A video featuring Stephen Fry is going viral. In it he condemns the Christian faith because of the presence in the world of natural evil. As one who takes Christian apologetics seriously, I want to reply to him…
Dear Mr Fry,
I came across an interview in which you were asked what you would say to God? The answer you gave was clever, which is unsurprising given your clear intellectual gifts, but also unfairly damning. As a priest, who loves the God you denounce, I want to respond. Not to proselytise or dismiss your argument but to offer a different perspective and help you and others understand the value of the faith I seek to follow.
In your response you pointed to “natural evil” as the reason you dismiss the notion of a loving God. As a self proclaimed atheist you are wise to hone in on this for there is no denying that natural evil is a tricky issue for believers. There is no glib or easy answer to the question of why God, if he exists, allows suffering.
It is not, however, a new question or one that has been ignored by people of faith. Indeed the book of Job, the earliest of all in the Bible, tackles this question head on even if in a way that proves unsatisfactory for modern debate. That is with the heart not the head – it’s conclusion being that to experience the love of God, seen in the theophany granted Job, is to satisfy all doubt and fear.
Since Job was written, many other great thinkers have tackled the issue. I commend The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis which sets out a robust response but there are others. Ultimately some Christians have concluded this world is broken and reflects our fallen nature. Others imagine natural evil highlights to us a need for something more than this world – a fallen world creating a hunger for heaven. But I confess that neither of these answers goes far enough.
Perhaps it is best then for the Christian to humbly accept the limitations of our knowledge at this point. Which is what Benedict XVI did, in 2011, when he was asked why children suffer illness. He admitted he asks the same question and has no easy answer beyond noting that the God of Christianity is one who himself suffered unfairly and tries to turn our suffering into victory through the cross of Christ and the message of Easter.
Might we be looking at the question the wrong way round then? Should we ask why other great thinkers, given that they have stumbled on the same problem, have not felt the need to dismiss God? Why have they nevertheless stood by the Christian claim?
In part it is because simply removing God from the equation does nothing whatsoever to eradicate the problem of suffering in this world. What we cut off when we dismiss God is not the problem of evil so much as our means of salvation from it. And this is a point writ large in history.
Both the French and Russian Revolutions, for example, encouraged violent rejection of Christ in the firm belief this would usher in a new Age of Enlightened Reason. It did not. It ushered in a reign of brutal terror, a destructive vortex of madness and death. In Nazi Germany, it was believed the substitution of Christianity with neo-paganism would give rise to a master race. It did not. It led to the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz. And in Communist Russia, once Christianity was eradicated, along came the gulag and more indescribable human suffering.
I hope you don’t mind me sharing with you then that I find the banal destruction, wherever man has abandoned God (yes within the Church as well as without!) to be every bit as infuriating as the cases you note of worms digesting eyes. And I cannot help but note also, that while there have been many sinners who discredit the Church, those who have lived by its teaching, the Saints, are unparalleled examples of living virtue in history. Proof, I would argue, of what faith can do to save us from ourselves. It seems to perfect the virtue that is open to us all.
So let me, in the interests of fairness, briefly underline the huge contribution to life we discover wherever Christian faith has been allowed to flourish. You are known as an advocate of inclusion, toleration, respect and freedom. Are these not values stemming from a Judeo-Christian tradition? It was Catholic culture that gifted England its hospitals, historic schools and Cambridge and Oxford University. It was Christian culture that gave us everything from the architecture of our great Cathedrals to the paintings of Caravaggio.
But this artistic flourishing has rather dwindled as the Christian heritage has weakened. I don’t know about you, but I am of the opinion that Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, a fruit of modernist culture, cannot hold a candle to the works of Michelangelo, fruits of Christian culture. And today the world over it is the Church that continues to feed, clothe and care for more people each day than any other institution or organisation. Despite its many well publicised faults.
Noting these gifts is not a flippant point. For if we remove our Judeo-Christian values and beliefs from modern society, the values that inspired the creation of the West, then what do you propose we put in their place? A serious question as we try to navigate through a modern landscape that seems economically, spiritually and morally bankrupt. When you burst the Christian bubble what else do you offer the many people who look to you in modern life? I ask by way of warning. For it strikes me that modern liberal secular values are only found where they parasitically feed of a dying Christian culture. The values they espouse having been taken from the very Christian culture they seek to destroy. It is a path to nihilism.
Which is not to suggest Christianity is perfect. I know full well it isn’t. God, rather foolishly it seems to me, placed his Church in the hands of fallible humanity. And those people, from Judas Iscariot to the weak vessel that is me, have so often let him down – and dreadfully. I take solace therefore that the Church is not a club for the pious but a hospital for sinners. A club for hypocrites that says “join us Stephen because we always have room for one more!”
But despite these faults it is also a place in which people are loved and held to be sacred. And despite the hideous blots on our copy book, which our sins represent, the fact remains that human civilisation has soared under the influence of Christianity. Why then dismiss it all simply because of the existence of natural evil? Would we throw away a beautiful novel, one imbued with truth, simply because one section proved hard for us to understand?
And if natural evil is a thorn in the Christian’s side, so moral evil is a thorn in the atheist’s side! For if there is no God and we are, as Darwin and Nietzsche suggest, cells with no purpose beyond procreation and existence, then why complain as you did? What possible meaning does life have? Why not cull in concentration camp or gulag? Why not kill those who contribute little but use up resources? Why not let the worm eat the eye? If we stop upholding the sanctity of life, a clearly theistic notion, then what possible reason do we have to be angry? It is simply what it is.
But that doesn’t seem to be what you actually believe. For it is obvious from your emotional response that you actually hold life to be precious. Your rage at the worm suggests you see something infinitely precious in humanity that makes it worthy of dignity, protection and care. Good for you! Christians agree and include you in that number. But Stephen, why rail against God if you don’t believe in him? I cannot imagine getting cross with a creature I believed mythical, say a unicorn or pixie! No, the emotion you display is only rationally, surely, if delivered to a living agent you do suspect might just be there.
Perhaps then it is not that you disbelieve in God, so much as feel anger towards him and what you think he has revealed? If so I urge you to look again and see not only our grot but also our glory. For there must clearly be something of value in a Catholic Church that has lasted two thousand years, which comprises 1.4 billion members and which has outlived every regime that ever sought to destroy it.
With best wishes
Fr Ed Tomlinson
PS. We do agree on one thing. I too support Norwich City. And does this fact not hand me the victory in debate? For here is proof beyond doubt that you, Stephen Fry, are quite capable of applying hope and faith in the face of tremendous uncertainty!