Lost in Quotation: Stephen Fry on The Meaning Of Life

I’ve always liked Stephen Fry. Even apart from his role as Blackadder’s Melchett, I loved the offbeat humour of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and the exacting disapproval of his Jeeves. So I was eager to watch his interview on The Meaning Of Life. I didn’t expect any major surprises – his atheist views are fairly well-known – but I wanted to hear his reasons for holding them.

The programme garnered a lot of publicity due to the trailer released by RTE, featuring Fry’s response to the final question posed by Gay Byrne of every interviewee: what would they say to God if they him at the end of their lives? Here is Fry’s response:

Seeing as he had built up to such an outburst of anger, I was expecting a well-thought out argument from Fry, but it simply didn’t materialise in the 40-odd minutes before he describes God as “monstrous”. The programme was disappointing, and to be honest, a bit lazy.

Perhaps part of the problem comes from the fact that Fry has a quotation to support every comment he makes. Of itself, that’s not a bad thing but when it happens over and over again, you start to wonder whose views are actually being given. I found myself wanting to hear a straightforward answer from Fry, without being told what G.K. Chesterton, or Oscar Wilde, or the Dalai Lama thought about it first.

INCONSISTENCIES

When it came to the actual question of the existence of God, there were just too many inconsistencies in Fry’s argument. For example, he emphasised the importance of scientific evidence to prove a point, leading to the value of what he called “the humility of science.” Religion, he said, could learn a lot from that idea. Even though the thrust of his comments seemed to be directed towards the Christian religion, he couldn’t have been thinking about it with this remark. After all, Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe was born in a stable. Homeless and hunted at birth, he lived a life of poverty before being put to death as a common pauper. Can’t get much more humble than that.

Like many atheists, Fry extols the virtues of evidence, even though it doesn’t always work both ways. When Byrne brought up the topic of whether life after death exists, Fry was adamant. There is “no possibility of another life”, he said, so spend time with your loved ones now. Which is a fine sentiment, but it destroys the argument of evidence. How can Fry – or anyone – know for absolute certainty that there is “no possibility” of an afterlife? If you’re going to hang an atheistic argument on evidence, then you’d better be able to present the proof that there’s nothing after this life. Otherwise, think again.

THE PROBLEM OF BOREDOM

Maybe he feels that way because he deems the idea of the afterlife as boring – he described it as “saints sitting proudly on a cloud”. Most Christians I know would find that pretty boring too, but then they’re not really known for sitting around, being more of the active sort. But come on, who talks about that kind of hackneyed image after the age of around seven? Either you’ve never given the matter serious thought, or you’re not actually saying what you really feel. If the former, then I can recommend any of Colm Keane’s books on the matter, including his latest. If the latter, well, why bother talking about it at all?

There’s an interesting kind of tolerance that crops up on programmes like this. It sounded at one point that Fry was saying that he supports individuals who believe in organised religion, but not the organised religion itself. I’m not sure how that works, really. Don’t you have to remain tolerant of that organised religion in order to facilitate the believers?

JESUS AND THE PLOT TO DERAIL THE JUDICIARY

And when it came to those quotations, it has to be said that some were better chosen than others, particularly the ones used in connection with Jesus. When the subject came up, Stephen Fry said that he felt Jesus was “a very good soul” but that “a lot of things he says are nonsense….twee”. In support of this claim, he said that Jesus’ statement “Let the one without sin cast the first stone” is nonsense. I found this very strange. Surely he knows that this phrase comes from the scene in the Bible when a woman accused of committing adultery is about to be stoned to death? By standing up for a vulnerable woman against the religious paragons of this time, Jesus saved her life. Incidentally, he also set a pretty sharp example for the societies in today’s world where it’s still considered appropriate to punish a female adulterer by stoning. This isn’t “twee”. This is the God I believe in – one who isn’t afraid to say and do the things that will make people stop and think, especially when the stakes are as high as they can get.

Another quote that jars with Fry is “judge not lest ye be judged”. According to him, adhering to this recommendation from the Book of Matthew would deprive us of our legal system because we wouldn’t be allowed to have a judiciary. This too is hyperbole. The quote comes from a passage that speaks of the need not to judge unfairly. A bit further down the page is another well known phrase about dealing with the plank in your own eye before you point out the splinter in your neighbour’s. So Fry can rest assured; the High Court isn’t in any danger from Jesus just yet.

You have to wonder why though, when there were quotes by Jesus flying around, some of the best known were ignored or passed over. How about “Love your neighbour as yourself”, or “Love your enemies”, or even “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” (there’s that humility again, still not making an impression!)

Maybe it’s the fact that these simple, loving quotes of Christ have apparently slipped beneath the radar of Stephen Fry’s memory that his final answer erupted into such anger against what a God that he saw fit to call “monstrous”. But even this answer was lazy, when he reverted yet again to the words of another – Sir David Attenborough’s eye-worm explanation of why he is himself an atheist. It felt a bit like Fry was trying to find something that warranted the anger he’s going to feel at the gates of Heaven but it was a bit flat at this stage.

THE F-WORD….FREEDOM

It’s easy to get angry about the evils of this world. There are enough of them to think about. Leave aside eye-worms for a minute; what about wars, the Holocaust, eugenics, abuse, famines, the list goes on. I imagine there isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t wondered why these things happen, and in that sense Stephen Fry is no different. The thing is though, why does he think God isn’t wondering the same thing too? Looking at it from God’s point of view, we humans were handed a pretty perfect planet to begin with and since then everyone’s just done what they’ve wanted and to hell with the consequences (if you’ll pardon the pun). Of course, Fry would no doubt contend, God could step in and put things right, but that would no doubt lead to another objection, on the grounds that mankind’s Free Will has been stymied in the most preposterous manner. Either way, it’s a no-win for God.

At the end of the day though, when it comes to that final question that Gay Byrne asks, is anger the honest response from an atheist? I don’t think so. Anger is something you feel at someone who’s let you down, who promised more and delivered less. It’s a reflection of a relationship, one that might be veering off the rails, but hanging on to the tracks nonetheless. The true response of an atheist to that question would be surprise or maybe shock, and then curiosity. My overwhelming impression at the end of the programme was that someone of Stephen Fry’s intellect and personality has far more interesting things to say about God than to just come out with a bland rant similar to a thousand we’ve heard before. It’s too bad he didn’t take the opportunity to strive for such an answer because it would have been far more meaningful for the viewer.