Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The barbecue conundrum - a (partial) response to Stephen Fry

It's now notorious and has "gone viral".  I'm referring to Stephen Fry's response on being asked by a television interviewer what he'd say if he found God actually existed and was confronted by Him at the Pearly Gates.  Stephen replied that he'd say (something like) "Bone cancer in children - what's that about? How dare you deliberately create something that can cause so much misery and it's not our fault?"  Such a God would be evil, malicious, and he would want nothing to do with such a being.

I sympathise, I really do.  Some years ago, I used to go to a poetry group.  The founder was a lovely lady called Sally.  Sally was one of the most honest people I'd ever met - if she liked your poem she'd say so, but wouldn't pretend if she didn't like it.  Everyone valued her.  She died at the age of 36, in Indonesia, when her plane crashed into the side of a mountain - she was one of the two Brits on board.

I searched the shops for condolence cards, and could only find ones with trite religious words on them.  Sally was a complete atheist.  Not one of the outspoken toxic type of atheists that you see writing vitriol and ridicule as comments on religious articles in the Guardian, but nonetheless a firm atheist.  So I decided to write a poem in her memory, and, going outside my comfort zone, I wanted to write it from an atheist perspective.  It seemed the only way to honour and respect her, and indeed she was a person worthy of great respect.  The poem I ended up writing was called "On not making sense":

Making sense
Of the senseless
Is the most senseless
Thing we do.

The fall of numbered balls
Or airborne vehicles
Bestows no favours
Selects no victims
Reveals no Guiding Hand
But that of probability.

No-one to blame
So why this Why?

Making sense
Of the senseless
Is the most senseless
Thing we do.

I do not presume
To make sense of it.

(I.M. Sally Horsman)

I think I was doing fine on the atheist perspective (shit happens but what do you expect in a blind pitiless indifferent universe) till I got to line 12.  It's one that shot out of the pen and was on the paper before I could stop it.  It is probably also the most powerful and heartfelt line in the poem.  I couldn't stop myself from asking "WHY????"  I needed an entity to shake the fist at and say "Why did you let this happen, you monster?"  That a beautiful and talented human being should have her life terminated like this, and end up at a humanist funeral service (which I attended).  Actually she didn't end up there because they never recovered the bodies from the crash site. What a horrible and senseless end.

So I feel a lot of sympathy for Mr. Fry and his anger.  I felt angry, but I have an advantage - I believe in the entity I was angry at.  And I also realised after writing the line that I was echoing Jesus' despairing cry on the cross: "My God my God - why have you forsaken me?"  Why didn't you show up when the going got tough?  You're omnipotent - you could have prevented it?

To feel like this is undeniably human.  And it does pose this difficult question, which Stephen Fry correctly referred to as "theodicy" - the problem of a benevolent loving God allowing suffering and misery to happen.

Where I differ from Mr. Fry is that I think he's presumed that there is no answer to this question, so therefore God stands condemned as a monster.  And yet theologians and authors have battled with this question for time immemorial - and he makes no attempt to address these arguments (though maybe he has elsewhere).

So I would like to offer my personal perspective on this - I have no idea if it is original, or just a re-hash of old ideas.  I make no claims that it's a complete answer to the Theodicy problem - hence the title of this post as a "partial" response.  This is such a big and serious problem that it would be very arrogant to claim that I've got the answer and that it can be written down in a single blog post.

Anyway, here's my take on it.  I call it "The barbecue conundrum":

Barbecues are great for cooking meat and sausages.  But suppose a young child goes too close when no adults are looking, and puts his hand in the pretty flames.  He experiences excruciating pain, and horrific damage to his skin.  Perhaps he is maimed for life.  So I complain to God:  "How dare you create a universe in which this horrific thing can happen?"

But the thing is, barbecues are a good thing - they can be used to cook meat in a nice fun social atmosphere.  But you have to be careful with them because we are made of meat, and if we get too close, they cook us, with horrific consequences.

All of this is because of a simple fact, and one which I see as one of God's greatest gifts to us: that the Universe operates for the most part by Natural laws.  It was Einstein who said:

The eternally incomprehensible thing about the world is its comprehensibility.

(NB - Einstein did not believe in a personal God, and simply left this as an observation with no explanation).

The fact that the  universe is comprehensible enables us to understand the nature of things, and to predict what will happen when you do things.  Barbecues cook meat, so if you put your own meat on it (like your hand) it will cook you.  Imagine if this were different.  Suppose God made a universe where barbecues cooked all sorts of meat except human meat, which if inserted in the flames would be entirely unaffected by them and cause no pain or tissue damage.  How on earth do  you understand such a phenomenon?  What is it about the human flesh that is different so that it's unaffected by the flames, when pig flesh is?

Or maybe God acts as a benevolent puppeteer who physically prevents us from harming ourselves.  We put our hand towards the flames and mysteriously it gets gently pulled away, and we never quite manage to put it in.

Now multiply this by all the different ways we can hurt ourselves, and instead of the nice, simple universe governed (barring occasional miracles) by natural, predictable laws, we have a confusing, complex universe that we can barely understand.  We can't make scientific progress, and, having our children wrapped in cotton wool, either by a benign intervener, or by arcane scientific laws that we can barely understand, where is the motivation to look after our children.  Or each other?

Now, if you've got this far you're probably thinking that barbecues have their uses - they can cause good or bad things.  But surely no-one's found a use for cancer.

However, cancer is the result of evolution.  When a cancer develops in your body, it's evolution gone haywire, and the rapidly dividing cells (because of a mutation that disables the regulation mechanism) dominate over the stable ones.  This is a bad, indeed horrific consequence of evolution.  But equally, when your immune system fights off an infection, extremely rapid evolutionary processes are going on, to allow antibodies to develop.  So hurrah for evolution!  What a wonderful thing it is! Or as Darwin so eloquently put it at the end of "Origin of Species":

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Evolution is a tremendously simple idea - random mutation plus natural selection (we'll omit the additional complications of crossover, etc - these are details that don't destroy the original concept).

But imagine an evolutionary theory in which nothing bad happened.  No cancer, no burrowing flies, etc.  It would be practically impossible to understand such a theory - the very randomness of the process (copying errors etc) means that sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad.

What we have to do is to embrace that, and do our best to understand the world we live in.  In doing that we are empowered to do something about suffering - empowered to love each other, and to look out for each other.  Because we understand that the barbecue can cook human flesh, we watch out for our kids and protect them from harm.

I'd personally much rather have that sort of world, where we are empowered to love and look after each other, than one controlled by confusing laws, or a benign interfering puppeteer pulling my strings all the time.

  I very much doubt that Mr. Fry will get to read this one blog post among the reams of words that have been spilled by Christians in response to his accusations against God.  I know this isn't a complete answer, just a partial glimpse at a possible answer perhaps.

And I still get mad at God when awful things happen.  Sorry. I'm only human!

And I also hope very much that somewhere, Sally exists in some realm and can see this.  Perhaps this, too, is a  human weakness.  She liked some of my poems very much and for others was "frank and honest".  I wonder what she would have/did make of "On not making sense"?


Dairy-Free Diner said...

I came across this today when I was searching for details of Sally's death. I worked with Sally at LMC in Oxford and remember her as a wonderful, bright, lively and forthright woman. Her death is a loss to us all.

I also attended her humanist memorial and now, nearly 20 years later, I am a humanist celebrant myself.

I am older now than she was when she died, and her death at 36 seems even more poignant when I consider the life she could have had, if she had lived.

Thank you for your poem. Sally died three months to the day that another colleague had died, also young, also senseless. We had to live with a lot of grief.

I just wanted you to know that I think of Sally often. As Terry Pratchett said, "No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away..."

Elizabeth Donnelly

Iain said...

Hi, Elizabeth,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comment. I am sorry I have not responded till now (two and a half years later!)

I had to turn on comment moderation following a spate of Japanese porn spam comments that kept being posted to the blog. Then I stopped blogging for a while, and only saw your comment awaiting moderation yesterday, after I made a new post.

It is strange to think that we were both at the humanist memorial, and then make contact almost 20 years later!

Yes, I also have occasion to think of Sally, whom I met via a poetry group run by Giles Goodland. She was a lovely person an a tragic loss.