Monday 11 December 2017

Great Irish minds ponder Fry's argument on God's existence

From the worlds of theology, literature, art, psychiatry and media, some of our greatest thinkers have interesting perspectives

Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

On a recent episode of The Meaning of Life on RTE One, presented by Gay Byrne, Stephen Fry responded to the question of what he might say to God at the pearly gates. "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery? It's 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?" The video has since been watched over five million times on YouTube. Here are some other reflections on the great question which has haunted man since the beginning of time.

Dr Ivor Browne

Author, former chief psychiatrist of the Eastern Health Board

I think Stephen Fry is very stupid blaming God for everything. What he doesn't understand is that if God would behave the way he wants then it would deprive us of free will.

Almost everything that happens, 90pc of things we create, is by our stupid behaviour. And what we don't create is a struggle between creation and evolution. Evolution is a partnership with everyone, we are not passive bystanders.

Patrick O'Reilly

Artist and sculptor

I thought Stephens Fry's words were surprisingly harsh considering his profound poetic soul. Anger and wisdom are rarely compatible. The only certainty in life is the uncertainty of what we know.

Faith accepts what cannot be established by our human cognitive faculties. I struggle to understand the concept of faith and believe our reason for existing is an enigma complicated by any attempt to interpret it as a truth. However, I envy reflective believers whose burden appears easier with this poultice of hope.

To seek explanations, reasons or redress for worldly suffering is human. Expecting gods to intervene is to give them human form and to reduce spiritual laws to an anthropological understanding. If we are part of nature we are also part of its survival. The benign sounds of nature's wildlife emerging from a summer hedgerow belies the killing field that lies beneath.

Invective uttered with unfortunate timing can have far reaching consequences.

Fr Peter McVerry

Priest and homeless campaigner

I absolutely sympathise with Stephen Fry. I think that suffering, which is not created by human beings, is hugely challenging to our faith.

I heard a group of young school children give a presentation after spending a month in Africa looking after children with extreme physical disabilities and extreme poverty. They reflected they were among the happiest people they had ever met. They had nothing and they wanted nothing.

And they compared them to the children they knew back home in Belfast who had everything and wanted everything.

Terminal illness is a tragedy but these children receive so much love and affection from their parents that if you asked them they would say they are extremely happy.

Being loved is more important than being healthy. It is up to the rest of us to reach out with kindness and compassion and that is the hand of God in their eyes.

To understand the existence of God we need to stop only looking at people's external situation.

Tim Pat Coogan

Historical writer and biographer

Stripped of his splendid invective Stephen's basic point is unassailable. To me the myth of a personal, loving God waiting to greet each of the ever-growing billions of individuals as they arrive in heaven, via the portals of often agonising and unjust deaths, is just that - a myth, a mirage which can only be glimpsed while standing on the shoulders of consolation.

The great Yeatsian question: "What then. What then?" haunts us all. But the varying answers of the religions to this, the Big Bang, the evils cited by Fry, the undoubted good some religious do, also gave us the self-perpetuation of institutions, the subjugation of women, Isil, the Shankill Butchers and the possibility that 600 babies may have been buried in a septic tank in Tuam.

Tom Savage

Ex-priest, former RTE chairman

The question is why an opinion that has been a standard objection to the existence of God should suddenly seem new and insightful.

As a priest, 40 years ago, I always expected the brightest and most argumentative 13-year-olds in any school to raise it. Sometimes it took the form of: "If there's a God, how could he allow the Holocaust?"

Sometimes it was more personal: "My mother was the best mother in the world and she got cancer, so if God exists, he's evil." Stephen Fry gives good TV: vivid exemplars of the cruel irrationality of the God he planned to tell off, and Gay Byrne's reaction shot showed a man who knew his interviewee had handed him a great moment. But he didn't look surprised and I suspect had heard it before, many times, albeit in less dramatic form.

John Banville

Author and Booker Prize winner

I'm with the theologian Karl Rahner - or was it Karl Barth? - who wondered what kind of a God it would be who would bother himself with us.

I'm also with Stephen Fry, if he is saying we should abandon monotheism - what havoc that doctrine has wrought on us poor mortals! - and return to paganism. The old gods were so much more fun than the old brute of the Old Testament."

Anthony Cronin

Writer and poet

I believe in God because I believe there had to be a beginning. Otherwise there would have been nothing. I think they tell us now there needn't have been a beginning, but I am stuck with reason and common sense.

Perhaps they are incapable of imagining nothingness, complete and absolute nothingness?

The objections voiced by Stephen Fry have all been raised before, some of them by St Augustine who then went on to answer them himself. Basically, his answer was free will.

Most of the evil in the world, he said, was due to man's exercise of free will.

Obviously the insects who eat the eyes of children that Fry talks about are not the products of man's free will. They are the products of evolution. But I suppose he's blaming God for starting evolution off and letting it continue.

Of course, there are mysteries about God, deep and terrible mysteries, and I don't pretend to be able to solve them.

But if there is no God, no unknowable Being we conveniently call God, why is there not nothing? Just nothing, complete and utter nothing?

Gillian Bowler


I was fascinated - both by the show and by the subsequent reaction to it. I am not a believer in the hereafter - but to me the meaning of life is to be kind to people who need help and also to protect the most vulnerable in society.

I think Stephen Fry was brilliant simply because he was so open about how he felt. I think he helped a lot of people.

Oliver Callan


I'm bewildered that the media is so shocked by an atheist describing God as a monster.

It's like a publican expressing shock if Shane McGowan walked into his pub and ordered a double gin.

Stephen Fry has been completely devoid of spirituality for some time - so what did everyone expect he would say when asked about God?

There wouldn't have been such an outcry had the Archbishop of Canterbury said it. Gaybo is being coy about his own beliefs, but that look on his face after Fry's outburst said all we needed to know.

I stand by my own commandment - always discuss politics and religion, especially over wine, because nothing could possibly go wrong.

Sunday Independent

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