The problem of evil


You probably have watched the brief interview of Stephen Fry.

His answer seems to have given some theists fodder to enlighten us on the problem of evil. The OP tells us

My point is simply this: evil is a problem for everyone, not just Christians.Whether you like it or not we live in a world where children do get bone cancer, where parasites exists, where ‘evil’ exists. I would therefore suggest the question is not simply ‘how could God let this happen?’, but rather ‘which worldview best answers the question of evil?’

Which is alright. Atheism however isn’t a worldview. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is anywhere atheism

demands that there be no God, no purpose in the universe – we are simply the result of an accident, some sort of cosmic blip which caused everything that we see.

given atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of god[s]. So how someone gets from that simple meaning to atheism making demands is a logical leap, if ever there was one. It is enough for me to say I don’t how life began and whether or not the universe had a beginning.

This theist seems to me to not have listened to the clip. If he did, he should have been aware that Stephen Fry was asked what he would say were he to find a god. No one that I know of is claiming that diseases aren’t natural. There is no problem of evil in an atheistic universe. The problem of evil, is only a problem in a world ruled by a cosmic overlord whose followers believe that this being is both all-powerful, all-knowing and all loving. I have no problem with this statement of the OP

If atheism is true, then we are exactly the way we are intended to be: evolution just dumped us here, in a place where illness and death exist – the universe has no categories of right or wrong, it just simply is.

for I think it is the case. The universe isn’t intelligent so it doesn’t have the wherewithal to care for right or wrong. These categories are human categories.

The OP conveniently forgets that Fry had been asked what he would do if he found there was a god. It is true atheism cannot and doesn’t account for evil. It is not part of the definition of atheism to explain or account for anything. As I wrote a few days ago, if you are going to evaluate the correctness of a proposition by the questions it can’t answer, then everything will be found as irrational. The theist tells us

Personally I believe that Christianity is the best explanation that we have for the universe as we perceive it, evil and all. Very, very briefly: (1) evil is an alien intrusion into the world, caused by the Fall (see Genesis 3). This explains why we have a higher ideal for the world than the one we actually see – because creation is not as God originally created it. In other words, illness, death etc are not ‘natural’; (2) despite that, God promises that there is a purpose in all suffering – that “all things” work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28, see also Genesis 50:20 and elsewhere); (3) One day God promises to end all suffering (Revelation 7:17). To my mind that is a far more convincing and comprehensive answer to the problem of evil than anything atheism could provide.

Which to me is further evidence of the ignorance of Christians of the world they live in. Each religion makes a claim about the universe. This particular person, due to his accident of birth, thinks his particular religion answers best the questions we have about the universe. If he read his bible, he would realize there is no where in Genesis where his god intended that man will live forever. In Genesis 3:22, the authors have god say

22 God said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never—this cannot happen!

Only a silly person would think death isn’t natural and that eating a fruit, which the said god didn’t have to plant or after planting make known its existence, would be the cause for sickness. Atheism isn’t attempting to provide an answer to evil. It can’t. Only we as humans can answer that problem. God makes no promises. Unknown men, whose motives are unclear to us have made claims that god can do this or that. We have no reason to take them at their word. For all we know, they could as well be charlatans as the current peddlers of religion.

The world is not divided between atheism and Christianity alone. It is a wide world out there. Only a person of limited intelligence would see the world as a divided between on this two stances of belief or non belief.

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About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

71 thoughts on “The problem of evil

  1. Linuxgal says:

    Atheism doesn’t have to account for evil because there is no such thing as evil. It’s all a question of a point of view. Certainly putting venison on the table is a “good” for a hunters’ family but it doesn’t do Bambi and his ma and pa a hell of a lot of good. Certainly getting rocked by a hurricane is an “evil” but cyclonic storms transfer heat from the ocean to the land where it can be dissipated into the night sky more efficiently.

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    • makagutu says:

      I don’t understand the constant demand by theists and especially the Christian for atheism to answer this or that question. One wonders if they really know what they are discussing.

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      • Hummmm. Atheism can’t answer any questions because it’s a state, like being frozen or some such. However, people who are atheist in their take on things do have thoughts about stuff like disease, evil empires, bad weather, etc. I suppose then, it’s not that hard to conflagrate the two ideas. How do people who don’t think in terms of gods of any kind feel about nasty things? As opposed to people who claim that all the nasty things come from their good gods? (pause for laughter).

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  2. Phill says:

    Hi there, I am the ‘OP’ in question. Thanks for your analysis.

    Several people, including yourself, have pointed out that Stephen Fry was speaking hypothetically – that he was simply responding “if” God was actually there.

    However, whether or not his reply was hypothetical, the point is it carries no weight if the things he mentioned aren’t actually wrong/evil. He didn’t say, for example, “God, how could you have created a world in which cheese exists?” Because cheese is morally neutral – I happen to like it, but some people are lactose intolerant and can’t eat it. But if he’d said that, his argument would have made no sense because cheese isn’t actually morally wrong/evil.

    So it seems to me that Stephen Fry does believe in moral evil.

    I’d be interested to know if you believe in moral relativism – isn’t that the logical consequence of believing that there are no transcendent moral principles? Do you believe that Nazism, or apartheid, for example, were morally wrong? If yes, what gives you the confidence to say that?

    Phill

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    • I think your problem has more to do with your definitions of evil and what gods are supposed to be doing as opposed to what, if anything, they do. Cancer, strep, broken bones, hurricanes, floods, heart attacks, none of these are evil. Even the scenario of my bopping you over the head with my favorite #12 cast iron frying pan isn’t even necessarily evil. (if I used one of the smaller ones, it might get damaged). So, first, you need to figure out just what is evil. Then you can talk about it sensibly.

      Are the Gods responsible for evil? Well, if I were a Christian Bible worshipper, then I would have to say yes. The Bible even says that the “LORD” is the one who creates evil. So, there you have it. Isaiah 45:7, KJV

      So, if the Bible is true because it says it is, then it’s God is the source of evil because the Bible says so. Don’t like it? toss the book and it’s god and start over. Or toss them all. Now all you’re left with is the physical world with rocks that break, winds that get nasty, bugs that bite, all things you can work to fix. Doctors and immunologists find antibiotics to stop bugs from biting, geologists find faults so we don’t build on top of them, and architects design buildings that withstand strong winds. All stuff we can do something about. Human behavior? We can do a whole bunch about correcting that as well. All you have to do is get more interested in fixing things than in trying to figure out how you pissed off some god and are being punished for it.

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      • Phill says:

        So, if I understand you correctly you think that evil does not exist?

        How would you answer my last question about moral relativism?

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        • “So, if I understand you correctly you think that evil does not exist?”
          Where did you ever get that idea. What I think is that you have no understanding whatsoever of what evil is. Most of what you listed are matters of natural occurrence such as weather and the interactions of the various living creatures on the planet such as bacteria vs. humans, or even the natural fact that bodies break or are sometimes not formed well. None of these things are evil. Linuxgal above said it all, when the hunter brings home Bambi’s mother and his wife cooks her up, it’s a wonderful and good thing… if you’re the hunter and his family. Not so good if you’re Bambi.

          You cheapen the word by using it so sloppily. Hitler considered what he was doing to be a wonderful thing that would finally free the German people of a nasty oppressive group of people. In fact, he didn’t consider the Jews to really be “people”, but sub-humans instead. Now in his own mind, and the mind of way too many Germans (including my own grandfather) that put them in the same category as Bambi, or Staphylococcus. The over 10 million people he slaughtered would not have agreed. But also, consider that no one does “evil” because they don’t consider what they are doing to be evil, usually it’s a good thing to them. Now where are you? ALL morality is relative. Generally speaking, crushing someone’s skull with a cast iron frying pan is considered an immoral act. What about when it’s the best way to get a rapist off my teenage daughter? Remember, the Bible doesn’t say Thou Shalt Not Kill, it says Thou Shalt Not Commit Murder. Big difference! In fact, the Bible commands that we kill people sometimes. Now what? Where is this evil you speak of?

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          • Phill says:

            I only used the word ‘evil’ because Stephen Fry used it in the original video. Although I think he used ‘evil’ of the fact that this world contains things within it which are bad, some of which you mentioned. I’m sorry if I came across as cheapening evil, that was not my intention.

            I’m not talking about a Christian view of evil here, I’m talking about how Stephen Fry can use words like good and evil in a way which is consistent with what he, as an atheist, believes about the universe.

            Is it consistent on the one hand to say that the universe is all there is, there is no right/wrong – we just evolved here as we are and there is no transcendent good – and on the other hand to say that God is ‘evil’ because the world is not as ‘good’ as we think it should be? It seems to me there is an inconsistency there.

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          • makagutu says:

            Phil, as I said in the post. Stephen Fry is told he has met god, what shall he ask him. Then he asks what type of god creates a world like this? There is no contradiction that I can see in his belief about the universe being as it is and asking a god why it created it this way. Or to put it differently, what is the inconsistency you see?

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          • “because the world is not as ‘good’ as we think it should be?” I think the problem here is that your respondents here talk about the world being “good” because that is the Abrahamic myth about the world. Not their take on it, but rather saying that if the world is supposed to be so good, then why does all this stuff go on? The world isn’t good or bad or even “evil”, it just is. Like most humans, I don’t like some of the things I find here, they are obnoxious to say the least. My own take on evil is that it has to be something that is actively decided on to damage me or mine very seriously. In that sense, the vaccine denying folks that took an infected child to Disneyland come close.

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          • makagutu says:

            You say this things so well.
            The idea that the world should be good or bad is a religious idea. The bybill says and god saw that it was good. When Stephen Fry meets this god, he is right to ask what this god thought was good in a world such as this we live in.
            I don’t know how to explain this simpler than you have done already

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          • makagutu says:

            Mariah, you have said this very well.
            No one does anything thinking it is evil. They do it because to them is a good thing.
            Good or evil depends on the observer

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    • makagutu says:

      Hi Phil.

      The things he mentioned are inimical to our well being. We can include being born blond, deaf to the list. So when one proposes there is a good god in charge, one is within his rights to ask why do such things happen. Is it impossible that he could do anything about them.

      I don’t see how you come to that conclusion. The only conclusion one could make is he has a made a comment concerning natural evil.

      The question we are discussing here is problem of evil. It has nothing, in my view, about my stand on morality.

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      • Phill says:

        You agreed with my premise that if atheism is true, everything is natural – in a sense, if atheism is true then everything is right. Everything is morally neutral. Is that correct?

        If that is so, then how would anyone have an idea of anything better? Surely in an atheistic universe there is no right or wrong, good or evil, etc. And I think from what you say you agree with this. The point is, Stephen Fry seems to know what a “good” God is, and knows that this universe (in his opinion) is incompatible with it. How does he know that?

        I’d say the problem of evil has everything to do with morality. What is immorality if not evil? I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about my original question about moral relativism.

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        • makagutu says:

          Phil, atheism is true and everything is natural. This doesn’t mean there aren’t things inimical to our well being. We feel pain. We seek pleasure. This has nothing to do with whether gods exist or not.

          I can’t answer for Stephen Fry how he knows god is good. I don’t know what god is. You could ask Fry to answer that question for you. I guess he could answer your query.

          What does it matter what my position on morality is? I could as well be amoral.

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          • Phill says:

            My sense is that we are beginning to task past each other.

            Your position on morality matters because it is intimately related to the question of whether evil exists. Do you think there is a transcendent morality or not? And if not, what do you make of things which most people would consider to be deeply immoral, such as Nazism etc?

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          • makagutu says:

            Phil, I said in my last response that am amoral. Did you see it or conveniently ignored it.
            I find anything that is inimical to a person’s well being abhorrent. Why because, they, like me, feel pain.

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          • Phill says:

            In your last response you said you “could as well be amoral”. I didn’t read into that that you *were* amoral. I’m sorry if I misread you.

            The problem with defining what is wrong as being something ‘inimical to a person’s well being’ is that it is vague enough to be useless. We put criminals in prison – is that detrimental to their wellbeing? We let people drink themselves to excess – is that detrimental to their wellbeing? The list could keep on going. ‘Pain’ is virtually useless when it comes to morality because you need to start asking questions like “whose pain? who decides? why?” and so on.

            Anyway, I think we’re probably through with this discussion. I do feel like you haven’t really answered my points, but then I also feel like we’re talking past each other.

            Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog post.

            Phill

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          • makagutu says:

            Why is pain useless?
            Indulge me Phil, what is morality?
            Tell me something else, when you say Hitler’s acts were immoral- this is according to who? Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot by dismissing my answers and then asking me according to whom.

            I wouldn’t want you to leave with unanswered questions. If you care to list them again, I will answer.
            I am amoral.

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      • Mak, being born blond is not a bad thing! some of us survived that quite handily!

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    • “Do you believe that Nazism, or apartheid, for example, were morally wrong? If yes, what gives you the confidence to say that?”

      My empathy.

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  3. aguywithoutboxers says:

    A very good proposition, my Nairobi brother. Atheism was once described to me as the absence of belief. It isn’t a formalized belief system. As such, there is no definition of good or evil. It simply exists. Have a great weekend. Much love and naked hugs! 🙂

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  4. john zande says:

    Seems the Christian apologist is forever tied to falling back on Lewis’s suggestion that this world was once good, but has gone terribly wrong. For this to be meaningful the Christian must present evidence that this world was, in fact, once good. Evidence that there did at one point in time exist an armistice between all living, and no-so living, things. Can they? No.

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  5. keithnoback says:

    At the risk of speaking out of turn, moral subjectivism and moral relativism are not the same, and I see them about to be conflated above. Any moral anti-realist position, in the broadest sense, has accounted for any problems with evil from the get-go. If one appeals to pragmatism in seeking an account of the concept of evil, then there’s your answer – forget theology or humanism.
    That said, I don’t think that the monotheists have a problem with evil. If God is eternal and we will be eternally in God’s ‘presence'(?) what significance can temporal evil hold? But if that is true, how the hell do we imagine that Mr. Fry, stripped of voice, locality, time and every physical reference, is having a conversation with anything, much less some ‘person’? Bizarre.

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    • makagutu says:

      If God is eternal and we will be eternally in God’s ‘presence'(?) what significance can temporal evil hold?

      Keith, do you think to suppose that god is eternal and men will live eternally with s/h/it would answer the question of why we suffer in a world governed by a benevolent and powerful god?

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      • keithnoback says:

        I do. At least it answers the question of suffering’s significance. Toss your existence into eternity and it disappears like a drop of water dripped into the ocean, but infinitely more thoroughly. The joys, sufferings, and indeed, all the intrinsic meaning of your sojourn in the causal realm goes to zero.
        If a person believes that such is the case, they must hope that there is some extrinsic meaning beyond their ken. Perhaps they feel some sense of the divine that they choose to trust. However, if they do, they’ve no way to know whether they are inspired or deluded, all their references being temporal.

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  6. Great post Mak. Since the OP claims the bible as an inerrant source of information from which he bases much of his argument, I must ask why is it that his holy book, the bible, and his particular interpretation of said book and said religion, christianity, are inerrant and another religion and its holy book, say Islam and the Qur’an, are not? Atheism is not just a disbelief in Jesus. It is a disbelief in the existence of all gods due to an equal lack of tangible, unfalsifiable, evidence in the existence of any of them. One can not have an argument based on the undeniable reality of the bible unless it can first be shown that the god of the christian bible, and the words in that bible, are undeniably correct whilst the god of Islam and his book, the Qur’an, are not. Good and evil are subjective terms open to the interpretation of people. The Qur’an states/heavily implies that christianity is evil and that christians are evil for not following the correct word of the Prophet Mohammad. Muslims see St Paul, a hero to christians, as an evil man, an infidel who lied about the true nature of Jesus in order to build a religion of his own built on, what they say, is a lie. So, is Paul evil, or at least wrong, as over a billion Muslims believe, or is the nature of what is good and bad, particularly what is MORALLY good and bad, subjective and heavily influenced by the particular culture into which we are born?

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    • makagutu says:

      some of the claims Buddhism makes about the world are at variance with those of christianity. what standard has the particular theist used to arrive at the truthfulness of his particular belief in a field full of several contradictory views?

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      • Exactly. I’m content to leave it at just the two contradictory beliefs, Islam and Christianity. There are others, all others actually, that have bits which disagree with each other, but for a simplified argument, I want to first have it clearly defined to me by a christian why Islam, which clearly states Paul is a bad dude and Jesus is NOT god, is wrong, and it (christianity) is right. Why? Are christians and Paul “evil” for not believing in the Qur’an or not, and why? Is it a subjective matter of preference? Or is it, and what is then good and evil, an objective reality?

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  7. Doobster418 says:

    You’ve hit upon a problem that almost all theist seem to have with atheists. They call it a belief system and attribute to it so much more than it is — the disbelieve in the existence of a God or gods. Because of that, they believe that atheism should have answers for everything, just as their religions seem to create answers for everything. But that is not what atheism is. That is not who atheists are. Atheism is more about asking questions than about offering (or making up) answers.

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  8. JR says:

    Just a quick comment on something you say in your post:

    [snip]

    If he read his bible, he would realize there is no where in Genesis where his god intended that man will live forever. In Genesis 3:22, the authors have god say

    22 God said, “The Man has become like one of us, capable of knowing everything, ranging from good to evil. What if he now should reach out and take fruit from the Tree-of-Life and eat, and live forever? Never—this cannot happen!

    Only a silly person would think death isn’t natural.

    [/snip]

    If things are as they seem here, this is a bad inference. You seem to be taking Genesis 3:22 to be evidence that God did not initially intend for man to live forever. You seem to be thinking this because, in Genesis 3:22, God says, “What if he . . . live forever? Never–this cannot happen!” But reasoning in this way ignores the “now” in the second sentence. Genesis 3:22 has God saying that man should not *now* live forever, now that he has eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That is not good evidence that he did not intend for man to live forever *before* then, from the beginning. In fact, there is a long-standing tradition in Christian thought of understanding Genesis in essentially this way. As far as I understand it, the idea goes roughly like this: God intended for man to live forever, but, once he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thereby coming to commit sin (turning away from God and His commands) and at the same time to know evil, God did not want him to live forever *in that state*, at least before giving him a way to get out of that state. The idea — again, insofar as I understand it — is basically that, because man had not yet fixed his will on goodness, and now had committed sin and come to know about evil, God’s allowing him to live forever at that point would be to allow him to live perpetually in a state of having sinned (having turned away from God) and of being capable of committing serious evil, without having yet provided him a way to rectify that situation.

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    • If humans were meant to live forever, it would make more sense to make them that way rather than make a tree that they could eat “later” in the context of the story. One could have simply made humans good too and not bothered with the idiocy of the apple story. It should be no problem with this, since supposedly everyone is good in heaven, no “focusing of will” needed.

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    • makagutu says:

      JR,
      Thanks for your comment. As to questions of interpretation, you and I are aware the reason for the 30K+ denominations is because of how each pastor sees the bible. So, it is possible you could read the statement as you have and many christians and I could also see it as there having been no intention for man to live forever. I think my interpretation however is correct because the authors of this book who created this god must have known death. They were aware that all living things decay, so to put this in their god’s mouth is an acknowledgement of what they had observed.

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  9. ladysighs says:

    I liked the answer of Stephen Fry so much. I don’t know who was interviewing him etc. But he did give him room to answer the question. Mr. Fry is so sure and confident with his answers and his manner of speaking is strong yet not arrogant. Firm and decisive.
    Who can call acts of nature evil? Storms, earthquakes etc are just the elements reacting as they do. Bacteria and other organisms that cause pain and illness are only doing what we all are doing…trying to survive. And when we devise ways to counter an organism’s activity, we are only doing what every animal does to protect themselves.
    It is when an all knowing all good god gets into the act that something evil is identified. I don’t blame the ancients in wanting to appeal to a being that might ease suffering. But you can’t have a good god and suffering too. One has to go. And Mr. Fry boots god out in less than a minute or two.

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  10. The excuses of the OP are the standard ones and depend on ignore his bible. 1. Evil is from this god, the bible says it. This god is either complicit or unable to do anything about it. 2. This contradicts #1, in that this Christian wants to claim that evil is “alien” but then says that God causes it and uses it. 3. In Revelation this god kills all of those who don’t worship it, allows itself/its son to rule over believers for an “aeon” and after all of this, intentionally allows this evil back to corrupt more people so it can have one more murderfest.

    To claim that these are more convincing and comprehensive answer is ridiculous and depends on ignorance of his own religion and making up nonsense. I’m quite glad that I am a far more decent and humane being that this god that for some reason “needs” to give cancer to children, needs to starve people, needs war. It is telling that this theist wants to pretend that misery is needed by his god so his god can do good things for theists like him. I’d rather suffer myself than have someone else harmed to “benefit” me in this way.

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  11. Somewhat off the track, (and, in my opinion, truly evil) the first three times I came onto this blogsite and read this post and its comments, there was no clip showing Mr. Fry’s excellent answer to his interviewer. Finally, this afternoon, it appeared and I was able to listen to it. Now I can see why OP included natural events in his list of “that which is evil”.

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  12. […] I promise this is the last am writing on this topic. You have probably watched the 2 minute interview of Stephen Fry. I wrote about it here. […]

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  13. Nan says:

    Have you seen this?
    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/stephen-frys-comments-on-god-could-lead-to-criminal-sanctions-against-him-in-many-countries-10018658.html

    Comment from article: “It’s shocking to think that the televised interview of Stephen Fry, which stimulated such an interesting array of reactions and discussions here in Britain, could lead to criminal sanctions against him in many countries.”

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