Last night, Stephen Fry won the Harvard Secular Society’s Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism. The audience packed the pews of Memorial church, and rolled with laughter at Fry’s speech, filled with jokes as well as with rhetoric about reason and religion. As a former atheist and recently converted Christian, I thought I ought to hear what this outstanding secular humanist had to say. Yet I was dismayed to find his speech riddled with contradictions and inaccuracies.As expected, Fry praised reason and more importantly, empiricism. “All must be demonstrated and tested,” Fry advised, going so far as to say that even “Reason must be tested.” Yet this standard of empiricism would rule out almost the entirety of his speech. Fry threw out lots of high ideals – complaining about injustice and stupidity, promoting the “freedom to think and express ideas.” He argued that we can know good and evil without having them writ on stone blocks. Yet I wonder…
What is the empirical evidence for evil?
What scientific proof would demonstrate humanism?
What test may be run to prove injustice?
Or even, how can you scientifically prove the authority or validity of science? (qua Hume’s criticism of induction)
Fry concluded with a quaint sentiment: “It is not the job of an atheist to be smug, to hold the truth, to bull, tyrannize, dominate arguments, to say that we have the truth of the universe.” And yet he lambasted religion throughout his speech, discussing “some God whom they cannot prove exists, and whom they cannot with any reason, be convinced to believe in.” Fry must then think that Galileo, Newton, Bacon, Francis Collins, C.S. Lewis, the list goes on and on, must all be quite unreasonable men. Yet his butchering of intellectual history didn’t stop there.
Fry announced that “it is one of the most piteous facts in the world that the country founded in the greatest spirit of the Enlightenment and the age of Reason, of education, of principled free thought, should be perhaps, in all the Western world, the country now most threatened by spirits who are working actively and urgently and self-consciously against the sights of this country, who are active to extinguish the light that lit America, that lit Harvard, and that lit the world for 150 years.”
This is historical reaching on Fry’s part at best. The founders of the American Revolution – Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson – were all deists, if not Christian. Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes were all Christian men. The ideas which sparked the American Revolution were all grounded in ideas about God. The founders believed not simply in human rights, but that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Harvard was not founded by humanists for the purpose of promoting Enlightenment principles, but by Puritans to devote mens’ minds to the service of God. Our motto is Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae. The first rule of Harvard’s first student handbook was about admission, and the second two rules were as follows:
“2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3).
3. Every one shall so exercise himselfe in reading the Scriptures twice a day, that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein, both in Theoreticall observations of Language and Logick, and in practical and spiritual truths, as his Tutor shall require, according to his ability; seeing the entrance of the word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple (Psalm 119:130).”
Stephen Fry is flat out wrong. I cannot demonstrate this with the empirical evidence that he demands, but I can rely on the testimony of historical sources. I must reject the principle “I will not be told” that he so lauded, for it is better to trust the annals of history than to simply invent facts to suit my needs.
The saddest part is that his ideals of Truth, of Injustice, of religious Freedom and Tolerance – they all come from thinkers who grounded these ideals in God. It’s like building up a skyscraper and then removing the foundation. Fry’s secular humanism is little more than the incoherent rubble that he tries to pass off as the tallest building in history.
I would have asked him about these contradictions and accuracies, were I given the opportunity. Alas, I was the fifth person in line, and the questioners in front of me decided instead that knowing Fry’s favorite type of cheese was more important than actually using their free thought to disagree with him. I would be interested in hearing how a secular humanist would respond to such criticisms, but in my experience, the secularist spends more time attacking perceived flaws in religion than actually questioning his own beliefs. And I say that humbly based upon my own experience as an atheist during the first 18 years of my life. If Fry is the best that secular humanism has to offer, it looks like I’ll be sticking with Christianity.