Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Stephen Fry’s gauntlet: the Problem of Evil

I seek expert opinion on God
From time to time I struggle with composing my atheist manifesto. But maybe I'm making too much of a meal of it, as it can actually be expressed quite simply.  I find no use for the concept of God. But nor do I believe in campaigning for atheism or mocking those who find solace in religion, and I've never felt the need to try to convert anyone away from a religious belief. (This is because I've led a sheltered life. Some religious beliefs are downright evil, and those holding them most certainly need converting.)

On an Irish television programme ten days ago Stephen Fry was asked what he thought about God and religion, and he gave an answer very much in line with the foregoing. The programme was an episode in RTÉ’s series The Meaning of Life. To conclude the 30-minute interview, veteran Irish journalist Gay Byrne asked Stephen Fry to suppose that it's judgment day, and that contrary to Fry’s expectation, God really exists. What would he say to God in these circumstances?

Here's his answer.  It's the programme's trailer, whose audience passed the five million mark several days ago, it seems, dwarfing the audience for the actual broadcast.

Fry begins by using a long word. Theodicy.  On looking it up I found this is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil. 

Fry then launches into the speech he would make to God at the gates of heaven.  In a nutshell it's this:-

Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you?  Yes the world is very splendid. But it has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind.  Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.

He thinks the moment you banish God, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.

I have a transcript if you want it. But Stephen Fry’s words aren’t what I want to concentrate on.  It's the gauntlet he's thrown down to debate the Problem of Evil that interests me; and the rest of what I have to say is about how Christian apologists picked that gauntlet up.

The Irish Catholic tried to reassure its readers with the headline “Stephen Fry was wrong about God, claims expert”.  When you examine what the expert has to say, it's pretty woeful, even though he's a professor of philosophy. All we get is that human beings cause the world’s injustice not God.  It's a result of us having free will.  So there is no Problem of Evil.  Move along please, nothing to see here.

Bad move. Everyone, believer or not, knows Christianity (for non-Christian religions see appendix) has a Problem of Evil, and it's simple to express: God can't be at the same time all-powerful,  good, and just.  I don't know much about Stephen Fry’s eye-eating worm; but it's a fair bet that if I gave all I could spare to assist in cleaning up the water supply this would kill a lot of worms and save a lot of children. Yet I don't give all I can spare … why … because of my human frailty.  Were there a just God, it would be my eye that was eaten. But it's not mine. It's a child’s in far away village.  Why is that allowed?

Giles Fraser: chutzpah.   Rowan Williams: lame
But good eggs
For those who would convince us there's a God, this is a conundrum. To which they propose four possible solutions. None is popular, and it takes courage to stand in the public square and declare any of them. Here they are:-

1.    It's not God’s fault it's ours. God gave us free will and we’ve misused it.

2.    God isn't all-powerful: we’ve read the Bible all wrong.

3.    Amends will be made in the afterlife: the downtrodden will go to heaven, and an eternity of bliss will make this world’s sufferings pale into insignificance.

4.    Our understanding is weak: if we saw the whole picture like God does, we would see it's all OK.

Option 1 (championed in the Irish Catholic) is so hopelessly off-target it's not even worth running to pick up the ball. 

Giles Fraser, The Guardian’s Loose Canon, goes for option no 2.   Hats off, he has chutzpah to claim that God is powerless and we must forget all the stuff in the Bible about creating the world and being almighty, apparently it's all metaphorical.  Giles Fraser by the way is a good egg, and if you'll forgive a digression, just read what he had to say about the burning by ISIS of the Jordanian pilot, and how he felt about watching the video of it on the internet.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams goes for option 3.   Hats off once more.  You can't help admiring someone who can stand up for a position so utterly lame.  Rowan Williams is another good egg. I mean no harm to either of them.

Blogging on the Catholic Herald website, a priest, one Ed Tomlinson, espouses option 4.  His blog is worth reading because Fr Ed admits that natural evil is a tricky issue for believers, and there’s no glib or easy answer to the question of why God, if he exists, allows suffering.  But then he subtly changes the subject - and he's not the only one I've detected in this sleight of hand. He says “removing God from the equation does nothing whatsoever to eradicate the problem of suffering in this world”. 

In other words, never mind how I deal with the Problem of Evil, how do you atheists deal with the Problem of Evil? A fair question (and actually a far more interesting question, the answer to which is another day’s work) but hey, if you change the subject, you lose the argument! 

Two appendices

An appendix regarding other religions. So far as I know the Problem of Evil exists in exactly the same form in both Judaism and Islam though I'm no expert and am open to contradiction. In Hinduism karma appears to be a complicating factor.  Suffering in this world of the seemingly innocent can be explained as the outworking of karma from previous lives.  A very handy get-out clause, you have to admit ... but don't place any reliance on my words, as they are gleaned from Wikipedia.  More research needed.

Another appendix. For a semi official one-page summary of the position of the Catholic Church, approved by the Archbishop of Perth, I can direct you to The Problem of Evil has been solved on the "Why Not Catholicism" website. In summary: Evil is the result of the abuse of free-will. Since evil now exists, God will use it to bring about a greater good. What about the agonising death of a child? Since God is Love, we can reasonably hope that His infinite justice and mercy will somehow compensate for the apparent harshness of the child's horrendous death. A Catholic sees not the problem of suffering but the meaning of it. When Jesus comes in glory the forces of evil will be definitively overcome. Follow the link for yourself if you don't want to take my word for it.