You are hereIn God We Doubt - By John Humphrys

In God We Doubt - By John Humphrys

By Charles - Posted on 01 November 2007

Confessions of a Failed Atheist

"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? Charles Baily.............November 2007"



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