on 13 October 2007
Humphrys has a problem. He doesn't believe in God, but finds the implications of a purely natural universe bleak and depressing. And so, like many, if not most atheists in the UK, he decides to call himself an 'agnostic' instead. Surely, if he looks hard enough, he can find some excuse to believe in 'something', thereby rescuing his worldview from the dark nihilistic depths of dreaded atheism? This book is like looking into Humphrys' mind while he argues with himself, a great clash of reason and denial.
The book is loosely divided into four parts. In the first part he discusses the common concepts of god, and in the second brings in his three interviewees from the "Humphrys in search of God" series to act as one side of the argument. Then in the third he prints and discusses some of the great many letters he received from listeners after the series aired. Finally, he discusses conscience, and comfort, and how they figure in the discussion about the validity, and utility of religion.
Humphrys doesn't like the resurgence of Enlightenment thinkers who are open about their disagreements with religion and he goes out to irritate those readers from the outset: characterising Richard Dawkins as a bully who 'knows there is no God', and who would tear a comfort blanket from a starving child in the name of truth, and dismissing Christopher Hitchens as a 'clever clogs'.
I couldn't help myself - I was annoyed by these characterisations, particularly because of the assumption being made that religion is a subject that ought to be afforded special gentility simply because many people have chosen to take those beliefs very seriously. But it's hard to imagine Humphrys describing as a bully a man who, say, vociferously attacks someone's political views because he believes them nonsensical, and religious belief is, after all, a choice.
However, I have to accept that, although if you page carefully through 'The God Delusion' you will never find Richard Dawkins claiming to 'know' there is no god, neither could it possibly be fair to label him arrogant or a know-it-all, this is precisely how a lot of people see him and we admirers of Dawkins must accept that. We ought to be aware of the way agnostics see us.
What is pretty unforgivable, however, are some of outrageous presumptions he makes later in the book about what atheists believe. It reaches its most offensive with a list of seven things that "sum up the attitude of those militant atheists". They include such monstrosities as "Believers are mostly naive or stupid", "The few clever ones are pathetic", and "If we don't wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed". His excuse for such virulent vilification? : "I make no apology if I have over-simplified their views with that little list: it's what they do to believers all the time." How...immature.
Well Mr Humphrys, I know a lot of atheists and I don't think they put a tick in any of your boxes. But even your tyrant of 'militant' atheism, Richard Dawkins, could not possibly be characterised with such superlatives. What Humphrys, like many self-described agnostics, is missing is a sense of just how ridiculous the world seems to someone who has come to see the great religions as superstition no less absurd than the almighty Xenu. It's hard to imagine Humphrys reining in his scepticism when discussing Ronald Reagan's use of astrologers to help him make presidential decisions, or Tony Blair's use of Tarot Readers or whatever other New Age claptrap his wife is into this week.
Sniping at atheists aside, the thing that strikes you most about the book as you're reading the first two-thirds of it is - in what sense is Humphrys not an atheist? In a slightly disordered, conversational way, Humphrys dismisses all the arguments for the gods of religion. He doesn't believe in any kind of benevolent, involved deity, and he is convinced of that. That makes him unambiguously an atheist - so what's all the soul-searching about?
He eventually shows his cards in the last few chapters, and it is a dreadfully disappointing hand, but, again, says a lot about the way people think. His first target is morality. He gives a laudable description of how evolutionary biology explains the origins of moral impulses (sniping at Richard Dawkins' reverence for Darwin as "perilously close to worship" on the way), but at the end asserts that there must be something more. How does he justify this? "Follow this thinking to its logical conclusion and you reduce human beings to the level of a marauding, oversexed chimpanzee. Kindness and the other virtues make us what we are...a world without kindness, altruism, generosity, empathy and pity would be unimaginable". In other words, he doesn't like the sound of there being no transcendental, other-worldly quality to our moral urges, therefore it can't be true. Way to go, denial! (And no real justification, of course, of the assertion that naturalism is nihilistic - personally I find more meaning and wonder in a material universe tamed by our subjective objectives than in a mechanistic one governed by an immutable moral law.)
He uses the terrible 'ought' argument of C.S. Lewis to back up his point. Apparently, if we're in a situation where two instincts are in conflict, one selfless and one selfish, we know that we 'ought' to do the selfless thing, such as risking ourselves to help someone in need. So what is driving this 'ought' judgement? The argument that follows is utterly scatter-brained, with facile assertions sharing space with arguments for one side that have already been addressed by the other. "By any Darwinian measure the stronger [urge] is bound to be self-preservation." Says who? Regarding the progress of the moral zeitgeist over the centuries, "We have only moved in one direction". This is either tautological, or false (we can hardly claim that the fall of Athens led to improvements in the moral baseline, to cite just one example). "We are more than the sum of our genes - selfish or otherwise". Is that so? He claims that the moral superiority of selflessness cannot be explained by social convention because if it were simply convention we would expect it to be different in different societies. He (and Lewis) never click that the veneration of selflessness may be a necessary property of society. In fact, no attempt is made to look for a biological or sociological explanation, it is simply asserted that there is none.
And finally he discusses the comfort that religion brings, and how dare we horrid atheists disturb that. I am open to the possibility that religion's sedative properties may outweigh its ill effects, but the arguments Humphrys uses are so lamely one-sided. For instance, he describes how a couple whose two daughters were killed in a road accident were able to come to terms with their loss through the knowledge that they had gone to heaven, and were even able to forgive their killer. No mention of the secular alternatives to wishful thinking, other than to dismiss them out of hand. No mention of the downsides of such denial - whether it might be easier, in the long term, to move on from such a loss if you've accepted they're really gone. No question that forgiving the killer was a noble thing to do.
Humphrys' style is casual, conversational, and sloppy. Quite apart from the mistakes that others have mentioned (calling Sam Harris "Sam Smith" for several pages must be considered almost unforgivable), he switches back and forth between points with no clear direction, spatters his rhetoric with childish retorts, fails to provide references for anything - like I said, it is like listening to him arguing with himself.
However, I'm marking up this book because it ought to be read. It gives a genuinely interesting insight into the minds of a great proportion of the population. Confused, and in deep denial. Just don't let Humphrys get away with the suggestion that the agnostic position is the 'hard' one. Hard to justify, yes, but trivially easy to take up without justification, as most people do.