The Pernicious Public Intellectual

Recently, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has received some well-deserved public flogging for dismissing the value of philosophy.

And then there’s Stephen Fry. I have liked Fry for quite a long time, but all this attention in the last few years for being an intellectual (and not merely a funnyman and an actor) has clearly done things to his brain that have not been altogether positive. I appreciate how his great show with Hugh Laurie repopularised P. G. Wodehouse but somehow, some way, Fry and the general public got it into their heads that he really is Jeeves.

He occasionally latches on to famous atheists like Dawkins and the late Hitchens, who are also British men with accents refined enough to sound intelligent but whose words, phrasing and attitude are vulgar enough to keep the masses entertained. A number of people have said that Fry is the stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person would be like and I think his performance on QI is a good show of that.

In a way, he is playing a character on QI in the same way as his fall guy Alan Davies: he is the clever one and Alan is the stupid one. Anybody who knows intelligent people, people who actually do know lots of obscure and interesting bits of information and who can quote lots of things in lots of languages do not act anything like Stephen Fry in QI or his other appearances. The way he overpronounces foreign words as if he has any idea of what he’s saying and other such peculiar and obvious affectations belie his origins as a sad luvvie. As Kathy Shaidle says “Stephen Fry is, in fact, the very sort of person Stephen Fry would mock mercilessly, were he not already Stephen Fry”.

Dawkins was actually quite reasonable early on, saying that he was not completely sure of atheism and so forth, but, as with Fry, as his fame and followers grew, he slowly lost the plot and reduced the concessions he was willing to make. Blogposts and YouTube videos abound with titles like “Stephen Fry Dismantles the Catholic Church”. I mean, come on. If anybody is going to “dismantle” the Roman Catholic church it is not going to be a celebrity saying a series of mean things. Similarly, if anybody is going to seriously make a go of pushing the idea that there is no God for years and years, it’s not going to be a popular biologist like Dawkins. The idea that science in general is the great Opposition sitting on the benches across from religion, jeering and criticising is completely disingenuous and I have yet to encounter a theologian who really feels this way.

Theologians, especially evangelical ones, will debate these people because “souls are being lost” and things like that, but that does not in any way mean that evolutionary biology et al. undermine religions like Christianity which are based on a large collection of stories and poems, which are freely admitted to have being written by men who were not perfect and who may not have necessarily been trying to report precise facts anyway. Allegory and metaphor are big parts of teaching in general, but probably more so in the ancient Middle East.

In a way, the fact that intellectuals of any kind are still capable of getting a lot of attention is probably a good thing. I just wish they would do more good than harm.