Stephen Fry, Humanism, and the Great Outdoors

The great British actor and comedian Stephen Fry joins extreme outdoorsman Bear Grylls, exploring rugged terrain and sharing his humanist beliefs to television audiences. Review by Matthew Bulger.

What more can be said about the magnificent Stephen Fry that hasn’t already been said time and time again by his adoring fans worldwide? The man is a powerhouse of comedic genius, a bastion of the English intelligentsia, a prolific documentarian, an eloquent activist, and just an all-around decent and enjoyable human being.

What Stephen Fry isn’t, at least at first glance, is a rugged outdoorsman. It’s not that he’s ignorant of nature, in fact I’m sure he knows quite a good amount about brainy topics like entomology and botany, but he doesn’t exactly have the physique or disposition of a mountain climber or survivalist. Hell, he struggles rather pitifully at putting together IKEA furniture, so how well could he be expected to do on a journey through some of the most extreme landscapes and climates on earth?

That’s why I was intrigued and slightly horrified to see that Fry would be joining famous outdoorsman Bear Grylls on an extreme outdoor expedition as part of Bear’s Wild Weekends TV series. Fry accompanied Grylls over two days in the Italian Dolomites, during which Stephen takes part in numerous life-threatening activities more suited to a man half his age.

The show is worth watching, not only because of the beauty of the landscapes and Fry’s comic relief, but because of the program’s occasionally serious and philosophical undertones. Topics such as family, athleticism, suicide, modern politics, and even religion are covered in the program, and the views of both Brits on these topics are intriguing and entertaining.

My favorite moment of the program occurred when, during an outdoor morning shave in the Italian mountains, Fry started discussing how spectacular natural views such as the one they were currently enjoying must enhance the faith of Grylls, who is openly religious. While Grylls finds the view to be a sort of “spiritual de-frag” where he can clear his head and see the proof of god’s work, Fry respectfully disagrees with this sentiment and says:

I am an atheist, although I call myself a humanist because I do have a belief in our own capacity to solve our problems and to find out more about our world and the universe around us. But just because one says they don’t believe in a single god who made it [nature and the world] doesn’t mean one has to offer an explanation as to what did make it, because if you do believe there is a single god who made it, you have to offer an explanation for what made that god.

Fry, as always, is utterly respectful of other people’s religious beliefs, but his statement about the error of equivocating natural beauty with proof of god’s existence is spot-on and helpful for all of us who have had to deal with similar situations in the past. It’s great to see that humanist views on nature and the universe can receive serious consideration on primetime television, and Fry is proof that discussing god’s existence with a religious person need not end in conflict and hurt feelings.

Bear’s Wild Weekends is currently airing on Channel 4 in the U.K. and will air in the United States this fall, and I highly recommend that all humanists, whether they be couch potatoes or outdoorsy types, take some time out to watch it.