The Importance of Unbelief
Actor and comedian Stephen Fry details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.
Comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry was born in 1957 in London and brought up in Norfolk. He attended Queen’s College Cambridge from 1979, joining the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club where he met Hugh Laurie, with whom he forged a highly successful writing partnership. His first play, Latin! or Tobacco and Boys, written for Footlights, won a Fringe First at Edinburgh Festival in 1980. He wrote again for theatre in 1984 when he rewrote Noel Gay’s musical Me and My Girl (1990). This was nominated for a Tony Award in 1987.
He has written for television and screen, and as a newspaper columnist – for the Literary Review, Daily Telegraph and The Listener. Stephen Fry's four novels are The Liar (1991), The Hippopotamus (1994), Making History (1996) and The Stars' Tennis Balls (2000). He has also published a collection of work entitled Paperweight (1992); Moab is My Washpot (1997) - an autobiography; and Rescuing the Spectacled Bear: A Peruvian Journey (2002) – his diary of the making of a documentary on the plight of the spectacled bears of Peru.
His book, Stephen Fry's Incomplete History of Classical Music (2004), written with Tim Lihoreau, is based on his award-winning series on Classic FM and is an irreverent romp through the history of classical music. The Ode Less Travelled - a book about poetry - was published in 2005. His latest book is Stephen Fry in America (Harper Collins 2008).
Question: What philosophers influenced you?
Stephen Fry: Philosophy is an odd thing. When we use the word in everyday speech you know you sometimes hear it hilariously. They say, “Oh, it’s never good to be late.” “That’s my philosophy.” You think that’s a generous description of that rather dull precept to call it a philosophy, but it’s odd how philosophers generally speaking, at least the ones I’ve read or the ones I you know value, don’t have in that sense a philosophy.
There is no particular Socratic or Dimechian or Kantian way to live your life. They don’t offer ethical codes and standards by which to live your life. They don’t offer a philosophy to follow. They just simply raise an enormous number of questions mostly, so in the sense that you put the question is there a philosopher that’s important to me. Well I me I loved really the sort of the Bertrand Russell grand sort of tour of philosophy, the history of philosophy from the pre Socratics as they’re called, Zeno and so on through to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle.
I never quite liked Aristotle. I think that’s partly… Although he was obviously a genius and brilliant and he invented logic, so what’s not to like. I think it was his influence on the medieval mind was probably rather pernicious and unfortunate and all those categories and things, but when it opened up with I suppose Spinoza and them, but then Kant and the enlightenment era.
Oh and actually Locke. I did like Locke. He was a fine philosopher, but they don’t… I mean what is so great about them is that they just… They’re quite scary when you think of the word philosopher and especially if it’s logic and symbolic logic and it gets onto Hegelian philosophies, incredibly difficult to read I find and you follow it for about… Well it’s like trying to grab a salmon. You know the harder you clutch at it the more it springs, slips out of your hand and whoa, it’s gone and you chase it again and what was that and you feel very stupid, but the… I think the beauty of questioning and simplicity that you get from Kant in particular I think is just amazing because it’s like they say of simple mathematical laws that make fractals, the tiniest little elegant observation about or question about something just spins out these immensely complex things that make you rethink everything.
So yes, I think philosophy is a really important dimension, but I think in our age we tend to be rather sloppy about it. We either think Buddhism is philosophy, which you know or some sort of eastern thing about being nice and spiritual and that will do, which it’s fine. I mean you know obviously I believe in kindness and niceness and lots of spiritual things, but the real intellectual rigor and quest of logic is something that I’m afraid takes incredibly hard work and we live in an age in which hard work is if not actively deprecated or denigrated it is run away from or ignored. It’s sort of people frown at you and say, “Well, that’s a bit dull and stupid. Why can’t we just short circuit it and talk about like spirit?” Well yeah, you can say spirit, but if you think that’s philosophy and if you think that’s good enough.
The most important philosophy I think is that even if it isn’t true you must absolutely assume there is no afterlife. You cannot for one second I think, abbragate the responsibility of believing that this is it because if you think you’re going to have an eternity in which you can talk to Mozart and Chopin and Schopenhauer on a cloud and learn stuff and you know really get to grips with knowledge and understanding and so you won’t bother now. I think it’s a terrible, a terrible mistake. It may be that there is an afterlife and I’ll look incredibly stupid, but at least I will have had a crammed pre afterlife, a crammed life, so to me the most important thing is you know as Kipling put it, to fill every 60 seconds with you know what is it? To fill every unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. You know absolutely, so that’s all I’m saying I suppose. Is that there is no point wasting time being lazy, though of course indolence in a divine way, actually has its advantages. Oh, shut up Steve. Okay, next one.
Question: What do you believe?
Stephen Fry: It’s interesting. Atheism comes into rather a bad press and I suppose I’d rather describe myself as a humanist, who human… I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe there is a God. If I were to believe in a god l would believe in gods. I think monotheism is the really ghastly thing. That is the absolutely staggering to me misapprehension. I can perfectly see why anybody might imagine that each thing, each thing that grows, each phenomenon that we… that accompanies us on our journey through life, the sky, the mountains, spirits of nature. I can imagine why man would wish to endow them with an inner something, an inner animus that they would call the god of that thing. I can see that. It’s a beautiful and charming way of looking at it and I can understand the Greek idea that there are these you know these principles of lightening or of war or of wisdom and to embody them, to personify them into a Athena or Aries or whichever god you want makes enormous sense, but to say that there is one only god who made it all and who is… Yeah, that is just… What? Why? Who said? Where? Come on.
And I love how when people watch I don’t know, David Attenborough or Discovery Planet type thing you know where you see the absolute phenomenal majesty and complexity and bewildering beauty of nature and you stare at it and then… and somebody next to you goes, “And how can you say there is no God?” “Look at that.” And then five minutes later you’re looking at the lifecycle of a parasitic worm whose job is to bury itself in the eyeball of a little lamb and eat the eyeball from inside while the lamb dies in horrible agony and then you turn to them and say, “Yeah, where is your God now?” You know I mean you got…
You can’t just say there is a God because well, the world I beautiful. You have to account for bone cancer in children. You have to account for the fact that almost all animals in the wild live under stress with not enough to eat and will die violent and bloody deaths. There is not any way that you can just choose the nice bits and say that means there is a God and ignore the true fact of what nature is. The wonder of nature must be taken in its totality and it is a wonderful thing. It is absolutely marvelous and the idea that an atheist or a humanist if you want to put it that way, doesn’t marvel and wonder at reality, at the way things are, is nonsensical.
The point is we wonder all the way. We don’t just stop and say that which I cannot understand I will call God, which is what mankind has done historically. That’s to say God was absolutely everything a thousand or two thousand years ago because we understood almost nothing about the natural world, so it could all be God and then as we understood more God receded and receded and receded, so suddenly now he is barely anywhere. He is just in those things we don’t understand, which are important, but I think it just is such an insult to humanity and the Greeks got it right. The Greeks understood perfectly that if there were divine beings they are capricious, unkind, malicious mostly, temperamental, envious and mostly deeply unpleasant because that you can say well yes, all right, if there is going to be god or gods then you have to admit that they’re very at the very least capricious. They’re certainly not consistent. They’re certainly not all loving. I mean really it’s just not good enough.
You know if we empower ourselves with responsibility over our actions, responsibility over our destinies and responsibility for directing and maintaining and creating our own ethical and moral frameworks, which is the most important thing really isn’t it because perhaps the greatest insult to humanism is this idea that mankind needs a god in order to have a moral framework. There is a very clear way of demonstrating logically how absurd that is because the warrant for that logical framework, for that moral framework that comes from God is always tested against man’s own morals and it’s a complicated argument, but I mean that’s you know it’s the standard one which is pretty unanswerable, but the idea that we don’t know right from wrong, but we have to take it from words put down in a book two, three, four, five, six thousand years ago and dictated to rather hotheaded neurotic desert tribes is just insulting. It’s just no, I mean you know if there were a God he would want us to be better spirited than to take his word for everything. Wouldn’t he?
If he gave us free will would he really want us to say, “No, I have to abide by everything that’s written in this book, all the laws of circumcision and of eating and of… and what to do with menstruating women?” I mean, “I’m going to obey those written down there.” “I won’t think for myself because that’s not required of me.” Come on. It’s just not good enough and you know I have no quarrel with individuals who wish… who are devout and who have faith. I don’t want to mock them. I really don’t, but damned if I’m going to be told by them what to do with my body or damned if I’m going to have the extraordinary battles won by enlightenment over the past 400 years, to have those battles abdicated by a new dark ages. It’s you know. The battle lines must be drawn.
Question: What is religion good for?
Stephen Fry: Music in its time, but I mean that’s a function of history you know. The fact is that composers always write for the power because… or power and money and it so happened that in the period when polyphony all the way through to the classical and early romantic era all the power and the money was with the church, so some great masses and some great choir music and some great oratories were written from obviously the Baroque age being the sort of pinnacle of that, but all the way through to Mozart’s final works and his requiem and Beethoven’s "Missa solemnis" and Mendelssohn and so on. There have been some marvelous religious works and in paintings similarly, but that’s because these were princes. They were princes of the church. They were prince arch bishops who employed Mozart. These were not spiritual beings who inculcated these composers with a sense of the divine that makes the music divine.
The glory of Verde’s Requiem or Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s pieces is that they are fantastic, incredibly human and like all great human’s thing they reach for the infinite. They reach for beauty. A religious person would call that the divine. You could call it the humanist. You could call it anything else, but certainly is that. Religion has been good for that and good for architecture because it is required that enormous… It required enormous buildings for the shepherding of people in, in order to do the services and they spend a lot of money on it and so they are rather glorious buildings. You’ve got to hand them that. Do they make the trains run on time? No, they didn’t do that. That’s about it really. And there are some kind individual people. I mean very kind people who give to the poor and look after the sick and so on, but it’s not necessary and sufficient as a justification for religion because there are plenty of people who are not religious who are also kind to the sick and good to the poor and care about people’s well-being.
Question: Are there religious leaders you admire?
Stephen Fry: Yes, very much so. I mean Trevor Huddleston and Archbishop Tutu from South Africa are two good examples who were both genuine men of their church, or let me see -- Huddleston is dead, but Tutu is still alive -- and who both fought a terrible injustice and used all the authority of their position amongst their believers and but very bravely spoke out and sometimes against the wishes of the church hierarchies. Some liberation theologist who are from, you know, some of them mad Communists, some of them just decent liberals who fought against the hideous doctrines of the Roman Catholic church for example, and there are individual voices who are raised in conscience against the bureaucracy and the dogma and the doctrine of the churches, and you know certainly of course individuals in, you know, Bonheoffer for example in Germany, the Lutheran minister who spoke out against Hitler. There are… Of course there have been good and fine religious people and the Dalai Lama seems rather charming. I don’t know. It’s terrible. I don’t want to come over as some terrible anti-ecclesiastical figure, but.
Recorded December 8, 2009
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