The Stephen Fry Syndrome

There’s something called ‘an appeal to authority’. It involves glibly quoting someone more famous or more intelligent than yourself as though that proves the point you’re trying to make. Both Christians and Atheists do it, and it’s annoying.

I call it the Stephen Fry syndrome (Melchett from Blackadder for our American readers): here’s a wonderfully funny, clever, charming man who everybody loves, and who doesn’t believe in God. He is patently more in-the-know than me, so I can therefore hide behind his beliefs, appropriate them for myself, and never properly engage with the questions at hand. I will also leeringly deride anyone who dares to question Stephen Fry’s view on God, because he’s cleverer than that person, too – #win

It’s not that quotes aren’t helpful at times, but they aren’t arguments in and of themselves. They can often act as placebos, giving us the idea that we’re more clued up than we really are, while actually stopping us from engaging with the question of truth. It’s so frustrating to hear people say ‘Well, you’re an atheist when it comes to Zeus’, as though it’s something that has just sprung into their fertile mind, and not something that gets copy-and-pasted by atheist automatons. (Nb. Christians do exactly the same thing with C.S. Lewis and…er…Bono?)

So let’s check out some quotes that get bandied around, and look at how we might respond. Remember, shooting down a quotation doesn’t necessarily prove anyone right or wrong, but our gripe is with the people who victoriously parade such quotes like placards of objective truth.

Truth is not a popularity contest. We are all wrong about lots of things in life, so no matter who says what, our aim should be (in the name of intellectual honesty) to look into the truth of the statement, not at the wealth, social standing, number of Twitter followers of the person making it.

“Faith means not wanting to know what is true.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Richard Dawkins uses something similar when he says that ‘Faith is being content with not knowing’. Nietzsche was a brilliant philosopher, but I don’t understand where he plucked this from. I have literally never read a single Christian apologist from throughout history who affirmed this statement. Faith, in Christian terms, means ‘putting your trust in’, but to apply that here would mean that Christians ‘put our trust in not wanting to know what is true’. That just doesn’t make any sense. You might think that’s what Faith-heads do, but you’d be way off-piste. I became a Christian in my early twenties, because I wanted to know what was true. I didn’t look at the list of all the worldviews and think, ‘Hey, that one where you can’t have sex before marriage – sounds perfect!’ I may be wrong about God, but my route to Him came out of genuinely desiring truth, not ignoring it.

“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” — Denis Diderot

Nicely said, Denis (who really sounds like he should play in midfield for Auxerre). But in this world we would still be left with someone happy enough to gruesomely kill other human beings using their own innards. How do we get free of that guy? Oh brave new world…

“The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it.” – Terry Pratchett

I love Terry Pratchett – what an amazing mind that man has. But I don’t agree with this. I mean, what if those guys who had been seeking the truth suddenly came upon it? Isn’t that the whole point of seeking something? I don’t find my car keys in the morning and then think, ‘I better just check in a few more places’. My wife doesn’t come in and say, ‘I preferred you before you got all hoity-toity and confident about finding your keys; keep looking or it’s divorce.’

It’s great to seek the truth, but isn’t it ultimately depressing if we never feel like we can get to it. That was the whole problem with Lost! Five series of expecting answers that never materialised. Embarrassing.

Next week, we’ll look at a few more. And, as you will have noticed, we’re being light-hearted about this, so feel free to get involved in the comments section. It’s great to banter – C.S Lewis said that, so it must be true.

  • Good post. I agree that many people would rather quote others than try and make up their own minds (or complete thoughts). It’s a crutch that too many of us use too often.

    I actually don’t mind the Terry Prachett quote. I think what he is speaking about it that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking we know everything. Although we know who the source of ultimate truth is, we will never truly understand the mind of God, so therefore I think we should always be on a quest for a greater understanding of the truth.

    P.S. “Melchett from Black Adder” is supposed to help us Yanks? How about “the gay dude from V for Vendetta…”

  • Marko

    Really nice, funny post.

  • In a previous job, I remember quite a few on my team were vocal “pop atheists” (following the crowd – to be differentiated from the genuine atheists who have actually thought things through), for want of a better term – “freethinkers” who let fashionable people do the thinking for them.

    Herein lies an irony – we get mocked for relying on “authority” (the assumption we believe things because a man in a frock tells us to) and resorting to a book to tell us what to think, while the pop atheists not just rely on authority but appeal to their own infallible books (e.g. “The God Delusion”)

  • I’ve often thought this too Graham. There are plenty of ‘sacred texts’ that many atheist would hold as almost infallible.

    An interesting side on this, is that most of these texts are published in English, and assume a fairly good level of comprehension, making them quite exclusive and, therefore it follows that the worldview is quite elitist. It’s a big contrast from Christianity, where the Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages and the message has been heard and understood across hundreds of cultures across all of the world.

  • Robin Dawson

    Here is a quote from Stephen Fry (in 1988).
    As I understand it, Jesus Christ’s triumph on earth rests on the fact that he was fully a man. God, the argument goes, abdicated all his divinity and made himself one hundred percent flesh. He ate food, therefore, he wept , he suffered, slept, went to the lavatory and in all other ways sustained the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to. Christians have no right, if they adhere to this story, to rail at God and say “You don’t know what it is like, being a human”, the Christian story is all about God showing that he did find out precisely what it was like, and thereby offering us an opportunity of salvation. I think it is a magnificent story, humane, profound, fascinating and complex.That I don’t happen to believe it is essentially my problem, its not something I am proud of or ashamed of……..But the point, the whole point, of the story is the remarkable paradox of a divine humanity. If Christ was not in real pain on the cross then the story is meaningless. Any God could pretend to be in pain, this one apparently paid us the supreme compliment of really suffering.

    Could do with him preaching at our church!

  • Tim Roberts

    Nice Blog Mr Admin. I like to pray for Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and other notable atheists. After all, they may not believe in God, but He believes in them!

  • Tom

    Do you think God cares about the atheists you haven’t heard of?

  • Tom

    Could you name any of these “sacred texts” Jonathan. You do know that there were atheists before ‘The God Delusion’ came out, don’t you? (Incidentally, that book is already available in 33 languages)

    I think it is ironic that you think that the books you have imagined to be of significance to atheists are exclusive because they are written in the nearest thing we have to a universal language, when one only has to discuss the manifold nonsense in the bible with a believer for a few minutes before they tell you that it doesn’t actually mean what it says, that’s just the translation, but fortunately they’ve (read a book by someone who has) read it in ancient Greek or Hebrew, and actually it means totally the opposite.

  • Mr Admin

    Tom, please, don’t be so snidey. It stops people warming to you. We really appreciate you getting involved, but sniping like that is just counter-productive.

  • Tom

    Maybe they didn’t seem to have thought it through in the same way that I don’t have readily to hand a reason why I don’t believe that we are all living on the surface of a glob of porridge in the stomach of a 3 headed bird from outer space? Perhaps your beliefs are, to other, such manifest nonsense that they do not really consider them at all?

    Has it also occurred to you that simply stating something is infallible isn’t the same as it actually being infallible? Atheists tend not to hold the bible in great esteem either ….

  • Tom

    Here in our civilized society we tend not to define people by their sexuality. I’d have thought a simple web-link to his wiki entry would have been more helpful if we are to assume people are too lazy to do their own research on their ‘connected to all the information there is’ machine …

  • Mr Admin

    Tom, would you like to come on our podcast? We’d love to meet you.

  • Morning Tom.

    Gosh, well it depends on your flavour of atheism I suppose, but I encounter quite a few authors that pop up a lot and are oft-quoted. Authors such as Bertrund Russell, Sigmnud Freud, Karl Marx (to an extent), Carl Sagan, from the last 100 or so years.

    Of course, there’s plenty of new material oft quoted from Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, Harris, Grayling etc. and they will have their favourite from previous generations.

    I didn’t know that ‘The God Delusion’ had been translated so much, that’s interesting. I’m all for that.

    I’m not going to respond to your last point! ‘Manifold nonsense’?! I don’t relate to your lazy characterisation of believer I’m afraid.

  • Tom

    I thought it a genuine question. It seems odd to pray “Please God reveal yourself to Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and other notable atheists” when you could more easily say “Please God reveal yourself to all atheists”

    After all, Thomas was lucky enough to actually met and live with the living Christ and to hear all his teaching first hand, and got to ask questions later – and he still didn’t believe in the resurrection until he was shown physical evidence. If God can do that for Thomas, surely he can provide some physical evidence for people who are not so privileged?

  • Tom

    Flavours of Atheism? That’s new to me. I thought Atheism was a belief that there is no God. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Of course atheists will have other beliefs, but those are not part of their atheism any more than a belief that, for example, Ian Botham is the best cricketer there has ever been is part of a religion. I believe there is no God. That makes me an atheist. I do believe in evolution. That’s nothing to do with being an atheist, for example.

    There is much I would class as nonsense in the bible. If you think people really did live to be a thousand years old, that there were giants and that Noah had a pair or more of every living thing on a boat entirely made of wood, you have a much more, er, flexible mind than I.

  • Tom

    That’s a lovely offer, but I don’t have a radio voice. I’d happily submit something written though, and someone else could read it?

  • I was just about to ask if you’d like to guest blog! I’ll be in touch.

  • Tom

    Of course – give me a subject and I’d be happy to 🙂

  • Oh, sure there are flavours of atheism. Richard Dawkins has many admirers but many (and growing, from recent newspaper articles is seems) others are quick to say, ‘I’m an atheist, but not like, you know, Richard Dawkins or anything.’ ( Tom Chivers wrote a piece in the Telegraph recently to this effect)

    I take your point that at the core atheism is the belief that there is no god, but that can be dressed up in many ways that result in people having very different outlooks on life. Belief in naturalism may be liberating to some – freedom from rules – or pessimistic to others, ‘there is no hope because there is no meaning’.

    As for the Bible, there may be much that appears odd to us living today, weird, or downright immoral. There’s also stuff that appear to contradict science as we understand today. There’re lots of tricky parts and there are many good answers for them too. We could get into the smaller points but I think we should deal the with the larger things first, because if they fail, everything comes crashing down. Not that Noahs’ Ark was small, I understand it was quite large … 😉

  • Tom

    The Ark would have had to have been to contain just the insects. Let alone their food. I admire Noah’s ability to track them all down despite many of them remaining unknown to science ever since.

    Goodness knows how Noah coped with the huge aquariums he would have needed to keep the aquatic creatures intolerant of salt and the marine creatures intolerant to hugely diluted sea water. They must have been very heavy indeed, and exceedingly difficult to maintain.

    I stand by my claim that Atheism is simply a belief that there is no God. What other atheists (famous or otherwise) happen to believe *as well* as that is of no relevance to the definition of atheism.

    The fact that you claim people say ‘I’m an atheist but not like Richard Dawkins’ is simply an illustration of how the term is so abused that people feel the need to clarify it.

    As you concede that atheists may have very different outlooks to each other, I wonder what value there is in writing about them as being in any way homogenous?

  • I’ve never said I was civilized… ;^)

  • Tom

    touché 🙂

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  • Andy Harper

    Evidence is just interpreted according to pre-held beliefs for lots of people, healing evidence is a cracking one for that with some doctors saying to must have been a miracle and others insisting there must be a purely ‘no God’ answer for it, science just hasn’t got there yet . . If you know what I mean

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  • Simon Osborne

    I can think of several factors that might be considered a “flavour” of atheism:
    How one defines the “God” not being believed in. For instance, how does one view Buddhism / Jainism / Taoism?
    The factors leading to one’s rejection of theistic ideas – scientific, philosophical, experiential.
    Philosophical viewpoint – nihilism / existentialism / humanism. On which point, to say “atheists will have other beliefs, but those are not part of their atheism” is manifestly absurd. To suggest that Nietzsche’s atheism did not influence his thinking would be as foolish as to suggest that Kierkegaard’s faith did not affect his.
    How one relates to these (and other elements) would indeed reflect on which texts an atheist may attach significance to in the same way that a theist might attach significance to the Qur’an or Bible depending on whether they were Muslim or Christian.
    I don’t agree that atheists attach a sanctity to writings in quite the same way that theists do, but I do think there is a laughable hypocrisy practiced by many who swallow uncritically the teachings of prominent atheist thinkers and then mock theists for their “blind faith”.