Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor

You may have seen Stephen Fry’s rant last week. Here’s a (partial) transcript of what he said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE:

Asked what he’d say to God, if he met him:

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. To see the whole video (2 mins 24 secs), click here.

The issue of human suffering is without doubt the most powerful and certainly the most common argument against the existence of God. I have ruminated on this question so much, I ended up writing a novel about it. More on that another time.

A couple of observations concerning Mr. Fry. As with so many, the emotional response comes first and initially, there simply is nothing that can be offered, let alone heard, in reply. Did he sound in a mood for dialogue? I think not.

There is no question that immense suffering plunges us towards mystery. Make that Mystery with a capital M. In particular, the suffering of children is very very hard to accept. When little ones suffer, we are fully justified, I think, in shaking our fists at the heavens. Such a response seems very natural and I would expect nothing less from a parent whose child lies in a hospital bed.

Stephen Fry, however, offers little in terms of argument; in short, he simply states, ‘if God exists, I don’t like him and I think he’s immoral.’ That’s not really an argument; it’s an emotional outburst. Many think that you can dismiss God’s existence with a short-form argument that goes like this:

God exists.
Suffering exists.
Those two are incompatible and therefore one must not exist. Since suffering exists, God must not.

Elegant in its simplicity perhaps, but false.

Why? Because the argument requires another premise to make its case. Most people assume this premise without stating it. So, the argument is actually this one:

God exists
Suffering exists
There are no reasons why God would permit human suffering
Therefore God doesn’t exist

It’s the third premise which is the one which theologians focus on and debate. And there are all sorts of justifications (theodicies) which can be offered. But not today.

Today, I’d like to draw attention to something a little different. You may have noticed from Stephen’s comments, that he is drawing on ideas almost without knowing that he’s doing it. What do I mean? Well, he assumes there is something called ‘morality.’ He also believes in value and good and evil.

The great apologist, Francis Schaeffer, observed many years ago that atheists are often in the habit of using ideas for which their worldview has no justification. It’s rather like a building with two stories. Francis Beckwith summarizes the analogy like this:

In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the non-cognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. More here.

So Stephen enters the building and he takes a look at what’s on the shelves. What can he use to make his argument? Well, if he’s being consistent, he’ll notice that really all he has are facts about the physical world. Furthermore, he must confront the idea that his universe had no cause that he can account for, and all things will eventually be extinguished. So questions like ‘what are things for?’ or ‘how should we live?’ can only be answered with reference to science and empirical data.

Stephen decides, however, that science isn’t helping much with questions of how one should live or even what things are for, so he strolls upstairs and finds an embarrassment of riches. On the shelf lie all kinds of resources he didn’t have downstairs. Things like moral values, ethics, good, evil, even purpose. These are so effective in making an argument that he decides to use some of them. He calls God ‘evil.’ He assumes that human beings are valuable and ought not to suffer. He assumes that any Creator must be someone who would agree with his outlook on life. Lots of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ floating about.

But hold on, Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor.

Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, he’s not supposed to be up there, using resources which aren’t available to him as an atheist.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Beckwith write that these things are non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties.You can’t make arguments with those things, can you?

Well, it turns out that the building is poorly designed. Because the Christian faith, which draws on these ideas of morality, good, evil, value and purpose, does so rationally and with logical consistency. It’s our opponents who claim that morality and value are non-rational and deeply personal. Not true.

Morality isn’t non-rational at all. It’s accessible to all and even logically verifiable and you don’t need science to know that morality exists. Trust me, you don’t need a test-tube to affirm the truthfulness of the statement, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong.’ What you do need, however, is the existence of something non-physical who grounds all these ideas, makes sense of them. Because science ain’t gonna get the job done.

You know who we’re talking about, Stephen. We’re talking about God.

You don’t like him? Well, basing morality on personal preference is a castle built on sinking sand. But you don’t think it’s just personal preference, do you? You think some things really are wrong. Absolutely wrong. Well, you’re bang on target.

So . . . here’s a thought to mull over during your day.

Morality is prescriptive, not descriptive and this makes ALL the difference. Science is entirely descriptive. It tells us ‘how things are.’ Morality has to do with ‘how things should be.’ The chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ cannot be bridged by science, since science is not equipped to carry us across. Morality proposes moral laws and as C.S. Lewis argued many years ago, moral laws imply a moral-lawgiver.

We call that person God.

Final thought, Stephen. You’re right. Something’s terribly wrong. And if something’s gone badly wrong, you want to choose a worldview which can account for this. You respond instinctively to suffering as we all do. You don’t simply rail against the existence of suffering children, you express the feeling that ‘this shouldn’t be happening.’ Something’s gone terribly wrong with the world.

But Stephen, your cherished atheism can’t account for this intuition at all – beyond a subjective response – and it certainly gives no answer. Blind natural forces are so mute when you want an answer.

No, you need a worldview, a Story which explains what’s gone wrong and offers some kind of hope that ‘things are being put right.’ That’s why you and I, well, we all believe intuitively in Justice and it’s why we all long for Peace.

Turns out there is a Story full of hope. It’s called Christianity. And we have a full-blown doctrine of how and why things have gone wrong. But more importantly, we have hope, based on a Story in which an interventionist God partners with his people in restoring what’s broken, helping them to learn and grow in the midst of pain while also equipping them to share his love with hurting people.

Not only that, he too has suffered horribly. And for our sake. He has not left us. He is with us and he can be with you too, if you would but turn to him.

You too, Stephen.

His love extends even to those who shake their fists at him.

© Richard Collins 2015

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor

  1. I have only read the first few paragraphs of your post but thought I should point out something material: Stephen was not asked on his opinion of whether ‘god’ exists or to construct an argument; he was asked to take it as given that ‘god’ exists and, on that basis, what he would say to it upon entry to heaven. The emotional outburst is what ensues but is certainly not an argument. In essence, Stephen was being asked to ‘play the game’. It’s an absurd question in the first place as you can pose an infinite number of equivalent hypotheses.

    I feel you may have jumped the gun slightly but I’m sure there are those out there who might use that argument. Stephen Fry, though, certainly wouldn’t be one of them.

    Like

  2. Witty Ludwig,

    In reply . . . I’m not sure I jumped any particular gun. I wrote as follows:

    Stephen Fry, however, offers little in terms of argument; in short, he simply states, ‘if God exists, I don’t like him and I think he’s immoral.’ That’s not really an argument; it’s an emotional outburst.

    Having said this, I think I would disagree with you on your final observation as follows:

    . . . I’m sure there are those out there who might use that argument. Stephen Fry, though, certainly wouldn’t be one of them.

    I highly doubt that. You’re right, he doesn’t make an argument in his rant, beyond accusing God of being immoral. However, he’s an ardent atheist and while he doesn’t state it here, I think it’s highly unlikely that he doesn’t use suffering as part of his argument against God’s existence. Let’s wait until he actually states the argument more clearly. God and suffering are incompatible, therefore there’s no God. I’ve heard it so often and it is so ‘out there’ in our culture, I felt the need to give it a brief examination on the back of Stephen’s comments.

    Thanks so much for commenting. Come back again!

    Like

    • I don’t see how your own quote of yourself sheds further light but no doubt my own failing.

      “I think it’s highly unlikely that he doesn’t use suffering as part of his argument against God’s existence”.

      My opinion of course, and so worthless, but I would find it very surprising. It might feature in a general diatribe along the lines of ‘even supposing the Judeo-Christian god did exist…’, in which case, it might be a comment on benevolence etc. etc. but, given how well-read the man is, I can’t imagine that he would seriously adopt this type of intellectual angle; there simply would be no need. I might ask a friend who is an avid fan and read everything to do with the man.

      I feel you launched very readily into your general views on why Christianity prevails over Atheism but, for one thing, your conception of ‘god’ is clearly the Judeo-Christian one– would you say that’s fair? I would (hope!) imagine Stephen wouldn’t specifically target your deity but would rather address the over-arching ‘concept of the *something*’. The strength of your convictions in the Christian faith are, undoubtedly, the result of your upbringing via parents, schooling, etc.. Unless you, as the archetypal tabula rasa, honestly picked up very many books on different faiths and made an informed decision? My point here being that I think you assume Stephen was targeting Christianity in particular because of your own conception of the divine along with the fact that the hypothetical posed to Stephen was set within the Christian framework. If he were actually exploring the topic, I have to remain convinced that he would take a more holistic, philosophical view than merely attacking one tenet of something particular to the Christian faith.

      Like

  3. Witty Ludwig,

    Please don’t say that your own opinion is worthless – not true at all. That’s the first thing. I would, however, like to respond to just a couple of the things you wrote. Hope they help a little.

    I’ll quote you and then respond briefly:

    1) I can’t imagine that he would seriously adopt this type of intellectual angle; there simply would be no need.

    On the contrary, I would fully expect it, because it’s almost the only game out there. God plus suffering equals no God is pretty much as far as the argument goes, such as it is. Sure, in his response, he doesn’t say it outright, he adopts the idea that ‘if God existed, this is what I’d say’ which is fine. But the subtext is clearly this one . . . no one can seriously believe that God, certainly not a loving God, exists. Just look at the world! That’s how the argument is presented. Theologians have responded in all kinds of ways for centuries to this, and there are dozens of books on this, but the problem has to do with emotion. Arguments don’t work with hurting people. They don’t need arguments anyway, they need love. But love isn’t an argument. When it comes to justification, several responses can be offered, but not in a swirl of emotion which is disguised as an argument.

    2) your conception of ‘god’ is clearly the Judeo-Christian one– would you say that’s fair?

    Absolutely. I’m a Christian.

    3) The strength of your convictions in the Christian faith are, undoubtedly, the result of your upbringing via parents, schooling, etc..

    Careful here. It may well be that my convictions are highly influenced by my background, as are yours, but you’ve got to be careful about the conclusions you draw from that observation. The truthfulness of a particular viewpoint is not dependent on the means by which people believe in it. And believing in something doesn’t make it true. Christianity isn’t based on feelings or upbringing or culture or anything else. It’s an historical faith, authenticated in all kinds of ways, but most importantly in the Resurrection of Jesus. Simply put, if Jesus rose from the dead, then everything changes. If he didn’t, then we’re lost. We don’t base some of our beliefs on this, we base all of them. i.e. without the Resurrection, there is no Christian faith. Makes no difference how we come to believe in this, either from a Christian upbringing or from outside. There are plenty of people in our church who have come to faith from outside the church, as adults. Enough said.

    4) If he were actually exploring the topic, I have to remain convinced that he would take a more holistic, philosophical view than merely attacking one tenet of something particular to the Christian faith.

    Well, I think he is offended by the conception of anything that might intrude on how he lives his life, to be perfectly honest, but you won’t ever hear him say that. More to the point, while it is true that atheists don’t like the idea of God, they especially don’t like faiths which are evangelistic in their beliefs. And there’s no question that, in the background, Christianity is the principle faith he is targeting. Christians believe God is Love. For those who suffer, they find this an incomprehensible and sometimes offensive belief. But that doesn’t stop we Christians from sharing the most important belief we hold, that God loves people and has created them to be in relationship with him.

    Furthermore, we believe that God has suffered horribly in our world to bring us back to him. He is not distant, he is present and we experience him every day.

    One final thing, Ludwig (whatever your real name is! Is it Ludwig?!) you should know that most of my readers are Christians. I don’t assume Christian belief, but it’s built into my comments. I love that you have visited and I hope you will come back. I hope also that of all those ‘very many books on different faiths’ you talk about, that you read some to do with my faith. You could do no worse than read one called Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, if you want some philosophy or Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis or Basic Christianity by John Stott. Personally, you sound like someone who would get a lot out of the first two. Oh, and attend a Christianity Explored course (http://www.christianityexplored.org) when you can. Be bold and explore your beliefs. You never know where you might end up.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Like

    • I have to say that I feel guilty in that I cannot afford you the same time as you have given me. I must be brief. To your point (1), I feel a straw-man has been assembled to some extent here. Fully aware it has been explored by theologians and academics alike. I don’t think Russell, for instance, had it as his main point of attack, which is my point. This is not to say Russell’s correct or that I ascribe to his world view but he was an intelligent writer and, like many, did not resort to ‘look at the world, how awful’ as a particularly serious line of attack; he certainly made the observation, though, like Dawkins, Grayling, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc..

      To point (3), being a fellow Englishman and not one from your generation, you must appreciate that we are, historically, a Christian country, which does come with all sorts of cultural baggage. There are reasons percentages of faiths shift only very gradually in countries throughout the world and it is not coincidental that you are not Taoist, Buddhist, etc. etc. This is not as superficial or glib as you would like me to believe.

      “The truthfulness of a particular viewpoint is not dependent on the means by which people believe in it. And believing in something doesn’t make it true.” This offends a great deal of scholarship and is rather sweeping!

      To point (4), “More to the point, while it is true that atheists don’t like the idea of God”– as you’ll appreciate, the spectrum is broad for the Christian faith and I think so too for the label of ‘atheist’ these days thanks to all the attention in the last century in particular. Not liking the idea of God sounds very much as if ‘god exists or god doesn’t exist’, which some atheists might agree with but myself, who class as ‘non-religious’, couldn’t possible. I have no idea what a christian means by ‘god’; some ideas, yes, but nothing I care for.

      “you talk about, that you read some to do with my faith. You could do no worse than read one called Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, if you want some philosophy or Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis or Basic Christianity by John Stott. Personally, you sound like someone who would get a lot out of the first two.”

      I feel I must have offended you to cause such a discourteous response. I am very familiar with WLC’s work (frowned upon in academic circles, popular (in the literal sense) though) and most certainly with C.S. Lewis’ works– I was always a very keen admirer of Anscombe who embarrassed him at a debate in Oxford– I visited her grave in Cambridge last year, in fact. Should I do you the same discourtesy and assume you have not read about her or any of her works? I don’t know how I lead you to believe that I was not well read or had not, in fact, read more widely or to a greater depth than yourself but apologies for creating this impression. Similarly with my spiritual journey– I find your assumptions puzzling but assume it is only a consequence of your own spiritual convictions, which, I think, would be a generous interpretation.

      Like

  4. Ludwig,

    A couple of brief replies.

    You wrote: There are reasons percentages of faiths shift only very gradually in countries throughout the world and it is not coincidental that you are not Taoist, Buddhist, etc. etc. This is not as superficial or glib as you would like me to believe.

    I don’t think I characterised your comment as either glib or superficial. I simply pointed out that it’s a genetic fallacy, which is when you dismiss (or downgrade) a belief based on its origins. Of course different countries have different numbers of religious observers according to their history. My point is that that does nothing to undermine the veracity of a particular faith. It is the belief claims which must be verified, not the backgrounds of the people who propose them.

    With regards, then to this comment,

    “The truthfulness of a particular viewpoint is not dependent on the means by which people believe in it. And believing in something doesn’t make it true.” This offends a great deal of scholarship and is rather sweeping!

    If you’re referring to postmodern scholarship, then guilty as charged. However, I still stand by my statements. I think they’re true. If there’s something objectively wrong with them, then feel free to address the specifics of what I wrote.

    Finally,

    I feel I must have offended you to cause such a discourteous response. I am very familiar with WLC’s work (frowned upon in academic circles, popular (in the literal sense) though)

    I apologise if you felt my comments were discourteous. That was not my intention at all. I thought recommending some reading might help. I didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t well-read. Regarding WLC, I take ‘frowned upon in academic circles’ as a compliment. He’s frowned upon largely because he keeps on winning debates with atheists. His arguments are clearly made and he is a master at the art of debating. That he is ‘frowned upon’ therefore, shows he’s rattling some cages.

    Having said that, I would simply end with what I said earlier, which is that I invite you to continue to look at our faith. I think it’s worth looking at and engaging with. As for Anscombe, if she embarrassed C.S. Lewis, then good for her. If her arguments were properly assembled, then maybe he made a hash of his responses. In the end, thankfully, Christians don’t live and die by the ability to win arguments. We stand on an historical fact, the Resurrection of Jesus. Gary Habermas. It’s just a name, and one you have probably heard of. I’m making no assumptions here. I promise! Again, I have no wish to offend. No offence is meant.

    Have a great day.

    Like

    • In short:

      “I don’t think I characterised your comment as either glib or superficial”; agreed; I meant the point in general rather than my specific comment. As to genetic fallacy, it is only a fallacy if I had said its truthfulness was in question. On the contrary, I was expressing a relativist view and so the question of ‘truth’ doesn’t enter the equation (the need for equations always being the root of misunderstandings in these areas).

      “objectively wrong”

      I wouldn’t know what you would class as or not objective; these things aren’t necessarily clear-cut.

      “he is a master at the art of debating”

      This is very true; he is an excellent rhetorician. I feel he (and many of those atheists you mention you have debated him) approach the subject matter in a fundamentally inappropriate sense; as did Russell. Logic is very much a game and he’s very good at playing it; it doesn’t provide answers, though, unless all the participants are playing the game.

      Many thanks for your time.

      Like

  5. Ludwig,

    I noticed that you wrote, ‘I was expressing a relativist view’. Is that because you think relativism is a viable position or were you just adopting that framework for the sake of discussion, rather as Stephen Fry adopted the idea of God, even though he doesn’t believe in God?

    You wrote, ‘I wouldn’t know what you would class as or not objective; these things aren’t necessarily clear-cut.’ You see, I think Truth exists. Perhaps you don’t, I don’t know.

    You’re quite correct that it makes a lot of difference when you’re debating with people who don’t accept the same properly basic beliefs. If you think ‘everything’s relative’ then it would make progress or even honest back and forth very difficult. For every truth I presented, you could always reply, ‘well, it depends.’ And that doesn’t lead very far. Nevertheless, I have very much enjoyed our dialogue here.

    I feel our conversation is now drawing to a close. I’m sure you’re busy and I definitely am, or should be!! Do come back and question my assumptions any time you like! Even better, take another look at John’s gospel. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    Have a wonderful evening.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s