Stephen Fry and the Problem of Evil

Stephen Fry’s inflammatory comments regarding the existence of God in the face of gratuitous evil have rekindled popular interest in what philosopher’s call the problem of evil.

Although his remarks were informal–an intense emotional reaction to the horror of natural evil–and not a rigorous philosophical argument, they obviously resinate with many people.

As well they should.

The fact is, the overwhelming amount of gratuitous evil in the world should cause us all to feel uneasy; it should elicit doubt in the heart of any religious believer, and incite moral outrage.  In short, evil should have a profound  emotional impact on all of us.

Be that as it may, the problem of evil is  not merely an emotional subjective experience.  It is not something we must only react to impulsively (although in times of great pain and suffering this is what certainly happens).

In times of leisure and quite reflection, it is a problem we can engage with our minds; that we can think about critically and make sound judgements on.  For thousands of years, philosopher’s have done just that.

In fact, the existence of gratuitous natural evil, which has elicited such a strong reaction in Stephen Fry, has been leveled against Theism in the form of a powerful argument known in the literature as the Evidential Problem of Evil.

It is not my intention, at this time, to discuss this argument in any detail; but, rather, to point you to those philosopher’s who do.  To that end, I’ve compiled a short list of  classic and contemporary works on this profound topic:

The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:


The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis 

problem of pain

The Problem of Evil: A Reader compiled by Mark Larrimore.


The Evidential Argument from Evil compiled by Daniel Howard-Snyder


God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain compiled by Chad Meister and James K. Drew Jr.




4 thoughts on “Stephen Fry and the Problem of Evil

  1. There was certainly emotion behind Fry’s words, but I wouldn’t dismiss them as mere “emotional reaction.” Take a moment to consider his first remark, about bone cancer in children. Efficiently and powerfully, it defeats two of the most common theodicies:
    1) All evil is the result of the sins of Man. (Sins which God can’t prevent because free will)
    2) The evil we see is necessitated by some Higher Purpose, e.g. it’s a lesson or trial to overcome that make us better people etc.
    Clearly, both of these fall short of accounting for childhood bone cancer. My preferred example is Harlequin ichthyosis, a disease that afflicts only newborns. Lacking the protection of skin, the child is born into a life of pure agony, only to die slowly of sepsis over the course of a few days. Think about that. Where’s the sense in it? How could human sin possibly be the source? Is it even remotely conceivable that each case of H. ichthyosis has served some higher purpose?
    The problem of evil is nearly as old as civilization and, as you know, there’s an entire literature devoted to solving it. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll succeed.

    • Hey David! Man, I really wish we could have these conversations over a beer–it’s so much better that way.

      I completely agree with your point. I can see why you thought I was being dismissive of Fry’s assertions; but I didn’t intend it to come off that way. I only meant to convey that his comments in the interview were rhetorically powerful but not a rigorous argument. I don’t mean to imply he could not, given the opportunity, make such an argument. He simply doesn’t in this particular video. My goal was to direct people to philosopher’s who do formulate the Evidential Problem of Evil rigorously (and, of course, to the philosophical responses to this type of argument). Also, I agree with you that there are natural evils far more horrendous than the one’s Fry mentions: Harlequin ichthyosis being a perfect example. Thanks for your thoughts my friend!

  2. If only Fry would actually learn some philosophy. His remarks are painfully naïve. It amazes me that a public figure would allow this to be put on youtube. Perhaps one day he’ll widen his reading list.

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