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What I found out about God

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Following his acclaimed radio series on faith, John Humphrys remains astounded by the huge response. As our thoughts turn to the Nativity, he re-examines his own beliefs

humphrysThere seem to be so many devout Christians out there, it makes you wonder why there are so many empty pews on Sunday mornings. I have always been puzzled by the prayer thing... God is either interventionist or he is not.

Following his acclaimed radio series on faith, John Humphrys remains astounded by the huge response. As our thoughts turn to the Nativity, he re-examines his own beliefs.

The churches, we are told, will be packed this Christmas. There's nothing quite like a bit of carol singing to add to the festive spirit - even if half the congregation can't get beyond the first few lines of the Lord's Prayer. There's no great harm in that. If the churches admitted only the truly pious most of them would long since have had to shut up shop.

There was a time when I would have no more missed attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve than I'd have had egg and chips for Christmas lunch. But then I stopped. For years I have not set foot inside a church - except for the occasional wedding or funeral. The last time was for my much-mourned colleague Nick Clarke. St Mary Abbots in Kensington, west London, was packed with the great and the good and, more importantly, with Nick's friends. The choir was superb and the eulogies perfectly judged. The problem was the vicar, Gillean Craig.

That may sound a little harsh. He is, I'm sure, a thoroughly godly man doing a good job of running his magnificent church. But in the opening moments of the service Father Craig (as he likes to be known) struck a horribly discordant note. Here's what he said: "Terrible though it is to us, God grants the same freedom to cancer cells that he grants even to the most noble and virtuous of us."

As he spoke Nick's widow, Barbara, sat straight-backed and dignified in the front row with her two little boys. The coffin rested on its plinth a few yards from them, flowers on the top and colourful "We love you Daddy" stickers plastered onto the side, incongruous in this sombre setting but touching the hearts of everyone there.

Barbara did not flinch at the vicar's words but you could detect a gasp of disbelief from others in the congregation. Partly it was the sheer insensitivity of the timing. If a man has died a terrible death from cancer, his mourners do not want to be told at his funeral that God had specifically enabled the cells that killed him. They may believe in an all-powerful God who created every living thing, including cancer cells, or they may not. Either way they are hardly likely to be comforted by such a message at such a time.

There is also something absurd about the notion that cancer cells can choose what they do. They can't. They can do one thing and one thing only. They can cause immense suffering and, ultimately, they can kill. But that's it. What they do not possess in any accepted sense of the word, is "freedom". Freedom means choice.

I received a sharp lesson in that nearly twenty years ago when I interviewed Margaret Thatcher. I was the new boy on the Today programme, desperate to prove that I was up to the job, and she was the prime minister at the height of her considerable powers. Think amateur lightweight boxer versus Mohammed Ali at his greatest and you begin to get some idea of the mismatch. I made it worse by trying to be too clever.

My not-so-cunning plan was to ask her, as a churchgoing Christian, what was the essence of Christianity. She would say something like "love" or "charity" and I would pounce. How could she talk of Christian charity when she was single-handedly responsible for three or four million people being out of work, their children starving in the gutters of our once-great nation? Naturally, she would be devastated and I would be the hero of a grateful nation.

Except, of course, that she did not follow my plan. Instead she snapped back one word: "Choice!" and I hit the canvas. I had fallen into the classic interviewer's trap - worse, I had set the trap for myself - of deciding what the answer would be and having no Plan B.

I was a little better prepared for the series of interviews I conducted on Radio 4 20 years later. It was called, possibly with more hubris than humility, Humphrys in Search of God.

When I interviewed Thatcher back in the Eighties I was still - just about - clinging to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up. I had been baptised and confirmed into the Church in Wales without even questioning the basic tenets of the Christian religion. By the time I had a couple of children of my own my doubts were beginning to set in and we had neither of them baptised. I felt strongly that they should come to religion in their own way and in their own time and if they chose not to, well that was a matter for them.

My faith was fraying at the edges. I was finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile the God to whom I had been introduced at Sunday school with the reality of the world I was told he had created.

Journalists see the worst (as well as the best) that humanity has to offer. Unlike normal people, they seek it out. Where was the God of mercy, the loving God, in the earthquakes and the plane crashes and the famines that I was being sent to report? Where was he in the children's cancer wards, the war zones, the crowded Tube trains chosen by suicide bombers, the school in Beslan cold-bloodedly selected by Chechen terrorists who murdered the children as their mothers stood at the gates?

The morning after the Beslan siege ended, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, came on Today and I put the blindingly obvious question: where was God in that school-room? That interview led to the Radio 4 series Humphrys in Search of God and the biggest reaction by far to any programme I have done for the BBC in more than 40 years of broadcasting.

Six weeks after the last programme was broadcast I am still struggling to cope with the letters and emails. There have been thousands of them. It's a daunting prospect, responding to so many letters, and I've barely made an impression on them. But the few hundred I've dealt with so far offer an interesting insight into the spiritual health of the nation - or at least that section of it that listens to Radio 4.

There seem to be so many devout Christians out there it makes you wonder why there are so many empty pews on Sunday mornings. There may have been a clue to that in many of the letters. They were angry at Dr Williams because, they said, he should have made a more powerful case for God. They want a more muscular Christianity and have little room for doubters. They did not like it when Dr Williams admitted that he himself has to struggle to understand why God allows certain things to happen. Nor did they share his view that I might go to heaven if I did not believe. We may have some way to go to catch up with the United States but there is clearly a pretty strong streak of fundamentalism here, too. For what it's worth, I thought Dr Williams was at his most impressive when he was describing his own struggle to believe.

Many of the believers who wrote wanted to take up where the Archbishop left off and save my soul from eternal damnation. I'm very grateful, don't misunderstand me, but I'm also slightly unnerved.

They make it sound so simple. All I have to do, it seems, is open my heart to Jesus and that's it. I will see the light and my life will never be the same again. I hate to sound cynical but this rather misses the point - a point made powerfully by the second-largest group of writers.

They, like me, once had a faith of sorts and are sorry they've lost it. Some of them blame God. I have a letter in front of me as I type from a woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer. She lost her faith some years ago and wants a "heavenly Father to help me at this time".

Alas, she says, he has not made his presence felt. Nor, sadly, did any of the religious leaders I interviewed offer her any help or any encouragement. Beneath her signature she wrote three words: "Quite angry really". I found the "quite" oddly touching.

Of the many unbelievers who wrote, far more described themselves as agnostic rather than atheist. One self-proclaimed agnostic said he very much hopes that the particular Jewish/Christian /Islamic God that I was inquiring about did not exist, given his "terms of business":

Thou shalt believe in Me on the basis of scanty hearsay evidence and despite some spectacularly inaccurate claims in my books.
Thou shalt adore Me in spite of the arbitrary human suffering I have created.
Thou shalt agonise in Hell (forever) if thou failest to do either of the above irrational and morally meaningless things.
Some of my correspondents - too many for my own professional peace of mind - spotted what they thought were serious flaws in the interviews. Was the series really, they wanted to know, Humphrys in Search of God or was it Humphrys doing what he does on the Today programme and enjoying a good argument?

I think I have a reasonable defence against that. This was a genuine attempt to find answers to questions that are seldom asked on programmes like Today and never by an interviewer who is prepared to admit his own personal involvement. But yes, of course I enjoy a good argument and make no apology for it. More to the point, perhaps, is what the argument was about. This is where we return to Nick's funeral and the vicar's eccentric interpretation of freedom.

We talked a lot about free will in the interviews for the series. All three religious leaders used it to explain - to justify if you prefer - the existence of suffering in the world, in particular man's inhumanity to man. I suggested to Rowan Williams that it's all very well to claim that the men who murdered the children in Chechnya were exercising free will but what about the children or, for that matter, their mothers waiting at the school gate?

Williams said that because we don't live as isolated units "in little bubbles" the actions of one person impinges on another's. Your freedom affects mine. What, he asked me, is the "cut-off point" where my freedom is guaranteed not to make your life too difficult? For him there is no cut-off point and we just have to try to make sense of it, which is what he's trying to do.

Perhaps I should refer the Archbishop to Roy Hattersley. He says it is many years since he has wasted his time "discussing the possibility that God, if he or she exists, might not be the bountiful deity that sentimental Christians claim". Moreover, he has "long passed the stage of intellectual naivety that asks plaintive questions about how a God of love can allow so much suffering in the world that he has created".

So let's humour Lord Hattersley. Let's put aside the question of how God operates - whether or not he is love personified as the Christian faith believes - and deal with the question of whether he exists at all.

The letters from my listeners suggest that most people believe he does, though clearly no statistician would accept that as evidence. It's self-selecting and obviously skewed.

And on the other side of the equation is the extraordinary response to Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion. It may not have overtaken The Da Vinci Code but it has sold enough copies to give a boost to Champagne sales in the vicinity of his publisher's offices. And Dawkins, as we all know, does not believe in God. Actually that's not quite true. What Dawkins does not believe in is a supernatural God (he uses italics in the book).

He seems to approve of Einstein's approach to God. But wasn't Einstein religious? Well, here's what he wrote: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious."

What Einstein did not believe in was the God my three religious leaders worship: the personal God who knows our every thought, who answers prayers and punishes sins. I have always been puzzled by the prayer thing. It seems to me that God is either interventionist or He is not. If He answers our prayers, then He clearly is. But if He allows free will, He is not. But there I go again, picking an argument, trying to prove a point.

And how can we prove the unprovable? Even Thomas Aquinas eventually laid down his pen with the words "all I have written seems like straw".

Now that's pretty dynamite stuff from a man regarded as the greatest of all medieval theologians, the man who produced the five proofs for God's existence. Well, it would be unless you accept the view of modern theologians that he stopped because he had reached the point where he could go no further.

Mark Vernon, the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, believes that the final stroke of his genius "was not crafted by his quill, but was conveyed by his silence".

But where does that leave me and the army of militant agnostics who have been sending me such anguished letters?

They are reluctant to write God off entirely. If they could they would be atheists and have done with the whole wretched business. Neither have they been blessed (if that's the right word) with the gift of faith. All they ask is a bit of proof - one way or the other. Since, by definition, you cannot prove that something does not exist there is only one avenue left.

So let me turn from one great thinker to another: from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Donald Rumsfeld. You will be familiar with what may be his most profound observation: "There are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns."

It may not do for Hattersley or Dawkins. It certainly won't do for my muddled vicar. But at this stage in my search for God, it will have to do for me. None of which prevents me from wishing you all a very Happy Christmas.



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