Update: Was Stephen Fry speaking ‘hypothetically’?

Stephen FryA quick post-script to my previous post about Stephen Fry’s diatribe about God and evil. A few people have come back and said to me, “Ah, yes, but Fry was speaking hypothetically – assuming that the question was true for the sake of argument. He doesn’t actually believe in evil.”

It’s interesting, because I think from what he says he does believe in evil – and that is what gives his argument its weight. Whether or not he’s speaking ‘hypothetically’.

This is a transcript of what he says (taken from YouTube transcript and edited – I’ve removed a few bits which I think are irrelevant).

I think I’d say, bone cancer in children … what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I’d say.

[…]

I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms … they’re wrong.

Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac, totally selfish … yes the world is a splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind – they eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. So you know atheism is not just about them not believing there is not a God but on the assumption there is one, what kind of God is he? It’s perfectly apparent that he’s monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

Now, after you’ve read that, tell me that Stephen Fry believes that evil doesn’t exist – even if he is speaking ‘hypothetically’. If God did not create the world, then those insects which burrow into the eyes of children – they’re just natural, they’re morally neutral. If God did not create the world, then there isn’t really such a thing as injustice and pain – and on a cosmic sense it would hardly matter if there were.

The whole weight of what he says rests on the fact that some things are actually wrong or evil. If they are not, then his argument basically collapses. Imagine, for example, if he’d said instead: “yes, the world is splendid but it also has Wensleydale cheese in it. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation where that didn’t exist.” It would just be utterly meaningless, wouldn’t it? I use cheese as an example because it’s a morally neutral thing (I happen to like it, some don’t). The whole power of his argument rests on the fact that God would be a moral monster, and the only thing which gives that view any weight is that there is a transcendent morality which Fry thinks that God should adhere to.

In other words, Fry presupposes the fact that God exists in order to argue against God existing.

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19 thoughts on “Update: Was Stephen Fry speaking ‘hypothetically’?

  1. Nope. He doesn’t. He is simply responding to the inane question in the manner it was asked, based from the perspective that your god exists.

    He also made mention of other gods to clarify his point, and I am damn sure he doesn’t think the other gods he mentioned exist; and you certainly don’t , do you?

    So , sorry, I reiterate. You have misunderstood his point, probably, I suspect, because you and not Stephen Fry presupposes that your god Yahweh, actually exists.

    Remember, he is an atheist, as am I. So why would any atheist presuppose any god exists? A bit silly, don’t you think?

    • “why would any atheist presuppose any god exists?”

      Because if God does exist, and created us all with knowledge of him, and is the source of all goodness etc, then he’s very difficult to get away from.

      Paul talks in Romans 1:18 about mankind “suppressing the truth”. If God does exist, then I would expect to see atheists having a sense of right and wrong but unable to justify it rationally. This is exactly what I do see.

      The reason Fry picks the examples that he does is because he knows that they are morally ‘evil’, in his words. If they are not morally evil – and if atheism is true then they aren’t, they are simply morally neutral things which happen – then his whole argument loses any force.

      Yes, Fry was answering the question in the way that it was asked. But I think the way he answers it betrays the fact that he does think certain things are morally evil.

      Anyway I feel like we’re getting into something of a pantomime debate here “Oh, yes he did!” “Oh, no he didn’t!” I think Fry does believe evil actually exists, and what he says here rests on that. Apparently you don’t. Not sure where we can go from here to be honest.

      • As Stephen cannot respond – unless you email him and ask? – I agree, we are at a bit of a stalemate I guess.

        However, it is still worth noting once more that your interpretation is based around your theist worldview.
        Fry is an atheist.

        From my standpoint,( as a fellow atheist) I can tell you flat out that terms such as evil, sin etc, only have relevance when coupled with religion. Thus, I would venture it is more likely that Stephen Fry would side with an atheist point of view than a theistic interpretation of his words.

        Let’s be honest, here, how bone cancer could possibly be seen as ”evil” ( unless visited upon the child by godly design) is quite ridiculous, unless one is pandering to some form of theistic belief where one sees it as your god’s ‘punishment’ for sin; something I have no doubt that (sadly), many still do!

        • Hmmm. I wonder whether the problem with our disagreement is the usage of the terms rather than the concepts.

          Let me put it a different way.

          If atheism is true, then how could Stephen Fry have known what the universe would have looked like with a ‘good’ God? Doesn’t the concept of ultimate ‘good’ disappear? As I said, with atheism there is no good or bad – there just simply is. So, if atheism is true, how would Stephen Fry have known that the universe is (in his opinion) inconsistent with a ‘good’ God?

          As C.S. Lewis said, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” I’m not arguing that Stephen Fry consciously thinks evil actually exists. I’m arguing that for what he says to make any sense, he must fundamentally (unconsciously?) believe that evil does exist. It is an assumption he needs to make for his argument to make sense, even if he doesn’t know he is making it.

          • It is not about whether atheism is true, as your suggestion that it isn’t is already biased based on your presuppositional worldview; or more the point , that your god exists, which is a positive claim for which you must first establish bona fide credentials.

            So, establish this and then we can proceed. Fair enough?

            If I am honest, I sense a degree of ingeniousness in the point you are ultimately trying to establish here; somewhat like putting words in Fry’s mouth perhaps? Apologies if this is not so

            For the sake of this dialogue, a greater degree of clarity would be welcome, as I am sure you don’t honestly believe for an instant that an atheist would acknowledge any deity, surely?

            Then they would not be an atheist but merely a denialist. And I can assure you that this is not case.

          • I’m afraid I think our dialogue is at an end. My sense is that we are talking past each other; I’m not sure I understand you and, if I may be blunt, I think you haven’t actually understood what I’ve said,

            Dialogue is impossible if we are unable to communicate effectively, therefore I think the best thing to do in these circumstances is to stop 🙂

          • If this is what you wish, fine. But if we are talking pat each other then is it not eh duty of the”teacher” to ensure the ”lesson” is clearly understood?

            Your comment comes across as if you recognise the point I am making but are now trying to do the theological two step to dance around it.

            If I have failed to understand your central point then and I am mistaken, I apologise. Please, simplify it and I will gladly respond.

          • I will have a go but I’m not sure I can be any clearer. Communication is a two-way process, it’s my job to speak and your job to listen – you have equal responsibility here.

            Let me say first of all: I AM NOT SAYING THAT STEPHEN FRY (OR ANY ATHEIST) IS ACKNOWLEDGING GOD – not consciously, anyway. I am saying that he is being inconsistent.

            My point about atheism being true was simply one of consistency: how does Stephen Fry know what ‘good’ looks like from within his own atheistic worldview (where there is no such thing as good/evil etc)?

          • Sorry for the delay in replying, Phil; don’t mean to appear rude. I lost my internet just after you posted your last comment. We’ve been having some seriously inclement weather down here in Johannesburg and it has been affecting internet connections over the past few days. I just reopened my laptop and connection was reestablished two minutes ago.

            Let me say first of all: I AM NOT SAYING THAT STEPHEN FRY (OR ANY ATHEIST) IS ACKNOWLEDGING GOD – not consciously, anyway. I am saying that he is being inconsistent.

            Okay, we’re on the same page.

            not consciously anyway. 🙂 love it! Sneaky, Phil!
            Let me assure you, a genuine atheist does not acknowledge any god consciously or otherwise. Believe me, there are atheists in foxholes too.

            However, while you are suggesting Fry is being inconsistent and I am saying he is simply pandering to the interviewer’s question.
            If you were to substitute Santa Claus for the term ”God” it would have the same relevance to Fry or any atheist.
            I would answer in exactly the same manner.

            how does Stephen Fry know what ‘good’ looks like from within his own atheistic worldview (where there is no such thing as good/evil etc)?

            This is more a question of semantics. Are you truly suggesting atheism/ atheists does /do not recognise what good is?

          • No worries, I didn’t think you were being rude. We all have lives, I don’t expect a reply instantaneously. Similarly I hope people don’t expect an instant reply from me because they might be disappointed 🙂

            “This is more a question of semantics. Are you truly suggesting atheism/ atheists does /do not recognise what good is?”

            Now we’re getting somewhere. What I am saying is this: for atheists, there is no ultimate authority when it comes to morality. In other words, you might think something is good, someone else might think it is bad… no-one is right, they’re just different.

            So, in the example I keep going back to, were the Nazis right in their programme of ethnic cleansing? They believed it was right. I assume you disagree with them – but can you be sure that you are right and they are wrong in any objective sense?

            From an atheist perspective, if the universe just “is”, there is no “ought”. What I mean is, I can’t look at the universe and say, “oh no, it ought to be like that.” You said yourself that bone cancer was basically morally neutral. Where, then, does Stephen Fry get the idea that it’s incompatible with the idea of a “good” God?

          • So, in the example I keep going back to, were the Nazis right in their programme of ethnic cleansing? They believed it was right. I assume you disagree with them – but can you be sure that you are right and they are wrong in any objective sense?

            Oh, yes, we can be sure his actions were wrong, (are you aware of studies conducted that suggest I human morality is a survival trait forming part of the evolutionary process? I don’t have a link at hand but can dig one up I’m sure.)
            As for dear Adolf: he used the doctrine of Martin Luther as part of the basis for his actions. Something not too many Christians are aware of.
            I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate on this particular point, as we are tip toeing toward Divine Command Theory, one of the pieces of despicable doctrine for which I find apologists such as William Lane Craig so utterly disgusting.

            From an atheist perspective, if the universe just “is”, there is no “ought”. What I mean is, I can’t look at the universe and say, “oh no, it ought to be like that.” You said yourself that bone cancer was basically morally neutral. Where, then, does Stephen Fry get the idea that it’s incompatible with the idea of a “good” God?

            Again, Fry is being rhetorical as he is an atheist. He is playing Devil’s Advocate – excuse the pun.
            The ‘’good God’’ remark is simply a response to the continual Christian assertion that this is what your god ultimately is: good, which, on the face of the evidence we already have in the bible is patently false. Such wholesale slaughter does not benefit anyone which is why we generally find murder abhorrent.
            As this dialogue progresses it is almost impossible to maintain the perspective that I consider your god – all gods nothing but fiction – simply man-made. But please, even though I am engaging you (in the main) on your terms, be acutely aware that I consider the Bible historical fiction.

          • On what basis can you say, as an atheist, that “we can be sure his actions were wrong”? What standard are you appealing to which he should have adhered to? What standard transcends the both of you, meaning you can hold up his actions and say “they were wrong”?

            I am aware that some people claim morality is an evolutionary trait. It seems implausible to me: (1) if it’s so ingrained in us, why do so many people seem to ignore it? (2) if morals evolved once, they can evolve again. There is no better or worse. (3) Even if morals evolved, that gives them no authority. We didn’t evolve to fly, and yet there are aeroplanes. We defy evolution and go beyond it all the time.

            I think you continue to misunderstand my point about Stephen Fry and I’m sorry but I don’t know how to put it in a way which you will understand.

            Once again, the point is that – if we (for the sake of argument) assume that God does not exist – how does Stephen Fry know what ‘good’ is, to know that God does not measure up to it?

            I think Stephen Fry knows what good is because God does, in fact, exist, and has given us that knowledge. But if atheism is true, then there is no such thing as ‘good’.

            I found an article which explains what I mean in more depth: here (read that bit then click through the ‘read more’ link).

          • The overall thrust of your argument is that morality – basic goodness if you like – has to come from your god.
            And I reiterate based on the biblical text this is simply fallacious.
            Furthermore you assertion that your god exists is devoid of evidence which is why you have faith, yes?
            You do not believe in Quetzalcoatl. Why not?

            I found an article which explains what I mean in more depth: here (read that bit then click through the ‘read more’ link).

            The link implies that humans ultimately cannot be good without a god based morality. Specifically, the Christian god.
            But I have already demonstrated how fallacious this is simply by referencing the bible. Yahweh was a monster, as Fry so rightly pointed out. That we both (he and I) believe the character of Yahweh to be a work of fiction is moot. Christianity has been proselytized around the globe on the basis it is fact, and a great many have been put to death for disagreeing. How moral is that, do you think?

            Forgive me, but there is also a dollop of irony that a member of the C of E would reference a Catholic when trying to explain Christian doctrine! Many ‘’real’’ Christians consider Catholics’ to be followers of the anti-Christ, do they not?

            This is where the power of indoctrination rears its ugly head at its most vile. You will ( no doubt) experience revulsion and condemn what Hitler did (even though he was a Christian and cited Martin Luther) yet consider the heinous acts perpetrated by a character such as Moses or Joshua as acceptable because what they did was commanded by your god – and are unable to see the hypocrisy in this.

            Once again, the point is that – if we (for the sake of argument) assume that God does not exist – how does Stephen Fry know what ‘good’ is, to know that God does not measure up to it?

            But Phill, I have explained this. He knows what is ‘’good’’, because it is an evolutionary trait for which the evidence is a lot more likely than for any god.
            The same way Stephen Fry woke up to the fact that being grossly overweight was bad for his health and thus, losing weight and becoming healthier was good for him. He didn’t need a god for that now did he?
            As to why some people act like Adolf for example; well not everyone thinks the same and such behaviour is generally regarded as psychotic. Mentally ill people do strange things. But in the main, humans strive to avoid unnecessary pain and hardship, either to themselves or others, as this ultimately benefits the tribe.
            It really is that simple.

          • OK, to be clear, there are two separate issues here.

            1. Can one define good without any concept of God? (I am saying, no).
            2. Is the Christian God the right God? (I am assuming yes but not arguing for this at the moment).

            Perhaps one day we can talk about the Bible and morality, but that’s not what I’m talking about now. I am not arguing that one has to believe in the Christian God (although I do believe it). I am not arguing for the Bible. I am simply arguing against the idea that morality can be defined in the absence of God.

            By the way, please don’t spout nonsense about Hitler being a Christian. He may have cited Christian theologians in a political attempt to get them on his side, but in no way was he a Christian. He said things like, “One is either a Christian or a German. One cannot be both”.

            In fact, as an aside, interestingly the group who stood against the Nazis? The Confessing Church – see my post here.

            OK, now we know where we stand. Your claim is that we know what is good and evil because these are evolutionary traits? I think this suffers from the problems I outline in my previous comment. Can we really know what is good and evil by evolution alone?

            Your claim that wrong behaviour is perpetrated by mentally ill people is… bizarre. Everyone does what is wrong – even atheists, even Christians (in fact, one could say, Christianity *predicts* the fact that people will do evil things. Evolution predicts only the fact that people will do… things. Whether they’re good or evil, who can say?)

          • By the way, please don’t spout nonsense about Hitler being a Christian. He may have cited Christian theologians in a political attempt to get them on his side, but in no way was he a Christian. He said things like, “One is either a Christian or a German. One cannot be both”.

            Martin Luther was a Christian but his diatribe on the Jews can be directly linked with much of the anti-Semitism that prevailed and still prevails. Do his actions make him less of a Christian in your estimation? I think not!
            There are a great many quotes from Adolf, many of which clearly demonstrate he was a Christian (should I also ‘’cherry-pick’’ a few?) and I object to you suggesting I am espousing nonsense.

            OK, now we know where we stand. Your claim is that we know what is good and evil because these are evolutionary traits? I think this suffers from the problems I outline in my previous comment. Can we really know what is good and evil by evolution alone?

            It is only a problem because as a Christian you have to insert your god into the equation, otherwise your life has no meaning. You would not insert a Hindu god, would you? I see no problems with evolution as an explanation at all. And based on available evidence this is far more likely.
            And, like most Christians, you have neatly avoided confronting the issue of the actions of characters such as Moses and Joshua; probably because it would impugn your god.

            Your claim that wrong behaviour is perpetrated by mentally ill people is… bizarre. Everyone does what is wrong – even atheists, even Christians (in fact, one could say, Christianity *predicts* the fact that people will do evil things. Evolution predicts only the fact that people will do… things. Whether they’re good or evil, who can say?)

            I think this comment is verging on reductio ad absurdum, largely because my example of mentally ill was in direct reference to the behaviour of a person such as Hitler, which is what you questioned. Furthermore, to nitpick to the nth degree will require listing every single human action to determine if it is ‘’wrong behaviour’’, which I think would be somewhat silly, don’t you?
            I have been at pains to explain that evolution is a perfectly acceptable reason for our morality yet you insist your god is needed, yet to date, have offered nothing to substantiate this assertion.
            By offering some evidence to back this claim would at least put some meat on the bones.

            If you now wish to address the second question? No problem.

          • I’d be interested to know if any serious historian of WWII believed that Hitler was a Christian. He used the language, certainly – But looking at some of the things he did, I don’t think it’s conceivable. For example, replacing the bible on the altar in churches with a copy of Mein Kamf and a sword. Anyway I stand by what I say about ‘nonsense’.

            On evolution and morality, by the way: there is no evidence that morality comes from evolution. There are theories, but perhaps I could ask you the same question and ask you to substantiate exactly where our morality does come from. I want details.

            And, as I said before, even if morals did evolve they still have no authority: if we evolved to think murder is wrong, then there is no reason I should obey it – it’s a purely arbitrary belief designed to propagate our genes which could change at any time. If we can overcome evolution in other areas, why not in the area of morality?

            I find it interesting that you seem unable or unwilling to deal with God in an abstract sense, you would rather talk about how the God of the bible is so immoral. Why is that – have you felt that God has let you down in the past?

            Anyway I feel that our conversation has reached a natural end – maybe one day we can talk about the bible in more specific terms. I’ll let you have the courtesy of the last comment, should you wish.

          • Where have I been unable or unwilling to talk about your god in the abstract, Phill ? I mentioned several comments ago that I was addressing the issue of ”God” on your terms, but asked that you be aware that I consider the bible historical fiction, and Yahweh a fictional character.
            It is you that has not stepped up and offered a single shred of evidence for your god.

            there is no evidence that morality comes from evolution.

            Correct. Poor word choice. I apologise. But as evolution is fact then it should follow that morality is tied in with this. This is logical.
            But I am always open to correction. If you would like to offer evidence that it is bestowed upon us by your god, go ahead.

            Oh, and I too stand by my comment regarding Luther and what Hitler did.
            Shall we have a duel now to settle the issue?
            Sigh ….

            Why is that – have you felt that God has let you down in the past?

            I always smile when I am asked this question ( or something in a similar vein) as once again such a statement demonstrates the blatant arrogance of the presuppostional religious person.

            Yes, your god let me down – or a least one of his representatives who kicked me out of Chester Cathedral when I was fifteen ( or thereabouts) for entering on a rainy Saturday afternoon after I missed the bus home. I was eating an ice cream and the vicar or warden was pissed off I might mess up the place! As you can imagine I was scarred for life. lol…
            Honestly, you Christians, slay me!

  2. Morning Phil. Just a quick hi /bye.
    I would also like to offer you a link that I hope you will find engrossing and maybe enlightening, even – not, I hasten to add, about Adolf! 😉

    The chap who wrote this piece is one of the most eloquent writers on this subject I have encountered.
    he has written similar marvelous pieces if you have the time to look through his blog.
    His name is Matt.

    Give it a whirl.

    http://jerichobrisance.com/journey/9-personal-thesis/

    • Thanks. If I get the time I’ll have a look. It looks pretty big though.

      My only recommendation is one you have probably already read, between Douglas Wilson and Christopher Hitchens – online here. Basically Doug Wilson makes the points I was trying to make, but more eloquently.

      Thanks for your comments, I do appreciate them even if we don’t see eye to eye.

      Phill

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