Stephen Fry, God, Evil and Critical Thinking

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Stephen Fry’s recent outburst against God generated a huge amount of discussion, much of it critical but some rallying to his defence. At Saints and Sceptics we’ve already had two articles on it (here and here), but here I want to look at Fry’s argument and some types of responses in terms of the subject of ‘critical thinking’.

First, let me quickly set the scene. Suppose you’re an atheist and after death you discover that you are wrong. Most people understand the difficult position they would be in and realise they would have some explaining to do. But not Fry. Roles are reversed and Fry takes God’s place as he launches into a diatribe on the problem of evil, demanding an explanation from God. He raises the issue of suffering and then asks, ‘How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?’

The normal protocol of exercising some humility seems more appropriate in these circumstances. After all, it is the Creator of the Universe so humility seems justified – it is possible, isn’t it, that your reasoning might be mistaken? So, is Fry’s response just the pomposity of a comedian and writer who has got carried away with his celebrity status to the extent that he has the confidence to put God in the dock? Or is Fry’s viewpoint really as convincing as he seems to think?


Many people seem to think that it is convincing. ‘Perhaps Fry’s comments were a bit over the top’, they will say, ‘but believers have no adequate response’. It’s not for the want of trying. There have been a huge number of responses – some good, some not so good. Giles Fraser’s response is one of the oddest. First, he doesn’t criticise Fry for his overconfidence, but praises him for being heroic in his confrontation with power (poor start). Then he makes the point that in Christianity ‘God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity’ (good recovery), but finally undermines it by seeming to deny that God exists in any meaningful sense – ‘God is the name of the respect we owe the planet’ (oh dear).

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to teach critical thinking to foundation year students (i.e. a year of study taken before embarking on a degree programme). Both Fry’s comments and the various responses would have made ideal material for a case study, so I thought it would be worth considering how this might be explored in the context of critical thinking.

The first thing to draw the students’ attention to is the fact that some people think it is inappropriate to apply logic and critical thinking to something like the problem of evil. They might think that such an approach fails to take evil seriously and that using logic to ‘sort out the problem of evil’ is far too simplistic. Of course, they make an important point. Whatever your view, evil and suffering in the world raise all sorts of questions about what we should do and how we should live. In using critical thinking skills to look at the problem of evil, we are not saying these sorts of questions are unimportant. Far from it, as with any other important topic, whether moral, social, political or whatever, it is because of its importance that we need to think about the arguments as clearly and logically as we can.

First, let’s consider a common response from many Christians. They claim that there is an explanation for all the suffering – it is all the result of the Fall. Now, you don’t have to reject belief in the Fall (as a Christian, I think it is very important) to see that this isn’t likely to be a convincing response to atheists. The atheist might well grant belief in the Fall for the sake of the argument, but still demand an explanation as to why God allowed all the suffering to arise from it. Further explanation, it seems, is still necessary.

But in attempting to provide a general explanation of suffering, perhaps Christians have been too hasty. After all they have assumed that if they are to respond to Fry, they need to give an explanation. A better starting point would be to evaluate Fry’s original argument in the first place and then see what kind of response might be needed. Fry’s argument is really just the problem of evil. As an opening exercise, let’s start with a very simple version of it:


Premise 1. God is by definition all-powerful, all-knowing and completely good.

Premise 2. Evil exists.

Therefore, God does not exist.

The problem, as my students would hopefully point out, is that this argument is not valid. As it stands, the conclusion that God does not exist simply does not follow from the premises, so it is a bad argument. Can it be made into a valid argument? Yes, simply add a further premise to get the following revised version of the argument:

Premise 1. God is by definition all-powerful, all-knowing and completely good.

Premise 2. Evil exists.

Premise 3. If an all-powerful, all-knowing and completely good being exists, there would be no evil.

Therefore, God does not exist.

Is it now a valid argument? Yes, the three premises now guarantee the conclusion so it is valid. But is it a good argument? Again, my students would know that validity isn’t enough on its own. Are the three premises acceptable? Premise 1 and premise 2 seem to be, but premise 3 is much more questionable. In fact, it seems to be false since God could have reasons for permitting at least some evil. As Graham pointed out in his article:

            An omnipotent God cannot force a free being to choose the good. And perhaps beings with free-will can only make meaningful choices in certain environments; surely there must be consequences for our choices are to be meaningful. God must allow the possibility of danger, suffering and loss or he will fatally undermine human responsibility.

This certainly seems plausible at the very least and so raises serious problems with premise 3. Without premise 3 the conclusion simply doesn’t follow and so we still don’t have a good argument for the conclusion that God does not exist. As Graham has also pointed out, Fry is really just stating what is called the logical version of the problem of evil. The difficulty for Fry is that this argument doesn’t work. In fact, most atheist philosophers no longer try to defend this argument.

Before going on to a better version of the argument, it would be worth drawing the students’ attention to what happens if we introduce an alternative to premise 3 to get the following argument:

Premise 1. God is by definition all-powerful, all-knowing and completely good.

Premise 2. Evil exists.

Premise 3′. If God does not exist, there would be no such thing as evil.

Therefore, God exists.

This certainly isn’t the argument Fry had in mind! But is it valid? Yes, the conclusion follows from the premises: without God there would be no evil, but there is evil, so there must be a God. Are the premises acceptable? We’ve already granted that 1 and 2 seem to be, but what about the new premise 3′? The idea underlying this premise is that if God does not exist, there would be no moral values at all and so no good or evil. Many atheists who believe in a purely physical universe accept this premise, so how do they avoid the conclusion that God exists? They reject premise 2 instead, that is, they deny the existence of evil. Of course, they believe that suffering exists, but not evil. This option doesn’t seem open to Fry, though, given his comment that ‘It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil’. Other atheists reject this new premise 3′, but that takes us into another debate and there’s only so much we can cover in one critical thinking class! However, so far in terms of the quality of the arguments, I’d say that the above argument for God’s existence has the most going for it.

We haven’t finished with the problem of evil, however. A more plausible version of it involves appealing to probability. Granted, evil does not completely disprove God’s existence, but it could be argued that the amount and nature of evil make God’s existence improbable. Now, this version of the problem unlike the earlier version is taken seriously and debated endlessly. Various responses can be offered along the lines Graham has suggested in his article, but let’s grant that it does have some force. Still, as my students will hopefully have remembered, there is a big difference between logical arguments where the conclusion follows with certainty from the premises and arguments that appeal to probability.

If evil logically disproved the existence of God (and we’ve seen that no good reason has been offered to think that it does), it wouldn’t matter what evidence for God was put forward (such as evidence for the beginning of the universe, laws of nature, fine-tuning, etc.) – such evidence could not undermine the conclusion that God does not exist. However, if it is argued that evil makes God’s existence improbable, then other evidence needs to be taken into account as well since it could outweigh the negative case and make God’s existence very probable overall.

Whether these other reasons for belief in God are sufficiently strong is beyond the scope of a short evaluation of the problem of evil using critical thinking. So the discussion here doesn’t mean that the problem of evil has been ‘answered’ and it certainly doesn’t mean that evil and suffering have been explained. But critical thinking does help us to see that Fry’s argument is very weak indeed and while a better version of the argument is available, three points can be made about it. First, Fry doesn’t seem to be aware of it since he seems to think that the existence of evil and suffering rules out the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and completely good God. Second, this better version of the argument is much more modest since it doesn’t claim to establish the non-existence of God with certainty and so whatever force it might have could, in principle, be negated by other reasons for belief in God. Third, these considerations strongly suggest that Fry’s supreme confidence in his castigation of God is completely unwarranted.

In conclusion, I think Fry has offered us a great opportunity to explore critical thinking in a way that would be interesting to students and raise many interesting points about the nature of rational arguments and how they can be evaluated. My own overall assessment is that Fry’s argument has little to commend it, nothing that couldn’t be easily obtained from the Internet. On the other hand, as an example of human hubris, his attack on God ranks very highly indeed.

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