I happened to see the controversial “Meaning of Life” programme in which Stephen Fry went on a rant about the nature of God. His rebellion was against the idea that he should be expected to believe that there is an all powerful, all knowing, all good God in a world that is full of suffering and evil. He was in fact addressing (albeit somewhat angrily) what is known in moral philosophy and philosophy of religion as ‘the problem of evil’. Philosophy defines two types of evil, natural evil and moral evil. The former relates to the suffering caused by natural disasters, illness and death, the latter to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ so to speak. The view of the Deity criticised by Fry is known as theism, and is common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It maintains that despite the existence of evil, God is indeed omniscient, omnipotent and beneficent. This concept of God contrasts with, for example, Deism which is the view (believed by Einstein on the basis of his scientific research) that there is a God who created an ordered universe, set it in motion, and then left it to its own devices. The Deistc God takes no personal interest in us as individuals or as a species. Polytheistic religions such as Hinduism don’t have the same problem in explaining evil due to their belief in reincarnation and the fact that their gods, like humans, are a mixture of good and evil. Evil and suffering are caused by humans to one another, and as punishment for bad deeds they may have done in past lives. Spiritual effort will lead to a state of blissful enlightenment known as moksha that enables the enlightened individual to endure suffering, and which will also break the cycle of rebirth back into this world.
The point is that an important function of religion is to make life meaningful for people and help them to cope with the various evils and traumas that inevitably beset every human existence. One of the clearest markers of the very earliest members of our species in the archaeological record is the burial of their dead alongside symbolic artefacts that intimate belief in an afterlife. Religion existed as a phenomenon from the beginning, undoubtedly precipitated by grief at the loss of loved ones and the hope of meeting them again in another realm. Theistic religion attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with belief in a beneficent deity by using the free will argument. This is that God willed the world to be a good and peaceful one, but he also gave us free will, which means we can choose to do evil. As the saying goes, God created a world with enough for every man’s need, but not enough for every man’s greed. Judaea-Christianity describes the primal moral choices made by the earliest humans in metaphorical terms as the ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve.
The ‘problem of evil’ has always been debated and discussed by theologians and philosophers, and has never been more relevant than it is now in our contemporary Western culture where science can explain so many phenomena previously thought to be explicable only in terms of a God or gods. Up until the scientific era religious belief was inextricably linked with superstition, and spirituality with magic. The rationalisation of Western consciousness through science has removed much ignorance and superstition and made belief in a supernatural dimension to existence optional. The problem of evil is therefore more relevant than ever to religious belief and is undoubtedly a major cause of atheism in contemporary Western culture. The reaction to Stephen Fry’s articulation of it is a very convincing argument for me in favour of introducing philosophy as a compulsory subject in secondary school curricula. The fact that an important philosophical topic that is discussed everyday in universities around the world – including Irish Catholic ones – could lead to a possible prosecution for blasphemy in a supposedly civilised European country is surely a wake up call for us here. The introduction of philosophy into our education system might also have the bonus of enabling us to achieve a more informed understanding of Christianity as a religion rather than as an institution, and to remedy the current somewhat unbalanced focus on Church scandals and abuses of power that are a betrayal of Christianity and have caused too many people to confuse the institution with the religion. As things stand, the charge of blasphemy against Stephen Fry risks making a laughing stock of us and will certainly give the comedian material for many years to come.