Douglas Adams
Can Rationalism find a story-telling prophet to rival Douglas Adams?

It was a winter’s day in London, gray, damp and cold, and the members of the Court of Humanism and Rationalism had gathered in Congregation to decide what to do.

“Why isn’t it working?” they asked each other. “We do our best. But still they go on believing in God, and it’s not even like it used to be, when you believed in God because he was the boss. Now they find excuses. ‘How do explain joy?’ they ask, ‘How do you account for Beauty?’ Symphonies and kittens on one side, ruddy prophets on the other. Have these sods ever read the Book of Ezra?"

“Anyway,” they told each other, “we have Pinker, we have Grayling ... In the name of all that’s secular, we have Dawkins.”

“He always seems a bit of a cross bugger,” said one, an elderly Fabian who had come down from his £6.2 million Hampstead house on the bus, wearing sandals, because everyone knows that is what Rationalists are like.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t use language,” said a young woman in a vaguely oriental dress who taught media studies to deprived children. She glared at the plump young man next to her, in trousers of rough tweed, who started slightly.

“And I’d prefer it if you didn’t use language,” he said, a tremor of fear in his voice: they had been recently married in a ceremony that involved few, if any, vows or promises, and were committed to a celibate marriage of minds. Because that is what everyone knew Rationalist Humanists were like

“The more language the better,” said a young woman with long legs, sapphire eyes, a DPhil, a PhD and a DSc (which is not what anyone thought Humanist Rationalists were like at all); “preferably funny. Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane / Honey of rose. George Herbert. Anyone who can write like that, I’d go to bed with them like a shot. Also anyone who can make me laugh. Or think.”

“Or laugh and think,” said her equally glamorous, gamine and curly-headed friend, who had just been awarded a DD for her work on the hamartiology of the Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, the unforgivable sin. (In the process of so close an acquaintance with her religion, she had lost her faith, left her church and then worried that in doing so she had herself committed the unforgivable sin. But she told herself that worrying implied remorse, which meant that she couldn’t have committed it. Her reasoning, despite her newish Rationalism, was still deeply Romish.)

“A girl who can make me laugh and think at the same time,” she added, “could have me on the spot, do anything she liked.” Which proved that she was a lesbian, and at least that was what everyone in the Real World knew Rationalists and Humanists were like. (Though the men of the Congregation were rueful, and found their Rationalism of little comfort and their Humanism sorely tried.)

The Chairperson of the Court of Humanism and Rationalism (whose gender remained a mystery, which is what everyone knew Chairpersons of Courts of Humanism and Rationalism were like) called the Congregation to order.

“So,” he or she said, “we are losing. Or at least not winning. Religion continues to spread its tentacles across the world, provoking violence, intolerance –”

“Can tentacles provoke things?” said the Fabian Rationalist, rationally.

“They can provoke anything they like in my book,” said the girl with sapphire eyes.

“There’s our problem,” said a woman munching an alfalfa-sprout sandwich, which is what lady humanists eat. “The Books. They’ve got stories, with prophets and saviours and angels and mad revenants. Ours aren’t stories. They’re just narratives.”

“Hitchens wasn’t,” said an affable Welsh dentist with a family in Cardiff and few cares in the world; nobody knew how he had been elected to the Court. “Hitchens was bollocks. He –”

“Language,” said the woman in the oriental dress.

“Language”, said the man in tweed trousers.

“Eff off,” said the Doctor of Divinity. “He’s right. It was bollocks. Specifically, post hoc ergo propter hoc bollocks. He assumed that, since religious groups tended towards intolerance and brutality, therefore god, or the idea of god, was inherently either (a) intolerant and brutal –”

“Have you read the Qur’an?” said a bearded man in a flannel workingman’s shirt (£129 from Toast). “Have you read the Bible? Have you read the Book of the Dead, the Liber Linteus? Have you read the Mahãbhãrata, the Nevi’im, the Mishnah, the Evangelion, the Kebra Negast, the Jinnõ Shõtõki, the Maitreya, the Tao Te Ching, the Dasven Padshah Da Granth? Have you read Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health? Have you read the Kephalia, the Haran Gawaita, the Tanak, the Arzhang?”

“Yes,” said the Doctor of Divinity.

The bearded man lowered his eyes and stroked the comfortingly soft cloth of his workingman’s shirt. Then he looked up again, triumphantly.

“Have you read... The Book of Mormon?”

“No,” she said. “But I enjoyed the musical. More than I enjoyed Hitchens’s false reasoning. All he showed was that people who bond together in big groups which know they are right are likely to behave badly. And how do they get the idea that they are right?”

“Books?” said the man from Hampstead, tentatively.

“Almost,” said the sapphire-eyed girl. “Holy books. The ones you know are holy books because they tell you they are, and they can’t be lying because holy books don’t lie.”

“It’s not just that,” said the Doctor of Divinity. “It’s the story. Always the same. You stumble along in the darkness and then along comes a god, a man, a god/man, a sacred bull, you name it, who reveals the sacred truth. There’s a lot of smiting and immolation and striving and death but in the end the truth prevails and everyone’s changed because now they know the secret truth. Classic five-act story.”

“But Rationalism tells a story,” said the Chairperson, knitting his or her brows. “Take Darwinian evolution: it tells a fascinating –”

“– narrative,” said the man in the rough tweed trousers. “Not a story. A story has structure, it has quests, it has people in it, who struggle and are changed, who love and fear and find out what they lack is what they most need, who defeat the monster and learn the secret and come back home battered and triumphant and sweep the helpless, admiring girl into their strong, sunburned arms and pin her... um... er...”

He fell silent, suddenly uneasy. The light of celibacy seemed to be fading from his wife’s eyes, driven out by a light of quite a different sort.

“So,” said the Chairperson, “what we are saying is, religion succeeds because it tells stories.”

“Not quite,” said the Doctor of Divinity. “Religion succeeds because it is stories. Ours are just explanations. We need stories, ones to beat theirs. To make us, as we agreed, laugh as well as think.” She looked meaningfully at the sapphire-eyed girl, who blushed irrationally.

“Twelve years, now,” said the Fabian from Hampstead.

“Who?” said the alfalfa woman.

“Douglas Adams,” said the Chairperson. “He was doing very well. I wonder how many converts he made. and then.... doink. We need another one.”

“Another Douglas Adams?” said the man in the workingman’s shirt.

“Not exactly.” said the Chairperson, “We need another ... a new...” The word seemed to taste bitter in his or her mouth. “Prophet.”

“What we need,” said the Doctor of Divinity, “is a competition.”


It was a summer’s day in London, gray, damp and cold. From the ante-room came the time-honoured sound of candidates coughing and shuffling their feet.

They were down to the last few, and so far the auditions had been disappointing. The next would-be Prophet cleared his throat and began his extempore parable.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a little, single bit who lived in the DataWorld with seven other bits at 0x0013:0005, which was generally considered a very nice address, even though it was just one among six billion, four hundred and forty two million, four hundred and fifty thousand, nine hundred and forty-three other addresses.

“Nobody ever called at 0x0013:0005, though they kept themselves alert and ready. All the same, our little bit was happy. She was nothing, a mere zero; but she knew it, and was content.

“Then one day a message came from On High. There were to be changes at 0x0013:0005! And it was our little bit who would be changed. Instead of 00101011, 0x0013:0005 would now be home to 00101111. A tiny jitter of electricity passed through our little bit and suddenly ... she was some one.”

There was a pause.

“It’s a pun,” said the Prophet, who was a computer scientist. “Someone/some one? Get it?”

“And?” said the man from Hampstead.

“And... er... so computer science teaches that our individuality is both fixed and mutable. And there’s no god.”

“Doesn’t work.”

“It’s a parable,” said the computer scientist.

“Douglas would have done it better,” said the alfalfa woman.

“Next!” said the Chairperson.

A saturnine evolutionary biologist strode into the room, looking cross.

“When you’re ready,” said the Chairperson.

“Right,” said the evolutionary biologist, saturninely. “Once upon a time there was a giraffe. Once before a time, though, there wasn’t. And the thing that wasn’t a giraffe thought, ‘How cool to eat those big fat juicy leaves and not have to fight for a share of grass.’

“So he strained and stretched and stretched and strained and every night he went to bed with a sore neck and every morning he woke up with a stiff neck, but soon he would be able to reach the juicy leaves, and so his children and his children’s children would be able to reach the leaves too, because he had been a good father and made an effort.

“And then he died of starvation, never having tasted the high, juicy leaves at all because you can only stretch your neck so far.

“And in another part of the vast savannah, at the very moment he died, a distant relation of his was looking down at her daughter and feeling sorrow; for with her unsightly long neck she would surely never find a mate.”

“Meaning?” said the woman in the vaguely oriental dress.

“Obviously,” said the evolutionary biologist crossly, “Lamarck was wrong, Darwin right, and nothing can speciate itself into existence, including gods. Let’s not complicate things by going into somatic DNA or methylation transferase because this is a parable, for god’s sake. And I didn’t just say ‘for god’s sake’ either.”

“Douglas would have said it better,” said the alfalfa woman.

“Next,” said the Chairperson.

The evolutionary biologist swept out, shouldering aside the Aristotelian logician who was trying to sweep in. Glittering golden spectacles rested on his analytical nose and a swept-back silver pompadour curled lightly on the collar of what should have by rights been a monasticopolydoctoral robe but, by wrongs, was a simple charcoal-grey jacket.

“Once upon a time is neither here nor there,” he murmured compellingly, so that the Court of Humanism and Rationalism had to lean forward to hear him. “Let us instead begin our parable with what we shall term P. Or, to be precise, P(1) being the first in a series of propositions. Assuming that P(1) → P(2) –”

“What did he say?” whispered the Chairperson.

“I think he said ‘→’,” said the Doctor of Divinity.

“Next,” said the Chairperson.

“But, listen, we can designate the process as ‘P(1)→ P(2)→ ... P(n)’ and thus...”

“Next,” said the Chairperson in a firm man- or-womanly voice.

The Aristotelian logician shuffled out, muttering. “Inductive process...” he grumbled; “...inherent truth-value zero... hence the paradox ‘T(1) ≠ T(1)’...”

His voice faded into silence, to be replaced by a celebrated deconstructionist whose appearance was only describable in terms of its difference from other men’s appearances.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “poses problems to the rational mind. Consider ‘once’ to begin with. It is haunted by the ghosts of an infinite number of other ‘onces’, from which it is valorised in our discourse –”

“Haunted?” said the Fabian from Hampstead.

“Ghosts?” said the Doctor of Divinity.

“Valorised?,” said the Chairperson. “Next.”

“What is this ‘next’? said the Deconstructionist. “It implies a “previous” and thus... I’ll get my coat. Insofar as it is a coat.”

“Douglas would have got it better,” said the alfalfa woman.

"Douglas, see,” said the Welsh dentist cheerfully, “is dead, isn’t it?”

“Next,” said the Chairperson. But the ante-chamber was silent and empty.

“So what do we do now? Where are we going to find our Prophet?” said the man in tweed trousers.

“We could always hire someone,” said the sapphire-eyed woman. “Like they did to write the extra Hitchhiker book.”

“Ah,” said the woman in the oriental dress, “and publish it under Douglas Adams’s name.”

“Nobody would believe it,” said the Fabian Rationalist.

“So,” said the Doctor of Divinity, “what if we say he ... came back? You know: rose again.”

“What sort of idiots would believe ...” said the man in the workingman’s shirt. His voice trailed off. A silence filled the room like incense.

“Well,” said the Chairperson, “there is, after all, a precedent...”

This piece is from the June/July 2013 issue of New Humanist. Subscribe