A Tale of Two Stephens


What do Stephen Fry and Stephen Hawking have in common? Both were featured in the recent 2015 BAFTA awards. Fry compered the evening, and Hawking was present in the audience while Eddie Redmayne received his richly-deserved award for Best Actor for playing the part of the famous cosmologist in the film A Theory of Everything (for which he also subsequently received an Oscar).

But the two Stephens have something else in common as well. They each loudly proclaim that God does not exist. In this they are in step with a growing trend in Britain, with a recent YouGov survey reporting that one third (33%) of British adults do not believe in God or a greater spiritual power of any kind – roughly the same number as believe in “a God” (32%). While the two Stephens may differ in their line of attack, their respective arguments in fact correspond to the two main reasons cited by non-believers in survey after survey as the two principal barriers to belief. Cosmologist Hawking maintains that science disproves the existence of God, while Humanities-trained Fry holds that the problem of evil is such a powerful argument against God that it is unanswerable.

What do the Scriptures say about atheism? Psalm 14:1 states rather baldly and even bluntly: The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’ At first blush this doesn’t seem to apply to the two Stephens, for clearly neither is a fool. But the word translated ‘fool’ does not imply one lacking in mental powers, but rather denotes someone opposed to God. We should therefore expect that the fine-sounding arguments of atheism lead to contradiction and confusion. We will now look at the main arguments of the two Stephens in turn.

Stephen Hawking has tragically suffered for most of his life from Motor Neuron Disease, confined to a wheelchair and speaking through that distinctive voice synthesiser. The film of his life mentioned above, The Theory of Everything, is well worth seeing, a beautiful film about a most remarkable man.

Hawking’s knowledge of Physics is unparalled, but when even he ventures outside his field from Physics to Philosophy, he’s all at sea. Consider this: In his 2010 book, The Grand Design, Hawking lists the traditional Big Questions such as ‘How can we understand the world?’, ‘Where did all this come from?’ and ‘Did the universe need a Creator?’ He then argues that these questions, the traditional concerns of Philosophy, are now to be answered by Science, since: ‘Philosophy is dead.’

Can you see the problem here? His claim that ‘philosophy is dead’ is itself… a statement of philosophy, not a conclusion of science. And so his claim must be false. And there’s more. Hawking’s case is that the laws of physics, not the will of God, give the real explanation of how the universe came to be. ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself.’  But what Hawking is doing here is to confuse law with something else, usually called agency. Newton’s laws of motion may explain the movement of billiard balls on the pool table, but it’s the player with the crack aim who pots the ball, not the laws themselves. In the same way, laws such as gravity cannot by themselves create anything.

So even Stephen Hawking, for all his brilliance within his own field, has not after all been able to remove the need for a Mind behind Matter.

Stephen Frythe actor turned national treasure, has an encyclopaedic knowledge regularly on display on the TV programme QI (Quite Interesting!). He is witty, usually mild-mannered, and while mischievous, is almost always polite.

Except when it comes to God. Earlier this year he let rip against God on an Irish TV show, in a rant that became widely discussed on social media. We can note in passing how odd it is to be as visibly angry as he was at a Being that he says he doesn’t believe in – what’s that all about? His venom arises from things like this: ‘Bone cancer in children’ for example, or ‘a world full of injustice and pain.’

Now of course, he’s not alone in being distressed by such things. Believers are as well. The matter has been discussed for the entire 2,000 years of the Christian era, and well before that – as the extended meditation that is the Book of Job makes clear. And the ‘Question of Evil’ does in fact have some answers.

The real question is why he – as an atheist – is asking the question at all. At least Richard Dawkins acknowledges that in a universe with no design and no purpose, there can be no evil or good either, ‘nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’

So why does Fry – along with most human beings – feel a sense of outrage at the suffering and injustice in the world? In the book Mere Christianity, C S Lewis describes his own conversion from atheism to Christianity. It bears some uncanny similarities with Fry’s outburst:

Lewis says this: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I com­paring this universe with when I called it unjust?’   

We can put this more simply. We’ve all heard the cry of the small child: ‘That’s not fair!’ Where do we get our ideas of fairness from?

So our two brainy Stephens do not in fact make their case. The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’  Otherwise, why do attempts to explain the universe without reference to a Creator end in frustration and blatant contradiction? Why, if there is no purpose, no evil and no good, do we continually look for purpose, rail at evil and long for the good? Could it be because God is not merely a human idea for people who like that sort of thing, but actually… there?

And not just out there somewhere, but down here – become one of us… taking our very flesh, becoming human in the Person of Jesus… not a remote God, but one who himself entered into the very suffering that perplexes most of us… whose suffering was indescribable – and yet who overcame that suffering, even death itself.