The God Desire
by David Baddiel
TLS Books, £9.99
Comedian and social media devotee David Baddiel is frightened of dying. Not on stage, that is, but in reality. In this short open-hearted polemic on why he can’t believe in God — although he would, he says, love to believe — he admits to his “terror at the thought of annihilation” and the horror that overcomes him when he contemplates oblivion.
In the face of this — and in his awareness of his innate vulnerability, that he is “flawed and shallow and scared and often desperately in need of comfort” — his so-called God Desire kicks in, the wish for a God that can help him “outsmart death and promise immortality”.
The desire for this kind of utilitarian God — “a superhero dad who chases off death” as he puts it, colloquially and emotively — is a desire that he believes exists “within the deep recesses of most humans”.
That self-confessed “godless Jew”, Sigmund Freud, goes unmentioned in this book — as are any of the countless authors who have explored the psychodynamics of the human need for religious belief and deities — but Baddiel is writing, perhaps unknowingly, in a direct line of descent from Freud’s century-old dismissal of religious belief, which he saw as being rooted in infantile needs, wishes and fears.
That much gets projected onto images of a deity — in all religious traditions — seems both historically incontrovertible and existentially true: Baddiel is good at recognising the human need for stories that give meaning to life.
He records an interchange — on Twitter, natch — with the novelist Naomi Alderman (brought up Orthodox, but has since distanced herself from Orthodoxy) about the fictionality of the literary character “God” and the creative uses of such an approach.
Baddiel seems tempted by this notion — “a way of thinking about God that might suit me and salve my…despair” — but can’t in the end embrace it. It can’t assuage his abiding fear of death.
The only God that would work for Baddiel would be one offering the certainty of immortality. But, as he recognises, there’s no evidence for that. So his “God Desire” will always be frustrated and remain a longing.
One of the curiosities about this book is the way in which this “reluctant atheist” — who describes himself as being emotionally wedded to his Jewishness and its “centuries of tradition and suffering and defiance” — seems enamoured of Christianity. Its focus on the afterlife is, in his opinion, “just one of the ways in which Christianity got religion right, compared to Judaism”.
From Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece to the lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar to conversations with his Catholic friend and fellow comedian Frank Skinner, Baddiel describes his admiration for how Christianity’s God — and its hero, Jesus — offer a story that meets the human need to feel that death can be conquered. For Baddiel — and this is the most telling and poignant remark in the book — “God is all about death”.
One can’t help but feel that if he allowed his intellectual curiosity fuller rein he might discover the ways in which within his own tradition God is all about life.
There’s no evidence from this otherwise lively book that Baddiel has seriously engaged with what Jewish thinkers have had to say about God over the last two millennia.
His image of God before Christianity as “mainly cantankerous” is not only warped but leads him into the fundamental error that “the association of God with goodness is a Christian idea”. What did they teach him at his Jewish primary school?
This lack of understanding of his own Jewish story flaws a book that has stimulating things to say about the way “God” is (mis)used to fill the gaps in our knowledge of how things work; and the ways in which wonder at the universe is not the same as belief in an organising deity.
Yet Baddiel keeps returning to the anthropomorphic God image he has himself constructed — one that he then can’t believe in.
But constructing God images — to either believe in, or rail against — used to be called idolatry.
Maybe Baddiel is subliminally aware of this when he declares that “I don’t believe that God doesn’t exist, I know that He doesn’t. I know it like I know that stone is hard.”
Yet stone, as he acknowledges, is not what it seems: it is in essence a form of energy. If Baddiel could ever stop banging his head against the idol he has built, who knows what new reality might be there to be discovered?