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Stephen Fry offers good advice on depression – by ditching his atheism

It was six years ago yesterday that Stephen Fry wrote a now famous letter to a fan on the subject of depression.  You can read the whole thing here.

In the letter he likens depression to the weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It's real.
You can't change it by wishing it away.
If it's dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can't alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.

BUT

It will be sunny one day.
It isn't under one's control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
One day.

It really is the same with one's moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness - these are as real as the weather - AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE'S CONTROL. Not one's fault.

BUT

They will pass: they really will.

Spoken like a true believer!  Indeed, spoken like the Christian author Tolkien: "it's only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it'll shine out the clearer."

But Fry isn't a Christian and he doesn't believe that "this shadow" is a passing thing at all.  If Fry was consistent he'd say,

'The sun will come out and then go back in, and then explode and consume the earth in a terrifying fireball.  None of this is under your control.  But everything will, most certainly, get worse.

All the best,

Stephen.'

I really like Fry's letter.  I think it was wonderfully thoughtful and very helpful.  Be he has a choice.  He can have his atheism or he can have an answer to depression.  He can't have both.

And for Christians, surely this is the ground on which to engage atheism: pastoral theology!

61 thoughts on “Stephen Fry offers good advice on depression – by ditching his atheism

  1. merlynleroy

    Sorry, you're incredibly stupid. The sun will go nova in about 4-5 billion years. You'd have to add over a trillion "come out and go back in" cycles before the earth gets consumed. But reality isn't your strong suit.

  2. Inconsistenly Awake

    Sun'll kill us with gamma radiation before the fireball gets us :)

    In regards to the throwing away the atheism, would you mind explaining the reasoning? My best guess is that you're going by "he believes that things will get better again" and doesn't have proof that they will. Just probability, give it enough time and you're increasingly lowering the chances it'll stay bad. In regards to the it'll get worse again after. Would you really say that to someone suffering from depression?

  3. Glen

    Hi Inconsistently Awake,
    Fry's using sunshine as an analogy, so I thought I'd follow suit. 'It will be sunny one day' is where Fry leaves his comfort. And that's lovely. But Fry doesn't think real life ends with sunshine.

    As merlynleroy says - the sun will 'come out and go back in' for a trillion cycles. And long before that light is snuffed out, mine will be. Darkness has the last word in the atheist world. All of which sounds pretty depression-inducing to me. And it has sounded very depression-inducing to other atheists too (Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, etc)

    On the other hand, when Sam says to Frodo "it's only a passing thing this shadow" he really means that sunshine has the last word. It's the Christian worldview of Tolkein that grounds Sam's comfort. Fry offers very similar comfort, but it can't be grounded in ultimate reality. Sunshine really does not have the last word for the atheist - the darkness does.

  4. Inconsistenly Awake

    Except that the eventual end isn't darkness so much as nothing (admittedly that encompasses the physical definition of darkness being no light, but we're going for analogies and metaphors here). Nothing isn't good or bad and you could argue that it isn't neutral either.

    And again, Sam's being optimistic to help Frodo feel better. Christianity is mostly optimisitc but optimism certainly isn't soley the domain of Christianity.

  5. Glen

    Optimism is a wonderful thing (and this letter is a great example of why), but it helps if the optimism is grounded in reality. Atheism believes that malign forces of entropy and death etc win the day.

    If nothing else my emotional state (which is what we're talking about here) testifies to these things being not just neutral but actually bad, wrong, outrageous, etc. I feel like they should not be. I feel like if they win then there's no hope. And living without hope is a terrible thing (again just speaking emotionally).

    Wouldn't it be good if you could actually tell a sufferer that the Light wins and the shadows *will* be chased away?

  6. rowanwphillips

    I find it funny how so many religious believers seem to think that belief is some kind of conscious 'choice'. A juror doesn't 'choose' to believe the testimnoy of a witness, their only choice is whether to state a belief in it or not. Belief also has nothing to do with truth in either case, as can be seen by the number of religious people worldwide.

  7. Glen

    Hi rowanwphillips,

    You speak of a juror who states a belief in the testimony of a witness. I think that's a very helpful analogy.

    Then you say 'belief has nothing to do with truth.' But of course the truthfulness of the witness is vital don't you think?

    And, by parallel, figuring out with Jesus is being truthful when He claims to be the Light of the world, that's the key issue for faith wouldn't you say? Maybe you believe Him, maybe you don't, but actually it's *all* down to truth.

  8. Inconsistenly Awake

    Entropy's not malign, it's just inconsiderate. And then death's subjective, all but a few people would argue that killing in self-defence where you had no other option is acceptable. Nothing has any positive or negative significance until you bring in an observer with their own hopes for the outcome, and then they can flip from being positive to negative if you change observer.

    And you consider those to be wrong, that's just a construct of consciousness (couldn't think of something without alliteration). I'd argue that a world where entropy and death are the end isn't hopeless. Just make the most of it all while it lasts. (An interesting point is if it's possible for something without sentience to win, it's just that the observer doesn't.)

    It would be wonderful to be able to truthfully say that things will turn out just fine. But that has no effect on whether they will (outside of what you influence through your own actions, but the wanting itself has no effect).

    Belief doesn't have any effect on the truth and it's only the apparent truth that has affects belief. In this witness thing, the juror will believe that the testimony of the witness is true depending on how apparently truthful their testimony is when other things are taken into account. If they don't want to believe that the witness is telling then the truth then the testimony will appear less truthful to the Juror.

  9. Glen

    Hi Inconsistently Awake,

    The Christian can say that death and decay are wrong. In fact they are 'enemies'. There is a Sentient Observer who says so and says it definitively. This certainly matches my feelings about grief etc (and, again, the whole point is that we're talking about feelings here and how they match with the truth).

    You say: "It would be wonderful to be able to truthfully say that things will turn out just fine. But that has no effect on whether they will."

    That's the heart of it. Can we have truthfulness *and* good comfort together? I think Fry's letter on *his* presuppositions sacrifices truth for comfort. It's clearly much more comforting to say 'the Light wins, the shadows will be chased away.' That's presumably why Fry gives that sort of comfort. But he's not being consistent with his own position. His sort of comfort would be more consistently along the lines of "enjoy the light while you can, who knows if you'll ever have it back, maybe the sun has set on you for the last time, even if you do get it back, it will go again, embrace the darkness."

    20th century atheists were much more consistent on this point.

    On the other hand, I believe there are good grounds for asserting that Light wins and wins forever. That Jesus is who he says he is, that he took the darkness on the cross, rose to the light on Easter Sunday and that he will triumph.

    Certainly, if someone doesn't /want/ to believe this Witness, he will appear less truthful to them. But when you see that this Witness has good news for the world (The Light wins!), it might just persuade you to take His testimony seriously.

    :)

  10. Inconsistenly Awake

    The last one is what I was trying to get at, except backwards. "It might just persuade you" is what it shouldn't. That's quite simply bias. Some people in power wanted to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so when they were told by someone that they were they believed him and didn't check it out. They made a mistake because that's what they wanted to believe. They weren't objective. Or when racism was acceptable there were people deciding that the black man was guilty because they wanted him to be to. And there are people all over the world deciding that there is a god because it makes it them feel better knowing when they die they don't just stop.

    In regards to comfort and truth going together. They can't always be side by side because the world isn't perfect. But the world would be worse by telling the truth in some cases. Do you tell people everything of what you think about them in a constant running commentary or do you ommit when you find them unpleasant to be around?

    The truth is that the world sucks, but the world might be a little bit better if he ommits the part about things getting worse again after they get better.

    And as I said, atheism isn't incompatible with optimism. You don't think that we can see it as anything but a big black void. Even if we can't, why do we have to consider the big black void bad? Stephen Fry really wasn't throwing away atheism, he just might not have been entirely honest (although bipolar has ups and downs, in the ups he might think that things really will stay good).

    The Christian can say that death and decay are wrong. I can say that that's just because they don't like them (or whoever managed to start the religion didn't like them and so decided they were wrong).

  11. Glen

    Fry sings "The sun will come out tomorrow" when he has no warrant to do so. Given his view of the world, he should sing "Que sera, sera". But he knows that's no comfort to people who are really hurting.

    And I think that's significant because,

    1) It's the atheist here who is not following the truth to its logical conclusions (an accusation often levelled at Christians)

    2) If a world-view, when looked at without varnish, can't help with the epidemic that is depression, I think that's a significant drawback.

    3) "Liveability" should not be separated from "truthiness" (to butcher the English language). We might think that logic and the scientific method are the only means of discovering truth. But I submit that a) nobody lives that way (Fry's letter being a case in point), b) nobody should live like that.

    My marriage wouldn't last very long if I relentlessly sought to falsify all my wife's truth claims in the name of the scientific method. There are other ways of knowing. And "liveability", while not settling anything by itself, is a mark of whether an intellectual position 'runs with the grain of the universe' or runs against it.

    If that irks rationalist sensibilities I would simply quote your own thoughts on the matter:

    "the world would be worse by telling the truth in some cases"

    To which we might reply "Says who? On what grounds? When do we get to apply this maxim? And, again, says who?"

    Now let me state categorically that Christians don't believe that the Light triumphs because they would prefer that to be the case. The claim that Christ rose from the dead came from previously disconsolate followers who had witnessed their Messiah butchered in godforsaken agony. Everything in their experience told them that the darkness wins. But something transformed them from ultimate pessimists to ultimate optimists. And this event - the resurrection - has turned the world upside down.

    Christians don't say "Pretend there's a happy ending, it's nicer that way." They say "Look at Jesus. Against all expectation He turned darkness into light. Is He who He says He is? Did He do what He claims to have done?" If so then it doesn't matter what we think about it, (we might be total pessimists like the first disciples were), suddenly the Truth compels us.

  12. Inconsistenly Awake

    Sorry, didn't expect that interpretation. I was expecting a "you have a happier life if you believe in god" argument to be on the way and it's half there. I don't think that Jesus rose again (obviously) but to me it looks like you want to believe he did. I'm not saying you believe he did because you'd prefer it if he did, I just think that it makes it easier to discount the lack of evidence that he did.

    Ok. Why does he have no warrant to do so? Is he rigidly bound to tell hard truths to the people who aren't in a great state to take them?

    As to the numbered points:

    1) He's aware of that, but encouragement for this person is more important that a thorough truth. He's not saying that things won't get worse again, he's just telling them to remember they won't stay that way. He can't say for certain that that's the case, but I reckon the odds are close enough to 100% that he can speak in absolutes.

    2) As rowanwphillips pointed out. You're assuming it's a choice of world-view. If you don't believe there's a god then it's pretty close to impossible to think otherwise without some serious doubts undermining that belief. I struggle to get my head around how you can't see that there isn't evidence, or how you can ignore the lack of evidence. I'd be happier believing that there's an afterlife, it would make things easier to deal. But there's no evidence and there's not much worth in worrying over the matter. Besides, most religions go for a paradoxical afterlife.

    3) Practicality and truthfulness? But they should be separated when we're looking for what is the case. The practicality shouldn't come in to it, you can end up coming to the conclusion you want not the conclusion that's right. And Fry's letter doesn't support that. What that's an example of is that half-truths aren't always morally wrong (there's an interesting point here of you don't consider it a half-truth). Nobody lives with rigorous analysis of everything because you'd never get anywhere, it'd take too long, you apply it where there's a reasonable amount of doubt and where there isn't a reasonable amount of doubt you have already done so sub-consciously. At some point you're going "right, my eyes can see that wall so I can assume the wall is there" or when somebody tells you their name it's unusual for people to lie about that so you assume that they're telling you the truth. But through further investigation there's a small chance of discovering the wall is an optical illusion of some sort or maybe they're called Jeremy not Alex (yes, the wall has a name now).

    If she understood that it wasn't a matter of distrust rather than thoroughness (and she had an impressive amount of patience [see previous paragraph for the time it takes]) then your marriage should last.

    Oo, nice chain of "says who" set up there. Says I (or in this case Fry). The universe does not care whether you tell the whole truth or a helpful part of it. Which brings the decision to whoever's telling it and what they see as being right. Someone sadistic or obsessed with the truth beyond reason would say tell the whole unsoftened truth. I have no right to say which I think is right, but I believe being nice in this case is the right option. Consequences of me telling them the sun will come out mostly sum up to optimism and maybe even averting suicide if they were close (though I'm not sure why they'd listen to me). If I don't then nothing much changes or things get worse (again in my opinion) for them. Opinions gain merit when they're shared, but even then they don't matter because the universe doesn't have the sentience to care.

  13. Andy Dixon

    1. Your Sun analogy is wrong and should be removed if you want to keep any pretence of logical respsectability. Fry is talking about day-to-day life and not final outcome so what he says sits perfectly with the point he is making. When it is a rainy day you can guarantee the Sun will come out, if not tomorrow, eventually. I'll take any bet you want on the truth of that statement - so yes he did most likely genuinely believe the shadow would pass for the person he was addressing. Your analogy is the equivalent of him saying 'but eventually you will die and there is nothing you can do about it' - true, but inappropriate for the letter he was writing don't you think.

    2. You can only so sweepingly assert that Fry's comments are not congruent with atheism if you pre-assume this as a fact - a logical black hole I'm afraid. You have reached the conclusion that he can't mean this and be atheist based on the fact only a Christian can say AND mean it! At NO stage above do you make any independent, logical step that leads to the conclusion you can either have 'atheism or an answer to depression' but not both. Without providing sensible reasoning you cannot state that he cannot mean what he says as an atheist.

    3. The basic question is whether Stephen Fry can honestly hold the views expressed whilst being an atheist? Well I agree with what he says and I am an atheist with experience of dealing with depression. Depression is an illness so if you want to talk in analogies then when I tell my 6 year old son, when he is ill, that he will be better in the next day or so I mean it and am not in the slightest giving up my atheism. I may actually be wrong but I believe it when I say it and it is comforting to him so it is worth not focusing on the other possibilities.

    4. The suggestion that this letter could only honestly have been written by a believer in God is clearly wrong so the 'headline' implying Stephen Fry ditched his atheism is, being generous to you, naively misleading. You may choose to believe that he is wrong to believe in no god but unless you can prove God exists and that atheism is not a viable possibility I'm not sure what your argument is?

    5. In short you cannot state that it is impossible to for an atheist to believe what Stephen Fry writes without demonstrating why this is true, which you have failed to do. Further I am assuming that you are not suggesting Mr. Fry is being knowingly deceitful with his claims to be atheist or in his sentiments to the young woman in question? The implication that it is impossible for an atheist to genuinely believe that things will get better, or that they give up their atheism in doing so is just somewhere between naive and ignorant. The idea that an atheist sees life as a long path where "everything will, most certainly, get worse" and that dark and testing periods are not passing things at all confirms this.

    6. Personally I see religion as providing a placebo that isn't real and therefore something that can logically only do harm to people who need to deal with illnesses such as depression with the best scientific advice of the time. I also see many religious people doing what they do with nothing but the best intentions and genuine belief in what they are doing. And I also see belief helping people to cope too so very often I keep my religious views to myself (probably not as much as I should) - who am I to try and take something that important away from someone? This letter was written by a man trying to help someone, to give them hope; to try and misrepresent his beliefs, suggest he is speaking with ignorance because he doesn't believe what you do or that he is a conscious liar seems a bit cheap and tasteless given the intention of the parties concerned.

    7. One final point would be that Mr. Fry is never once arrogant enough to suggest he has any 'answer' to despression - a fact which you appear to have been overlooked? He is clearly, through personal experience, trying to pass on some advice and comfort to a troubled young woman. I assume the depression rate amongst believers is 0% if faith claims the right to have "an answer to depression" that us atheists are not allowed to join in with? You are entitled to hold the view that said letter is incompatible with a world with no gods but as it stands, from the attention seeking headline down to the 'conclusion', this article is simply your view, based on your faith, with no logical framework upon which to state itself with the 'factual authority' that it does.

  14. Glen

    Thanks for the interaction Inconsistently Awake - enjoying it :)

    I read you as assuming that atheism is the obvious position and the burden of proof is on the Christian. Yet believer and unbeliever certainly live as though death and decay are not just unpleasant but wrong, that, when we say 'the world sucks', we tend to think it 'ought not to be like this', that living with hope is better than living without it, that the feelings of a fragile sufferer are more important than bald statements of truth, etc, etc. All of these assumptions fit very well if we believe that personal reality is ultimate, that struggle and death are part of a moral evil and that there is an ultimate 'happily ever after' to hope in. On the other hand, I'd say they fit poorly with the belief that ultimate reality is impersonal, that there is, at bottom, no evil or good, only blind, pitiless indifference and that, eventually life, hope, love, joy and all things we hold dear will be extinguished.

    I don't agree that atheism is the default position at all and I contend that neither of us live as thought it is.

    On the resurrection, everyone's got to take some position on the evidence. In AD30, disconsolate disciples are turned into fearless proclaimers of the risen Jesus right in the vicinity of the tomb they claimed was empty. Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann suggests mass hallucinations, how do you account for the facts?

    Would it be fair to say that there are a couple of different approaches to suffering: i.e. you could say "The sun will come out tomorrow" or you could say "Get used to the darkness." I suppose I could boil down my beef to this: Fry wants to say the former (we all do). But ultimately, to be consistent, he needs to say the latter. The older atheists went for the latter and I respect them for their consistency there.

    Of course I realise that atheists know that the sun still (occasionally) shines. And that it's quite nice when it does. But if anyone is asking the big questions about life and reality, the observation that better days /might/ come, doesn't cut it. Better days might come. But so might worse ones. In fact the one thing that's certain when looking to the future is that the atheist-future is bleak. At that point the comforter is merely relying on their optimism being 'nice' - whether or not it's justified. The sufferer has nothing solid to cling onto at that point.

  15. Glen

    Welcome to the blog Andy,

    1. A person's mood may be sunny again. It may not be. What's interesting is the shape of the hope that all of us want to give. We all want to say that things will get better. Properly better - not a blip upwards becofre inexorable decline. Atheism can't tell anyone that.

    2. I was wrong to say his atheism precludes an 'answer to depression.' What it ought to do, though, is define that answer as 'embrace the darkness.' That was the consistent answer given by 20th century atheists. When new atheists try on the 'look forward to the light' answer, it's inconsistent.

    3. Yes, it's about consistency. And I'm saying there's good news: What Fry wants to say to a sufferer and what you want to say to your boy can /also/ be grounded in ultimate reality. Unless you believe that ultimate reality is ultimately hopeful you can't ground it in that way.

    4. No, I don't need to prove anything of the kind. I just need to show that a robust optimism in the face of suffering is not consistent with atheism.

    5. We're all inconsistent all the time. I live like an atheist (e.g. when I'm prayerless), you live like a believer (e.g. when you live as though personal reality is ultimate). I'm not implying 'deceitfulness' in anyone. I'm certainly not claiming that Fry is a 'conscious liar.' My claims are about consistency.

    6. I thought I was being very complimentary about Fry's letter. I really like it. So it's ironic that you proclaim the harm of placebos that aren't real when that's precisely my beef with the letter!

    7. Once again I think Fry's "answer" (which was my, admittedly crude, way of putting it) was actually very good. I applaud him for it. I just pray that his beliefs about the world will catch up to his intuitions about people, suffering, compassion, hope, etc.

    And the issue is not whether atheists or believers /have/ more depression or less. It's about the legitimate comfort that can be offered in a world in which all of us suffer and all of us care.

  16. Inconsistenly Awake

    I consider Atheism the default stance but unfortunately religion is a bit too widespread to be anything but the common stance. People won't really want to listen when you point out that raising a child into a religion amounts to indoctrination if it's anything other than a religion.

    It's maybe not as cheery a view of what's to come, but you can't deny that it's as realistic as it gets. And if it turns out there is an afterlife then hey, that's great (unless you wanted an end to thinking and an afterlife denies you that). It's nothing to worry about either considering you won't realise what you've lost if it's oblivion, it's just the fear of death that's ruining your day. You can't change the fact that you're going to die some day (well, I suppose if you're one hell of a geneticist and you're not going to die within the next few decades you could) so there's not a huge amount of point worrying about the afterwards.

    Also, my views on most paradise afterlives. They're logically inconsistent. An easy start is people. Man and woman are madly in love with each other. Man dies. 20 years later woman dies too but since then she's fallen in love with someone else. Either the man lives (after-lives?) 20 years without the love of his life and then when she joins him she doesn't have the same feelings, or he lives with a facsimile for eternity, which isn't my idea of paradise as I'd want the real deal.

    On the resurrection. Jesus and the Disciples were either all delusional, all some of the most convincing liars in history, or a mixture of the two (and obviously incredibly charismatic either way). It's possible that Jesus was the only delusional one, convinced the disciples, and then the disciples found out he was nothing special and figured they better keep things going before they get torn apart if they expose Jesus for a fraud. Plenty of variants on that. I don't know enough about hallucinations to know how likely a group one is.

    On the telling the sufferer that things will be alright and that Atheism doesn't have a very definite base to stand on. It's not the person saying "things'll get better" that it matters for, it's the person who's being told it.

  17. Glen

    hi Inconsistently Awake,
    I can certainly deny that atheism is the most 'realistic' vision of life. I don't believe in Jesus in spite of the fact it's 'less realistic' than belief in time, matter and chance. I believe in Jesus because I think he is more real than time, matter and chance. And because of this, it makes sense of everything else I believe to be most 'real' - love, sacrifice, redemption, hope (all the things we been discussing here)

    All of which goes to show that none of us are neutral as we seek to know what's real. We first need to have a concept of reality before we know how to test it. It might seem obvious to you that physics, chemistry and biology are most real. It seems most obvious to me that love, beauty and goodness are. Starting from those different assumptions will lead to very different enquiries after truth. I don't deny the value of studying physics etc. But you won't get to love, beauty and goodness via that route.

    Jesus as deceived or deceiving is a bold option. Pick up a Gospel and see if his integrity and self-possession doesn't shine through on every page. I think *he's* what's most real - a sufferer in our sufferings and hope for the future.

  18. Larry

    Sorry, but this is bigotry at best. Your logical argument (religious people don't have depression and atheists do) is invalid in every way and that should be glaringly obvious. If it isn't, maybe the lack of your depression but the acceptance of your faith has caused a gain in your ignorance.

  19. Larry

    "We first need to have a concept of reality before we know how to test it. It might seem obvious to you that physics, chemistry and biology are most real. It seems most obvious to me that love, beauty and goodness are. Starting from those different assumptions will lead to very different enquiries after truth. I don’t deny the value of studying physics etc. But you won’t get to love, beauty and goodness via that route."

    Love, beauty and goodness are secular values and evolutionary developments. Because they are emphasized in religion doesn't mean religion is any more true than it would be if they didn't.

    FYI science = a way of discovering what's here and how it works in a truthful way. Nothing to do with goodness, which can be taught by the rest of society.

  20. Larry

    "I can certainly deny that atheism is the most ‘realistic’ vision of life. I don’t believe in Jesus in spite of the fact it’s ‘less realistic’ than belief in time, matter and chance."

    You can certainly deny what you want, but it certainly doesn't change objective truth. The criteria you're using for your belief is faith and anecdotes, whereas the criterion I'm using for mine is evidence (scientific or historical).

    I'm using that criterion because it is the most effective, as has been proven time and time again in all fields.

    As there's no evidence for God, I find it to be the most realistic approach to reality to assume he doesn't exist, and I think that's objectively true.

  21. Andy Dixon

    1. My point here was only that your analogy is not correct. It’s like me telling my son he’ll get over his cold but why bother because he’ll die one day anyway – that is not how atheist's live and is just not the point of what Stephen Fry was saying at all.

    Atheism does not equate to ‘inexorable decline’ – that’s just ridiculous.

    2. To say atheism can only tell sufferers of depression to ‘embrace the darkness’ is plain silly. I have a similar view to what I would assume Christians would essentially say in that you need to find the positives in life and a reason to live, something to live for – just without the supernatural aspect to it. There is only this strange ‘darkness’ you talk about if you are ASSUMING Christianity provides a light to compare it to – you are stuck in the same logical loop as before.

    Atheism is not solely defined by a couple of historical thinkers and I don’t know any who think that way, things progress – why are you not Jewish or worshipping Zeus? You need to understand that many people can find a perfectly happy life and understanding of things without the need for a god.

    3. Consistency again – how hard will I have to look to find an inconsistency between the old and new testaments? I honestly don’t know the answer to that but I suspect it wouldn’t take me long! Of course an atheist can have hope – Stephen Fry was just giving someone a positive message, he wasn’t writing a promise in blood; it goes without saying that atheist or Christian you can’t guarantee what will happen - or can you find a Christian prepared to promise a cancer sufferer that they will beat their illness? All you are doing is adding on ‘hope’ of an afterlife – it might make people feel a little better but it doesn’t make it factually true. If that works for you, and others, then good for you but it does not give any support to the theory it might be true.

    4. You need to drop this consistency thing – ‘religion’ is way more inconsistent than atheism. Do you still blame Jews for the murder of Christ or has that changed now? How much of the old testament do you take literally – “And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people”.

    My actual point was that you haven’t PROVED IN ANY WAY that robust optimism and hope are not consistent with atheism – they might not always make perfect sense but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t have them and also realism. I'm not overly sure what religion adds other than the mysterious afterlife. I always think the idea of telling someone with severe depression that God loves them is in danger of taking the p*** somewhate as in many cases he will have been noticeably absent at an earlier stage of their life.

    Further to this I’m not sure where the Stephen Fry letter displays unrealistic optimism or hope? He is stating his experience and what he feels will help - this is no different to a religious person saying what they believe is the right thing to say, it just comes from a different source. If you suggest that being positive with no firm evidence for belief qualifies then you are getting on to shaky ground without a whole essay on your evidence for God!

    5. I’m not sure in what way you would claim I live like a believer? I have beliefs based on the best information available to me but that is a very different thing from being a religious believer.

    Ah, consistency is back – do you literally believe in the Noah’s Ark story where God killed thousands of innocents? According to the New Testament Jesus did so I hope you are going to be consistent?

    6. I specifically state that placebos are not a bad thing if they have a positive effect and don’t impede other or replace more beneficial treatments. For this reason I can accept, even as an atheist, that religion has a place for some people. This letter offers hope, experience and good wishes, it is something tangible to this person, it doesn’t instruct her how to live her life in any way – it is just a kind act without any need to invoke the supernatural. I can’t see that it offers any promises which require faith so I’m not sure why you are struggling to accept that religion is irrelevant here. Perhaps you can explain to me where a God is necessary for anything that Stephen Fry writes, thus making his position as an atheist untenable? The nearest I can find is the statement that things will get better - but when you are at the very bottom I would say that is as near to a fact as to be one and would contend that this is clearly how he meant it.

    7. And I am sure he hopes your beliefs about the world will catch up with your obvious intelligence and eloquence.

    Actually a quick look seems to suggest adult believers have a lower rate of depression – correlation not always causation of course but I’ve learnt something new that may make me look more kindly on religion!

    The thing for me, and I would feel fairly confident Stephen Fry too, is that whilst religion can give some comforting answers it makes not one jot of difference to whether it is true or not. I personally can find no convincing evidence, or faith, to make me believe in God – this does not mean my life is one where “everything will, most certainly, get worse” and that I should just sit in a small room, “embrace the darkness” and rock backwards and forwards without Jesus in my life. Quite the opposite – God probably doesn’t exist so just relax and enjoy life. I find the view that atheists are like Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh quite extremely patronising - I certainly don't think believers live completely dismal lives because the Bible rules out pretty much everything apart from worshipping how great God is at one time or another!

    I like it when people wish me well, say positive things, and even pray! I have no problem reconciling the reasons for that and why it is beneficial with my atheism. What makes this conversation difficult is that you assume your beliefs are legitimate but his/mine are wrong! Your whole article is based on a dismissal of atheism because you believe something else - the equivalent is me saying something such as 'religious good wishes are not genuine because they are coerced by external instruction and do not come from the individual'. This only stands up to any real scrutiny if there is no God - and even then I think it would be lazy to dismiss the good intentions of others and their beliefs.

    I say, whatever gets you through the days and does no harm to anybody else is a good thing. This letter was a kind act that does not conflict with his beliefs (it sits unhappily with yours, NOT with his) and I’m not sure what you see in there that requires existence of a God. Perhaps it was better the reply came from the compassionate Mr. Fry rather than Jesus:

    “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

  22. Andy Dixon

    Larry

    “You can certainly deny what you want, but it certainly doesn’t change objective truth. The criteria you’re using for your belief is faith and anecdotes”

    Thank Darwin somebody gets it!

  23. Glen

    Hi Larry,

    Where do you get the idea I'm claiming anything remotely like "religious people don’t have depression and atheists do."?

    What do you mean by saying that love, beauty and goodness are "secular values"? The point is not whether society accepts them, the point is about how you establish those values. And you don't and can't do it via the scientific method.

  24. Andy Dixon

    Evolutionary theory puts forward many suggestions for why we have and feel love, beauty and goodness. You may choose not to believe them but until you can prove they come from somewhere else you have to respect all opinions as possible truths.

    Your whole article is based on the idea that atheism and the letter Stephen Fry wrote are incompatible. This is based solely on the belief that God exists and there is NO other evidence in what you have presented. You are entitled to that view but it is purely your faith and not grounded in any fact above. Your article stands ONLY if God is real and should carry that axiom in the text.

    Millions live happily with no God in their lives, and millions more believing in a God different to yours - you are in the minority with your personal beliefs! If it was proven tomorrow that there is no God then the world would not fall apart; love, hope, compassion and goodness would not cease to exist. They exist perfectly well for many atheists without God right now. I'm not asking you to change your faith but to at least gain a more rounded understanding, than you appear to currently have, of a belief system before commenting so strongly on it.

  25. Glen

    Hi Andy,

    I do indeed think that atheism is a bleak world view. (Of course I say that from the perspective of a 'Light' that you do not believe in - but that's the nature of atheist/Christian debates and it cuts both ways). I think that if atheism is taken seriously it makes depression worse. When Dawkins says that, at the root of all things, there is only "blind, pitiless indifference" he is striking a blow against everything precious to our emotional well-being. We want someone to see, to have compassion, to care. What's more, we want there to be a bright hope for the future. Of course an atheist can believe in some care, some comfort, some hope. But not ultimate and lasting care, comfort and hope.

    I would have thought that this point was obvious. And I would have thought that the perfectly respectable atheist response would be to say "You're right, we can't dish out false hopes because we don't believe in a happily ever after. We agree that whatever care, comfort and hope someone may enjoy is not ultimate or lasting. Therefore our counsel is to enjoy whatever light may or may not come, make the best of the darkness and await the inevitable." I have no problem with that position because I think it's the consistent atheist position.

    But I think I have the right to point out that a) emotionally speaking, what the sufferer craves is a lasting and ultimate hope, b) atheists will commonly speak in such language in order to comfort (all credit to them!) but, c) the shape of that hopeful comfort is not ultimately justified by their beliefs.

    Point C is what this post is about. And you'll notice that it's not a point about the truthfulness or otherwise of atheism (we can discuss that in another post if you like). It's not a point that requires either of us to establish the grounds of our theological convictions (Again, I can do so if you like). It's also got nothing to do with whether atheists can live fulfilled lives or be brilliant comforters. Of course they can. That's not the point.

    The point is, What kind of hope can we truthfully offer the suffering? And as this conversation has developed I'm more and more convinced that actually atheists might tell you "The Sun will come out tomorrow", but when you push them, they can only offer "The Sun will come out and then go back in and you'll enter the darkness forever. Get used to it."

    Once again, that's a perfectly consistent and reasonable thing for an atheist to say. I'm just pointing it out. I don't think I've done so ignorantly, arrogantly, disrespectfully or any of the other adjectives you've used. I've seen your Twitter feed - I know that you're able to dish out robust criticisms to believers. Well and good. Allow me to point some things out from the other direction.

  26. Larry

    "What do you mean by saying that love, beauty and goodness are “secular values”? The point is not whether society accepts them, the point is about how you establish those values. And you don’t and can’t do it via the scientific method."

    Aesop's fables can establish nice values, but you don't have to believe they're real. I would therefore encourage them as a better means of establishing moral values than the Bible (which condemns homosexuality, slavery etc, so it obviously isn't a great moral guidebook).

    "I do indeed think that atheism is a bleak world view. (Of course I say that from the perspective of a ‘Light’ that you do not believe in – but that’s the nature of atheist/Christian debates and it cuts both ways)."

    Well I was a Christian for many years and I'm happier, or just as happy, now I'm not. I'm assuming you've never been an atheist, so what gives you the judgement to say that? Don't tell me - guesswork. Well, in my personal experience, you're wrong in that assumption.

    "I think that if atheism is taken seriously it makes depression worse. When Dawkins says that, at the root of all things, there is only “blind, pitiless indifference” he is striking a blow against everything precious to our emotional well-being. We want someone to see, to have compassion, to care. What’s more, we want there to be a bright hope for the future. Of course an atheist can believe in some care, some comfort, some hope. But not ultimate and lasting care, comfort and hope."

    Why do we need to "believe" in care, comfort, hope? We ALL have those emotions that we can tap into. There's no belief required. You make absolutely no sense when you say "atheists can believe in love too". Of course we believe in love, because it exists like every other neurophysiological state. Of course I care about peace, kindness, sincerity. Of course I try to be a nice person. I find it offensive you assume that your dogma sets you above me in terms of moral highground.

    Atheism doesn't make depression worse, maybe pessimism does. Did you know they're not the same thing? It wouldn't surprise me if you didn't. Ironically I had the same misshapen belief about atheism when I was religious; it's a byproduct of conditioned misconceptions the Church relies upon.

    "I would have thought that this point was obvious. And I would have thought that the perfectly respectable atheist response would be to say “You’re right, we can’t dish out false hopes because we don’t believe in a happily ever after. We agree that whatever care, comfort and hope someone may enjoy is not ultimate or lasting. Therefore our counsel is to enjoy whatever light may or may not come, make the best of the darkness and await the inevitable.” I have no problem with that position because I think it’s the consistent atheist position."

    Some people may say that, but what an unnecessarily pessimistic approach. Personally I am extremely optimistic and I do not need false hope to enjoy the love and kindness I have on earth. I absolutely love life and feel extremely optimistic and joyful each day.

    Again, you're confusing pessimism with atheism in an all-too-melodramatic way.

    The thought that atheism in some way equates to cynicism or pessimism is ridiculous and I actually find it somewhat offensive that you have misconstrued things in this manner.

    Don't you agree?

  27. Glen

    Larry - I'm very glad that you're "extremely optimistic" and "enjoy life" and that you can "tap into" those feelings all the time. But to say that we're "ALL" like that is the polar opposite of Stephen Fry's point. I'm with Stephen on this. We're not ALL able to tap into sunny feelings. We're talking about how to comfort someone who is deeply, deeply pessimistic.

    And while optimism/pessimism are not the same thing as your worldview they are deeply connected.

    If you believed that an asteroid was about to crash into planet earth that's not the same thing as pessimism but it is liable to take a shade or two off your sunny disposition.

    Certain worldviews are more helpful to your mood than others wouldn't you say?

  28. Larry

    “What do you mean by saying that love, beauty and goodness are “secular values”?"

    I mean that they would exist in the absence of religion, which they do.

    "The point is not whether society accepts them, the point is about how you establish those values."

    Well, you can establish those values in all kinds of ways. You can learn lessons, you can be conditioned by society to be nice (which we are), you can simply feel good about being kind, and so on. In fact, being kind to other people is one of the biggest kicks we can have, and such a rewarding feeling, that I don't understand why anybody would choose to do the contrary.

    It is a fallacy that only religion can establish nice values, and it's such a glaringly obvious error simply because all atheists also have those values. Do you not agree?

    "And you don’t and can’t do it via the scientific method.”

    Exactly. The scientific method is used to find out if things exist, what exists, and how they exist. It is irrelevant if we're talking about establishing love, beauty and goodness.

    Belief in mythology is not a good way to establish those values however.

  29. Larry

    "Larry – I’m very glad that you’re “extremely optimistic” and “enjoy life” and that you can “tap into” those feelings all the time. But to say that we’re “ALL” like that is the polar opposite of Stephen Fry’s point. I’m with Stephen on this. We’re not ALL able to tap into sunny feelings. We’re talking about how to comfort someone who is deeply, deeply pessimistic."

    I meant to say that we all have the ability to be happy, optimistic etc, and that the ability to do so doesn't stem from religion. Does that make sense?

    "And while optimism/pessimism are not the same thing as your worldview they are deeply connected."

    No, I completely disagree. I've met religious people who are totally unhappy, and atheists who are totally happy, and there's simply no correlation in my own experience. There's not even a trend between pessimistic thinking and atheism. It's just non-existent in the same way there isn't a trend between pessimistic thinking and religion. It's a non-factor.

    "If you believed that an asteroid was about to crash into planet earth that’s not the same thing as pessimism but it is liable to take a shade or two off your sunny disposition."

    Of course, but this is an irrelevant analogy. Death is simply non-existence and happens to everyone, whereas your analogy contains in-built fear, confusion and extreme, unheard of measures which would lead all to question how they could be so unlucky.

    "Certain worldviews are more helpful to your mood than others wouldn’t you say?"

    Absolutely. It's lovely that some people turn their lives around when they become religious. However, belief in religion is not necessary to give somebody purpose in life or to alleviate their mood, and in my opinion resorting to mythology is not a good way to be happy because it sacrifices other parts of life such as reason, time, money etc.

    I would argue it's a double edged sword again; frustration and confusion can occur when people pray and do not get what they want, religion promotes lack of self-esteem, etc (I will elaborate on how it does that if you wish since you will likely object to that statement in the same way I would have when I was a Christian).

    Far better I think to establish positive goals, morals and a meaning in life. I fear far too often that religion simply promotes a meaning in death...and that negates the point of my life.

  30. Andy Dixon

    I understand your position that atheism can only give actual truth and make no promises based on unfounded beliefs and would agree thoroughly. If you find this bleak that is your issue and I'm glad your faith saves you from feeling this way - I do not find the indifference of the universe at all 'bleak', quite the opposite. This comes back to the point that you only draw your conclusions based on your own beliefs - not those of atheists. The exact reverse position is that I find talking to an imaginary friend much more bleak.

    Can you point out the bit where you believe that Stephen Fry gives comfort that is unreasonable with a purely logical outlook as you have failed to make this clear? This is what I'm missing - I can't see anything he has written that you have justified as incompatible with atheism.

  31. Glen

    Larry,

    Optimism means hopefulness about the future. Check any definition of the word you like. Therefore one's belief about where we're headed and what that means is foundational to whether we're an optimist or pessimist.

    You concede that the scientific method does not establish values of love, beauty, goodness etc. At this point you seem to have to arguments:

    1) Such values don't need establishing because everyone has them (nonsense, goodness, beauty, love are always being redefined and with, sometimes, terrifying consequences for a society).
    2) One can establish them by learning lessons (which only begs the question of learn how and from what?), being conditioned by society (which puts such values into the hands of the strong) and feeling good about being kind (which boils down all self-sacrificial love to self-interested self-service).

    If you mean to say that self-sacrificial love is, ultimately, an evolutionary misfiring (as Dawkins does) then you've redefined love and you've conceded that a more progressive society will be less compassionate.

    How exactly will you ground self-sacrificial love when the evolutionary imperative demands the death of the weak?

    In the end you respond to my asteroid hypothetical with "death is just non-existence." And, fine, that the consistent "embrace the darkness" answer. But there are other answers. And they are grounded in the Person of Jesus - love showed up and suffered and died and rose and can be known. Not via the natural sciences - but you've already conceded that we can establish things without the natural sciences. Through His cross and resurrection, He grounds the reality of self-sacrificial love and a hopeful future. Without Him it's power and chaos that ultimately rule. With Him, love and hope wins.

  32. Glen

    Andy,

    I'd say the most emotionally powerful part of the letter is this:

    "It will be sunny one day.
    It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
    One day."

    The shape of the hope he's giving (with the absolute certainty "it will") is one of darkness then light. That's an amazing confidence, especially given he doesn't know her. There are a couple of people in my life about whom I don't have anything like such confidence that they'll be sunny again in this life. But Fry has a confidence that the sun "will" come out.

    Now I'm sure that when pressed, he'd have to back-track from that confidence. Ultimately his advice would have to be tempered to painting a different picture: "darkness then light then darkness again (so enjoy what you can, while you can)". And at that point it'd be the consistent atheist position. But it's not at all the same as the darkness-to-light pattern and it doesn't have anywhere near the power that something like Tolkein's comfort has.

    Fry hits upon a Tolkein moment. But he can't sustain it. His world-view won't allow it.

  33. Larry

    "Optimism means hopefulness about the future. Check any definition of the word you like."

    Yes, but it's also about focusing on positives. Again, you seem to assume 'atheism' equates to moping about in a dark room rocking backwards and forwards waiting for death. You're wrong.

    "You concede that the scientific method does not establish values of love, beauty, goodness etc."

    Yes, because that's not the point of it at all, except possibly psychology or neuroscience or something similar that actually studies fields of emotions.

    "At this point you seem to have to arguments:

    1) Such values don’t need establishing because everyone has them (nonsense, goodness, beauty, love are always being redefined and with, sometimes, terrifying consequences for a society)."

    Society already conditions us to love each other and be kind. It's conditioned into us by our surroundings just like language is. Everybody strives to have goodness, love, kindness etc, apart from a select few, and they're mainly sociopaths.

    Either way, how does that have anything to do with religion? Yes, religion teaches morals. Again, so does Aesop's fables.

    "2) One can establish them by learning lessons (which only begs the question of learn how and from what?)"

    Well no, it doesn't really. If I do something and somebody responds with annoyance, I've learnt my lesson as soon as I think about that. It's called introspection and every human on the planet does it.

    ", being conditioned by society (which puts such values into the hands of the strong)"

    ...what? We're ALL conditioned by society every day, all the time. It's constant. They teach us very, very clearly that goodness, love etc are extremely important. It is drilled into us neverendingly. What are you on about, "hands of the strong"?

    "and feeling good about being kind (which boils down all self-sacrificial love to self-interested self-service)."

    My self-interest is making sure other people are happy as well as myself. It's an empathy that is borne out of the conditioning we are all given as children. We're all taught to "think about how other people are feeling". You not knowing this worries me.

    I would argue atheism is a moral highground. If you're only doing things because some book tells you to, and you feel that without that book you'd be immoral, then I have serious concerns. Your own moral compass is completely skewed if you don't have some kind of inner knowledge of right and wrong.

    "If you mean to say that self-sacrificial love is, ultimately, an evolutionary misfiring (as Dawkins does) then you’ve redefined love and you’ve conceded that a more progressive society will be less compassionate."

    Self-sacrificial love is a conscious, forced behaviour which has to override one's instincts. I can do it, everyone can do it, but we have to choose to do it. After doing it for a while it may become instinctual. What does that have to do with religion in any way, shape or form? Just because religion tells you to do it means what exactly?

    "How exactly will you ground self-sacrificial love when the evolutionary imperative demands the death of the weak?"

    No idea what that question even means. What does evolution have to do with this at all, apart from the fact our instincts and biology (and thus emotions) are formed through that process? Natural selection pretty much no longer occurs in this society anyway due to us keeping everybody we can alive. Evolution also occurs over millions of years. This makes no sense.

    "In the end you respond to my asteroid hypothetical with “death is just non-existence.” And, fine, that the consistent “embrace the darkness” answer."

    I tell you what, *you* sound extremely pessimistic. You keep focusing on death, over and over again. It's rather worrying actually - why are you so scared of it / assumed everybody else is? You even implied that you'd be immoral without religion...are you okay??

    "But there are other answers. And they are grounded in the Person of Jesus – love showed up and suffered and died and rose and can be known. Not via the natural sciences – but you’ve already conceded that we can establish things without the natural sciences. Through His cross and resurrection, He grounds the reality of self-sacrificial love and a hopeful future. Without Him it’s power and chaos that ultimately rule. With Him, love and hope wins."

    Yeah, the resurrection that never happened.

  34. Larry

    Also, does the author of this article know the difference between "depression" and "manic depression", or are they deliberately making illogical conclusions about what he says?

  35. Larry

    "Genetic factors contribute substantially to the likelihood of developing manic depression (bipolar disorder), and environmental factors are also implicated. Bipolar disorder is often treated with mood stabilizing medications and, sometimes, other psychiatric drugs"

    That's what Wikipedia says. I don't see "religion also plays a huge part in it because Glen said it does" anywhere.

  36. Glen

    So death really isn't so bad, we can ALL tap into happy emotions and "everyone" strives toward love and goodness? Larry, I won't be writing to you with any of my personal problems ;-)

    And i'm not arguing that I need a book to tell me to be moral. I'm saying there needs to a personal reality deeper than biology if I'm going to buck my biological instincts and value persons more highly.

    I have no idea why you're raising the issue of Fry's own condition which is never mentioned anywhere on this page.

    On what grounds do you say the resurrection never happened?

  37. Larry

    “and feeling good about being kind (which boils down all self-sacrificial love to self-interested self-service).”

    Rather than your self-sacrificial love, which comes from wanting to please a deity to get to heaven? If I wanted to be as depressing, melodramatic and crass about everything as you are, I would also argue that's "self-interested self-service". Luckily, I don't wish to be like that - I actually see great value in the good in the world, and think people who proclaim moral superiority like you are half of what's wrong with the world to begin with.

  38. Glen

    Larry, we can either have a conversation in which you respond to what I actually say, or you can rant about what you think stupid Christians might believe. If it's the latter then I would ask you to go and rant on your own blog.

    You're right that loving others in order to get heavenly reward would be self-interested. But I never even hinted at such an awful idea. For the Christian, self-sacrificial love *is* ultimate reality because Jesus defines reality. To be self-sacrificial is to be in touch with *real life*. Whereas, if life is driven along by selfish genes then self-sacrifice is going against the grain of ultimate reality.

  39. Larry

    "So death really isn’t so bad, we can ALL tap into happy emotions and “everyone” strives toward love and goodness?"

    I thought the three were actually blindingly obvious. I have a strong interest in psychology and the knowledge that we can shape our experience internally to elicit different emotional states seems bizarrely alien to you.

    "And i’m not arguing that I need a book to tell me to be moral. I’m saying there needs to a personal reality deeper than biology if I’m going to buck my biological instincts and value persons more highly."

    So if God were disproven tonight, you'd go out and kill everybody, be ruder, etc? That's pathetic and disgusting.

    "I have no idea why you’re raising the issue of Fry’s own condition which is never mentioned anywhere on this page."

    His weather analogy has been mentioned many times and it is borne out of his views about manic depression, as his documentary about manic depression shows.

    His views that you can 'do nothing about it' are not correct anyway, as my knowledge of depression would indicate. I am reminded of Dr. Robert Holden's experiment which got a bunch of depressed people to smile, laugh and think positively in different situations. A month later, every single one of them said that they felt happier, and MRI scans showed significant changes which indicated newfound optimism.

    "On what grounds do you say the resurrection never happened?"

    On historical evidence grounds, which is the only grounds I work on. Sadly faith, stories and anecdotes don't cut it for me.

  40. Andy Dixon

    Fry simply gives his view and comfort in response to the letter. I am 99.99% certain that if you ask him to consider it he would not remotely change his atheist position and he is an extremely intelligent and reasoned man.

    A full response would be to say there are no guarantees but that was not called for and inappropriate here. Without your preconceptions it is implicit in what he says. The whole point of the letter is that it helped and served a purpose, without needing to invoke a God. A Christian can not technically give the same answer without the promise of the afterlife either - just because this is more comforting to you does not make it true as has been stated many times now in this thread.

    He makes the analogy that eventually the sun will come out - it will and it did appear to in this lady's case. On a technical level you could argue your case but to give a full answer in the framework of his full religious beliefs would have been childish, unhelpful and was clearly not needed. Atheism does not dominate atheists lives in the same way religion does a believers - it is not that big a deal. He simply offered experience and support.

    This letter does not call into question his belief system at all so to say he has ditched his atheism is frankly wrong. Perhaps if you changed the title of the piece it may stand up to scrutiny a little better as its basic premise is incorrect with the assumption that he is wrong to believe what he does. Again - your opinion, not necessarily the truth and certainly not the opinion of anybody involved in this communication.

  41. Larry

    "For the Christian, self-sacrificial love *is* ultimate reality because Jesus defines reality. To be self-sacrificial is to be in touch with *real life*. Whereas, if life is driven along by selfish genes then self-sacrifice is going against the grain of ultimate reality."

    I didn't say it was self-interested, because I don't believe it is. I said if I were as bleak and pessimistic as you appear to be, then I would.

    As it is, I do not believe I have such a moral highground that I can go around telling people what they doing is self-interested to begin with. To even think of condemning any positive act of kindness and dismissing it as pointless is repulsive to me.

  42. Larry

    "The whole point of the letter is that it helped and served a purpose, without needing to invoke a God."

    Thank you very, very much. That is what sprung to mind as soon as I saw this article, which I believe Fry would find condescending; his views of atheism are very well-grounded as I have observed from watching him in debates and discussion.

  43. James

    Thanks Glen - great blog post.

    I'm also enjoying the sight of various carbon based life forms who, it seems, passionately believe their collection of atoms are merely the result of passionless rules interacting with matter over time, with reality past, present and future determined by immovable laws of nature passionately arguing and engaging with others seemingly oblivious to the fact that if what they believe is true, then what they are doing is pointless (though already determined).

    Though it's great to see you treating them as people made in the image of the Triune God.

  44. Larry

    This religious brainwashing which leads people to view atheists as existing on an inhuman or inferior plain is really quite ridiculous. I don't blame you, James - I blame your conditioning. I hope you sober up.

  45. Glen

    Larry, Christians don't believe you are inferior at all. We believe you are far, far superior to anything you think of yourself. You are a deeply wanted and loved offspring of the living God. You have come from a loving purpose and intended for a glorious hope. It's Christians who passionately believe in your personal reality. We're trying to prevent you from thinking impersonally of yourselves.

    On the other hand you think of us much more impersonally than we think of ourselves. You're the one who's trying to make *everyone* inferior.

    But that's ok, we can still have a grown-up discussion without acting all hurt and offended at the truth claims of others, right?

  46. Larry

    Fair enough. As long as everybody on the planet is treated with respect, sincerity and kindness, separations formed by religion will hopefully be overcome and perhaps unshakeable belief will even come to an end. Thanks for your comments

  47. Josh VB

    "As long as everybody on the planet is treated with respect, sincerity and kindness, separations formed by religion will hopefully be overcome and perhaps unshakeable belief will even come to an end."

    Larry - we long for the day when everyone is treated with respect, sincerity and kindness and Christians believe with unshakeable faith that this will come because Christ, the first-fruit of the resurrection, has been raised from the dead, meaning the resurrection will come bringing with it the New Creation. And since we know it will come, we work now to see it fulfilled in part now.

    What I fail to see is how or why an atheist would long for the day (actually that's just rhetoric. I do know why you long for the day - it's because you're still made in the image of God and his goodness is still evident in us). If Sam Harris is right, and Free Will is but an illusion, that day will either come (or not come) with all the inevitability of a rock falling on the ground - and all same moral goodness that that rock has.

    If I offended you by implying that you were inhuman then it certainly wasn't my intention. But even your language betrays an inconsistent atheism - why would being inhuman be bad? Why is human-ness a better condition than simply being, say, chemicals in a sack? What moral grounds are there (even if I did have some degree of free will) to treat you, or anyone else, any different from a rock?

    Your longings and desires are good, and the hurt you feel by being offended is understandable - but only in a world where the Triune God reigns.

    Josh (or probably James if wordpress keeps misbehaving - sorry for the confusion)

  48. Larry

    It's fine that you have wishes and sentiments for a bright, happy future when you die. I did too as a Christian and I know exactly what you stand for. Thing is, wishing something to be true doesn't make it real. Although I appreciate you explaining what your beliefs are, the situation will ultimately only change if you can provide evidence for their truth.

    You're obviously very nice and sincere, in the same way I wish to be. However, we are just using different criteria to assess our claims, and I think neither of us are going to change that criteria.

    You seemed to be confused as to why I would be happy or kind if my life has no ulterior purpose. The answer's simple: it's the best thing to do. It's the right thing to do and it's the thing I most enjoy doing, and it's the thing others enjoy me doing. When we die this will all have no meaning, but now it does. Now it does and that's what's so intrinsically important and wonderful and amazing. Right here, right now, this beautiful ape-descended species is doing something. And that's what is so meaningful!

    Peace.

  49. Josh VB

    Thanks Larry

    "The answer’s simple: it’s the best thing to do. It’s the right thing to do and it’s the thing I most enjoy doing, and it’s the thing others enjoy me doing."

    Would you allow your own words to form part of the evidence you are seeking? Your delight in doing good to others, and the delight others get in you doing good and (by implication) the joy you get from others seeing you do good to them and to others makes perfect sense if you're made in the image of the Triune God whose existence is defined by his loving relationship to others. But if you're simply the product of time and chance (or time plus the application of predictable natural laws on material bodies) then your actions can no more be good then an apple falling downwards is good.

    Likewise your search for something meaningful and your sense of that which is beautiful and amazing makes sense in a world which God created to have meaning and beauty. It doesn't make sense in a world governed by mere impersonal laws (nor in a world governed by a tyrannical god).

    May I ask about the vision of heaven you held when you were a Christian? Did you see it as a place that was primarily one of an absence of pain and the presence of pleasure, or as the place where Jesus was? Many people seem to have visions of heaven as a place where God is absent because they cannot imagine the presence of God being a good thing - from that position it is incredibly easy to take one small step and stop believing in the god whose only good charecteristic was to provide a way to avoid being with him forever.

    Josh

  50. John B

    All worldviews seek to describe human origins, identity, and destiny. Stemming from these explanations arise the questions about the meaning of suffering and death. Western atheism as a comprehensive worldview is quite new, having truly emerged as such in the Nineteenth century. On the question of human destiny they still are struggling to provide answers that are consistent with their explanations about origins and identity. Many seek to offer an optimistic answer by invoking Humanism, a religion without any god. But despite the kind intentions, such optimism remains an incongrous element within their worldview. Which leads me to speculate that there may one day emerge a kind of synthesis of western atheism with Buddhism. The latter really provides some profound explanations about human destiny; and "emptiness" is a less pessimistic (and less loaded) term than meaninglessness.

  51. Larry

    I found your comment very interesting, John B, although I wonder which angle you're speaking from. I haven't noticed a correlation between pessimism and atheism at all...a worldview with a realistic outlook on death is not a 'depressing' worldview.

    "Your delight in doing good to others, and the delight others get in you doing good and (by implication) the joy you get from others seeing you do good to them and to others makes perfect sense if you’re made in the image of the Triune God whose existence is defined by his loving relationship to others. But if you’re simply the product of time and chance (or time plus the application of predictable natural laws on material bodies) then your actions can no more be good then an apple falling downwards is good."

    "Well, of course, good and bad are manmade concepts. They are borne out of language and our development of language. In the real universe, I would say my actions are no more good than an apple falling downwards. However in this world, where good and bad do have the meaning we ascribe to them, your argument is trite.

    "Likewise your search for something meaningful and your sense of that which is beautiful and amazing makes sense in a world which God created to have meaning and beauty. It doesn’t make sense in a world governed by mere impersonal laws (nor in a world governed by a tyrannical god)."

    It makes more sense in a world government by impersonal laws and in a world governed by a tyrannical god. Both explain the extreme pain and suffering all living organisms encounter, the fact we die, the fact evolution has so much evidence and makes sense, the fact prayer doesn't work and nobody has ever seen God, etc. To put God into the mix makes everything hugely overcomplicated and it confuses things greatly, even if it gives us a "big because". The problem is, I think it's the wrong "big because" anyway.

    "May I ask about the vision of heaven you held when you were a Christian? Did you see it as a place that was primarily one of an absence of pain and the presence of pleasure, or as the place where Jesus was? Many people seem to have visions of heaven as a place where God is absent because they cannot imagine the presence of God being a good thing – from that position it is incredibly easy to take one small step and stop believing in the god whose only good charecteristic was to provide a way to avoid being with him forever."

    I didn't really think about heaven in terms of imagery, I just knew that it would be a divine place which explained the suffering on Earth. In that respect I was blind to logic.

    Again, I admire your kindness and sincerity and the fact you're taking what I say seriously, but if you're trying to lead me to some kind of epiphany outside of the realms of logic and evidence, it's not going to happen without a very good reason. Cheers :)

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  53. juliaholewinski

    Hi. I am very disturbed by this post and conversation, because you seem to be making the argument that depression is on the same plane as death. Depression and death are not compatible in the slightest way. Fry's letter is comforting not because he insists that the sun will stay out forever: in comparing depression to the weather, he's saying that rain will come and go. Rain is depression, not death. The sun coming out is a cease in a very real disease that many deal with. That's it.

    As for your supposition that only hope for eternal happiness can end a mental illness, I fear that you're sadly mistaken and that religious belief has very little to do with depression. Thousands of people with faith suffer from depression, thousands without it do not. I have maintained atheism throughout periods of stability and depression and I can tell you that it is not faith that removed me from a dark place. People become depressed because of a variety of factors that alter brain chemistry so they do not receive an appropriate amount of endorphins or dopamine to keep them functioning normally. It can be recovered from in a variety of ways.

    Fry's letter hardly "ditch[es] his atheism", he is simply writing a letter without referring to it. Atheism, as Andy Dixon said, does not control the life of an atheist. To me, the fact that there is no God or afterlife is similar to the fact that George Washington was America's first president - I understand it, but it has little to no effect on my life.

    Regarding your sentiments about atheism and optimism, "hope for the future" does not mean "hope for life after death." You seem to have a differing definition of "the future" than I do -- for me, the future is next week, next year, a decade from now, when I'm 80 years old. I do have hope for those days. I even have hope for death - it will be peaceful, and final, and like falling asleep after a very long day without dreaming. This does not scare me, nor is it darkness. It is simply an ending. If there is another chapter at the end of the book, I will be pleasantly surprised - but I do not expect it, nor do I hope for or need it. In fact, sequels often ruin books, I'm not sure how happy I would be. Indeed, I see cynicism in Christianity: belief in an afterlife takes away the novelty of life, though I completely understand if you disagree with this.

    Like the end of a book (or a series of many books, depending on how long you want to view human life), I acknowledge death as something inevitable and hopefully satisfying, but now that I am in the middle of it I am going to enjoy the ride and look forward to whatever comes next. As for human-ness and purpose and what-not, I don't need to be reading the book. But I am, and it's fun, and I'm enjoying it. I'm lucky to have picked it up off the shelf. That, sir, is optimism, and there is no tragedy in that.

  54. Glen

    Hi Julia,
    I agree that I have slipped between the weather as "mood" and the weather as "circumstances" and they are not the same. But when it is confidently asserted that mood will lift we are, at that point, in the realm of a hope-making statement.

    I know a number of people about whom I'm not at all sure they'll have a sunny mood again. Where does the confidence come from?

    And at that point *belief* about the world and its future becomes key - and it's belief whether someone calls themselves atheist, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, whatever.

    This conversation has convinced me of something John B says above - that Buddhism is the closest spiritual fit with an atheistic pastoral care. Embracing death - even as something 'satisfying' - is one response to that terrible tragedy. But Christianity takes an extremely different view - and I think, when dealing with your own death or the death of loved ones, treating death as an enemy is far closer to our emotional reality than trying to make peace with it as a friend.

  55. Larry

    I find reality to be more comforting than false hope. You seem more scared of death than all of us - you're the only one who seems to treat it like it's some massively dark thing. It's quite weird; I've never looked at death as anything more than what'll naturally end up of me once I've enjoyed this life.

  56. Glen

    It sounds like you've had an enjoyable life so far Larry. I'm glad. But when dark times or death properly crash into your world I pray you'll find *real* hope and comfort.

  57. John

    Wow, you guys are smart! (not being sarcastic) I am truly blown away by some of these posts. I am actually going to use parts of this discussion in a message I bring to my youth group about knowing how to defend your faith. Very cool stuff, but I am especially drawn to Glen's post about the early disciples being filled with boldness after their supposed savior was killed.

    Here you have a group of normal guys, not religious or political leaders, just normal guys, who have put their hope in a man who claims to be the Son of God.(sounds pretty kooky if you ask me) Then one night their "Savior" is arrested and they all split. In fact this one guy named Peter is actually chased away by a teenage girl who questions him. (They aren't quite willing to die for this rabbi.) Well Jesus as they called Him was killed and the "rebellion' was quenched.

    Actually, after a couple days they were going to go back to business as usual(fishermen can't make a living following fairytales).

    Then something interesting happens. These normal guys, who ran away when Jesus was arrested, started telling people that He raised from the dead. They said they saw Him, in fact over 500 people said they saw Him. Again if you ask me, there must have been an all night rave and they were handing out hallucinogens or something because that just sounds like foolishness.

    Well the guys who arrested Jesus to begin with knew better, they knew that someone stole the body of Jesus and so they were going to put a stop to this nonsense. They arrested these liars and threw them in jail and commanded them to stop spreading their lies.

    But you know hard-headed fishermen, they just love to tell tall tales, so they kept right at it. Heck they didn't even stop when some of their friends were killed. A guy was stoned, another was boiled in hot oil, another was crucified upside down, some were thrown to lions, I even heard some were impaled on sticks and wrapped with clothes to be used as lanterns in a garden. Kinda gruesome if you ask me, and all they had to do was to stop preaching that Jesus raised from the dead. They didn't even have to stop believing it, just to stop preaching it.

    Lord forgive me for making light of this story, but I for one can't believe in a thousand lifetimes that men would be willing to suffer so great for something that was a made up fairytale. Even after the original disciples died, (the ones who made up the "hoax" to begin with) people were willing to die awful, excruciating deaths to further spread the good news that Jesus had raised, even today people are dying across the world to share the gospel.

    I admire the responses of the people on this post and the thought and study that went into them, but I would have a very hard time believing that any atheist would stare pain and death in the eyes and not quiver. That if put in the same place as these heroes of faith, they would hold to their beliefs.

    God alone can change the hearts of men, He alone could fill these normal, timid fishermen with a unshakable boldness and faith to preach His word in the face of death. They knew of the hope that was set before them and they did not waiver.

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