Neonatal consultant Erik Strandness examines some of the comments Scottish actor Brian Cox recently made about God, the Bible and Christianity 

Scottish actor Brian Cox is a fascinating man. He’s an accomplished actor who isn’t afraid to speak his mind and has certainly earned the right to do so because of his 77 years of life experience. While I disagree with much he has to say, he certainly deserves a fair hearing. Recently, he made headlines by making some disparaging comments about religion, which I take issue with but find thought provoking.


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Primal problem 

I want to begin by stating that I believe Cox has accurately identified the problem with life, the Universe and everything, and that problem is human beings. 

“Human beings are basically f$#&ed…because they’re so stupid. That’s the thing about humanity, it’s so deeply stupid.” (Cox)

His analysis, however, doesn’t go deep enough because all he has done is identify the vector but missed the pathogen. He swats at the mosquitos but is unaware that they harbour malaria. He blames humans for messing up the world but fails to explain what it is that makes them so noxious. 

Christian writer Francis Spufford, author of Unapologetic, uses similar salty language to describe the human condition but digs deeper and exposes its sinful source.

“For us, it (sin) refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f#$& up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f#$& things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.” (Spufford)

Cox, it seems, considers the human problem to be our primal tendency to fall back into modes of animal behaviour unbecoming the most highly evolved creature on the planet. 

“We haven’t evolved, and until we get our houses in order we will not evolve, we will continue making the same mistakes until eventually we will either destroy ourselves, and if we do destroy ourselves, we’ll destroy ourselves because we deserve to be destroyed.” (Cox) 

However, appealing to evolution creates a problem because it is difficult to see how a process, which Richard Dawkins describes as having “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”, could have any possible interest in being more genteel. 

Lack of vision

Cox has an admirable vision for human behaviour but has no mechanistically probable way of getting there. If evolution consists of random mutations filtered through the strainer of natural selection, then he cannot possibly predict where it will lead, yet Cox still believes that it should produce kinder, gentler human beings. Where did he get that idea? 

“We haven’t evolved enough. We have a vision of something, we can see something in the future, but we know it’s not now.” (Cox)

Even if you believe that evolution is a vector pointing in a certain direction, it remains to be seen how a single human branch on the tree of life could see the forest for the trees. Cox has a laudable vision of how people should behave but where did he get the template? If we are just an evolutionary point on a cosmic graph, how can we possibly step outside of it and plot its trajectory? 

Pining for Eden

While Cox wants us to believe that we can evolve to be kinder and gentler, the natural selection mechanism he appeals to ironically accomplishes this task through an indifferent application of suffering, cruelty and killing. The very behaviour he appropriately despises is but the melodic hum of a well-oiled evolutionary machine. 

I believe our desire for a better world is more like a distant memory of an idyllic place from which we have been exiled and desperately want to return. I think Cox is actually pining for Eden rather than clinging to the evolutionary hope that one day our emotional palette will evolve from its monochromatic nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw beginnings to include all the colours of the rainbow. 


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Spiritual or biological quest?

Cox believes that our human problem is the result of foolishly putting our faith in outside systems of belief instead of looking inside ourselves.

“It’s all about this notion of God that takes care of us all…It’s about us and we don’t examine ourselves nearly enough, we don’t look at who we are. We’re always looking outside ourselves instead of looking inside ourselves…We simply don’t begin to understand ourselves, not when we have these belief systems that lead us into all kinds of horror.” (Cox)

What if, however, the reason we look outside ourselves is because we have already peeked inside and didn’t like what we saw? 

I don’t know if he is a materialist, but if he is, then looking inside can only mean playing chemist to his neurotransmitters. I suspect; however, he is talking about traits like kindness, gentleness, and fairness, which have no chemical correlate. He hopes that if we discover the transcendent qualities of truth, goodness and beauty we will behave better but that means he’s calling for a spiritual search and not a biological quest. 


Cox sees a crappy world and recommends a colonoscopy. He recognises that probing our insides may be uncomfortable but is necessary for a proper gut check. I suspect he hopes we will discover an unused organ of goodness but sadly, every time we look inside, we see a growing cancer. He wants us to look inside to find the solution but instead keeps coming face-to-face with the problem. 

Cox accuses religious people of relying on external belief systems and not looking inward; while that may be true of some religions, it’s certainly not true of Christianity. One of God’s biggest beefs with his Chosen People was that they only gave him lip service because their hearts were far from him. Jesus, also, had some harsh words for those who put their faith in the externals and neglected their internal health. 

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside, you appear to people as righteous but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28)

In fact, Jesus, the Great Gastroenterologist, had already scoped humanity and discovered the sinful aetiology of the world’s dyspepsia.  

“And he called the people to him and said to them: ‘Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.’” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Look to the skies.

Why is it that when we encounter a problem we turn to the skies and not to our own understanding? Why do we offer thoughts and prayers for tragedy? Why do we think physical brokenness needs spiritual healing? 

I think one can argue that a big reason for the meaning crisis in our young people is that they’re spiritually broken and yet are told that spirit doesn’t exist. What does Cox have to offer them? He has been quite open about the mental health issues in his own family, and I appreciate his candour, but in his atheistic worldview he has nothing to offer except encouraging people to pull up their bootstraps. He stated that with problems like addiction and anorexia, it is only the person afflicted who can fix themselves. 

“I’ve lived with people who’ve been addicted! Only they can do it. Nobody else can do it on their behalf…You can be the mother or father of an anorexic and there’s nothing you can do about them. They have to do it. They have to make that decision.” (Cox)

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), arguably the most successful addiction treatment program in the world, would however disagree. While both Cox and AA believe that people need to take the first step and admit their problem, AA recognises that it can only be successfully overcome with the aid of a higher power. Cox, however, considers religion to be an obstacle rather than a pathway to healing. 

Yes, I think religion does hold us back because it’s belief systems that are outside ourselves. They’re not dealing with who we are.” (Cox)

All the world’s a stage 

Cox made a very interesting statement, which I believe deserves unpacking. 

“It’s what Shakespeare says, he calls it holding the mirror up to nature. That we reflect things back to the rest of humanity. That’s why the theatre, of all the churches, the theatre is the one true church because it’s the church of humanity. It’s people dealing with all those things we are dealing with every day and all those false gods we create for ourselves.” (Cox)

He believes that the role of the theatre is to help us look inside ourselves by watching actors spill their guts on the stage and then revealing how all the various outside belief systems have failed to make us better.  

Shakespeare also wrote that, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” implying that we are already deeply imbedded in an ongoing story and the issue is less about our deficient acting skills and more about the story that tries to rectify them. I believe the theatre is less about reflecting our behaviour in a mirror and more about asking us to step through a looking glass and vicariously experience different worldview narratives. 

I think our fascination with theatre, movies and television boils down to the search for a worldview that will give us the happily ever after we so desperately want. Maybe Cox has it backwards and the only true theatre is the Church because it offers the happy ending we all desire in the singular form of the greatest story ever told.  

Unfortunately, his church, the theatre, requires a hefty tithe before you are allowed to find a seat in the pews. A financial reality Cox himself bemoans. Sadly, the very people who need his “church” can’t afford to attend. 

Interestingly, not only does Cox believe the theatre to be the true church, but also imparts sacred duties to the actors because he believes they are the only ones who really understand the human dilemma. 

“Acting is about understanding the human dilemma, understanding how all these systems ultimately fail you.” (Cox)

I think Cox may be taking his role as theatrical priest a bit too seriously. He sounds like a fundamentalist preacher accusing us all of being sinners without offering grace. He calls us “stupid people” to repent but instead of offering us the body and blood, he offers only anaemic intestinal fortitude. 

What’s my motivation?

I appreciate Cox’s concern that religion often ignores life in the here and now and instead focuses on the glorious afterlife to come.

“We’ve got this notion that salvation comes later, salvation is at the end of the road…we should be in a permanent state of salvation, we should be saving ourselves constantly.” (Cox)

Cox’s statement should resonate with atheist and Christian alike. Salvation isn’t an afterlife benediction but a daily sanctifying ritual. It is, however, unclear what salvation means to Cox. I think he considers it to be kinder, gentler behaviour but it isn’t his hoped-for behaviour that concerns me rather it’s his failure to answer the age-old thespian question “what’s my motivation?” Why should I behave better? 

Christianity answers that question like this:

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

I suspect Cox would embrace love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control and would even feel that they represented behaviours that would make the planet a better place. However, in his worldview, they are just an act, but for the Christian they are the fruit of a Spirited performance. 

Improv or ensemble?

I will return once again to Cox’s diagnosis of the human condition to bring my discussion full circle.

“People are so stupid. They are so stupid. They cannot see the writing on the wall.” (Cox) 

Once again, I agree with his diagnosis but the biblical metaphor he uses doesn’t promote navel gazing but rather encourages script reading. His statement implies that we should read something external to us and then change our behaviour accordingly. The Good News is that Christianity combines “writing on the wall” with “looking inside ourselves”. It offers an “external belief system” which, when internalised, transforms lives and ultimately changes the world. 

Cox is a talented performer and thoughtful human being who truly cares about our present cultural condition. He deserves a listen because of all the life experience he has accumulated, but we need to remember that he isn’t a sage but a seeker. We can learn from his journey but need not follow him down his path. 

(I have taken Cox’s quotes from an April 30th article in the Independent and from his recent appearance on the podcast The Starting Line.)


Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.