An interview clip of the famous atheist has gone viral. So what?
You may have noticed a bit of a kerfuffle lately, stemming from a 2:24 minute clip on RTÉ’s “The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne,” in which Fry relates some frankly unsurprising views about God and suffering. Or, as one of my friends put it on Facebook: “Famous atheist says the sort of things famous atheists say.” And ever since Saturday afternoon, the big question on my mind has been “Why do we care?”
The main reason I’m asking this question has to do with the peculiar nature of my Facebook feed, which is populated by a strange mix of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, some fairly left-wing Americans of various intensely religious stripes, some more or less intellectual Anglicans and Episcopalians, and a fair number of atheists and agnostics. Some members of all of these groups are also well-respected academics; most aren’t. I like to think of it as a fairly representative slice of the English-speaking world, but it makes for an odd feed: some of my friends are gleefully clapping their hands about Fry, others could not care less, and others are enraged.
But there’s another reason I’m asking “Why do we care?”
I broke my usual code of Facebook discretion to engage in an extended debate with a friend and colleague who’d approvingly posted the video on his wall. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out what it was about seeing the Fry video on his wall that made me do this. Essentially, why do I care? I think I’ve come up with some answers.
First, let me rule out some potential reasons. The video hasn’t generated so much attention because Fry has said anything particularly new or ground breaking. In some ways, his comments were really quite tedious, as far as atheist critiques go (there’s a reason the interviewer pulled a face). It also wasn’t because the critique was well put: it hardly comes up to the level of Ivan’s discourse in The Brothers Karamazov, though its quality as a sound bite deserves some kudos. It also wasn’t because Fry is a paragon of morality and cultural wisdom: he may be funny and interesting, and he’s certainly perceptive, but he’s not exactly someone most people would turn to for life advice.
It wasn’t even because of Fry’s slightly pompous claim that he would chastise the Almighty at the Last Judgment. This is mostly because, despite Giles Fraser being impressed, Fry’s “bravery” strikes one as somewhat improbable. It’s not that God has a problem with people being angry at him or disputing his judgment (see the whole book of Job, most of the Psalms, and the book of Jeremiah), nor will he necessarily stop anyone from attempting to do rather terrible things to his person when they reject him (see, well, Jesus Christ). It’s just that, when confronted with the unveiled majesty of God, people tend to quail in terror and shut their mouths (see Moses and the burning bush, the end of the book of Job, most of the Psalms, and the book of Jeremiah). I’d honestly be impressed at someone holding onto their head when the earth flees and the heavens are rolled up like a garment at the coming of the Lord, but it seems unlikely to say the least. Fry has the bluster and bravado that comes from lack of exposure.
So what is it? Why did Fry’s comments grab our attention and elicit so many reactions?
One reason is the much observed rage-cycle on social media. Frankly, we spend a lot of time getting worked up about inconsequential stuff. Something about Facebook and Twitter seems to do this to us, in a way that other forms of communication don’t. But more importantly, I think a lot of us have started falling into the trap of (a) providing controversial material when we know it will anger others or (b) reacting poorly and without consideration when we know better.
We do this for a simple reason. Though we’d deny it, most of us like being angry and worked up. And we like making other people angry and worked up, especially if we can feel intellectually, emotionally, or culturally superior while doing it. We’ve got a problem of the heart; and it’s interesting that this has been exposed to such an extent in the week after Archbishop Justin Welby pretty clearly pointed out that the problem has infected members of the Church. (I even put his comments online, unveiling the depth of my character, surely.)
I think Christians have reacted so strongly to Fry for some other important reasons as well; I’ll come to atheists momentarily. A personal example. In my own feed, seeing Fry’s comments pop up on an atheist friend’s wall generates about the same feelings that I have when someone like Pat Robertson pops up on a Christian friend’s wall (well, maybe not quite that bad, but close). They both tend to attribute evil to God with some regularity. And, in either case, I groan inside because I know something I classify as ignorant drivel is about to be cast out into the world to the delight and chagrin of many millions. Worse yet, I think to myself somewhat dejectedly: “Somebody whose opinion I value thinks this is actually worth consuming. Someone I value actually thinks the God I worship is a baby-killing maniac.” When it comes to Fry, I think his comments are unworthy of atheism and unrepresentative of most of the people I know who have made considered decisions to reject religious faith. It would be crediting him too much to say that the remarks vilifying faith were ill considered; he undoubtedly knew the question was coming, given the interviewer, so one can only suppose that he hoped he could do some cultural damage. And he undoubtedly has. Thanks, friend.
But I also found myself reacting strongly because I felt I needed to do some damage control. Every time I hear something like this said by a “respected” public figure, I think: “Man, we are really failing at our job of witnessing to the truth, if people think this is credible. And we’ve really failed to demonstrate the beauty and compassion of the Christian faith.”
And as a theologian and historian, and (Lord — or the impersonal cosmos — willing) as a future priest, I think, “Man, I am failing my friends and colleagues terribly, and I’m worried that I can’t do anything about it.” After all, how to react appropriately? Ignore it out of a sense of civility and professional decorum? Write a private message? Bring it up awkwardly a week later at the pub? Engage strongly online? In “post-Christian” Britain, I’ve found this a much more difficult problem than I would have elsewhere. And I’m not sure I’m negotiating it so well.
Then, in terms of atheists — or, more accurately, let’s say, people somewhat on the “unbelief” side of the spectrum: Why have so many approved of Fry’s comments? Answering this question appropriately could be a challenge, but I’ll take a few stabs.
The first thing to realize is that the atheist community has a strong sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority but perhaps an inflated sense of its character as an embattled minority, awash in a sea of deadly believers, who are doing crazy things like attacking French satirical publications, attempting to institute religious theocracies, and generally refusing to trust atheists. Because of this, engaging in ceaseless polemics against religion is very much a part of atheist self-definition. They’ve got to do something to stem the tide of hatred and irrationality just to survive but also to demarcate their social space as members of the secular vanguard. This is a trademark of the New Atheism especially.
This rationale shouldn’t surprise us. After all, I don’t just read, write, and post things about theology to convince others; I also do it to locate myself within a space partly defined by my beliefs and my identity as a Christian intellectual. And, I find it important to engage in these issues in order to challenge the idea that atheism somehow has more intellectual credibility. I shouldn’t be surprised at others doing the same.
The second thing is that, despite the decline in religious observance in the West (especially in Europe), the cultural visibility and profile of unbelief and of atheists remains quite low. It cannot match the pervasiveness of faith. This is especially true in the United States, but even in Britain we see rather few public figures whose personal identity is wrapped up in their atheism. We may doubt David Cameron’s religious sincerity, but we cannot dispute his church attendance. And there’s still a sense that atheism doesn’t play well in the Home Counties or “Up North,” not least in an election year when we’ve got UKIP and Nigel Farage to fight off. Keep your atheism in the City or in the student unions, please.
So, when a prominent comedian, professor, or any other cultural figure appears on television and actually makes shocking statements, they make the news simply because such things are still a relative rarity. It’s titillating. And atheists and agnostics around the Anglophone world prick up their ears because they finally hear something they can sort of agree with, even when it’s stated by a prat like Richard Dawkins.
More might be said, but the real question is: Where do things go from here?
It’s now something of a cliché, but we need to work this social media thing out a little better or just give up on it. People of faith and those without any also need to work out a better cultural politics than open warfare. I’m sure that statement will leave many red-blooded, militant culture warriors shaking their heads, especially those who make slaying the dragon of faith or of unbelief central to their self-identity. However, I think we can honestly say that these sorts of statements fuel bad reactions. If Fry really thinks, as he recently said at the Cambridge Union, that the Church of England’s mildness and “smiling vicars on bicycles” help to inoculate the British population against religious extremism, he needs to realize that he and his loyal followers have a rather different effect. The same should be said to religious fundamentalists, however. Their personal crusade helps create a belligerent secularity. For every convert the extremist gains, crossing and transgressing land and sea to win him (whatever his creed), he creates a hundred more who will not be converted. Extremism of all kinds is a Hydra. Hacking away like a maniac isn’t going to solve the problem, so put your sword away, O Hercules, at least until you work out a better plan.
But I think we all need to start engaging a little more directly with each other. Whether or not we work out how to talk to each other on Facebook, a little more face-to-face time with our family, friends, and colleagues is the only place where the right sort of discussions can take place: discussions that lead to better understanding and to the conversion of our positions.
Life — even the life of faith — isn’t simply about coming to a settled position on everything and then fighting trench warfare ever after. Far too many of us have professed to have open minds when we were 15 or 18 or 22, only to close them shortly afterwards. I’m not advocating some kind of open hand, loosey-goosey, spineless approach to everything. Settled convictions, passionate arguments, and even raised voices have their place. But if we are not open to the possibility of true conversion, we are not open to truth. And if we are not open to truth, we are not open to life. We are certainly not open to our neighbor, and, if we are people of faith, we are certainly not open to God.
The featured image of Stephen Fry is “Happy Birthday to GNU” (2008). It is licensed under Creative Commons.