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In God We Doubt by John Humphrys (2007)

Book review: In God We Doubt: Confessions of a Failed Atheist by John Humphrys (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008 [2007])

Throughout the ages, believers have been persecuted – usually for believing in the wrong god. So have non-believers who have denied the existence of God as superstitious rubbish.

Today, it is the agnostics who are given a hard time. They are scorned by believers for their failure to find the faith and by atheists for being hopelessly wishy-washy and weak-minded. But John Humphrys is proud to count himself among their ranks.

In his award-winning Radio 4 series Humphrys in Search of God he challenged religious leaders to prove that God does exist. It provoked the biggest response of anything he has done in half a century of journalism. It had a profound effect on him too – but not in the way he had anticipated.

This book is a devastating indictment both of the militant atheists who sneer at religion and the fundamentalists who use it to justify evil. It says doubt is the only answer to the most profound question facing humanity.

This book was lent to me by a friend, who read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and found … well, not God, obviously. He also lent me said atheist manifesto, which I managed to drop in the bathtub (bought him a brand new copy as a replacement) and still haven’t been able to finish, or even get half-way through. It’s just a bit … dull, you know? In God We Doubt, the born again atheist friend told me, is “a wishy-washy fence-sitting book”. I got about half-way through quite a while back and when he asked for my opinion, it was “yes, it IS a wishy-washy fence-sitting book”. Then I somehow put it aside for a year or two and only recently decided to continue and finish it.

It’s a quick and easy read, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m wondering if John Humphrys (or “the guy off of Mastermind” to me) got splinters up his bum from sitting on that fence. If it was a book about a fictional character who struggled to come to terms with his God-doubting, you’d expect him to reach some sort of conclusion in the end – he’ll make his mind up, somehow, that there either is a god, or there isn’t. This never happens. It ends, just as it begins and has been all the way through, with a “well, there might be, or there might not be – who knows?” And where’s the fun in that?

I’m not really sure why this book was written, to be honest, because it’s not going to make atheists find religion, nor is it going to make a religious person become an atheist. It just sits there, being mostly harmless, saying both sides sort of have a point but both go about it wrong. If the point is to hold the hand of agnostics and say it’s okay to be on the fence, sure, job done.

For someone like myself, who is somewhere nicely in the middle, In God We Doubt is completely redundant, simply because there’s no point to it. It’s preaching to the crowd already, and I don’t need a book to tell me what I already know.

See, I’m technically atheist, because I believe in the non-existence of God, and that’s the whole point of atheism. It’s not “not believing in God” (which acknowledges a presence), it’s “believing God doesn’t exist” (which doesn’t). However, which is where I agree with Humphrys, atheists tend to be too severe and too judgmental – often to an eerily similar degree as the overly religious, whom neither them, nor I, can abide – which is why I can’t in good honesty poke my head up and call myself one of them. After all, in the same breath as atheists shoot religions down, they also target people having any kind of faith in general and who believe in things which science (as of yet) have been unable to explain. Hey, just because I don’t believe there’s an all-powerful, all-knowing God somewhere out there doesn’t mean I can’t believe in other things that DO make sense to me and that makes life just a little more magical!

Belief is a wonderful thing to have, as is faith. Humphrys talks about a security blanket (similar to what I learned when doing a course in the Psychology of Religion), and yes, realistically, all the kind of beliefs in what happens to us when we die and so on is nothing but a mental teddybear, a coping mechanism. Which I happen to think is fine. If believing in God and/or following some kind of faith makes you live life as a better person, both with regards to how you treat yourself and others, and it makes you happy (but not to the point where you’re sticking it down everyone else’s throats until they agree with you), that’s fine by me. Whatever floats your boat. Like Humphrys, I think we’d be better off just saying “let’s just agree to disagree, shall we?”

That being said, I also think agnosticism is a bit of an indecisive cop-out. But then again, I tend to think of things in a pretty straightforward way: either you believe there’s a god, or you don’t, surely? But anyway, this is supposed to be a book review, not an “atheists are as bad as fundamentalists and I detest them both for their overzealous lack of common decency”. The book is okay. Might provoke a few thoughts in those who are unsure of what to believe, or it might not. Either way, you’re probably not going to be bowled over. 3 out of 5 potential deities.

Traxy Thornfield

A Swedish introvert residing in Robin Hood Country (Nottingham, UK) with a husband and two cats. She's an eager participant in tabletop and play-by-post roleplaying, woodworking, photography and European travel. Will get a novel out one of these days, if she doesn't get too distracted along the way.

3 thoughts on “In God We Doubt by John Humphrys (2007)

  1. Hi Traxy,

    As you might have guessed, this book intrigued me. When you think about it, a firm agnostic won’t be swayed any more than those at either end of the spectrum. Is there really anything anybody can say to me? My friend, an avowed agnostic, said at this point the question of God becomes irrelevant. It has no bearing on how she chooses to live.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I’m tempted to read it.

  2. Hi judiang! You bring up an interesting point. 🙂 Another one would perhaps be “Why should anyone have to be swayed either way?” Yet that’s where the two extremes (heavily religious vs atheists) both fail. Which is probably why I’ve issues with both. You never really see an agnostic trying to persuade anyone that God “might or might not” exist, but people get terribly up in arms about that he DOES or DOESN’T. Funny that.

  3. Good review Traxy. Kudos to you for sticking your neck out to tackle such a touchy subject. I don’t like the zealots on either side of the argument. (Why does it have to be an argument)? On one side you need to believe to save your soul so they feel the need to save you from yourself (an honourable thing to endeavour, but usually unwelcome and unnecessary). On the other side, they wish to spout their superior intellectualism by calling into question your beliefs as being mere superstitions. I have my own beliefs, which are quite personal and somewhat unique. If someone wants to hear them I would be glad to share, but I wouldn’t think of shoving them down someone’s throat, or belittling their own beliefs.
    I think everyone owes it to themselves to study all the great philosophies out there and come to their own informed and personal opinion. As you say, ‘whatever floats your boat’ or to quote John Lennon ‘whatever gets you through the night’.
    Thanks sharing your thoughts.

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