My seven-year-old son said God couldn't exist because of Hitler
Stephen Fry's response to the question of God attracted five million YouTube views - but it's not like he said anything revolutionary
Last year my favourite word was "authentic". I liked "authentic" people, even if I disagreed with them. My new favourite word is "binary": I've diagnosed it's the reason behind the rot of public discourse. One must be either for or against; in or out; left or right; liberal or conservative. Perhaps it's because I live in the middle of Ireland, but I often find myself in the middle ground.
This Stephen Fry business is a classic example. I don't watch 'The Meaning of Life', so perhaps like many people I only became aware of the "Stephen Fry Says Something Mad" incident when the counter-comment cycle began in the media. Then I heard the offending two minutes replayed on radio in which Fry said, amongst other things: "Why should I respect a capricious, mean- minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"
"Oh here we go," I thought to myself. "Another intolerant, liberal, intellectual, evangelical atheist Brit having a go at us peasants". Then the Mauras and Marys poured forth their passive aggression on Liveline, telling us that they felt sorry for the poor fella, with him being "unwell" and all that. Which might be well meant, but is patronising: almost as patronising as Fry sounded.
So then I did something quite mad. Rather than check out the two minute clip on YouTube that's had over five million views, I decided to watch the entire 38-minute programme on the RTE Player. I thoroughly recommend anyone with an opinion on Fry's views to do likewise. Though I was disposed to dislike him, it transpires that he's sympathetic, self-deprecating and has a good sense of humour. In other words, despite a bit of showing off with literary quotations and a fancy French accent, I found him to be "authentic".
All right, he's a clever clogs, but he's suffered terribly with bi-polar depression and God love him, (if there is a God), that's a cross to bear. He seems genuinely contented now and I hope he is.
So when he answers Gay Byrne's question, "What would you say to God if you met him?" his answer is in a particular context. There's no desire to needlessly offend. He praises Pope Francis and specifically says he has no desire to upset religious people. He's no Richard Dawkins, then. And, as both Fry and Byrne have remarked, it's not like he said anything revolutionary. Sure one of my own children said pretty much the same thing a few years ago. My middle son solemnly announced - aged seven - that God didn't exist, because if he did, he wouldn't have allowed Hitler to be born. All Stephen Fry did, albeit in his posh accent and fabulously colourful style, is articulate the Problem of Evil. So what was all the fuss about?
Partly it's because he said it so well. Mostly it's because it fits the structure of what passes for debate in our insta-opinion world. It's a device to establish this contrived war of words, pitting us one against the other. Take this two-minute viral video and make a judgement! Now! Whose side are you on? What does that say about you? It's dispiriting, draining and above all, boring. Are you for or against Stephen Fry? Are you Old Ireland or New? Text us! Tweet us! Tell us!
It's silly because the most interesting thing about Irish Catholics is they aren't binary. Repeated surveys show that not only are many mass-attending Irish Catholics sceptical about the existence of heaven, hell and resurrection, but a 2012 Irish Times survey showed that over 7pc don't even believe in God. And that's only the percentage that admitted it. I'll bet there's more. Last Easter I had the extended family - mine and my in-laws - around for dinner: all mass-goers. With over a dozen adults present the only one who claimed to believe in the existence of life after death was my mother. And I suspect she only said that so as not to give a bad example to the young people.
Now some people might think it's stupid for people to go to Mass when they don't believe half of what they hear, but I admire it immensely. For many people, religion provides clarity, but many others are happy to live with ambiguity. There are no pithy answers to our problems - be they the existence of God, the lack of justice in the world or whether Greece should leave the euro.
That's not to say that we don't love the thrill of authority. One of the attractions of Fry's answer is his certainty. No wonder that video's got five million views. It's why politicians, celebrity economists and sports commentators who portray certainty are so popular - even if what they say transpires to be nonsense. But the thrill is transitory. The middle ground is not occupied by those too fearful or lazy to come to judgement, but rather by those who know that life's complicated and we should beware of politicians, philosophers, (and Greeks) bearing gifts of easy answers. Or as HL Mencken famously said "There is always an easy solution to every human problem-neat, plausible, and wrong."