Is Laughter All We’ve Got? On David Baddiel’s “The God Desire”

By David E. CooperNovember 28, 2023

Is Laughter All We’ve Got? On David Baddiel’s “The God Desire”

The God Desire: On Being a Reluctant Atheist by David Baddiel

THE LESSON OF The God Desire: On Being a Reluctant Atheist (2023), its author concludes, is “bleak.” Despite, or (as he holds) because of, this desire, there is no God and hence no “comfort and hope in the face of death.” But as we know from, say, Jonathan Swift or Isaac Bashevis Singer, the bleakness of its lesson does not exclude the book’s enjoyability. Much of the enjoyment of this book comes from the one thing that David Baddiel thinks he can offer to lighten his message—laughter. For example, he quotes a line from Maurice Maeterlinck—“The living are just the dead on holiday”—that, he says, “sends bad shivers down” his spine, but it is also very funny.

The humor in this short and serious book will not surprise readers who know its author as a successful British performer and writer of comedy. Its seriousness will not surprise those familiar with his well-received book on antisemitism, Jews Don’t Count (2021), and a play, God’s Dice (2019), that, like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen (1998), finds drama in the history of quantum physics. Baddiel also writes novels and books for children and is a keen observer and analyst of the game of soccer.

Baddiel’s life is clearly one of considerable achievement, but it is compromised, he explains, by his fear of death and a related, unsatisfied desire for God to exist. He “loves” God in the way he does Santa Claus: in neither case, sadly, is the object of his love real. He finds himself, therefore, a “reluctant” but also “fundamentalist” atheist. This means, first, that he knows, rather than merely believes, that there is no God. It means, too, that he rejects various ersatz Gods to which people have turned for spiritual solace—nature, wonder, love. None of these, he insists, do anything to allay our fear of death.

This “fundamentalist atheism” might seem to align Baddiel with the “new”—or, less politely, “undergraduate”—atheism of such figures as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He dislikes, however, their dismissal of great religious traditions as mere “fairy stories.” The tradition in which he was brought up, Judaism, is a repository of rituals, acts, and customs that have enabled a people to survive persecution and worse. Moreover, the New Atheists are guilty of a “macho” pretense that people require no spiritual solace when confronted with anxiety about the prospect of death.

God, asserts Baddiel, is “all about death.” It is the horror of “oblivion” and “nothingness” that has been the main driver of religious belief. God has served other functions—for instance, to provide meaning and narrative structure to people’s lives—but Baddiel would agree with Tolstoy, in his Confession (1882), that these are “spin-offs” from the main role. Whatever meaning I am tempted to assign to my life leaches out with my death. There is, for Baddiel, nothing self-obsessed in this “lust to survive after death.” He endorses John Updike’s suggestion that it is because of our “love and praise of the world” that “we can’t bear to think of [the] shutting” of our window onto it.

Many historians of religion will challenge the claim that “God is all about death,” emphasizing instead a felt need for a God who maintains order and harmony, say, or who sanctions the moral law. But Baddiel might be willing to soften his claim and simply point out that many people, himself included, desire the existence of a God who guarantees survival after death, and that it’s for them that his book is written. Moreover, his argument for atheism doesn’t turn on any particular form of the God desire but on its strength. It is not like traditional arguments against the existence of God, such as that deriving from “the problem of evil.” Indeed, Baddiel wants to “bat away” nearly all familiar arguments on the subject, pro or con. Even when one is unable to detect flaws in their reasoning, he indicates, these arguments have no power to persuade.

Baddiel’s own argument—with its Nietzschean and Freudian traces—is that the “very intensity” of the God desire shows belief in the divine to be delusional. To the obvious objection that, in general, strongly wishing for something does not exclude its existence, Baddiel replies that it does so in cases where the something is “invisible.” When, that is, something cannot be, “in concrete terms, experienced,” an intense desire for it shows it to be a fantasy. There is surely some confusion here. Visible or invisible, a thing’s existence or nonexistence cannot be settled by what people wish to be real. Wishes cannot dictate what is out there.

That said, Baddiel is driving at two important points. The first is the fact that when you desperately want a belief to be true, you should be especially careful in your judgment. Perhaps you’ve paid insufficient attention to reasons against the belief, or have surrounded yourself only with people who reinforce it. Second, as Baddiel notes, “projection” of features onto the world in accordance with our desires is a familiar phenomenon. The lover, desperate for the beloved to return his love, reads into simple gestures and words emotions that may not be there. For Baddiel, the believer’s alleged experience of God’s love is similarly—and economically—explained in terms of a wish-fulfilling projection onto reality. But while these considerations should be taken seriously, they do not warrant the claim, by “fundamentalist” atheists, to know that God is a delusion. Moreover, this is a claim to which religious believers have a reply. The experience of God’s love during prayer, meditation, or moments of personal crisis, they insist, is a palpable, “concrete” one, quite different in kind from the young lover’s wishful projection of love reciprocated.

William James long ago noted that an impasse is soon reached between competing interpretations of putative religious experience. For those who have it, its veridicality cannot be in doubt, while for those, like Dawkins, who are religiously “tone-deaf,” testimonies to religious experience are ones whose truth they are no more obliged to recognize than that of reports of encounters with gremlins or angels. Baddiel’s claim to know that God does not exist may be unwarranted, but nonetheless, like others to whom religious experience is foreign, he has no reason to believe in God and to look to God, therefore, for “comfort and hope” in the face of death.

But might he look elsewhere for this? He doesn’t consider any nontheistic proposals for a sort of survival of personhood after death, such as the Buddhist teaching of rebirth. Nor does he discuss transhumanist scenarios in which, say, electronic copies of one’s brain are supposed to ensure a sort of survival. What would worry Baddiel, I’m sure, about such speculations is that they at best promise only a sort of survival. The coming into existence after my death of somebody or something that has some kind of continuity with myself is small comfort. Despair at the shutting of my particular window onto the world is hardly alleviated by the prospect of a related, but nevertheless different, window opening.

So, are Baddiel and fellow atheists who share his anxieties left with nothing except some laughter to lighten their lives? Perhaps the following thought might give a little more light. Baddiel’s claim that “[d]eath is shit” simply because of the prospect of oblivion strikes me as too simple. In my own case, certainly, I find anxiety about my death to be a mélange of largely inchoate fears and feelings. They include, in addition to the image of the closing window, a concern about dying well, a nagging fear of having significantly wasted my life, a sympathy for those who might miss me, a hope that my death might benefit some people or creatures, and an unpleasant sense of objects that matter to me falling into the hands of people to whom they mean nothing.

None of these are happy thoughts, but unlike the blank horror of oblivion, they are ones that, however modestly, a person can do something about. I can leave money to a good charity and bequeath my paintings to someone who will care for them. I can try to cultivate a certain calm and dignity that will serve me, and those around me, during the final days. I might even try to finish writing the big book that I’ve been too lazy or lacking in confidence to complete.

I would like to think that David Baddiel might find in these and other strategies not a reconciliation with death but rather an accommodation with it that goes a bit beyond the laughter that, at present, is “all I got.”

LARB Contributor

David E. Cooper is professor of philosophy emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malta, and Sri Lanka. He has also been the chair or president of several learned societies, including the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Some of his most recent books are Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (2017) and Animals and Misanthropy (2018). Cooper is also the author of several novels and short stories. He lives with his wife in Northumberland, England.


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