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.