Tuesday, February 3, 2015

If Stephen Fry's atheism is true, God cannot be evil

Stephen Fry's response to the question about what he would say if he came face to face with God has caused quite a stir. I suspect it's not just the content of Fry's response, but the visceral hatred it conveys; shocking to many because of Fry's better-known on-screen persona as a knowledgeable, congenial host of a myriad of highly watchable TV shows.

It's not the first time Fry has vented his feelings on the subject. Look up his reaction to Ann Widdecome's questions on the Ten Commandments. (PS I wonder if Fry's YouTube speech demolishing the Catholic Church in 8 minutes 53 seconds was recorded the same evening.) Less obvious are his persistent barbs towards anything God-like in the quiz series QI. (To be fair, many are justified, but the emerging picture is a one-way street.)

Unfortunately for Fry, and many atheists like him, his argument does not stack up. It rests more on emotive appeal, made the more forceful by Fry's undeniable wit, charm, intelligence and popularity, than on reason. I can't help but notice the irony, because it is the exact reflection of the criticisms levelled at Christianity by atheists only a few decades ago.

Allow me to explain, but to do so, I'm going to invoke Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. One of my reasons for raising Anselm's ghost is to demonstrate that these arguments are nothing new, but we quickly forget.

Anselm devised what he thought was an unbeatable argument for the existence of God. In a nutshell, he argued that God was the greatest conceivable being. That's a cursory summary that does the argument no justice, but most, if not all, philosophers have acknowledged the strength of Anselm's argument. Even so, we don't need to fully resolve it here. All we need, for the time-being, is the notion that God is the greatest conceivable being.

This is where Stephen Fry's objection shoots itself in the foot, and so do the same objections of most popular atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Professor Lawrence Krauss and the late Richard Hitchins. They cannot believe in God, they say, because He has acted immorally.

What these atheists have done is to judge God according to a particular moral standard and found Him wanting. It is incidental that their particular moral standard encompasses the Gay Rights agenda, and it might as well be some other issue that has gained popular currency. Whatever the higher moral standard that is applied, the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is subjected to it. 

According to Anselm, the higher moral standard is greater than God. It follows, then, that God is not “God”; the higher moral standard is “God”. In other words, the higher moral standard is a God-pseudonym, and the “God” of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is demoted down the ranks. It's not an argument for a God-less cosmos, as atheism proper claims; it is actually an argument for a “God”. It's just not the “God” of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

If we are to follow atheism proper, and jettison all beliefs in a purpose or direction for the universe, then we have no warrant to say that one thing is better than another. Even our sense of moral outrage is meaningless, because there are no morals that we could appeal to. In such a universe, we can justifiably say that we like this or that, or that some thing (God or religion) stops us getting what we want. But, we cannot justifiably say that that thing is “good” or “evil”, “right” or “wrong”. Even the argument against human suffering fails because there is nothing in the universe to say that human suffering is actually wrong; it's just inconvenient.

If there is no “evil”, then it is impossible to say that religion and/or God is “evil”. In other words, if atheism is true, God cannot be evil, even if He is fictional. By the same measure, atheism and the Gay Rights agenda cannot be good. It might be useful, it might even make the world a better place for people like Stephen Fry to live in. It is his prerogative to make the case, but that's not the same as claiming that it is “good” or “right”.

In an atheistic cosmos, then, Stephen Fry's outburst really does boil down to getting what he wants. There is nothing more to it than that. How can there be? Fry's appeals to morality only have substance in a theistic cosmos but, then, he would have to relinquish his avowed atheism. God gives us the warrant to make the kind of moral judgements that Fry has made. Without God, there is no morality to appeal to. Stephen Fry, and we, cannot have it both ways.

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