Sunday, January 3, 2016

Dear Stephen Fry

You probably won’t care to know this, Stephen, but your little rant about God didn’t exactly solve the whole God-debate for me (I don’t think that’s what you intended anyway). I actually found it rather funny that a man could summon so much aggression against a character that he regards as fictional. Imagine someone getting really, really angry at Frodo for being short.

Anyway, even if the God you were talking about did exist, your outrage didn’t manage to convince me, once and for all, that atheists of the more dogmatic kind are the most trustworthy source when it comes to assessing the finer points of what is real, true and plausible. I still have too many questions, and I have no doubt that I will have a few more even once/if those questions are answered. And, anyhow, it seems to me that there are few important things that you may have overlooked, like, say, three thousand years of mysticism, philosophy and metaphysical speculation. Still, to give credit where it is due, you’ve raised some very interesting and valuable points while also conjuring up some very serious doubts in my own mind about the validity of your brief argument.

For instance, while I agree absolutely with you that there’s a lot of really awful stuff going on that’s ‘not our fault’ and while there seems to be no shortage of what is ‘utterly, utterly evil’, this isn’t enough to convince me that it would be some God’s fault. Actually, to confuse even a God you don’t believe in with everything else that happens seems to me to be a fairly obvious category error. It’s like confusing a manufacturer of a car with an accident that happened in that car last Tuesday because someone lost concentration while driving. Yes, the car was involved, but it was not the manufacturer’s doing, was it? Even with the limitations of this analogy in mind, I’m not convinced that the alternative — namely that it’s all just blind, indifferent chance — is a much better option, because in that scenario not only does suffering occur, but it, like everything else, also has no grounded meaning despite the fact that we insist on it meaning something.

To make the issue much more confusing, though, there also happens to be a rather ridiculous amount of stuff around here that is quite astonishingly good (which is something you only hint at in your rant). There’s tea, the Medusa Nebula, the books of Douglas Adams, and Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, for starters, not to mention about a centillion other things. Actually, there is, quite overwhelmingly, more good in the universe than bad, or at least more that is remarkable than merely detestable. But a negativity bias makes this easy to overlook, I guess.

You began your rant about what you’d say to God if you discovered that he or she is really there, with ‘I’d say bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you?’ And I couldn’t help but want to draw your attention to a more fundamental point: ‘Children? What are they about? How dare you?’ I’m being facetious, but the trouble with your outburst was that it put the very small cart of things that go wrong before the very large horse of all the things that actually go right in the world. Like, for example, the fact that any of us can string a sentence together or the fact that most of us have legs and opinions.

I’m not dismissing the horrible stuff in the universe. I agree with you that it’s all a problem of unfathomable proportions. But the good stuff is a problem too, or at least a gigantic question. My point is that I think that levelling complaints even at a God you don’t believe in should include complaints about the fact that there is existence as such. Because without it, there’d be quite literally nothing to worry about.

It seems to me, in my naivety perhaps, that existence itself is in itself rather good even in spite of the misery that we go through. Even after going through some very terrible things myself, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer, bewildering thereness of it all. The universe is, when we really pay attention to it with the eyes of a child rather than the cynicism of an old man, a surplus of astonishment. Even the fact that the central nervous system picks up pain, for example, is itself nothing other than remarkable, and, yes, even good (as researchers studying leprosy, that disease that takes away a person’s ability to feel pain, will tell you). The fact that the nervous system knows that something is wrong is rooted in the reality that something is very, very right. Something is working. That is why we know when things go wrong.

And then there’s our ability to recognize the trauma and tragedy of having a child with bone cancer. The reason it grieves us so is because we are absolutely, unequivocally convinced of the profound value of that child’s life. This value, in case you missed it, is not an evolutionary concept. It’s not something that blind chance accounts for; well, not unless you take evolution in teleological terms, which would be tantamount to accepting that there is a God out there after all. And have you ever noticed just how profound the compassion that we see in the face of suffering is? Ghandi, Mother Theresa, etc. Selflessness of that sort is an absolute violation of evolutionary imperatives, and yet there it is. It doesn’t explain the suffering or explain it away, but it acknowledges that there is still goodness in the world that’s worth paying attention to.

Which brings me to what perplexes me most about your tirade. It was rooted in a very deep sense of what is moral, too. And whether you like it or not, such morality seems to be alarmingly dependent upon a particular understanding of the good that was handed to you, in this case, largely by the Christian tradition that still flows through the veins of Great Britain despite its largely atheistic contemporary culture. In fact, it’s the very morality against which you measure the Greek gods, who at least weren’t pretending to be any good at all. Would you genuinely prefer morally inconsistent gods like those of the Greeks? No problem! Just remember that if your universe were built on such moral inconsistencies, your very own tirade would have been logically impossible. We have to have an idea of what is good before we can go on at length about what isn’t.

And then, there was the bit about calling the God you don’t believe in stupid. Well, actually, that bit makes me laugh. Because there, right there, is another absolute in your rhetorical arsenal called intelligence, as if in this atheistic, indifferent universe it actually matters. I know, however, that you’re probably directing that comment against people who are stupid enough to believe in God. But, well, belief is not about intelligence. God is not something you can know in the same way that you can know what took place on QI or know what the capital of Paraguay is. It’s not a knowable thing, which is precisely why God is the subject of faith and not knowledge. And so you will also find very intelligent people who believe in God and very stupid people who don’t, and vice versa.

So, well, there you have it. You have raised questions about suffering, which is fair because we all have those questions, but you also inadvertently used a predominantly religious grounding on which to raise all those questions. And that’s not playing fair. As Nietzsche said about George Eliot and her ilk: ‘They are rid of the Christian God and now believe all the more firmly that they must cling to Christian morality’. I find Nietzsche’s insane atheism more honest simply because he was consistent in his rejection of God.

But, really, I’m not trying to prove anything here, Stephen. I’m not trying to say, Look, there’s morality so there must be a Moral Law Maker, a.k.a God. I’m not even saying, Look at all that’s good in the world; there must be a Source of all goodness, or Look at how we unavoidably find or make meaning even in the face of the incomprensible so there must be something meant by Someone about all of this. God is not disprovable by what you hate or provable by what I like. What I am saying is that things like morality and goodness and meaning are questions that you cannot simply accept without bothering to notice the degree to which you are still relying on religious language, even in a world of radical contingencies.

But, anyway, I still want to thank you for giving me a few things to think about. I cannot provide any resolution to the matter, though, because I don’t think there is one. People have had questions about God and suffering since time immemorial. And I, for one, would like to use those questions to push me to think a little more. Because the only thought that should be stopped is the thought that stops us thinking. I’m glad this is something you seem to agree with. It’s always good to get the conversation going.

Yours sincerely,
Duncan Reyburn

(Originally published on February 8, 2015)

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