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Columnists

In the balance

It's nearly ten years since Richard Dawkins published The God Delusion, long enough to assume he failed to finish off the deity. Cautiously the religious emerge from their foxholes, unplugging fingers from ears. But what was this unexploded piece of theocidal ordnance lobbed into their midst? Stand back ye faithful, for the Anonymous Agnostic has finally got around to reading Dawkins' anti-Bible, and has come back to tell you all.

Although… there's not much to tell. If Dawkins' logic and infinite self-confidence intimidate you, be not afraid; unless you're a very literal- minded fundamentalist, you aren't his target. He spends most of the book tilting at the religion of the very thick indeed. Presumably we all wish him well on this brave but futile quest. Jeb Bush, would you kill baby Hitler? 'Hell, yeah!' It's pointless, debating with Jeb Bush's people.

But you thinking religious people are hors de combat. In the introduction Dawkins discusses Einstein's views on religion, discerning a faith that is rationalist yet infused with an almost pantheistic glow. This, he says, is not the 'religion' he takes issue with. Neither is he arguing against complex, self-doubting modern theologians. If most religious people were like, say, Paul Tillich, he wouldn't bother arguing with them either.

But surely all the interesting discussion about god or the lack thereof happens in that vague space between complex theology and Einsteinian rationalism? The rest is just noise. It's got nothing to do with what intelligent people might mean by 'god'.

Being a scrupulously balanced agnostic, I next reached for another previously-unread-by-me bestseller of the pop-faith genre: Karen Armstrong's A History of God. Here is the opposite of The God Delusion; a book about the nuances of thinking about god, its slow development over time. A book which eschews any mention of the real people, the politics and power-struggles that formed the backdrop to that thought.

I got about halfway through before giving up. I found it boring, bloodless and cloying. What's the point of these endless, murmuring musings around and about the ineffable mystery of god? Who cares? It's got nothing to do with anything.

So after this week's reading, I came away frustrated. Surely 'god' can mean neither the ignorant passion of religious maniacs nor the clever, vaporous non-entity of which the theologians bleat. Like Gulliver I find myself trapped between the real people (the yelling, warring Yahoos) and the thinkers (the smug, cerebral Houyhnhnms). If it's the human condition to be caught between these two extremes, no wonder our gods suffer from the same split personality. God is very unsatisfying when imagined either in vulgar human terms, or in otherworldly abstractions. She can't live with us, and can't live without us.