being one of them.

          • “You’re referring to the dead ones, right?”

            In the cosmic sense of things, those ‘dead’ societies may well be the most successful. Who’s to know how long ours will last? Who’s to know whether our society will exert as much influence after hundreds of years as the Romans, or the Greeks? Yes, societies fade, but the Romans lasted a damn long time and you’d be hard pressed to say they weren’t successful.

            “Ask the disabled people their opinion, then get back to me.”

            In this hypothetical scenario – why should we listen to them? They’re in the minority. Plus, lots of them are unable to speak or even reason. Heck, if they were rational enough they’d agree themselves that they need to be exterminated. If that shocks you or reviles you, consider well what causes your discomfort – because this is not far from how some civilisations have actually reasoned.

            Your saying that they need to be listened to reflects the Christian belief about humanity that people should be respected simply because they are people (created in God’s image). Many societies and civilisations have not held that belief – for example, “certain people [i.e. our enemies, disabled people, etc] don’t class as people, therefore they don’t have to be listened to”.

            “Actually they all have. A lot then added religious nonsense to it, Christianity being one of them.”

            Afraid the evidence disagrees with you here. It was the Christians who were at the forefront of much of the moral change in the past 2,000 years.

            It’s a shame that God’s such a moral monster, isn’t it, because it really doesn’t sit too well with people like Wilberforce, William Booth, or the thousands and millions of other Christians whose faith motivated them to help the poor, heal the sick, and have compassion on the needy. Christians were the ones who opened the first hospitals and orphanages, for example.

            I guess the people from my church who help run the local food bank (which is largely run by Christian volunteers from local churches) believe a load of religious nonsense while most of the local atheists (who as far as I know don’t help out) are more morally enlightened. The same could be said for the local street pastors.

            Anyway, I sense that we are moving into a pantomime discussion: “Oh, yes it is” – “Oh, no it isn’t”. We’re basically going round in circles; I don’t think you’ve addressed the substance of my points but further rounds are not yielding fruit. Either way I don’t feel like continuing the discussion will help much, and I suspect you feel similarly.

            Thanks for your participation and interest in the blog, and I’ll allow you the courtesy of the last comment if you wish.

      • I think you assume that the only two possibilities are moral absolutism or relativism. This is a false dichotomy. I can believe in an objective reality and morality without necessarily believing that it’s absolute.
        To illustrate my point, here is an example of how changing morals need not imply relativism. Consider if it’s moral for a parents to hand over their children to civil authorities for a bizarre ritual. Many more primitive societies over history would have endorsed this, while more recent cultures, Christian or otherwise, would have seen this has highly immoral for a parent to do. Yet I recently did just that! I brought my children to a health centre and handed them over to receive injections on a premise that would have seen insanity to almost every previous century. Namely, that injecting them with an attenuated version of a disease vector would actually reduce their risk of dying.
        Not only do I say this is not immoral, but most intelligent person today would actual declare me immoral if I decided not to do this. The justification? A trust in science and the modern institutions that promote science.
        Now suppose in a few years, health authorities declare that a new better vaccine is available with a higher efficacy well-established by considerable research. If my morality were absolute, if I were dead-set against any revision of my moral framework, I would have to refuse the new vaccine in favour of the old one I trusted. But instead I can accept that my morality is both objective yet not absolute, and thereby allow myself the flexibility to take advantage of new developments. In fact, with my system, it would be immoral to cling to an absolute morality. Instead moral decisions are made in light of the best evidence available, open to revision not on a whim, but only for substantial new evidence.

        • Keith, I don’t think the logical corollary of moral relativism is moral absolutism. I don’t know anyone who believes that morality is absolute in the way that you define it.

          The existence of a transcendent good does not lead to moral absolutism. In fact I think the genius of Christianity, so to speak, is that morality is not rooted in a simple set of commands – it’s rooted in a person. Morality is rooted in love for God and love for neighbour – how that will play out will depend on context.

          On the other hand, I think you underestimate moral relativism: if morality truly is relative, then nothing is objectively better or worse. You can vaccinate a child, or you can terminate it because it has a genetic defect. You can believe in eugenics. And so on.

          • I would agree that objective moral judgments can and should be made–as I did in my previous comment. And one objective judgment is that belief in a transcendent good is not at all necessary for a culture to be moral. Sweden has one of the lowest rates of religious belief in the world, and yet surprisingly they have not descended into violent chaos, but rather have one of the lowest rates of violence in the world, and a fairly prosperous society to boot. You could, I suppose, argue that they believe in a transcendent good in a way not reflected in religious practices, though I don’t know how that would fit with everything else you’ve written.

          • Hi Keith, nowhere have I argued that one needs a transcendent good to be good, i.e. obey the law. All I have argued is that one needs an ultimate good in order to define good/evil. This is what I think Stephen Fry assumed – that there was some ultimate good, in order to make the comments he did.

            Sweden has had a long history of Christianity, even if rates of belief are low now. Many Western countries have a Judeo-Christian ethic which, as one writer put it, has “faded indistinguishably into the background of common sense.” Those ethics can linger around for a long time after belief has faded.

  3. The word ”evil” is loaded with religious implications – just the type of thing the religious love to leap upon and cry, “Aha!”
    Before long we are into, morality, sin, Divine Command Theory, William Lane Craig and eating Granny Smith apples in a make-believe garden with talking snakes.

    Bone cancer is not evil, neither is any illness. They are simply the unfortunate side effects of an organism that is not immune to the bumps and scrapes of life.
    Besides, as an evolving species we may well be simply going through a transitory phase and could well eventually
    become immune to cancer. Who knows? Your god? …. er …. I don’t think so. 🙂

    It is obvious that Stephen Fry is simply pandering to the idiocy of the question posed by the interviewer.
    This is exactly the type of answer every atheist would offer in response.

    BTW, I think it is hilarious that Fry is interviewed by someone called ”Gay”, and I am sure the irony was not lost on either man. I expect that Byrne was squirming a bit as well.

    • “Bone cancer is not evil, neither is any illness … Stephen Fry is simply pandering to the idiocy of the question posed by the interviewer”

      The interesting thing is, that Stephen Fry really seemed to think they were evil. Whether or not he was speaking hypothetically, the whole force of the argument depends on those things he mentioned actually being wrong in a transcendent way.

      Otherwise he could have said, for example, “God, why did you allow Wensleydale cheese to exist?” Which would have made absolutely no sense, not least because I quite like Wensleydale. In other words, in spite of what you said there does seem to be something intrinsically wrong/evil about bone cancer in children etc.

      So I still believe that Fry’s answer demonstrates that he fundamentally believes there to be a transcendent right and wrong, even if he doesn’t claim to believe there is.

      • I believe you have completely misunderstood Fry’s intent.
        His response is in answer to a nonsensical question based on the presupposition that your god exists.
        Something he does not believe.

        It is very much like the ridiculous assertion/question posed by theists:

        ‘Why do atheists hate God”. How can one hate anything one does not believe in?

        His outburst was exactly what the doctor/TV producer would have wanted.
        I wouldn’t get too carried away if I were you.

          • Edited – I’m sorry that WordPress doesn’t provide an edit facility. I’ve considered going back to self-hosted WordPress for a while but there are advantages to being hosted here so… we’re stuck with a limited comments system.

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