A Question of Faith
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A Question of Faith

A Question of Faith

By J.M. Taylor

His outspoken ruminations on the nature of religion have at times landed him in hot water – only making the fact that supposedly staunch atheist Stephen Fry was once aiming for a priesthood all the more intriguing.

When drafting a list of entertainers who might, in another life, have swapped their career in showbusiness for a more religious vocation, it would be fair to assume that Stephen Fry’s name would be a surprising inclusion. Indeed, the Hampstead-born, Cambridge-educated intellectual has often been open about his atheistic inclinations – even going so far as to have been awarded the Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by the Harvard Secular Society in 2011.

And yet for all of Fry’s apparent misalignment with organised religion in particular, there’s something about his expansive intelligence, idiosyncratic voice, and refusal to shy away from the deepest of debate topics that lends itself to critical discourse on the subject of faith.

‘At a time when the achievements of the Enlightenment are questioned, ridiculed, misunderstood and traduced by those who would reverse the progress of mankind,’ the 61-year-old told the British Humanist Association, ‘it is essential to nail one’s colours to the mast as a humanist. For me, that is not a turning away from mystery or a cold rational dispute with the numinous and spiritual in life, it is an acceptance of the awesome and splendid responsibility we each have for our own destinies, ethics and morals. I repudiate the authority of churches, revealed texts and vain unsubstantiated assertions and embrace the shared glories of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual struggle to understand the universe into which we are born, with honesty, openness and faith in our own natures.’

Such a statement is typical of Fry’s overtly bombastic elocution, but it also allows a sliver of common cause in ‘the shared glories of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual struggle’ to appear. In this, at least, Fry differs from the more ardent high-profile atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

There’s certainly less of Dawkins’ often aggressive railing at the ‘delusion’ of faith. In Fry’s case, personal faith and organised religion represent two wholly separate entities, with the former even coming in for something amounting to praise at times: ‘Sometimes belief means credulity,’ he said in a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society. ‘Sometimes it is an expression of faith and hope which even the most sceptical atheist such as myself cannot but find inspiring.’

Even so, Fry has had more brushes with the more indoctrinated aspects of religious life than his comments would, at first glance, seem to suggest. In June, whilst on BBC’s Graham Norton Show, he revealed that he had once had his eye on pursuing a career in the priesthood.

‘When I was a teenager, I loved so much about the Church – the music, the liturgy, the architecture,’ he said. ‘I liked the clothes and I knew I could deliver fantastic sermons. I was sent to see the Bishop of Lynn who decided I would make a wonderful priest. But there was one small problem in that I didn’t believe in God. I love everything about the Church, I just can’t take the story seriously. I can’t take the final leap.’

Of course, a belief in God is, unfortunately for Fry, a crucial prerequisite for a career in the clergy. While he admits to being unable to take ‘the final leap’ of faith necessary to place trust in a higher power, there’s a nagging feeling that Fry may not be telling the whole story here.

Back in 2015, for example, Fry’s opinions on God were far more controversial than a supposed lack of faith alone. During a chat with veteran broadcaster Gay Byrne on ‘The Meaning of Life’, Fry was asked to imagine a scenario where he was confronted by God at the Pearly Gates. His two-minute-long answer – that God, if ‘he, she, or it’ existed was, amongst other things, ‘monstrous’ – went viral, garnering millions of hits worldwide and an investigation by police in the Republic of Ireland under the country’s Defamation Act.

‘Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ he asked Byrne. ‘The god who created this universe, if he created this universe, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our lives 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.’

The investigation into Fry’s comments eventually ran its course without charge, and Fry himself said that he was both ‘astonished’ and ‘enchanted’ by the furore surrounding his remarks, telling Radio 4 in the aftermath of his appearance with Byrne that: ‘I don’t think I mentioned once any particular religion and I certainly didn’t intend to say anything offensive towards any particular religion.’

In fact, Fry’s latter point, on the more nefarious species of burrowing insects, is one he has returned to many times over the years, including during his spell on QI, when he used the example of a parasitic wasp to call into question the ideal of a benevolent Creator. Again, however, Fry’s humanist viewpoint and that of religion, though divergent in their eventual course and conclusions, appear to spring from a source of similar human questioning. Christians may use their faith to explain the nearly overwhelming scale of the natural world, and the sheer ‘wonder of nature’ is an important, if equally unknowable, point for humanists to touch upon also.

‘It must be taken in its totality and it is a wonderful thing,’ Fry says. ‘It is absolutely marvellous and the idea that an atheist or a humanist … doesn’t marvel and wonder at reality, at the way things are, is nonsensical. The point is we wonder all the way. We don’t just stop and say that which I cannot understand I will call God, which is what mankind has done historically. You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world is beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way that you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is.’

This aspect of Fry’s ongoing agitation with religion appears crucial to understanding how he went from aspiring to ordination to joining the side of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al in the public faith debate. Fry’s biggest gripe, it would seem, his ‘final leap’, is not in placing his faith in an exterior institution to help navigate the vagaries of life, but rather in placing faith in the institutions of the ‘revealed religions’ and their appointed mouthpieces.

In this, Fry’s ire is often turned towards the Catholic Church in particular. As an advocate of LGBT rights, and an outspoken supporter of the plight of AIDS victims around the world, Fry has often been scathing of the Catholic Church’s impact on such topics – though he is often at pains to repeat the assertion that a problem held with the Church as a monolithic institution is often very different to a problem held with the average churchgoer.

‘I have no quarrel and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt, for individual devout and pious members of that Church,’ Fry said in 2009 at a debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for good in society. ‘It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or any faith in the world. It’s very important.’

And in the more overt problems that have existed within the Catholic Church’s centuries-old position as a pivot of wide-spanning influences within the Western world, Fry sees only a profound sense of the ‘devout and pious’ faithful being repeatedly let down. ‘It’s such an opportunity, owning a billion souls at baptism,’ he said. ‘It’s such an opportunity to do something remarkable, to make this planet better, and it’s an opportunity that is constantly and arrogantly being avoided and I’m sorry for that.’

Though there’s little to suggest that Fry will ever renege on his intrinsic atheism and return to following his teenage dream of priesthood, it would be unfair to paint him as anything more than a sceptic. Outside of members of the biggest religious institutions – and this encompasses every religion, from the Catholic Church to the imams of fundamental Islamism – he adopts his well-worn and wholesome grandfatherly tone, when he could easily choose to harangue and belittle by virtue of his immense knowledge – a subject on which Fry ruminated with Sorted columnist and adventurer Bear Grylls on a 2013 episode of Wild Weekend (shown on Christmas Day, no less!).

‘I get very embarrassed and ashamed of my fellow atheists who are mocking of people who have faith,’ he told Grylls. ‘To me an individually devout, pious person is a very beautiful thing.’

Fry was ‘all for’ Grylls’ interpretation of his ‘intimate and stumbling and awkward and personal’ Christian faith, but where the latter saw heaven as a way of hopefully meeting again with his late father, Fry prefers to believe his forebears can be called on again through the knowledge of human history. ‘For me, you have all your dead ancestors alive in your mind – I have my beloved grandfather alive in my mind,’ he explained. ‘But I don’t need to die to be with him.’ He added that the scenic beauty of the Italian Dolomites where he and Grylls were trekking lent itself to pretentiousness, with the ‘vast landscape making you think on all of the imponderable questions that come tumbling down’.

Perhaps Fry’s fleeting association with the Church is more reminiscent of his formative years, when he sought above all else a sense of belonging. In a 2009 letter to his 16-year-old self, Fry wrote that he was ‘happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive’.

His musings on mental health and suicide have been unflinching watches, too: it seems Fry is more connected to the negative aspects of human existence than most. This may in part answer for his vaunted opinion of the Hellenic gods, who rarely had their immoral aspects ignored or forgiven even by those who worshipped them The unravelling of complexities has been a mainstay of Fry’s career after all in his tenure as QI quizmaster – so it stands to reason he would follow a similar path in his off-screen thinking.

‘Some people think that the universe was created for a purpose and that human beings were part of some larger cosmic plan,’ he has said. ‘They think our meaning comes from being part of this plan, and is written into the universe, waiting to be discovered. The humanist view of the meaning of life is different. Humanists do not see that there is any obvious purpose to the universe, but that it is a natural phenomenon with no design behind it. Meaning is not something out there, waiting to be discovered, but something we create in our own lives.’

That being said, churchgoers seeking common cause with Fry can find one in his warm embrace for anyone who, finding themselves at odds with life’s challenges, looks to forge a bond in the hope of finding some greater meaning – be it through friends, family, traditions, or God.

‘Although this vast and incredibly old universe was not created for us, all of us are connected to something bigger than ourselves,’ he said. ‘Whether it is family and community, a tradition stretching in the past, an idea or cause looking forward to the future, or the beautiful natural world on which we were born, and our species evolved.’

An Open Letter to Stephen Fry

By Mark Stibbe

Dear Stephen,

As a long-term admirer, it is an honour to write this open letter to you in response to your comments in recent years about belief in God.

We have so much in common:

• We are both a similar age
• We both went to boarding school and suffered there
• We were both sent to the Bishop of Lynn to discuss ordination to the priesthood
• We are both sceptical of organised religion
• We are both former scholars of English Literature at Cambridge University
• We have both lived in Norfolk and support Norwich City – ardently
• We both revere the discoveries of the Enlightenment
• And we both hold kindness to be one of the highest of all human virtues.

One difference, however, is our attitude to the Christian story. You say you can’t take it seriously, while I do. The first book I ever wrote was an upgraded version of my PhD called John as Storyteller (1992). It was devoted to taking the Jesus story seriously, both in terms of its historical truthfulness and its artistic beauty, even to the point of comparing it with Greek myths (which I know you love too). Even during seasons of brokenness, I have never wavered in my belief in the redemptive power of this story.  I was changed forever by it.  

Your main reason for not taking it seriously, if I’m right, has to do with the inexplicable suffering and horrific injustices of this world. You argue that God is ‘capricious, mean-minded and stupid’ to permit this, and this undermines the credibility of the Christian story. With the greatest respect, while I too hate injustice, I take a different view.

You and I are published authors, so we know what it is to tell stories. It never ceases to amaze me how characters come to life. Once they are endowed with the freedom and density of the real, they take on a life of their own. Out of many potentialities, they choose – as it were – one actuality. When this happens, as authors we sigh and weep at times. We are outraged and enraged at others. That’s why I agree with George R.R. Martin: ‘I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going … but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing.’

It is my belief that our lives and our planet are endowed with a similar kind of freedom that a storyteller gives to their characters and their creatures. Everyone, everything, possesses the capacity for kindness as well as cruelty. We can act like the beast as well as the priest, to borrow (a little) from E.M. Forster.

This where the Jesus story, for me, is so important. Jesus does not provide us with a direct answer to why there are parasitic wasps and bone cancer. These, and many other shadows, have become part of our story. We are unlikely to understand why until the dénouement. But one thing’s for sure in my mind. They are not there because God is mean and malicious. Jesus emphasised that God is not arbitrary and cruel but a good, good Father. The God of Jesus is the Father we have all been waiting for and whose house is open to all those who choose to return to His arms, as His most enduring and endearing parable demonstrates (Luke 15:11ff). He is the heavenly ideal of kindness; all earthly kindnesses are reflections of it.

I was a vicar for over twenty years and saw many things that mystified me in the four parishes I served, none more so than the story behind the last funeral I took, for a ten-year-old boy called Benjamin. He had been wheelchair-bound all his life, struck down with a deadly disease that twisted his body. I got to know his dad well, praying frequently for a miracle (that never came), standing with him in the final days in a children’s hospice.

Just before the end, a chaplain visited and, unknown to Dean, gave Benjamin a tiny wooden cross. When Benjamin passed away peacefully, Dean decided to wash his boy’s body and found this tiny crucifix clutched tightly in his son’s hand. You might not think much of that. But Dean did. Benjamin had never been able to hold anything in his hand for more than a few minutes. He had held the cross for three days and two nights.

Dean and I marvelled at this. For the father, it was a little touch of heaven in the bowels of hell. It was a little ray of comfort in the very heart of darkness. Neither he nor I had any answer to the ‘Why?’ question. But now we had at least a glimpse of an answer to the ‘Where? – Where are you God, when children are struck down so meaninglessly like this?’

In the epicentre of the greatest mystery – the mystery of seemingly inexplicable suffering – it was as if heaven opened and the great Father said, ‘I know what it is to see your son die.’ It was as if the dear Son said, ‘I know what it is to have My body twisted, misshapen, restricted, paralysed and in pain.’

At the heart of this the greatest of all mysteries, there was an epiphany of divine kindness when we were both tempted so strongly to succumb to doubt that God is love, so drawn to believe that the world is cruel, arbitrary, pointless and godless, when in fact there is kindness working away in both history as a whole, and in our little histories too.

In conclusion, we all have the freedom, given by the divine Storyteller, to find our way towards this kindness – a kindness that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4), which in the Jewish faith (the faith of Jesus) means ‘homecoming.’ For those who have been exiled from home, as we once were at boarding school, this is true kindness.

My heartfelt prayer for you, Stephen, is that you find your way to the affectionate Father whose arms are open wide, in whose big story our little stories find at least some meaning, even in the middle of mystery.

You are more like Him than you know. Remember, the only people that Jesus had zero tolerance for in His ministry were the mouthpieces of organised religion. In that, you and He are very much alike! To everyone else, He was astonishingly kind. In that too, you are very much alike!
So, grace and peace to you, Stephen.

And here’s to a great season for the Canaries!

With much love and appreciation,

Mark