Paul Arnott is keen to distance himself from the pack of writers – pro-, anti- and even sometimes indifferent to religion – who have sought to ride on the coat-tails of the huge success of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. "I didn't set out to tangle with him, or his ilk," the author and television producer explains at the start of these "adventures of a devout sceptic". But he can't then resist a dig: "In the words of Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky's The Idiot, 'Atheists always seem to be talking about something else.'"
I'm afraid I felt much the same about Arnott's amiable but ultimately pointless book. If his aim is to explore the everyday search for religious meaning in the midst of busy lives, then he ends up writing about something else altogether. Namely himself, and his parochial experience of growing up in the London suburbs in the Seventies with well-meaning adoptive parents, attending a fairly traditional school, going on educational trips, and getting erections on Sri Lankan beaches at the sight of topless German tourists.
Granted, there is a mild dose of religion and fairy tales at home, as well as at school, and as an adolescent he does worry about the meaning of life (he was trying out being a Buddhist when the uninhibited sun-seekers distracted him), but it all feels so very inconsequential. You carry on hoping that he might, eventually, get to something enlightening, but instead, like his adolescent interest in God, it all just fizzles out into banality. He now lives next door to the local vicar, doesn't go to church that often, but is a parish councillor.
To be fair, Arnott does write fluently, but fluency alone is not enough to sustain 230-odd pages without a subject. Stories are drawn out beyond endurance, and classroom tales, such as throwing sandwiches at an off-duty policeman on a train, can't even have been funny for 12-year-olds. Chapters are kept short, with plenty of blank pages in between to pad out the flow of disconnected anecdote.
The whole buckles under the stress. As do individual lines. Describing the first time he heard the word "Sikh", he says it made him think of "a spy looking for a lost ruby or something". Or something, indeed.
Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: a Traveller's Guide' is published by HarperCollins
Sceptre, £14.99. Order for £13.49 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
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