Is Stephen Fry right about God? I don’t know…but that’s important

Conversations about faith and religion happen less often for me these days. I struggle with the closed-mindedness that even some of the more ‘enlightened’ people I know display. It’s almost as if this subject is the last bastion of what it’s okay for educated, liberal/socialist people to be bigoted about. Stephen Fry’s recent, and very public, attack on God did trigger a brief exchange though. It got me thinking.

I was raised as an atheist by atheist parents, one of whom I would say is fundamentalist. But for me there is something quite unsatisfactory about this perspective; it is so very certain and intolerant. There are atheists who can match any religious zealot for their blinkered preaching, and who refuse to listen to – to really hear – what other viewpoints can add to any debate. (Equally, there are those atheists who are curious and open minded of course.)

Stephen Fry described atheism (i.e. the absence of a God) as making things “simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living”. He also criticised a ‘capricious’ and ‘monstrous’ God (if one existed) for creating bone cancer in children and allowing suffering that is not our fault. I have two issues with this, which on close inspection are slightly contradictory I have to admit, so I won’t explore them in depth here just now. But see what you think anyway…

Firstly, he takes an incredibly human-centric view of the issues; these cruelties he identifies are not fair, not “acceptable” to us as humans, but what about everything else that inhabits this planet? Humans are filling up the planet at a rate which is simply not sustainable, and we are only one part of a very big picture, which his comments fail to acknowledge. Surely a God who created all the world would have equal concern for everything in creation and would have to try and hold things in balance in a way that perhaps we cannot conceive?

Secondly, there are atheists who lack precisely the kind of compassion and humanity that Stephen laments as absent in this ‘maniac’ God. Many atheists, looking to science, make claims about what is true and known, and consequently what is right. Richard Dawkins is essentially, technically right about a lot of things. But it doesn’t make him morally right, or even good. He ultimately apologised for his comment about how expectant parents should terminate “abnormal” foetuses, but that doesn’t change the fact that he clearly believes this to be true, a moral requirement, based in scientific reason. Pure rationality would dictate that he is “correct”, but where on Earth is the humanity, compassion, hope, and love in a view like that? How can anyone but the most utterly diminished kind of human being think and function in this way?

This kind of narrow thinking and insisting on rationality alone blocks out other possibilities and closes down opportunities to gain a far deeper and richer understanding of what it means to be human. Not only does this approach diminish the discussion itself, often rendering it a pointless monologue dressed up as academic debate, but it causes other, wider audiences to switch off too.

I was brought up by people who thought they knew best, were right about things, and raised me to believe it was important to be right in that way. I’m sure this isn’t uncommon, however being sure of things is very limiting, and I’ve spent most of my adulthood trying to cultivate a sense of assured uncertainty. Learning to live comfortably in the ‘I’m not sure zone’ is difficult but interesting. The thing that has helped the most, has been choosing an area of work that means I get to be with people from all kinds of different worlds (colleagues and clients alike).

In various roles around the criminal justice system, involving support and/or rehabilitation I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who have challenged my assumptions and changed the way I see the things around me. They’ve enabled me to realise I don’t know best, and I don’t have all the answers, but that it’s alright as long as I’m prepared to ask questions. And to listen to the answers I’m given; really listen.

In the end I don’t know if Stephen is right about God, but what does it mean to be right anyway? For me it’s important that I don’t know, because it means I’ll keep on asking questions, and when you ask questions you learn things you never expected to know. I can’t think of much that’s better than that.


Epilogue I

I once asked my Dad if he preferred writing or playing music; Mum looked at me as if to say, “You know the answer to that”, and I was pretty sure that I did. But what I found out was that he’d written a piece of music for a friend’s wedding. And I got to hear it too. I may have never known that my whole life if I hadn’t asked that question.

Epilogue II

Within hours of first posting this, I was on the phone to my Dad talking about a music recital he has coming up. He’s played in rock and folk bands all his life, playing by ear with no musical theory knowledge, and his recent foray into the learned world of classical music practise and theory is being put to the test for the first time at this recital. I asked him how the apprehension for this is different to all the other gigs he’s ever played. Quite a lot of discussion and information flowed…including the fact that his band, St Willys Cool School supported Jimmy Hendrix in East Dereham in 1965/6. I couldn’t believe I’d never known this. Ironically, East Dereham is precisely where Stephen Fry got married last week.

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