Donald Clarke: Shock and awe over Stephen Fry’s ‘God’ comments with Gay Byrne

‘Asked by Gay to imagine what he might say if a Christian God existed, Stephen made it clear that, were such an impossible situation to occur, he’d give this fellow a jolly big piece of his not inconsiderable mind’

Gay Byrne and Stephen Fry: It was Byrne’s apparent horror at Fry’s words that really energised the story on social media. Photograph: RTÉ

Gay Byrne and Stephen Fry: It was Byrne’s apparent horror at Fry’s words that really energised the story on social media. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Are you baffled about the furore surrounding Stephen Fry’s unremarkable comments to Gay Byrne on some TV show? Maybe, you’d like to read more excessive coverage on the excessive coverage. We live to oblige.

What in the name of baloney is going on? Every child clever enough to eat beans without poking a fork in his or her own eye has, at some stage, asked the great unanswerable theological question. If there is a God (which obviously there isn’t) and he is “good” (which Christians say he must be) then why is there so much suffering in the world?

As Fry pointed out, if you adhere to certain ancient belief systems then such a question doesn’t gain much traction. The Norse and Roman polytheisms, for instance, summon up a sort of divine soap opera – Asgard Street or OlympusEnders – in which the deities are forever punching each others’ bleedin’ lights out.

If a young Viking asked such a question he would have encountered laughter. “What else would you expect from a bastard like Thor, son?”Christian parents are in a trickier position. Whole generations of children have, after watching Dad fail to connect with his inner Aquinas, taken their first proud steps on the road to disbelief. There is nothing new here.

Dystopian future

Let us tease out Fry’s argument. On a few phone-in shows and in the odd letters page, certain whingers complained that Fry’s apparent anger at a God in whom he didn’t believe identified the popular polymath as a rotter. This makes about as much sense as calling J K Rowling a fool for disapproving so strongly of Lord Voldemort. Asked by Gay to imagine what he might say if a Christian God existed, Stephen made it clear that, were such an impossible situation to occur, he’d give this fellow a jolly big piece of his not inconsiderable mind.

The point of his tirade is simply stated. If you do believe in a righteous, all-powerful God then you must hold him, her or it responsible for the world’s manifest miseries. Since Fry does not believe in such a God then no responsibility needs to be apportioned.

Savage

God is Not Great

Yet our Stephen seems to have angered parts of the religious polity hitherto unmoved by Oxbridgian sniping. Much of the furore is to do with Fry’s status as a British national institution. It’s one thing for this generation’s Frank Muir to confirm mere lack of belief; it’s another to posit hypothetical arguments against an imagined God. It seems mainstream stars are still expected to remain ideologically cuddly in their downtime.

It was, however, Byrne’s apparent horror that really energised the story on social media. Always a master at the glacial double-take, Gay gradually eased his head back as if withdrawing from a curious, but not yet bellicose, king cobra. “Just look how shocked Gay is,” they typed in Lahinch. “Just look how shocked this old Irish bloke is,” they typed in Leicester.

Of course, the pro wasn’t shocked at all. “Everybody is getting much more excited about this thing than I am,” he told Ray D’Arcy on RTÉ radio. I’m sure. Readers of a certain age will remember, in the late 1970s, an atheist author being wheeled on to The Late Late Show in a cage to be prodded cautiously by braver members of the audience. The following week it was a monkey that could play the euphonium. I exaggerate more than a little.

But we have moved on from the era when antitheist opinions were worth remarking on. There are few lessons here about religion. There are, however, lessons about the manipulative power of a carefully edited promotional video. That really was the best trailer we’ve seen since the one for Godzilla. Nobody does mock-aghast like our Gay.

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