Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1999

All in the Mind: A Farewell to God, by Ludovic Kennedy

reviewed by Denis Cobell

When this book was published, a few months ago, it received a lot of publicity. Most reviewers were hostile, and even the humanist press wasn’t too flattering. This is a shame. We humanists are a pretty critical bunch, and doubtless there can be holes picked in some of Kennedy’s thoughts. But, to suggest that it has all been said by humanists before is a silly approach. There are few new things to say on lots of subjects; this does not deter most writers from churning out the same dull, boring stuff.

On the whole this is a good book; recognise it for what it is. Kennedy’s name is a good deal better known than most others who write on humanism. His name will get the ideas, which we may know already, into the hands of newcomers to humanism. So isn’t that a good thing? Get the book into your local public library, talk about it, discuss it – but don’t just grumble because it tells you nothing new!

Kennedy asks at the end of his book how much longer the ‘god’ idea will remain. Though d’Holbach, writing in the 18th century, anticipated the extirpation of Christianity by 1800, he is quoted in Kennedy’s book: “he who combats religion resembles one who uses a sword to kill fruit flies: as soon as the blow is struck, the fruit flies ... return ... and take again in people’s minds the place from which one believed to have banished them.” So, Christianity has not gone, nor has religion, nor has God. I think it likely superstitions will remain with mankind. For many, reality, is too painful: fairy stories with their horrors, but also their comforts, remain.

To suggest that humankind is ‘all believing’ – following the Church – is not the case. In a Wiltshire parish, a few centuries ago, the rector was bemoaning the paucity of his congregation. In Suffolk, Defoe wrote in 1722 of Southwold: “There is but one church in this town ... capable of receiving five or six thousand people, but twenty-seven in it besides the parson and the clerk.”

Religious belief can excite more emotional response than much else. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, mentioned by Kennedy, eulogised the sceptic David Hume. Smith found this “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the commercial system of Great Britain”.

Sir Isaiah Berlin told Kennedy that, like Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the National Secular Society, he was at a loss to know what the word God meant. Bradlaugh himself wrote: “The atheist does not say ‘there is no god’ – but ‘I know not what you mean by god: I am without idea of god’...”. Similarly G E Moore, whose view Kennedy finds mystifying, wrote of God: “I think there is no evidence for his existence, I think there is also no evidence that he does not exist”.

Even Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in the course of comments on this work, was forced to conclude: “belief about God can never be a matter for rational argument”. As for the church’s attitude to gays, Kennedy reminds readers of Dr Hope, who became Archbishop of York, that his own sexuality was “a grey area”. Like many others, Kennedy finds the Church mostly repressive in sexual matters.

Kennedy devotes space to changes in broadcasting since Margaret Knight’s radio talks on ‘Morals without Religion’ in 1954. He refers to her “15 minutes of fame” as long forgotten. Taking my dust-covered volume of her book from the shelf, her scripts seem tame by today’s standards. But they struck a chord at the time and had an enduring effect in promoting humanism. With this in mind, I have a criticism of Kennedy. When speaking recently on Radio 4’s ‘Saturday Essay’, remarkably later reprinted in the Daily Mail, on the subject covered by his book, he failed to mention the ‘H’ word! This is a common failing amongst many of our noted supporters when they take to the air; we should encourage them to amend their approach.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 1999-11-07 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :