Books: The things we believe
Sunday 31 January 1999
by Ludovic Kennedy Hodder pounds 18.99
The broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy has been celebrated in recent years for exposing miscarriages of justice. Here, though, he is leading the prosecution, and God is in the dock. The case against the Defendant is that people have been misled into believing in him and worshipping him. He has done nothing to deserve this. Quite the opposite. Besides, He doesn't exist.
Kennedy isn't the only person who was an atheist in short trousers, although in his youth it was undoubtedly a more daring outlook than it would be now. But true agnosticism is surely a stronger position: not that we don't know, but that we can't know whether there's a God or not. Kennedy's fundamentalist diatribe against organised religion is likely to push the undecided into the clap-happy camp.
His style of argument may have swayed a lot of men in wigs but it doesn't read well. He piles up his evidence like so many silk-bound bundles as he batters away at the long history of organised religion in the West, before turning to the much shorter history of atheism, organised and disorganised. Authorities are used mob-handed. By the time everyone from Tom Paine to Karen Armstrong has given the New Testament a good kicking, who could possibly believe it? And it's true that these accounts of what went on in Palestine 2,000 years ago hardly qualify as rigorous historical writing. They are about as reliable as a police officer's notebook. But that doesn't make them untrue.
Most of us are prepared to use our imaginations when we consider the ancient world, just as we are when we think about Shakespeare, whose life is almost as mysterious as that of the Bethlehem-born carpenter and religious leader. The problem with Kennedy, as with his co-atheist Richard Dawkins, is the literalism with which he approaches the world. He employs not so much a sword as a neutron-bomb of truth: he leaves a few historical people, beliefs and structures standing, but wipes out beauty and mystery.
The book includes several autobiographical interludes, and they are the most interesting passages, because here Kennedy is prepared to leave behind his protective phalanx of experts. His reductive distaste for the vagaries of religion began early. He recalls being made to recite the Apostles' Creed, which says that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born to a virgin, died, descended into hell and three days later came back to life and ascended into heaven.
"I did not know then and I do not know now what all this meant," he says. But this is absurd. You might as well ask what is "meant" by a baby's smile, or a piece of fruit, or a burst of Miles Davis. None of them "mean" anything in that sense, but they are mysterious and beautiful. Anyone who really wants to attack supernatural belief has to deal with that, not pretend he doesn't understand the question.
Worse is the personal rudeness he adopts on occasions. For instance, he quotes the Archbishop of York, improvising about the Virgin Mary. "When I read paragraphs like these," he says, shaking his head ruefully, "I have to ask myself what a grown man like Dr Hope thinks he is doing, peddling such fantasies as though they were historical fact." Tut, tut, Dr Hope. Whereas when Kennedy recycles a Spectator columnist's remarks on an unnamed priest "who dropped dead among the giggles and slaps of a homosexual sauna", that presumably constitutes serious debate.
With atheism, Kennedy is on firmer ground. Freed from the necessity to lash out, he gives us an interesting historical account of what is less well-trammelled territory. And in the end, after 260 pages of telling us what he does not believe and what other people should not believe, he finally tells us of some of his own truths. The chapter "Touching the Transcendent" recounts briefly Kennedy's own "peak experiences" of nature and art, coupling them as ever with notes on his reading, including the highlights of great poems, notably Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey".
Wordsworth, of course, wrote about "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused ...". He didn't have "a sense sublime / Of nothing". And the "transcendent" must mean something beyond and above our existence, not in our own minds all the time.
Perhaps Kennedy, now pushing 80, protests too much. He says he's an "a- theist": but his loathing of the blood-stained personal God of Judaeo-Christian history need not stop him having a faith, should he require one. There are plenty to choose from, even if his coverage sticks largely to Christianity. Meanwhile, thanks to mishandling and muddle on the part of the prosecution team, God would seem to have good grounds for an appeal.
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