New Age Islam
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Books and Documents ( 22 Jul 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Book Review: In God We Doubt—Confessions of a Failed Atheist

By: Yoginder Sikand,

In God We Doubt—Confessions of a Failed Atheist

Author: John Humphrys

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, London

Year: 2008

Pages: 356

Price: 7.99 pounds sterling

ISBN: 978-0-340-97673-9


Religion and the truths that it claims to contain are undoubtedly among the most profound, and, at the same time, most perplexing dilemmas that humankind has always faced. Religions are based on unquestioning faith, and faith is necessarily not entirely amenable to rational proof, for otherwise it would cease to be itself and turn into a fact that does not require the ‘leap of faith’ that religion demands. Almost every religion claims to be the sole manifestation of ultimate truth. Almost inevitably, these conflicting claims lead to smug supremacism and endless battles, ideological or even physical, between different sets of religionists. All this and more prompts thinking folks to raise pertinent questions about religion and its contemporary relevance.

Central to most religions is the notion of a single god or multiple gods who are believed to be behind the creation of the cosmos and able to determine the fate of human beings, both in this life as well as in the life after death those religions speak of. Faith in god/gods—which cannot be proven nor debunked on the basis of reason—is what most religions are premised on.

For centuries, human societies have lived fairly comfortably with deeply-rooted beliefs in their respective religions. Though constantly warring among themselves as to whose religion was better or true, most pre-moderns did not challenge the fundamental premises of their own religions. Today, however, religions are facing a tremendous crisis from within. Many people simply no longer believe in them, refusing to be bound by the age-old traditions of their ancestors. Modernity, based on science and materialism, has raised crucial questions about both the veracity and relevance of traditional-style religions, and, in particular, about the god/gods that most of them speak of. Out of this crisis have emerged what Humphrys, award-winning journalist who has worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation for almost half a century, categorises as three broad responses: atheism, which completely denies the existence of supra-human beings, and therefore, religion altogether; religious fundamentalism, which insists that religion, and only a single one at that (and a particular interpretation of this sole supposedly true religion), represents the ultimate truth and that all else is un-distilled falsehood; and agnosticism, which places itself in between faith in god/gods and total denial.

Humphrys speaks for millions of people today when he honestly confesses to be an agnostic—or, as the title of this enormously absorbing book announces, a ‘failed atheist’ who doubts, although without adamantly denying, the existence of a personal god and the truth claims of various god-centric religions.

This book grapples with a range of burning questions that reflect the author’s painful struggle to provide ultimate meaning to human life by engaging with the claims of god-centric religionists and atheists alike. By identifying himself as belonging to neither camp, he indicates that many agnostics, who find themselves somewhat uncomfortably in between the two, scorned and reviled by both, are often more honest than their critics. Unlike god-centric religionists and atheists, they honestly admit that they do not know whether a personal creator god exists or not. Although Humphrys finds himself unable to believe in such a god or gods, he definitely is not an atheist, he says, spurning what many others might find an intellectually more convincing stance. This, Humphrys indicates, is in part because atheists, too, are bigoted believers in a way—they fanatically believe that god or any extra-normal realm or beings do not exist. Like the claims of their god-centric religionist opponents, they, too, cannot possibly rationally prove this belief of theirs, which they hold onto with a ferocity and passion that rivals that of convinced defenders of a creator god.

Brought up as a Christian, and then, in his younger days, having turned into an atheist, Humphrys explains why and how he now finds himself torn between the temptation to believe in a creator god and the intellectual and moral reasons for his inability to do so. Neither believing in nor denying such a god, he envies both religious believers and atheists for the comfort they enjoy in the surety of their respective faith positions. Yet, he assures us that the seeker of the ultimate truth—that is, if some such thing does indeed exist—cannot rest content with blind, untested and unproved faith in given truth-claims, which, ironically, unite both fanatic religionists and militant atheists together in the same camp and pits them against their agnostic rivals. Unlike firm and unwavering believers in religion or atheism, the agnostic, he tells us, has to suffer enormous torment for being unsure and sceptical of all grand narratives about ultimate questions, denied the solace that dogged belief, religious or atheistic, provides those who seek its shelter.

This book raises vital questions about the agnostic predicament, which Humphrys shares with millions of people today, many of who, fear to be publicly identified as such by atheists and religionists alike.  Humphrys elaborates at length as to why he cannot bring himself to believe in a personal creator god. Humphrys is ill at ease with what he contends are unscientific or patently absurd claims contained in the scriptures of god-centric religions, stories, such as those about what he sees as impossible ‘miracles’ that defy modern scientific findings and even the most basic canons of reason and logic. If these texts were truly the word of an all-knowing creator god, he points out, how do they contain such mind-boggling material? If god allegedly performed or caused such miracles when these texts were written in order to convince skeptics, why cannot ‘He’ do so now, under rigorously scientific testing conditions, so that a great people indifferent to ‘Him’ today might begin to believe, others might echo Humphrys in asking. This raises provocative questions about claims about the human element in the construction of religions, including scriptural texts (with adherents of one religion routinely accusing others of considering man-made books divine) as well as the shaping of such texts by the particular social contexts in which they are produced. And as to how prescriptions in most religious scriptures patently demeaning of what they brand as lesser beings (those outside their respective folds and women, in particular) can at all be reconciled with the notion of a loving creator god, agnostics like Humphreys argue that this is impossible. 

Most religions, Humphreys argues, perceive of an all-powerful creator-god who demands worship from humans, failing which he throws people into eternal torment in the fires of hell. How this belief squares with the notion of the same god as the epitome of love and compassion that believers claim ‘he’ is, Humphreys leaves to believers to sort out at the same time as he expresses his reluctance to buy their claims. Likewise, Humphreys questions the notion of absolute justice of such a god. If he were truly just and dispassionate, as those who believe in ‘Him’ insist he is, would ‘He’ not have caused all people to be born into families that followed what such religionists claim to be the one sole true faith (which they equate with their own, out of a bewildering multiplicity) so that everyone would have an equal chance of eternal life in paradise that they insist awaits ‘true believers’? Supposing, as each of these faiths claims, that they alone represent the truth and the sole path to heaven, was it just on the part of such a god to make for only some people to be born and socialized into the ‘right’ religion, while causing billions of others, for no fault of their own, to take birth in families and communities that presumably follow ‘false creeds’, as a result of which they come to believe in religions that, so it is argued, lead them to hell instead? Is it just for such a god to dump vast numbers of perfectly good people into hell simply because they did not follow the supposed one true religion while on earth? Humphreys finds the claims of religions that uphold such beliefs extremely problematic and impossible to accept on moral grounds.  The fact of the matter is that the notion of such beliefs have led  to untold bloodshed, all in the name of god, terrible wars of expansion and conquest and waves of terror directed against people of other faiths which continue into our own times.

The fact that the vast majority of people who fervently insist that their religion is true—indeed, the sole path to winning god’s favour—are born into families associated with that particular faith clearly suggests for agnostics that such religions are social constructs and that, therefore, the triumphalist claims that they make for themselves are suspect. Being socialized into believing the monopolistic claims of their particular religion by their parents and communities, they passionately hold onto this belief with dogged sincerity, refusing to even concede that they might well be wrong. Such inherited association with a particular religious tradition, which is almost always the norm, clearly indicates that most believers are simply fear to think beyond what their families and communities have programmed them into believing.

Another problem that Humphrys has with most god-centric religions is the belief that the god they posit desperately desires to be worshipped and that this is precisely why ‘He’ created human beings. However, at the same time, this god is believed to be beyond all desires or wants. Agnostics might consider this a contradiction that no amount of apologetics or theological tricks can resolve. God-centric religions, Humphrys writes, also face the dilemma of satisfactorily explaining human suffering. If the god they proclaim is indeed all-loving and all-merciful as well as all-powerful, as they proclaim, why does ‘He’ allow the suffering of innocents on such a massive scale? Can he not intervene and prevent it, agnostics like Humphrys never cease to ask. After all, most normal human beings would do their bit to help people in distress. Humphrys is clearly uneasy with religionists who insist that much of human suffering, including of innocent people, represents the unquestionable will of god, and who even go to the extent of blessing various forms of oppression, such as based on class, ethnicity and gender, as divinely-mandated. Such a belief cannot be reconciled with the notion of absolute justice and with any notion of compassion, he insists.

Believers in a creator-god might reply to Humphrys’ legitimate critique by claiming that God can indeed intervene to stop human suffering but that ‘He’ chooses not to, for that would interfere with the gift of free-will that they say ‘He’ has granted us. But if what they say is true, why does such a god demand that believers constantly turn to ‘Him’ in prayer, promising them that ‘He’ would intervene in their lives to answer their earnest requests, including through miraculous intervention and even by destroying their opponents? Is such supposed divine intervention not tantamount to god ‘Himself’ defying human free-will, asks Humphrys in anguish. And, he further questions, why is it that this god often refuses to answer the honest prayers of millions of suffering people while, so it is believed, ‘He’ responds with alacrity to the prayers of selected others?

Subjecting conventional understandings of religion and god to thorough critique, Humphrys then critically interrogates atheism for what he considers are its equally problematic truth-claims. He notes that just as it is impossible to prove the existence of god (whether within or beyond conventional religion), so, too, is it not possible to disprove him. Atheists might offer good reasons to doubt god as conventionally conceived of by most religionists, but, yet, they cannot finally and entirely convincingly demonstrate ‘His’ non-existence. To those who insist that the creation of the cosmos owed simply to fortuitous physical factors Humphrys raises the perplexing question, to which they have no satisfactory answer, of how life emerged from purely physical matter. Can a mere combination of atoms suffice, without an external force, to infuse life into them and, in this way, create a living organism, as atheists claim? Humphrys doubts whether this is at all possible. If atheism is taken to its logical culmination, he suggests, it can lead to complete meaninglessness, a disconcerting sense that our lives ultimately have no objective or higher purpose at all. It can, though not necessarily, even lead to questioning basic morality, as the hideous and blood-curdling experiments of Stalin and Mao so dramatically illustrate. No less dehumanizing is the mindless consumerism and crass materialism that such a position might conduce to.

Subjecting both conventional god-centred religions as well as atheism to incisive critique on logical, historical as well as moral grounds, Humphrys confesses that he still remains as unconvinced as before by both. He painfully recognizes that his agnosticism is a burden that he is forced to carry if he is to be true to his conscience, for he cannot, in all honesty, consent to either position. At the same time, he pines—and this is to be expected—for the surety of faith, the psychological comfort of the confirmed belief of the devout believer. But, he indicates, failing a personal and real extra-normal experience, he can hardly be blamed for not counting himself among the believers in a personal god whose faith he so desperately craves for but cannot presently accept.

Humphrys’ is not a voice in the wilderness, for he echoes the anguish of many others like him who struggle to seek some ultimate meaning and purpose in life that appears to constantly elude them. What, then, is the way out? Are agnostics condemned for life to hover in the limbo between denial and faith, a predicament that can be painfully tormenting? Must they suffer the pangs of uncertainty throughout? An easier option might be to simply give up questioning and to blindly accept the truth-claims of either party—religionists or their atheist critics—and thus put a stop to their seemingly endless quest for truth. But, for honest agnostics like Humphrys who insist on being true to their conscience and refuse to assent to truth claims without having personally experienced them to be genuine, this is no option at all.

Might Humphrys have been able to wriggle out of the torment that he faces by raising the possibility of understanding God from outside the frameworks of conventional religion? Is it possible to re-imagine the divine in a way that accords with contemporary moral sensibilities and intellectual expectations? Humphrys does indeed refer to alternate ways of imagining god other than those cherished by most run-of-the-mill believers, and he indicates that many people find such alternate images more meaningful. Yet, he suggests that even these do not fully satisfy him.

Might a more acceptable solution be to re-imagine religion itself, rather than just reformulating the notion of god alone? Buddhists, for one, might heartily agree, for Buddhism is one of the few religions that have no room for the notion of an all-powerful, dictator-like creator-god which Humphrys finds it impossible for him to accept. Might the answer to Humphry's questions be found there? Whatever be the case, Humphrys’ painful grappling with the most fundamental questions of life is a gripping story of an honest seeker’s quest. Fascinating and definitely inspiring.