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VINE VOICEon 30 September 2007
The agnostic stance of this books author, detailed on the book jacket as reformed from atheist, initially put me off this. What could someone who cannot possibly make up their mind about the existence of god bring to a discussion on God? But as it turns out John Humphrys has a lot to say and most of it is very worth your time reading.

Many people in this modern age, especially those brought up within a culture historically shaped by the Christian Church, grow up with a profound capability for faith in a god but a firm belief that modern religions are not representative of this faith. Which of course leaves us with a few questions.

In this book John Humphrys clearly defines all the key questions and arguments from both sides of the God debate. He then details his interviews with prominent religious figures, looks at the emotional response to these interviews he got from the general public and then tries to look at what God might actually be. Fortunately you do not have to be a philosophy undergraduate to come to terms with the subjects detailed here, everything is presented in clear, concise English. Which makes for digesting information and coming to conclusions a relatively pain free process - given the subject.

As any debate on the existence of god must, Humphrys eventually gets to discussing evolution and importantly - the role of consciousness in our need for a god.

Humphrys accepts evolution as providing a roadmap to human life but paints a very disparaging picture of evolutionary thinkers, pretty much lumping them under the banner of 'militant atheists'. Of course much of his scorn and there seems to be plenty of it, is directed towards one Mr R. Dawkins.

For me the use of 'militant' is inappropriate - perhaps 'radical' might have been a better word. To my knowledge these atheists have so far not taken to military or guerilla tactics to make their point. Humphrys attitude towards his 'militant athiests' hints at a deeper motive that eventually comes to light as he paces through the final chapters and details his conclusions.

His discussion on conciousness is interesting but stops short of seriously considering how a biologically evolved organism such as the human brain could produce conciousness and the need for belief in god. He instead surmises it must all be down to 'transcendental love'.

Pros: John Humphrys makes some great points in understanding belief, religions and the seeming unquenchable need for humans to have a god. The strength of this book is in his clear, informing detail of key subjects from various angles.

Cons: The case for reasoning a human need for god from a biological standpoint, despite a cursory nod towards evolution and discussing consciousness, is completely left untouched. Neither does he contextualise how 'god' should be considered within his narrative - clever alien? supernatural force? The author 'Sam Harris' is repeatedly referred to in the text as Sam Smith. I can only assume Humphrys is making a point I don't understand or the copy editor wasn't paying attention.

Summary: An informative and thoughtful read from an intelligent man that has seen the world and mankind for what it really is. He does not have much time for modern religions, nor it would seem the radical element of the evolutionary 'church'. As with many people he seems hopeful that there must be a god though, or at least 'something else'.

Highly recommended for anyone starting out on this whole 'does god exist' debate or looking to get a good account of the key topics and both sides of the argument.
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on 28 March 2016
We have just come through forty days and forty nights where Jesus was tested in the desert .
The question he put to the Archbishop in Lahore today !was very unfair .
It was wicked human beings who perpetrated the evil act in Pakistan ,not God .
To turn on a Christian in such a way ,is very snide .
It's such a huge subject ,and it is a par with the question Why Me ? If attacked or afflicted .
A simple answer is Why Not Me .?
Turn on the perpetrators of evil Mr Humphries and pray for their souls ,,not on a loving God who Guides his loved ones to do good acts and lovingly serve each other every day ,all over the world .whom millions of good people who have been remembering the agony of Christ at this time .
It just was not fair to ask a deep theological question ,this Bank Holiday ,Monday after such a massacre , of this Holy Archbishop in Lahore with just inadequate seconds to reply .
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on 14 November 2007
This is an important book. Written in the even-handed manner that serves so well on the Today program, Humphreys analyses his own beliefs and holds them up in comparison for our edification. He looks at the lack of impartiality when discussing the subject in society, and presents the views of the leaders of the three major monotheistic faith clearly and fairly.

John Humphreys has the job that he has because he knows what questions the informed public would want him to ask. More importantly he has the rare ability to discard his own personal views when trying to find the truth. 'God' is a subject that almost by definition is impossible to be dispassionate about and this is the real strength of this admirable work. We see time and again how intelligent and high-achieving individuals seem to lose the plot when discussing God, and this is perhaps a reflection of its importance to our world view as well as our place in that world.

Throughout 'In God We Doubt', you will likely recognise many of the problems and comforts of religion that have occurred to you during your lifetime and it is a comforting and illuminating to have them raised and considered by Humphreys. It doesn't matter if you believe or don't: buy this book.
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on 10 June 2010
I would, on the whole, agree with the review by "filthmonkey" below. At times Humphries shows very clearly that he has made a concerted effort to try to understand religion (Christianity moreso than others, for obvious reasons), and yet at other times he stumbles into tired old misunderstandings that one finds hard to believe someone hasn't corrected him on at some stage in his search - such as the idea that for most of history it would have been tantamount to a death sentence to admit you didn't believe in God.

The interviews are enlightening, not because they present the overall arguments of the various religions represented, but because they show that when it comes to faith there are no experts or teachers, only people telling you what they think. Their ideas may be informed by a wealth of theology, cleverly strung-together arguments and historical perspectives, but there's still nothing concrete. All there is left is "just believe", or "you just have to take in on faith".

The book dips a little in part six, on consience, when he misses the point by the bucketload. He somehow manages to seamlessly move from the question of whether objective morality can exist in the absence of God to the question of whether it's possible to be 'good' without God, and treat them as if they are the same question. He makes the time-honoured error of bringing up the Crusades, Inquisitions and Witchunts as unmitigates crimes of religion without showing any understanding of the historical facts and complexities of these events. He also mistakenly changes Sam Harris' surname to 'Smith' (four times no less), albeit whilst making a very cogent point. (Maybe this has been or will be corrected in subsequent editions...I've read the paperback.)

I disagree with some reviewers that Humphries is disproportionately critical of 'militant atheists'. He chides believers for their weak arguments, and some atheists for assuming an intellectual superiority.

But overall, what he does WELL is to show how an intelligent, rational, yet at the same time genuine and open-minded person can either lose or fail to find faith in the first place, and also show that the confession of faith is not at all symptomatic of stupidity (a fallacy which he identifies as "the core of much atheist polemic"). It's also hard not to agree with him that the most important question is what allows one person to have faith, and another person not.
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on 4 September 2016
Very entertaining and with quite a few good insights. Yet, like so many agnostics and atheists, John misses the point - probably because most church people miss the point too. We aren't called to have an opinion about God, we're called to have an experience, and that experience only comes when the words cease.
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on 28 November 2012
One reviewer believes the author to be "A believer pretending to be agnostic".

I've read the book several times and have drawn a quite different conclusion: he's an atheist in everything but name but is purporting to be an agnostic.

Although he's (unnecessarily and unfairly) hostile to some of Richard Dawkins's views, he has no time for the majority Christian beliefs, and he regards most (if not virtually all) of the Bible as being completely mythological (not to say inconsistent and frequently immoral).
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on 13 January 2008
This book is well-written in that it is well laid out, easy to read and flows nicely. It's not too heavy.
However the language used to describe people on each side of the argument (theist and atheist) is entirely lop-sided. Early on atheists are referred to as 'militant' and personally attacked for their views. Prominent atheists are made out to be evil-doers out to cause harm to those poor people who take comfort from religion. Humphrys fails to attack their argument and this is the main downfall of the book.

Theists are portrayed as possibly misguided but ultimately decent people.
I think this was inevitable having invited 3 religious leaders into his studio but no atheist. I think he wants to believe but can't logically accept it. Someone pulling him the other way was always going to get the door slammed in their face.

So this book is not about religion and atheism and who's got the best argument. It's about John Humphyrs and his personal journey towards religion. He's almost there - just one bridge to go - he just can't bring himself to cross it. Better do it soon John; there's a militia of spear throwing atheists chasing you.
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on 10 September 2007
The first thing to note is that this book does not deserve to be judged as a thesis or a manifesto. Humphrys is a self-professed agnostic, but that does not mean he argues in favour of that position.

Humphrys career as a famous public broadcaster gives him some interesting material for this book: unique interview material from his BBC Radio 4's series "Humphrys in Search of God" with leading religious figures, and a host of letters responding to the broadcasts of these interviews.

Humphrys describes himself as a "failed" atheist, but successfully manages to persuade the reader from early on that he has a keen eye for spurious religious arguments (including those offered by such illustrious people as Rowan Williams, Jonathan Sacks or Tariq Ramadan). The first part of the book is a romp through the case for belief in God, and goes pretty well. The light, almost conversational style serve well - the book is actually a fairly quick read (I read it in one day).

Where he thinks it is appropriate Humphrys shows his dislike of "militant" atheism, and singles out Richard Dawkins for it. Actually, his criticism is well made and deserved. Though Humphrys does not make a meal out of this.

The second part of the book (roughly) deals with belief in god, what it is, how atheists explain it (though Humphrys prefers to consider only naturalistic explanations from evolution, rather than anything from, say, psychology - which is a disappointing limitation to discover).

Finally, although he recognises the dangers of religion in its institutionalised and radical forms, and even though he denies such things as the divinity of Jesus or the authority of scripture, Humphrys does assert three key things that prevent the triumph of atheism:

1. Ethics. It is plain that we have instincts which evolutionists regard as having come from the preservation-of-self and preservation-of-genes instincts, but at times these conflict and what we choose to do is chosen by "something else".

2. Harm. Religion is obviously harmful at times, but also extremely comforting, and it does well to make sense of love that people enjoy, which is quite removed from what evolutionists enjoy talking about.

3. Atheism did not prevent, but was responsible for the greatest evils of history (he mentions Stalin and Mao).

I'll just briefly comment on the last of these points: Stalin and Mao used a perverted quasi-religious ideology for their own ends. Marxism alone does many of the things that religion does: it has its "scriptures", its narratives, its interpretation of history, its moral imperatives, injunctions and prohibitions, its ideologue(s) and its sense of eschatology (the sense of how things will turn out in the end). When Stalin replaced the head of the orthodox church, the Tsar, he effectively replaced the nations tyrant and godhead at the same time. People were used to being oppressed by esoteric doctrines, were used to worshipping a man-god and so on... all of these, and the required credulity, were provided by a prior religious climate.

To return to Humphrys book: there is one thing that really disappoints about it. Its sourcing of information. For the dozens of quotes given, there is not a single citation or reference. We read "Dawkins wrote..." but no book title, year or anything are given. There is no index, no footnotes, no references at the back. This is very lazy. What is even worse though, is that on several occassions he mistakenly gets the name of atheist Sam Harris wrong. He writes it "Sam Smith". Not just once but on several occasions. It's definitely Harris though, since he refers to him specifically as the author of "Letter to a Christian Nation". As though this wasn't bad enough, he does it again in the case of the Polish woman Irena Sendlerowa (aka Sendler), whose name he writes "Sendlerova" (with a v, not a w). Surely Humphrys would know to be careful; his name has been written in innumerable incorrect permutations (Humphries, Humphreys...).

The end of the book summarises Humphrys' reluctance to give up on the idea of God, but he acknowledges that "atheists have the best arguments". So instead he presents God not as an intellectual concept, but an emotional one which is merely useful in getting through life.

But that is a simplistic view which is not sufficiently developed and over-romanticised by far in the book. It raises imporatant questions about the morality of believing something that is false, and that comfort does not confer truth content.

Throughout the book Humphrys says he would like to believe in God, but it is not well explained as to why he wishes this to be the case.

All in all, the first part is very worth reading for some original content and some great debates with major religious figures (e.g. on the problem of evil) and Humphrys gets into full stride with his scepticism. In the second half, we see an attenuated resistance to some nebulous idea of God, which Humphrys is sort of willing to embrace. But we don't know why, or what it is, other than that it has something to do with vague notions of love and beauty.
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on 12 February 2008
This is a puzzling, and unsatisfying, book. It is a spin-off from a Radio 4 series 'Humphrys in Search of God', in which he interviewed senior representatives of the three Abrahamic faiths - Rowan Williams, Tariq Ramadan and Jonathan Sacks - about the nature of, and reasons to believe in, God - specifically, a god who serves simultaneously as creator, judge and guardian. After introducing himself as a `genuine agnostic', he considers the issues under seven headings.

The first five are In the Beginning, which establishes the reasons for his own scepticism from childhood on; Battle Lines, which records the grounds of the debate and some major protagonists - Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath, William Lane Craig and Lewis Wolpert - and quotes some spectacularly meaningless theobabble from Keith Ward. The State of the Nation reports the results of a YouGov poll which he commissioned in the wake of the series, which seemed to indicate significant divergence between professed beliefs and practice; extracts from The Interviews, bringing out particularly the problems of suffering, evil and injustice, and the self-contradictions inherent in the three traditions; and Letters, extracts from his post bag following the broadcasts - by far the biggest he has ever had on any programme.

Throughout all these sections - three-quarters of the book - he maintains an impeccably sceptical stance, and I found myself wondering, Where's the wiggle room? What space is left for `and yet'?

Finally, in Conscience, we find out. And it comes in the form of a hybrid between what Dawkins has characterised as `the argument from personal incredulity', more usually encountered in support of Intelligent Design, and a simple yuk factor. Having earlier pointed out the patent absurdity of the assertion that there is no morality without God, he has this to say:
"Kindness, altruism, generosity, empathy and pity are the noblest of human virtues. To reduce them to a "strong urge" and to put lust into the same category is to suggest that we can no more help ourselves feeling pity that we can help ourselves feeling sexual desire. Follow this thinking to its logical conclusion and you reduce human beings to the level of a marauding, oversexed chimpanzee."
How often did Darwin himself, almost a century and a half ago, hear the same critique?

The meat of his argument here is about the roots of altruism, particularly when carried to heroic lengths - he cites Lisa Potts, seriously injured when she stood between her class of nursery-school children and a machete-wielding recipient of `community care', and Irena Sendlerova, who over an extended period smuggled thousands of Jewish children to safety from the Warsaw ghetto. Although such actions are very rare, compared with instances of standing by and acquiescing in clear breaches of received morality, he infers from them the presence of a `divine spark' - without however being very clear about its nature or distribution.

He has read The Selfish Gene, but clearly not understood it very well, because he says, of such conflicts between moral duty and self-preservation, `By any Darwinian measure the stronger is bound to be self-preservation.' And a little further on, `We cannot describe their actions in Darwinian terms.' I hope he means, `There is as yet no explanation for such phenomena that is agreed between evolutionary and cognitive scientists,' because otherwise he hasn't understood the nature of science any too well, either.

Finally, in Something .... Or Nothing, he calls on atheists to stop being so nasty about believers. Not all believers, he says, are obviously stupid, and not all religious belief leads to bad behaviour (although earlier on he has expressed significant reservations about the benevolence of the Sharia provisions about amputation and stoning). And, after all, it serves as a great source of consolation to millions of people.

OK, John, so you believe in belief. It's pretty hard not to. And you believe that its outcomes are not always as malign as some people make out. But what on earth has that got to do with whether or not it's true? Where does the `doubt' come from?
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on 20 June 2013
I bought this book based on what I have heard of John Humprey's on the radio, he has always seemed to me an established and respected, hard-hitting journalist who pulls no punches. I was expecting the same in writtem format but am actually very disappointed in his writing style. I expected more from someone of his experience and reputatation.

Firstly, most of the book seems derived from his personal opinion, he wavers here and there and presents what one might consider opposing views. However, he wanders off the point so often it dilutes his arguments and I often forgot the argument he was trying to make, as did he. Its a shame, since many of the positions he takes on are interesting philosophical points in themselves, but he seems overly to add his personal flavour - memories of his childhood experiences in church, for example - that do nothing other than detract from the topic.

The only parts that really make sense are when he quotes someone else - and two thirds in - he quotes from a certain "Sam Smith" for several paragraphs until I realised with absolute horror he actually meant Sam Harris! I was shocked that an established journalist would do such an abominable job on researching a book he was writing himself and still get the author's name wrong. He compounds the mistake by entering in almost mock dialogue ( "I'm sorry Sam, but I don't agree" - page 287 ) but by then the damage has been done and I feel I cannot trust this book any longer and I am no longer entertained or informed by his "hello mate" style of writing that reads more like a diary of a senile retired priest who cannot remember which church he used to work in.

Humphrys should be trying to build the reader's attention up to the climatic end when it is revealed he still cannot make up his mind about god, which is pretty much the same as at the beginning. But the sense of disappointment is almost as large as the meandering way we grind to the final chapter and as I get the close of the book, I find myself skipping entire paragraphs with the unexpected but pleasant result the book makes more sense that way.

Oh, and he did a radio show about it and got a bunch of letters from listeners that he quotes. You would probably be better off listening to the radio show on iplayer than buying this book. If you are still interested in getting hold of a copy, there will be one going cheap down at the local Oxfam very soon.

Sorry, John - stick to the radio.
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