ABC – on Stephen Fry’s Right to Free Speech

Stephen Fry has every right to call God an evil, monstrous maniac … says Archbishop

Justin Welby says Christians must stand up for religious freedom of atheists and Muslims as much as themselves

Left: Stphen Fry. Right: Justin Welby

Left: Stephen Fry. Right: Justin Welby Photo: AP/LAMBETH PALACE

The Most Rev Justin Welby insisted that the atheist comedian and writer had a God-given right to express his beliefs and should not be abused by Christians for doing so.

He added that the Church must speak out in defence of religious freedom – but with the humility of a reformed alcoholic who recognises that they once practised the very things they now urge people not to do.

His intervention came as he spoke about the suffering of Christians and other faiths around the world at the launch of a new Religious Liberty Commission set up by a group of charities and campaign groups to highlight the spread of persecution.

The meeting in the chapel of the Houses of Parliament heard harrowing first-hand testimony about brutality meted out to many Christian groups in Eritrea and reports of suffering in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

He said Christians must continue to bring such cases to the eyes of the world but added that churches including the Church of England must also recognise their own history of involvement in oppression and must defend the rights of followers of other faiths now.

“We find it fine to say that a particular church is doing incredibly well and is full every Sunday but at the same time feeling uncomfortable about the Mosque down the road that has people outside because they can’t fit them in,” he said.

“Well, if we believe in freedom of choice, if we believe in freedom of religion what is good for one is good for all.

“We must speak out for others persecuted for their beliefs whether it be religious or atheistic.

“Taking responsibility for someone else’s freedom is as important as my own.

“It is as much the right of Stephen Fry to say what he said and not to be abused improperly by Christians who are affronted as it is the right of Christians to proclaim Jesus Christ.

“That is his freedom to choose that is given to us in creation.”

Mr Fry triggered an Internet storm last week when lashed out at the idea of God during an interview with Gay Byrne, the veteran chat-show host, on Ireland’s RTE.

Asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing at the gates of Heaven, he said he would say: “How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil.”

He added: “The God who created this universe, if he created this universe, is quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish.”

Archbishop Welby went on to detail personal accounts he had been given of religious persecution and told of an email he received on Tuesday from the Anglican Bishop in Peshawar reporting how a school had been raided and attacked.

He went on: “We know about the attacks on Jewish communities, about this atrocious development of attacks on Jewish communities across Europe.

“We know about attacks on Muslims – mosques firebombed in this country – [and] on other faiths.

“But we also know in some countries about the quiet creeping removals of freedom which breed a climate of fear and animosity.”

Referring to a reading detailing how members of one German church next to a railway track had sung hymns loudly to drown out the cries of Jews being transported to concentration camps, he said atrocities did not come out of nowhere.

“That breeding of a climate of fear and humility is where we must speak out and we must speak with humility and boldness,” he said.

Emphasising that he was referring to churches when he said “we”, he went on: “Boldness we do but [we also need] deep humility – the humility of the alcoholic who used to do this sort of thing themselves but has learnt right from wrong and stands up and says ‘don’t be as I was’.”

During a question-and-answer session afterwards he thanked the former MP Evan Harris, a humanist, for his efforts to abolish the blasphemy laws in the UK and said he opposed all restrictions on freedom of speech concerning religion which did not constitute hate speech.

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I find myself agreeing with the Archbishop of Canterbury, ++ Justin Welby, when he says that atheists – like Stephen Fry – have as much right to speak about their non-belief in God, as have any others of us who care to speak about our religious beliefs. If they seem to be anti-God, it may because the ‘god’ proclaimed by some religious groups is presented as vengeful and oppressive, with no regard for human suffering.

At the time when the Church of England is about to embark on a new strategy for the teaching of Christian discipleship at its next General Synod, the ABC is asking Anglicans to extend to other people the same rights of free speech as we ourselves will be taking advantage of when we take up Christ’s challenge to “Go out to all the world and tell the Good News”. Our ‘Good News’ must be that of a God of Love, not of Vengeance.

Freedom of religion has been a hard-won right for Christians in many countries – and is still not a right in some countries of the world. Theocratic states do not generally extend this right to their own people, and this is one very good reason why Christians should not claim for themselves exclusive propaganda rights that are not available to other groups – if we really believe in the freedom to practise religion or, in the case of Stephen Fry, to express their non-belief in organised religion. Freedom to practise one’s religion, must not be at the expense of the freedom to not practise religion.

Atheists, in their own particular way, are claiming their right to practise no religion. They have every right – within the law – to air their views in public, without the expectation of abuse or violence from other religious or non-religious group or person.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

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About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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