James is destined to become an Anglican vicar, and currently works in a Christian mission. He posted this on Facebook the week after Stephen Fry’s now famous encounter with Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne, who asked him the question “What would you say to god?”

I’ve reposted most of James’ article here, together with the comment I posted on Facebook in response.

A Brief, Belated and Notably Less Articulate Response to Stephen Fry

11 February 2015 at 10:47

Last week, the ever articulate national treasure Stephen Fry was in an interview, an extract of which went viral. It’s worth viewing in full and can be seen here:

What was particularly interesting wasn’t just what Fry said; after all, stuff like that has been said before. It wasn’t even how clearly angry he seemed to get about someone who doesn’t exist; the question really seemed to touch a nerve. But I thought the way people reacted was interesting- everyone loved it. Yesterday, it had 5.5 million views. The Independentnewspaper posted on FB, “this is the best thing you will watch this week,” which was very independent of them.

Everyone seemed to be celebrating Fry’s outburst; he must have hit on something we all feel to one degree or another.

I think we love it when people nail or articulate things that are unfair. We love it when someone else expresses our anger well and someone is in the dock.

Remember that Race for Life advert a couple of years ago, which basically involved the entrants of Race for Life swearing at cancer? “Hey cancer, up yours!”

The point I’m getting at is that there’s something inside us that loves it when someone captures our anger at suffering. We don’t like suffering.

And when it’s something like bone cancer in children, the person we blame is God. We love that too.

And it seems to be the final nail in the proverbial coffin for Christianity, doesn’t it? See, for the last 400 years, people have been asking Christians- well, how can you reconcil ea good and powerful God with bad suffering? Hey, vicar-priest-nun, where is Godin a messed up world?

C S Lewis, the guy who wrote Narnia, often puts it well. Here he is on this dilemma:

‘If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either the goodness, or power, or both.’

We’re not happy. So God is bad or weak.

Seems to be a knockout blow. Christianity must be a load of crap.

Where is God in a Messed up World?

Tim Keller, a vicar of a church in Manhattan, was invited a couple of years ago to speak at an event at Ground Zero marking the anniversary of 9/11. It was for family of those who lost their lives in the emergency services and Keller was asked to speak on what Christianity said on suffering. Then he was told, “oh, you have 7 minutes.”

There’s a similar thing here. What could I say in the next few minutes that would cover this huge topic? Not everything, for sure.

Well, we’re going to explore what materialistic atheism argues on the subject and whether that works.

Then we’re going to see what the Bible offers.

So first, I think it’s fair to say that suffering poses a much bigger problem to the atheist than to the Christian.

I’m just going to let that sink in.

Human suffering poses a greater problem to atheists than it does to Christians.

See, many atheists apply their belief of the theory of evolutionary biology to the whole of life. The theory says all of life has evolved from primordial ooze to the sophisticated eco-structures we know today,as the strongest and best adapted species survive and procreate. And the theory is that nature is trial and error-ing through time to evolutionary perfection and goodness.

You see James, you completely lost me at “materialistic atheism”. No point in reading any further. You (or your quoted Tim Keller) clearly have no understanding of atheism. Atheism merely describes my lack of “magical thinking”; my refusal to attribute anything I see, hear, feel or otherwise experience to some unseen spirit in the sky. It’s Humanism which describes my relationship with the Human world around me. Materialism doesn’t even figure in the argument. Call me a “materialistic atheist” and I’ll call you a religious bigot. Call me a humanist atheist and I’ll nod, walk away, and leave you to get on with living your life. I won’t ever question why bad stuff happens to good people, because once you discount the entire god question from the overall picture, and accept that the Universe offers only pitiless, blind indifference, you no longer need an explanation of “why” bad things happen. They just happen. Parasites act parasitically. Diseases spread, and are fought, and they mutate. Cancer grows due to a failure of one of the many mechanisms which have evolved to kill off rogue cells. Bad people are bad to other people. Those who seek power will attain and wield (and misuse) that power.

There’s no devil waiting to guide the hand of the evil-doer, or spread pestilence or famine or degradation, just as there’s no god offering succour to the afflicted. Once we accept all this, then we can devote our energies to helping those in need, and those struck down by coincidences of bad luck. But let’s help them through truly humanitarian means, with no hidden agenda of religious zealotry or evangelism. Let us do good merely for the sake of doing good. Consign every vestige of “us and them” to the historical rubbish heap along with the religions (and their perverse, corrupt, megalomaniac leaders) which seek to perpetuate division, prejudice and hatred. Anything which divides human being from human being, whether it be religion, materialism or megalomania, is to be derided and swept from any healthy society.

As a footnote, it’s not “god” who angers Stephen Fry (and me), it’s the double standards of those who follow such a flawed concept, let alone manifesting an idea into physical form. The question from Gay Byrne was “what would you say to god”… which is a nonsensical proposition for me. How can one speak to something that doesn’t exist? Sounds like mental illness to me. The only proper two-part question to ask, and indeed the one Stephen Fry was really answering, is “how can you reconcile a merciful god with all the bad stuff that happens, and what would you say to those who preach love in the name of god, but then exercise hatred in their treatment of fellow humans?”

Because ultimately it’s those people, those human beings, who make humanist atheists angry.

Then Kate said…

But isn’t this kind of thinking contradictory Jon? You say bad stuff happens and we don’t need an explanation of why. If it really is an accident that we are all here, by survival of the fittest then why should we try to help people in need? Surely that would just slow the process down?

To which my reply is…

If your only motivation for humanitarian acts is to please your spirit in the sky, Kate, I question whether your moral compass is actually working. In the meantime I’ll just carry on being a humanist atheist, helping real, physical people who live and suffer, and not wasting all that energy (and obscene amounts of money) on something that doesn’t exist.

Jon- great response!
I did say that my article was brief! And, due to that, I knew that my brief summary of an entire worldview would be deficient.
However, I didn’t realise that I used an incorrect label and for that I apologise. I think I make a similar point to yourself in the talk and, just for the sake of differentiation, tried to use “materialist” to indicate those who disbelieve in the spirits in the sky to which you refer- not materialist in the sense of economic materialism, see what I mean?
I agree that alleviating suffering and loving people is a good thing and that really serving people remains a good thing whatever your motivation or worldview.
I would just tentatively suggest, as I did in the talk, that there’s something in us that knows that serving and loving all people in is a good thing, including being angry at their suffering, even when the current prevailing worldview about the universe is, as you said, ” the Universe offers only pitiful, blind indifference.” We seem to behave differently to the way our worldview suggests we should- I see that as an intellectual dilemma for atheism!
Anyway, thanks for your comments and I apologise for using an offensive term.

It’s all in the spirit of healthy discussion, James.

A lot of religious people seem to misunderstand atheism and humanism, and how scientific concepts fit in, like the universe, the big bang, cosmic inflation, evolution by natural selection and so on. Kate seems to be suggesting that, being an atheist, and by association, an evolutionist, I should just accept that it’s “survival of the fittest”, and do away with acts that might seek to usurp the natural order.

Through the second law of thermodynamics, perhaps I should also accept that entropy is going to get us all, and stop maintaining my property, looking after my body and so on. Alas, I’m human, and when I see something that needs fixing, I want to fix it. Decay, degradation, pain, misery, starvation, violence, inhumanity… these can all be fixed, though some are more difficult to fix than others.

As I told you recently, although I feel that many religious people are anti-atheist, most atheists aren’t actually anti-god. Certainly we deride the abuse of power, the positioning of one human being over another through some sort of religious justification, the division religion creates between peoples… but I can’t be anti-god, since there is no god. That would be silly. I’m as anti-archbishop or pope as I am anti-corporate-fatcat. And I’m as anti-IS as I am anti-crusade or anti-Tony-Blair-catholic-saint-in-waiting-lying-about-weapons-of-mass-destruction-to-please-American-president-and-his-Saudi-oil-wealth-buddies.

All atheist humanism really does is to take away the needless justification of doing it all in the glory of a “god”, and make life a set of beneficent acts one performs merely for the sake of the outcome of those acts in the real world – the here, the now, and the future. No side-agenda, no conditional benefits, no hope of gain beyond the natural pleasure of helping others. I’m not looking for an eternal afterlife, or brownie points to spend in paradise, just perhaps for those living individuals who I leave behind to be able to say “he was a good man”, should they happen to think of me at all. I’m glad to be able to say that about my late father, and I hope my children feel the same about me.