Six reasons why I think Stephen Fry is wrong

We shouldn’t confuse bad experiences with evil, writes Fr Brendan Purcell

Staunch atheist Stephen Fry evoked outrage when he described God as a “maniac”, “utterly monstrous” and “totally selfish”.

During a TV interview with Gay Byrne on RTÉ One’s The Meaning of Life, Fry was asked what he would say to God on arrival at the pearly gates.

The English actor and author replied: “I’ll 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.

“We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?
What kind of God would do that?

“Yes the world is very splendid but it has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. It eats outwards from the eyes. Why?

“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.”

Atheism, he said “is not simply about not believing there is a God but, on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God
is he?

“It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever.

“The moment you banish him your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

The Irish Catholic asked leading Irish philosopher Fr Brendan Purcell to respond:


1. I think Stephen’s wrong when he says the moment you banish God, life becomes “simpler, purer, cleaner…”

Firstly, not one of the problems, sufferings, tragedies and disasters that Fry would like to blame on God, goes away. Even worse, as Dmitry Karamazov says, ‘without God… everything is permitted’.

So when Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Enver Hoxha and Pol Pot ‘banished God’, they banished millions of human beings too. 


2. I think Stephen’s wrong when he says we “have to spend our lives on our knees” thanking God.

Jesus put such a priority on loving our neighbour and forgiveness that he said if there’s anything between you and your brother, you must sort that out first, then make your offering at the altar.

Malcolm Muggeridge was surprised to find out that the source of Mother Teresa’s and her followers’ tireless service of Jesus in the poorest, were their hours of prayer to Jesus.


3. I think Stephen’s wrong when he thinks God won’t be able to answer his question: “bone cancer in children, what’s that about?”

Chiara Luce Badano, who died of painful bone cancer at 19 in 1990 was beatified in 2000 because of how the lucid love shining through the last year and a half of her life. My favourite of her various remarks then is: “If you want it, Jesus, I want it too.”

Even though it cost her a lot, when she was still able to she spent time walking around the wards with a drug-dependent girl who suffered from serious depression.

This meant getting out of bed despite the pain caused by the huge growth on her spine. “I’ll have time to rest later,” she said.

Not all of us would have her courage, but she shows how God can bring greater good even from the terrible bad of bone cancer.


4. I think Stephen’s wrong when he blames God for creating a world “where there is such misery… it’s utterly, utterly evil”.

He’s mixing up what we can experience as bad: sufferings caused by the way our universe is set up, animal suffering, human illness – with evil. If you don’t want all the pain due to crashes, falls, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on, then you’d better head for another universe.

Our universe is kept together by gravity, so blaming God for gravity is like blaming him for creating the universe.


The same goes for animal suffering: if you don’t want animals suffering, then stop at chemical elements, because even the tiniest bacteria eat each other to keep alive, and without seals and salmon on the menu, Alaskan bears could only eat animal conservationists.  


5. I think Stephen’s wrong when he blames God for the injustice that’s in the world.

In Dostoevsky’s great meditation on the cause of evil in the world, The Brothers Karamazov, it’s quite clear human beings not God are at fault. But if Stephen would prefer not go beyond the level of say, giraffes, fine, since from a Christian point of view, all animals are still in the Garden of Eden.

Once you accept that human beings are free, part of the bargain is that they’re free to hate as well as to love.

God could have stopped with the animals, but as the Book of Job tells us, he preferred to take the risk and bet that some of us, at least, would return his love with ours.


6. I think Stephen’s wrong when he invokes the Greek gods as rationally superior to the God of Christianity.

From Homer to the great mystic philosophers Xenophanes, Heraclitus and Parmenides, the tragic poets, Aeschylus and Sophocles, and later, to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the 400 year long Greek odyssey of spirit is a purification of the mythic Greek gods.

Just as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion never mentions the Greeks discovery of God’s existence by reason, so Stephen seems unaware of the God they called ‘the One’, ‘Logos’, or with Plato and Aristotle, simply ‘the God’, ‘the True’, ‘the Good’, ‘the Understanding of Understanding’.

No one’s making him accept Jewish or Christian revelation, but if wants to claim it’s reasonable to be an atheist, then he’d better show that wonderful Greek tradition the same respect Christian thinkers have done from Justin Martyr to Thomas Aquinas to Edith Stein.

Fr Brendan Purcell is Adjunct Professor in Philosophy at Notre Dame University, Sydney.