'In God We Doubt' by John Humphrys (2007)

In God We Doubt - John Humphrys

John Humphrys, In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008), 356pp


In writing this review, I feel compelled to point out that I am an atheist. Sort of. I don't hold onto my atheistic opinions quite as belligerently as some others do, and occasionally I think I might be more of a pantheist. Other times I think I am an agnostic with a soft spot for atheism. So I thought I would be able to identify with John Humphrys' confusion and doubt about where to pitch my tent on the ideological battlefield. I didn't expect answers, but I did expect coherence. Instead, I found a muddled, wishy-washy book that doesn't really say anything of interest or value.

Aside from the dishonest woolly-mindedness of the argument Humphrys presents (which I'll get on to later), the book as a piece of writing was also underwhelming. I didn't hate the book. At certain points, I thought I might actually like it. But I realised that the moments at which I enjoyed it were largely because I like reading about this topic in general (atheism vs. religion/faith vs. reason); the bits I liked were not the points Humphrys was making but my own thoughts that were running parallel in my head as I was reading, quite different from what was on the page. The arguments that Humphrys presents are largely insipid and his examples poorly chosen, which seems strange for such a well-respected journalist. At points, he seems to be giving an example or telling an anecdote simply because he found it interesting or because it was there, rather than to back up any idea. When he isn't quoting the arguments of others and prepares to provide his own opinions on a certain point, his summation is always along the line of "maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong, who knows?" Books advocating a certain view (here, agnosticism) need to have the courage of their convictions, but Humphrys at times does not convince that he even knows what he is saying, let alone believes it.

His overall argument, at least as far as I could scrabble one together from the various ramblings, is poor. He says he is on the side of the ordinary people who believe in a higher power, but do not follow a religion. Well, first of all, this is more akin to pantheism than agnosticism, but semantics aside, the claim that faith is good because it "feels" right is rather childish. Humphrys compares faith at one point to a small child's comfort blanket. Others have made this comparison before, but where Humphrys differs is that, astonishingly, he does not see this as a bad thing. In contrast to all other arguments that I've heard use this analogy, for Humphrys the comparison is a favourable one. Believing in a god because it is comforting does not mean that God is real, any more than wanting to believe in Santa Claus or in unicorns makes them real. You can't will them into existence because you want them to be there. Sure, it would be nice if there really was a jolly fat magic man who gives out presents to children every year, but that doesn't mean that there is one. Making the connection between a warm, fuzzy feeling in your gut and the existence of a supreme universal power is fatuous to say the least.

My second biggest problem with Humphrys' argument is that he believes faith to be a benign influence for the most part, and that it is the aggressive advocacy of atheism that we should watch out for. He suggests atheism is a 'belief', the same as religion; at one point he asks us: "What if, instead of 'cosmologists and physicists' we substituted 'priests and theologians' and instead of 'multiverse' we substituted 'God'? Beginning to sound a bit like religion, isn't it?" (pg. 51). Well, no, it's not, because the comparison is dishonest. He is right to point out that both religion and science are trying to provide an explanation of the world around us and how it came into being, but that's as far as the comparison can go. Religion holds onto a single worldview for thousands of years, with some minor variations of the theological dogma, and holds a single 'holy' book written thousands of years ago by unknown men as its foundation, its 'proof'. Atheism, advocating the scientific method, is constantly creating new theories and opinions, and revising or discarding old ones. An atheist's worldview is based on objective evidence and observations, not a subjective book of poetry and prose. Each atheistic argument or scientific theory has its advocates, of course, but if the evidence points elsewhere, you move on. If the evidence pointed towards a god, atheists might acknowledge that. But it doesn't. Not even close. The difference between atheism and religion is that my atheist views are my own, reached through rational contemplation and study. There are other atheists who have different views from myself. There is no atheist guild or church instructing me to hold a certain theory to heart.

Beyond this, Humphrys doesn't seem to have an understanding of what atheism really is, or atheists really are. As I mentioned above, he says he is on the side of the ordinary people who believe in a higher power, but do not follow a religion. But he doesn't condemn the god-botherers who want to convert them, who want to make them sheep and bring them into the fold. Rather, he resents the atheists, wants them to stop being so beastly to believers and agnostics, thank you very much, and says that they don't understand the real world "outside the walls of their intellectual ivory towers" (pg. 352). Well, I'm an atheist. (I think. See my first paragraph above.) I consider myself intelligent, but not intelligent enough to lay claim to an 'ivory tower'. I live in a modest semi-detached house in Manchester; it's pissing down with rain as I'm writing at this very moment. Yes, some of the more prominent atheist advocates can appear smug and academic, but many, like myself, aren't and are genuinely concerned and alarmed by the ease with which our fellow human beings are lured by mystics and charlatans and bigots (along with a few well-meaning but unimaginative conformists). They aren't atheists so they can lord it over their fellow human beings and mock their beliefs; they're as honest and decent as the agnostics and doubtful believers that Humphrys lionises.

Most unforgivably, Humphrys equates atheism with materialism and consumerism; that a world without the spirituality of religion and driven by atheism would turn "vacuity into virtue" (pg. 352). Aside from the fact that, prior to this baffling assertion in the book's final pages, he had not even attempted to make such a link between atheism and materialism, it is also erroneous that atheists champion such shallowness. Most, even the "militant" atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens that Humphrys denigrates, instead ally atheism with humanism, coherently argue how altruism fits neatly into Darwinian theory, and profess that the wonder of science and the natural world is more remarkable and awe-inspiring than any malevolent god conjured up by the sick minds of Iron Age tribes. Hardly vacuity. The truth is, Humphrys really wants to be a believer; In God We Doubt is a longing for faith. He says, on page 147, that he would like to believe in God but, to his dismay, cannot bring himself to accept any of the religions or their 'proofs'. This is not the same as an agnostic who sits on the fence and, with sound mind, accepts doubt as the only rational response to the Big Question. Rather, Humphrys is sat on the fence but gazes adoringly and enviously at the believers' side of the field. He freely admits that atheists "have the best arguments" (pg. 311), but he longs for that warm, fuzzy feeling inside provided by faith, longs for the peace of mind provided by not having to think for oneself. He wants to let go, to surrender: he wants that exhilaration of stepping off the ledge. In the end, I just felt rather sorry for him.