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John Humphrys


Confessions of a failed atheist

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

In 2006 John Humphrys interviewed three religious authorities—the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, and a prominent Muslim theologian—to see if they could restore his belief in God. The interviews on BBC's Radio 4 resulted in the biggest postbag Humphrys has received in 45 years of broadcasting, which tells us something about how the British public feels about religion. They also resulted in Humphrys' describing himself as a failed atheist. He began life as a convinced Christian but then became an atheist; now he seems not to be sure.

The book begins with an account of Humphrys' religious upbringing and his subsequent loss of faith, in which his experience as a foreign correspondent in many troubled parts of the world played a considerable part. He then presents selected extracts from the interviews, interspersed with his own comments. Next he prints some of the letters he received after the broadcasts, and he concludes with an account of where he stands now.

The problem of evil is a recurrent theme in all three interviews. Not surprisingly, none of the interviewees manages to convince Humphrys that they can offer a satisfactory explanation for how a God who is good and all-powerful can fail to prevent some of the bad things that happen. The most dramatic moment is certainly when the Archbishop admits that he can only "just" continue to believe in God in the face of human suffering.

While fully conceding the intellectual arguments against theism, Humphrys has little patience with ultra-sceptics such as Richard Dawkins, whose views come in for a fair amount of criticism. It simply won't do, he insists, to dismiss all believers as naïve or stupid. He cites as a counter-instance his friend Giles Fraser, an atheist turned theologian who freely admits the force of the arguments atheists bring against religion but finds that they do not invalidate faith because faith is not a belief in the truth of certain propositions. It is not grounded in rational argument. Ultimately people believe because they believe—because they can't help themselves. It is also, Humphrys implies, because belief is comforting. They want there to be something more than the material world. (Of course, Dawkins would no doubt say that this is just what is wrong with religion.)

Humphrys' own position is undecided.

For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and deeply implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.
As always, the problem stems from what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the religious temperament, which either you have or you don't have. Humphrys has it, although, as Nagel says, it does not provide an assurance that you can find what you are seeking.

This book doesn't offer any resolution to the issues it raises, but it provides an interesting snapshot of where religious belief stands in Britain today. I doubt if a similar set of interviews could be conducted in the USA, or, if it was, that it would end so non-committally.

%T In God We Doubt
%S Confessions of a failed atheist
%A Humphrys, John
%I Hodder and Stoughton
%C London
%D 2007
%G ISBN 978-0-340-95126-2
%P 322pp
%K religion

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