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3 May 2023

The invention of God

David Baddiel’s new book argues that a deity that saves us from death is confected from human desire.

By John Gray

For David Baddiel, God is “an archetype, a super-projection, of a parent which can be both blissful and terrifying. At heart, though, God is all about death. The other issues are spin-offs… Oblivion is the issue. Nothingness is the issue.”

The God Desire is as much about death as it is the deity, if not more so. The writer and comedian views them both as examples of non-being. Humans flee from the non-existence they fear in death to a God that is itself inexistent. They do so because God

offers story. Humans have a need to organise, to structure, the chaos of existence. They need to feel that life has narrative. Narrative requires satisfactory checks and balances, such as good being rewarded, and evil being punished. God provides all this. He storifies life.

Humans need stories. Even if their lives consist of random unconnected events, they tell them as narratives that contain an unfolding meaning. Death thwarts this need, because it ends the story. Faced with this void, believers seek comfort in God, atheists in the hope that they will live on in the minds of others. But “all comfort and hope in the face of death is illusory. Death is shit.” Baddiel’s argument that the idea of God originates in a death-denying need for story is itself a powerful story. But is it true?

In an account of a trip to the former Soviet Union, the travel writer Norman Lewis reported meeting “a tall, muscular-looking woman who we learned was the Horse Princess, unofficial head of the Uzbek people.” Accompanied by an Uzbek friend, Lewis went with the princess to her birthplace, where he was taken to a mound where the horses were buried, and told to “bow to the shrine”. His friend described the princess’s religion. “They passed a law making us Christians,” he recalled, presumably referencing tsarist times. “But when one of us dies a note goes into his grave saying that he refuses to be resurrected. If there is no way out of it we ask to be resurrected as horses.”

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If resurrection was forced on me I would rather return in feline form, but the religion of the Horse Princess strikes me as an attractive faith. I have no desire for immortality, and in this I am not unusual. Hundreds of millions of people practise Buddhism, in which the ultimate goal is to break free from the endless round of rebirth and cease to exist as a distinct individual. In Greek myths, the gods envied human beings because they did not have to endure the boredom of everlasting life. The disciples of Epicurus (341-270 BC) had a motto engraved on their tombstones that encapsulated the philosopher’s serene indifference to death, which he displayed when suffering from what he knew was a terminal illness: “I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care.” Many human beings have dreaded the oblivion of death, many others have thought nothing of it. Quite a few have welcomed the end of their stories.

Human psychology is too divergent to support any categorical conclusions in matters of faith. In a digression on human exceptionalism, Baddiel seems to suggest that the strongest argument for atheism is not that God is a reaction against our dread of nothingness. Instead, it is that God promises immortality only for our own species. I could not agree more strongly. Who wants an afterlife without our fellow animals?

An afterlife features marginally in the faith in which Baddiel grew up and which, as he notes, is based on ritual and practice more than belief. “Judaism doesn’t have a clear position on the afterlife. Medieval rabbis did have a conception of olam ha-ba (the world to come) but the phrase is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.” He continues: “My argument is, in a general sense, psychological. It requires an admission… I love God… Who would not love a superhero dad who chases off death?”

Baddiel’s admission illuminates a paradox at the heart of this searchingly honest, laugh-aloud funny and at times arrestingly profound book. When he writes that he is “a fundamentalist atheist… I don’t believe that God doesn’t exist, I know that He doesn’t”, and tells us he finds God’s non-existence “deeply depressing”, he is referring to the God that offers an exemption from mortality, the God of Christianity.

Many atheists have denied the existence of God because of the existence of evil. How could God create a world containing so much cruelty, suffering and injustice? Baddiel dismisses this objection. “If I did believe in God, I would bat away the problem of evil, because God’s moral compass would of course be beyond human understanding.” He dismisses the debate between science and religion – “the well-rehearsed, evidence-based, God versus no God cul-de-sac” – as “a f***ing waste of time”. Amen to that.

His core argument is that a God that saves us from death is confected from human desire. It’s the desire that is real, not the deity. He is careful to avoid the conflation of atheism with humanism – the belief that human beings can live well, or better, without religious faith. He is concerned solely with the truth. “I don’t feel the need to prove that we can be OK without God. We might not be OK without Him.” He scorns the “postmodern” view that fictional characters can somehow be real entities:

… when I die, Tony Soprano will have no more reality for me, because nothing will have any reality for me. So therefore, the God-as-literary character idea is, as far as the fear and the screaming void go, no use. The intellectual postmodern intertextual reworking of God is no good for me… this God is paper, and death is scissors.

[See also: Is the future of Christianity African?]

Fictional constructions are of little avail when we are threatened with death. The idea of Jesus as “the cross-breeding of God and man” may be “a brilliant conceit”, as Baddiel puts it, which sustains believers during their lives. But if Jesus is a creation of the human imagination, he cannot save them from death. He will vanish from the world when they do.

Baddiel’s commitment to truth-telling is admirable. It also poses a question. Why does he think truth so valuable? For many people, after all, other considerations are evidently more important. Consider anti-Semitism. In Jews Don’t Count (2021), Baddiel argued forcefully that anti-Semitism is a variety of racism, different from others only in that the ban on racism doesn’t seem to apply to Jews as it does to other minority groups. Jewish people may be stereotyped as having certain negative characteristics, erased from achievements in which they had a vital role, and assaulted and killed for no other reason than that they are Jews. Yet a section of liberal opinion seems unwilling to accord them the sympathy, and the recognition of the injustice they have suffered, that are rightly extended to other minorities. Why this is so, Baddiel didn’t make fully clear.

In The God Desire, he goes some way towards explaining. Modern anti-Semitism “began in the late 19th century, when the word anti-Semitism was coined by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, and various fashionable ideas of racial stratification coincided with the theory of eugenics, creating a host of really very bad philosophies and movements”. Before then, hatred of Jews was religious: they were “portrayed as devils on every church wall”, and cursed for supposedly sending Jesus to be crucified. When “scientific racism” came on the scene, they were categorised as inferior specimens of humankind. Today, anti-Semitism “is overlooked or demoted in the present hair-trigger awareness of discrimination in general”.

If you go back two or three centuries, however, today’s anti-Semitism can be understood as a secular iteration of its religious prototype. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a pious Christian and one of the great Enlightenment thinkers. He was also something of an anti-Semite. In his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a summary of a lecture course he gave for over 20 years, Kant described Jews as “a nation of cheaters… bound by an ancient superstition”. In The Conflict of the Faculties, where he discusses the relations between theology and philosophy, he called for “the euthanasia of Judaism”. Jews were as entitled to emancipation and human rights as anyone else. As long as they remained attached to Judaism, however, they could not achieve the rational autonomy that for Kant was the defining attribute of humanity.

Kant reveals the link between ancient and modern anti-Semitism. For Enlightenment thinkers and Christians alike, humankind is a collective agent, whose history is a single narrative of salvation and redemption. If Christendom could not be secure as long as it was believed to be threatened by demonic Jewish influence, a cosmopolitan world community could not be complete until Jews had disappeared. Any group that does not fit into the narrative must be retrograde or malevolent. It does not matter whether the story tells of demonic forces or suspect groups resistant to human progress. The structure of the tale is the same.

The normalisation of anti-Semitic attitudes in the upper intellectual reaches of the liberal West may seem anomalous. Yet anti-Semitism has never been confined to the right. In “On the Jewish Question”, Karl Marx (1818-83), himself of Jewish heritage, wrote: “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in the face of which no other god may exist… In the final analysis, the emancipation of Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” Marx’s rival, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), wrote that “the entire Jewish world, which forms a single profiteering sect, a people of bloodsuckers, a single gluttonous parasite… I am certain that Rothschild for his part greatly values the merits of Marx, and that Marx feels instinctive attraction and great respect for Rothschild.”

The British economist JA Hobson’s book Imperialism (1902), a formative influence on socialist and liberal thinking around the start of the 20th century, identified the Rothschilds and other Jewish banking houses as the secret overlords of European empires. The first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, the revered pacifist Keir Hardie (1856-1915), shared this analysis of imperialism as being largely controlled by Jews. (The former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote a foreword to a 2011 reissue of Hobson’s book that made no mention of the author’s views on Jewish financiers.)

It will be objected that in voicing the prejudices of their time, 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century progressive thinkers were inconsistent. But there is a logic in their bigotry, which mirrors that of religious anti-Semitism. If humanity is the universal agent making history, anyone who declines to surrender their particular identity must be treated as an outsider, or else an enemy. The humanity invoked by these progressives – which some of them liked to dignify with a capital H – is not the multifarious species familiar in history. It is a shimmering abstraction, as elusive as Deus absconditus, the hidden God posited by some theologians.

The difference is that we can know that Humanity does not exist. It is far more reasonable to have faith in a divine mystery than in humankind. The nature of God is beyond understanding, whereas the conflicts in human nature are plain to see. The idea that human beings will converge on a “rational” form of life is as absurd – and, because of the homogenised future it implies, as depressing – as the notion that they will someday worship the same Supreme Being.

[See also: Could I become a Christian in a year?]

The beauty of Baddiel’s paradoxical book is that, after admitting his attraction to a God that offers deliverance from death, he confesses he loves his ancestral religion for its unceasing struggle for life in this world. “If I am moved by Jewish survival,” he writes “I am moved by Judaism. There’s no getting around it.” He has no need to regret the absence of a death-denying God. The story of survival is enough. But if there is inconsistency here, it is more than forgivable. Baddiel’s contradictions are like his jokes – pointers to truths that bring us back to earth.

The God Desire
David Baddiel
TLS Books, 112pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown