The God Desire (TLS Books) by David Baddiel
Comedians are acute observers of the human condition; they feed back to us our vulnerabilities, hypocrisies and denials, making us laugh at ourselves in recognition of our own frailties. David Baddiel is also an acute observer of his own condition – insomniac because his mother told him that “death is like a long sleep that you never wake from”. Terrified of his own mortality at age six, he has always desired a caring God who offers the comforting promise of a life-ever-after. In his new book, Baddiel places his desire for the deity at the heart of the death issue, making it his key proposition as to why humans have religion.
God, as Baddiel acknowledges, not only offers personal comfort but sits at the heart of a religious-cultural package, offering explanations for the world we experience. Stories are key to religion’s appeal, and Baddiel suggests in the book that Christianity provides stronger narratives than his own Jewish cultural inheritance. He believes Christianity offers the most successful hero-based story ever told, along with a compelling promise of life after death, which hardly exists in Judaism. The reader is taken along on his personal journey, including the anguish he feels first in acknowledging why we have the idea of God, and second, why he must abandon it. Ultimately, Baddiel concludes that precisely because his desire for this personal God is so strong, there cannot actually be such a deity. He wields his wit as a rapier with which to pierce the bubbles of our misconceptions, while also providing conciliatory insight into how we deal with the existential horrors of human life.
Alongside narratives of why we cling, like children, to the gods we have invented, the book explores why it is so hard to be an atheist. Having rejected the God he desires, Baddiel takes a look at alternative “higher authority” concepts to God, such as Brian Cox’s belief in the powers of wonder, but ultimately these are dismissed as unsatisfactory. He also struggles with humanism, feeling it might imply unjustified optimism about humanity being able to deal with its problems. Although a patron of Humanists UK, he seems to be in tension with a fundamental humanist proposition that kindness and love can sustain us for the time we are here on Earth. For him, this leaves the sole possibility of accepting the bleakness of atheism and our eventual oblivion, mitigated only by the experience of human love while we are alive – though he sees even this as “Love”, capitalised, a construct beyond just our personal feelings. What is arguably missing from this view is that we also have the tools of science and rationalism. We can derive meaning from how we accept the realities of human life, and use love and understanding to play our part in making everyone’s lives as good as possible.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas, but The God Desire is very much about the Judaeo-Christian religions, with little to say about the rest of the world’s faiths and peoples. Baddiel makes no reference to other ideas from evolutionary psychology, anthropology, archaeology, sociology or culture of religion, nor does he explore the impacts from and on the political and capitalist environments in which religion operates. Yes, homo sapiens “invented” gods as part of the adaptive cultural process of communal survival, but that doesn’t mean that the whole structure of the religio-political complex evolved mainly to deliver a belief in the afterlife and thus save humanity from existential dread.
Does Baddiel provide any real answer to how we might find meaning in our short lives, given that they will end in oblivion? Maybe. Does the book address any of the other important questions about the evolution of religion and its impact on humanity? No. This is neither a major contribution to whether there are gods, nor an adequate explanation of why we have religion. That doesn’t mean that The God Desire is not worth reading. It is an entertaining and thought-provoking work by a witty polemicist.