Friday, February 27, 2015


“The reality”, said my Doctor today in a matter-of-fact voice, “is that men’s health drops off after the age of 80 and the best option is to pass away in your sleep between 80 and 85.”

I’m grateful for my Doctor’s blunt assessment because it brought to mind something we all know and mostly avoid thinking about – death. Up to now, I had managed to push it away from me into the distant future, but today it appeared as a tangible blip on the horizon.

How do you plan your life with the realisation that the best outcome from here on in is to pass away in your sleep between 80 and 85? That’s only 30 years away for me, about the same time since I left university. That blip on the horizon will never go away. In fact it will get bigger and bigger until it and I collide at some definite point in the foreseeable future.

This isn’t someone else’s death either. It’s mine. What do I do? How should I live?

As I think about this, I find that I’m less concerned with self-preservation than I was as a young man. No doubt the survival instinct is still there, but it now sits at the back patiently rather than thrusting forward at every opportunity like it once did. Even it won’t be able to steer a course around that blip on the horizon, though it might delay the inevitable.

Of course, we’ve had deaths in the family before. The occasion for my conversation with my doctor was the first of a measured program of check-ups and screenings initiated by the arrival of my fiftieth birthday, and we were discussing the health of my father, who is now frail and in what must be terminal decline. When loved ones had died previously, I was struck with the ephemerality of life, the importance of relationships and the fact that opportunities inexorably close. I kick myself for not fully appreciating how blessed I am by such a wonderful and wide circle of family and friends. Despite our wrangling and disagreements, we still consider each other to be valuable and worthwhile. That is, so valuable that it, and the individuals who make it up, is worth “wasting” my time with. 

“Waste” is such an inappropriate word here, especially when you take your bearings against that blip on the horizon. Who does the final assessment on what is "wasteful" and what is not?

Should I worry about the opportunities I have missed, the mistakes I have made? Yes, and no. Yes, because I could have done something good, but didn’t. To gloss over them would be dishonest and would not do justice to the good I failed to do. No, because there is a greater power at work, and it will prevail even though I failed.

It’s impossible to address this last question without getting theological. Early in my life, I came to terms with the concept that God sees everything about me. I could not, and still cannot, hide anything from Him, not the stuff I manage to hide from my closest and dearest, not even the stuff I hide from myself, nor the stuff that disappeared into the memory hole decades ago. My response to my past, therefore, can only be one of absolute open-ness, fully acknowledging my failures as well as my modest triumphs. 

How does God look at me, knowing absolutely everything about me? The question is not what He sees, but how He sees it.

Fortunately, I don’t need to die before I find out, because I can see the answer expressed in everyday life by my loved ones. I also see the ultimate example of this in the life of a remarkably ordinary human being, Jesus of Nazareth. Having gleaned some faint clue about how God looks at me from these observations, I now have the pattern of how I should look at others, and this shines a light on how I should live out my remaining, limited years. 

It’s a mystery. It's not survival of self at all costs, but a life lived outside and beyond my self for the good of others. At the risk of getting mystical and mysterious, I resolve to be taken up into that river that has been pouring itself out long before I came onto the scene and will continue to do so long after I have left. 

How do I describe this divine mystery? In a word, love.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:11-13

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

If Stephen Fry's atheism is true, God cannot be evil

Stephen Fry's response to the question about what he would say if he came face to face with God has caused quite a stir. I suspect it's not just the content of Fry's response, but the visceral hatred it conveys; shocking to many because of Fry's better-known on-screen persona as a knowledgeable, congenial host of a myriad of highly watchable TV shows.

It's not the first time Fry has vented his feelings on the subject. Look up his reaction to Ann Widdecome's questions on the Ten Commandments. (PS I wonder if Fry's YouTube speech demolishing the Catholic Church in 8 minutes 53 seconds was recorded the same evening.) Less obvious are his persistent barbs towards anything God-like in the quiz series QI. (To be fair, many are justified, but the emerging picture is a one-way street.)

Unfortunately for Fry, and many atheists like him, his argument does not stack up. It rests more on emotive appeal, made the more forceful by Fry's undeniable wit, charm, intelligence and popularity, than on reason. I can't help but notice the irony, because it is the exact reflection of the criticisms levelled at Christianity by atheists only a few decades ago.

Allow me to explain, but to do so, I'm going to invoke Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. One of my reasons for raising Anselm's ghost is to demonstrate that these arguments are nothing new, but we quickly forget.

Anselm devised what he thought was an unbeatable argument for the existence of God. In a nutshell, he argued that God was the greatest conceivable being. That's a cursory summary that does the argument no justice, but most, if not all, philosophers have acknowledged the strength of Anselm's argument. Even so, we don't need to fully resolve it here. All we need, for the time-being, is the notion that God is the greatest conceivable being.

This is where Stephen Fry's objection shoots itself in the foot, and so do the same objections of most popular atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Professor Lawrence Krauss and the late Richard Hitchins. They cannot believe in God, they say, because He has acted immorally.

What these atheists have done is to judge God according to a particular moral standard and found Him wanting. It is incidental that their particular moral standard encompasses the Gay Rights agenda, and it might as well be some other issue that has gained popular currency. Whatever the higher moral standard that is applied, the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is subjected to it. 

According to Anselm, the higher moral standard is greater than God. It follows, then, that God is not “God”; the higher moral standard is “God”. In other words, the higher moral standard is a God-pseudonym, and the “God” of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is demoted down the ranks. It's not an argument for a God-less cosmos, as atheism proper claims; it is actually an argument for a “God”. It's just not the “God” of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

If we are to follow atheism proper, and jettison all beliefs in a purpose or direction for the universe, then we have no warrant to say that one thing is better than another. Even our sense of moral outrage is meaningless, because there are no morals that we could appeal to. In such a universe, we can justifiably say that we like this or that, or that some thing (God or religion) stops us getting what we want. But, we cannot justifiably say that that thing is “good” or “evil”, “right” or “wrong”. Even the argument against human suffering fails because there is nothing in the universe to say that human suffering is actually wrong; it's just inconvenient.

If there is no “evil”, then it is impossible to say that religion and/or God is “evil”. In other words, if atheism is true, God cannot be evil, even if He is fictional. By the same measure, atheism and the Gay Rights agenda cannot be good. It might be useful, it might even make the world a better place for people like Stephen Fry to live in. It is his prerogative to make the case, but that's not the same as claiming that it is “good” or “right”.

In an atheistic cosmos, then, Stephen Fry's outburst really does boil down to getting what he wants. There is nothing more to it than that. How can there be? Fry's appeals to morality only have substance in a theistic cosmos but, then, he would have to relinquish his avowed atheism. God gives us the warrant to make the kind of moral judgements that Fry has made. Without God, there is no morality to appeal to. Stephen Fry, and we, cannot have it both ways.