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:
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:
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