On February 1, 2015, Stephen Fry was a guest on Ireland’s RTÉ One television program, The Meaning of Life. The show’s host, Gay Byrne, asked Fry (who is an atheist) “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God. What would Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?”.
Stephen Fry: “I think I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I’d say.”
Gay Byrne: “And you think you’re going to get in, like that?”
Stephen Fry: “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on His terms. They’re wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods, then I would have more truckles because the Greeks were… they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites, and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness. They didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise all-kind, all-beneficent. Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?”
“Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it, insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? 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. It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it? It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”
In this creative writing exercise, God attempts to answer Stephen Fry’s questions.
Stephen, my boy – it’s so good to meet you! Just about everyone else who arrives here falls to their knees as soon as they see me, and they quickly become a quivering, snivelling, incoherent mess. It’s almost impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation. However, I can tell that you’re going to be different. Yes, I already know that you are an ardent atheist, and I can see from your expression that this obviously wasn’t what you were expecting. Don’t worry – I know what you’re thinking, and you didn’t pick the wrong side. Actually, there is no wrong side, but I’ll explain that in more detail a bit later.
Let me explain these Pearly Gates. They’re just a prop; they help put our newly-arrived souls at ease, since it’s what many of them expect to see. Of course, they can also be a bit disconcerting for atheists, who assumed that there was nothing beyond their mortal coil. Your friend Stephen Hawking said “An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when He might have carried out his job”. That’s actually a pretty good hypothesis.
OK, first things first. I just happened to catch the RTÉ One interview you had with Gay Byrne back in February, 2015. It seems that you have a few things that you wanted to say to me. Don’t worry, I’m not the least bit offended by any of them. You’ve clearly given a lot of serious thought to ecclesiastical topics – much more than most people – and I’ll be glad to address all of your comments.
Let’s start with this one “Because the god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac; utter maniac; totally selfish.”
To answer the first part of this comment, yes, I am the creator of your universe, or more accurately, I created the initial conditions that allowed a universe to emerge, and then develop. You can think of it as a science experiment… actually, it was more of a proof-of-concept than anything else. In fact, here it is – this is your universe!
You can rotate it and see things from all angles. I have the ability to zoom in and see not only individual galaxies but individual solar systems, planets and much of the activity on the surface of each planet. To be honest, this universe still needs a bit of tweaking, but I’m pleased with the progress so far. It’s been quite stable, and hasn’t collapsed yet.
Your friend Hawking noted, quite correctly “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size”. I must admit that quite a few of my previous models failed and collapsed almost immediately, but I’ve finally fine-tuned the laws of physics well enough to prevent that from happening. Of course, there are still a few problems with this one, but I’ll go into more detail a bit later. Hawking was also right about multiverses. I often have several universes on the go at any given time. Each one is an entirely self-contained plane of existence, and its inhabitants are blissfully unaware of anything outside it.
You’re probably wondering what to call me. I don’t actually have a name. Humans and other being scattered around the various galaxies have given me quite a number of names, but you can call me whatever you like. If calling me “God” makes you feel at ease, then that’s fine with me.
As for being an utter maniac and totally selfish, I need to explain something that I thought would be obvious to you humans by now. After I created your universe, I simply let it unfold and then watched what happened. I abided by my own version of your Star Trek Prime Directive – non-interference. However, for some unfathomable reason, this is something that so many of you presumably enlightened beings – including hard-core atheists like yourself – have never entertained, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge. Your holy books state that I created you in my own image, and I suppose that did indirectly – I created an environment that eventually allowed humans to emerge – but I didn’t model humans after myself. Besides, humans are still evolving. While you humans were busy proclaiming that they were made in my image, they also created a multitude of gods in their own image; unfortunately, none of them is anything like me, which is why everyone is so utterly astonished when they arrive here for the debriefing.
The reason for this disparity is that your God – the one created and promulgated by many of your Christian religions – is not merely an omnipresent and omniscient god, but one that functions as a proverbial “third parent” to all adherents – one who watches over every individual continually and who guides them through life, as a parent would. I admit it’s a comforting thought – that one is never alone because there is an ethereal guardian present at all times. It’s also a decidedly ego-gratifying thought – being the proverbial apple of the creator’s eye, and assuming that the creator of the universe is taking a personal interest in details of one’s life – but I’m afraid that it’s just not true. I do not “micromanage” your lives; I simple watch everything unfold. You can call it maniacal or selfish if you like, but I call it being completely neutral.
Interestingly, one person who came close to understanding how everything worked was not even a religious leader. It was the American comedian George Carlin. He described the creator of the universe as The Big Electron “It doesn’t punish, doesn’t reward, it doesn’t judge at all. It just is, and so are we… for a little while.”. It’s a great hypothesis: simple, elegant and accurate.
Let’s examine your next comment “We have to spend our life on our knees thanking Him? What kind of god would do that?”
An excellent question! Let me assure you, Stephen, that no thanks is, or ever was, necessary. You’re absolutely right – what kind of god would do that? The notion of a god who is that insecure is ridiculous. Your religious leaders have told you to worship their version of a creator, because they live in fear, and spend their lives under the proverbial Sword of Damocles. I’m sure that they genuinely believe that they are doing everyone a favour by preaching this subservience, but ask yourself this: why would a god be substantially less secure than his creations?
Let me reveal something that almost everyone finds surprising. While watching your universe unfold, one of my pleasures was noting all of the different gods and religions that the various species have created – on your planet and on many others. Over the millennia, you’ve created an impressive number of gods – some more enduring than others, but all very interesting, complex and nuanced characters. There are so many fascinating and disparate points of view – atheism among them – that have been formed in your collective quest to make sense of your surroundings. This bowing down in my presence is just nonsense. Do you really think that I’m going to give preferential treatment to annoying little sycophants? Do you think I can’t see right through that rubbish? In broader terms, is it reasonable to assume that one’s opinion on a single subject – how the universe was formed – is going to determine the ultimate destination of one’s soul? That’s utterly preposterous!
I embrace the multitude of opinions, and I couldn’t care less who spends time worshipping me. In fact, It’s always amusing to meet someone who was ultra-religious or pious back on Earth. They think they have it made, until I tell them “I don’t care how many times you went to your place of worship or how much you prayed during your life – talk is cheap. The only thing that matters to me is what you did, how much you helped others, and how you used your talents to try and make your world a better place”. Then I give them a piercing stare and say “Every hour you spent praying in church is one hour that you could have spent helping others”. They certainly weren’t expecting that…
I’ve noticed that your Bible. despite all the talk about unconditional love, often portrays me as a vengeful god, who won’t hesitate to destroy all life on Earth if people aren’t behaving well. I’m sure this is meant to keep the followers in line, but it doesn’t place me in a very flattering light. It makes me out to be a frustrated child who will break a toy or overturn a board game in frustration if things aren’t going his way. Surely you can give me a little more credit than that.
Which brings me to the story of Noah’s Ark. I am astounded that, despite your global literacy levels and technological advances, some people still believe this tale in your 21st century. My non-interference policy should make it obvious that it never happened, but let me state categorically that I didn’t flood the Earth and drown everyone except Noah and his wife – do you realize how shallow that would have made the human gene pool? It would have resulted in a planet full of drooling imbeciles! Secondly, the oceans and other bodies of water cover about 70-71% of your planet’s surface. Weather systems move this water around a bit, but the planet-wide percentage is always the same. How is it possible to achieve 100% coverage in only 150 days, simply by making it rain? Where would all that extra water come from? Furthermore, how could the percentage drop back down to 70% again simply by stopping the rain? That water has to go somewhere, and the Earth is a closed system. For such a technologically advanced species, your critical thinking skills are simply dreadful! Don’t believe everything you read – even if it is written in a leather-bound book with gilt-edged pages.
While I’m on the subject, what is this rubbish in Genesis about a rainbow after the flood being a covenant between me and Mankind? Imagine the following scenario: the global flood did actually occur, and all land masses are completely submerged. Suddenly the rain stops and the sun breaks through the clouds. After non-stop rain for 150 days, the humidity level will be 100% and the air will be completely saturated with moisture. When the sun appears under those conditions, try *not* seeing a rainbow!
When Ken Ham arrives at these Pearly Gates, he and I are going to have quite the discussion… in fact, you may want to sit in on that one, because I think you’ll find it quite entertaining!
You also said “bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil”.
If I had deliberately introduced cancer into otherwise healthy children, then yes, those actions could be described quite fairly as “utterly utterly evil”. However, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I am a “hands-off” creator who lets the evolutionary chips fall where they may. I have no direct involvement with bone cancer in children, or with any other disease.
As you can see, the relationship between Man and God is entirely one-sided. People pray incessantly, and when they experience the desired outcome, they genuinely believe that I have intervened on their behalf, and then declare that their prayers have been answered or that a miracle has occurred. When the outcome is unfavourable, people merely shrug their shoulders and say “God works in mysterious ways” or “This is all part of God’s plan – it is not for us to understand”. Bone cancer in children is not part of my plan – it simply emerged – so one mustn’t assume that everything that exists is something that I implicitly endorse.
Let’s examine your next comment “insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. That eats outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us?”
Continued existence among members of any species is an ongoing battle – viewers of nature documentaries know this intuitively. Right now, homo sapiens are enjoying their lofty perch at the top of the evolutionary ladder, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still have adversaries. Every species, including the human botfly, fights continually for its own survival and even dominance. No one gets a free ride. For 160 million years, the dinosaurs lived in complete harmony with the planet – which is more than I can say for humans – and they were wiped out in a geological instant by the climate change resulting from a meteor strike. Had they been able to speak, their lament may have been similar to yours “Why? Why did you do that to us?”.
You also noted “You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”
Your Bible suggests that God has created a made-to-order world, exclusively for the benefit of humans. It’s a decidedly egocentric view, which as you now know, just isn’t the case. Humans have discovered 1.9 million species so far, and you’ve only scratched the surface. Think of it this way: if you live in a city of two million, there are bound to be in the some people whom you don’t like. Similarly, there will also be an assortment of undesirable species on the planet.
To be fair, I will say this: despite your Bible’s assumption that God is perfect, I will admit that your universe could use a bit of fine-tuning. I view tornadoes the same way you view the human botfly. What is the point of having a weather system that does nothing but destroy property and kill people? That’s a bug in the program, because tornadoes don’t need to exist. On a larger scale, black holes are a bit of a concern to me. In the same way that cancer appears in humans, black holes also appear in this universe, and they just devour everything around them. So far, there is nothing powerful enough to stop them and there is a real possibility that they may eventually consume the entire universe. I’m going to adjust a few variables in my next universe to prevent them from forming again.
Then you added “It’s perfectly apparent that He is monstrous; utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever” and asked, somewhat rhetorically “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”
If you don’t respect me, that’s OK – I’m not offended. In fact, it’s a perfectly understandable position for anyone who has accepted or internalized the notion of the God that their religious leaders have presented to them. Your religious leader have weaved an elaborate tale and they promised the general public quite a bit. However, being human, and not knowing any more than anyone else, they weren’t in a position to even know my nature, much less deliver a god custom-made to their specifications. They are the ones who disappointed you, Stephen, not I.
Another interesting remark you made was “The moment you banish Him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion”.
I agree, in principle, with this comment, because it shows a maturity far beyond what most people possess. This is why I have a particular fondness for atheists and agnostics, because they don’t invent spirits to fill the gaps in their knowledge. They realize that they haven’t figured out how everything in their world works, admit that there is still much to learn, and aren’t afraid to modify their models. By concentrating on empirical observations instead of ecclesiastical speculation, you stimulate an interest in learning and discovery. I’m glad that you’ve adopted a secular world view, Stephen, because it demonstrates that you have a very logical and structured mind. I’ve never interfered with the development of the universe, and this lack of divine intervention lends should lend itself to the adoption of atheism or agnosticism. Unfortunately, few humans have done that. Yours is a courageous stance, especially in your present-day world.
And finally, you asked “It’s not just about not believing that there is a God, but on the assumption that there is one, what kind of God is it?”
Now you know…
So there you have it, Stephen. There is a creator of the universe after all, just not the one you humans invented in order to comfort yourselves – the benevolent, omnipresent, omniscient third-parent figure, who will protect you from all bad things. Now that you’ve been given the proper context, I hope that your world makes a little more sense. Now if you’ll just follow me, I’d like to introduce you to someone. Oscar Wilde has been looking forward to meeting you!