The God Desire
by david baddiel
harpercollins, 112 pages, $14.99
I almost never read books by atheists—not since the time I spent several days reading Christopher Hitchens’s cliché-ridden God Is Not Great, which I was forced to get to grips with before debating him at a Dublin literary festival back in 2007. At the end of our discussion, he rather charmlessly said, “I don't know what kind of religion you're talking about, but it's not one I've ever come across.” To which I replied: “You’ve spent the past two years in your den, conjuring up all kinds of fanatics and fundamentalists, and now you’ve come out you can’t find any!”
Hitchens was full of neurosis and rage, in what appeared to be a requisite conformity with other New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins, A. C. Grayling, Stephen Fry, and Sam Harris. The night before our public debate, we had dinner within a few feet of each other, on opposite sides of the table, and he had studiedly avoided eye contact with me for three hours.
David Baddiel is different. A former comedian on British TV, he is an atheist, but he is not a pain in the neck. His most recent book, The God Desire, is either the beginning of a new, gentler cultural attack on faith, or a shrewd capturing of the zeitgeist of our secular-atheist age. For Baddiel expresses both the skepticism of our time and the desire to be beyond it.
He is the kind of atheist I rather like, a bit like the Oxford don I once debated at University College Cork on the motion “Our Societies No Longer Have Need of God.” Professor Peter Atkins, an exceptionally pleasant man, did not, in the manner of many of his fellow atheists, maintain the tone of the debate when it had ended. As we walked across the campus afterward, I jokingly said to him that it was somewhat ironic, given his vehemence in the argument, that of the two of us, I alone had any chance of being vindicated. He asked me what I meant. I said, “If you are right, neither of us will ever know, whereas if I am right, we’ll both know!” He laughed, fell silent for a moment and responded: “It’s much worse than that, John. I’m afraid, because if you’re right, I am going to be very happy!” Baddiel strikes me as made in the same mold.
He describes himself as a “fundamentalist atheist.” His essential thesis is that God doesn’t exist, but that the desire for him persists, including in Baddiel himself. Despite an endorsement from Stephen Fry on the back cover, the book proves to be quite interesting, if only because it is not the usual unpleasant and supercilious 90,000-word sneer. In fact, it can be read in a single sitting, and there are but a handful of sneery bits.
Baddiel has summed up his case against God by page six, rendering the rest of the book a merely entertaining account of his Jewish confusion and terror of death. “It confuses me at times,” he writes, “just how Jewish, despite, or rather through, my atheism, I am.” He sometimes participates in the rituals and prayer life of his community, though without believing it offers anything more than consoling symbols. “I am moved by Jewish survival,” he writes. “I am moved by it comically, when, before every dinner that marks every Jewish festival, some guest says, ‘They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.’”
“Most arguments for atheism are philosophical,” he writes on page five, “sometimes tying themselves in knots grappling with the issue of how they can prove the non-existence of something. At heart they are based on the idea that there is no evidence for God’s existence, therefore He doesn’t exist.” And that, he suggests, might be the end of it, but it isn’t. There is no evidence for the existence of dark matter, he remembers, and yet we are disposed to believe in it and call this belief rationalism.
His argument, he explains, is “‘in a general sense’ psychological.” “It requires an admission, which frankly most atheists, I’ve noticed, are not prepared to make. Which is: I love God. . . . Who would not love a superhero dad who chases off death?”
He rejects the “macho” disposition of much atheism, including, by implication, some or all of the New Atheists. “Some atheists,” he writes, “divine—correctly—that what religion provides for human beings is comfort, and then, in a way that can feel a bit adolescent, they feel impelled to say, essentially, ‘Comfort? That’s for babies.’”
The God Desire, he claims, arises because human beings fear oblivion and therefore seek a way of eliding, if not death, at least the thought of death. But this, he insists, is delusional, which is the part he appears really to object to. He likes the idea of eliding death, even if only the idea of it. He believes that life is better than death, even though, as he has often heard atheists claim, you won’t know you’re dead when you are.
Though not a spectacularly original book, The God Desire is interesting as well as funny in parts. When it is not swiping at the liberal's usual bogeymen like Trump and Putin, the book is strongly marked by Baddiel’s mordant humor, as much directed at himself as everyone else. He avoids getting into what he calls “sixth form arguments” about God’s existence, simply declaring that there is no evidence, and that is that. He also side-steps the debates about why this might not necessarily be a good thing for human society, stating simply that this is not his concern. His focus is purely on the “truth” or otherwise of God. He takes no responsibility for the consequences of atheism. He’s the kind of comedian that makes you laugh even if you don’t agree with much of what he clearly believes, and he emerges as a rather likeable—if smug and myopic—child of his generation (i.e. very late Boomer/early Gen Xer), who sees everything through a viewfinder that he imagines to be rational but is actually merely fatalistic.
The fundamental problem with Baddiel's argument is that, like most liberals, he accepts the seeming obviousness of the everyday—he admits to no wonder about everyday existence and cannot seem to conceive that wonder itself is rather more than a feigned expression of astonishment, a constant “Wow!”
“I like wonder,” he writes later. “‘But I am obsessed with truth, and I think wonder, like God, is a projection. The universe can be seen as beautiful and amazing, but it can also be seen as rocks floating in space. And maybe the closer truth is the lump of rocks one—maybe the wonder is something we’re bringing to the lumps of rock. I mean, let’s face it: we’re the only ones feeling the wonder. The lumps of rock certainly aren’t, nor are they arranging themselves in beautiful fractals for our benefit.”
David Baddiel and I have the same birthday, May 28, although he is nine years my junior. I will recklessly calculate, therefore, that he was conceived on September 4, 1963. Were we to randomly run into one another on our journey though this plane of existence, and I to find myself sitting across from him in a railway station cafeteria, I would propose to him that he situate his imagination—stripped of physicality, history, and sensate faculties—in the day before he erupted as a twinkle in his father’s eye, and concentrate on a single, simple question: What, on this third of September, 1963, this last day of your lengthy non-existence, do you think might be possible in the future? Can you, in your nothingness, imagine the sky or the mountains, your mother or an ice-cream cone?
And of course he could not. I'd like to then point out to him how spectacular our existence has been, and how much we would have missed if we had never been born—we have both enjoyed rich and eventful lives in a world that we would have been equally incapable of foreseeing on the day before we began them. How is it possible, with so much to wonder at about life and existence, to become fixated on nothingness as though this were the default state of being?
The problem of the implausibility of God in contemporary society is not one of faith so much as perspective. Really, it has nothing to do with chronological time, progress, evolution, or intelligence, but with the decline of certain ways of engaging with reality, such as true, profound wonder, which is really only achievable in a recovery of the innocent enthusiasm we felt as children.
Reality loses its flavor when you take it for granted. One consequence of this is that we fail to be astonished by our own existence, and so take for granted everything that “merely” is. Our use of reason blocks us because it prevents us from harmonizing with the unfathomable mystery of reality and asking ourselves what might be possible if what is was not.
Of course, constant wonder would be a profoundly tiring state. But the important thing is to remember that this state exists, and so we should never seek to make definitive decisions about the limits of the possible until we remind ourselves again of what it is like to be an open-mouthed child before the majesty of reality.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.
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