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Ludovic Kennedy


A farewell to God

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Writing as he was in the last year of the twentieth century, Ludovic Kennedy still felt it necessary to begin his book with a semi-apology for attacking religion. This in itself is a measure of the change that has occurred in public attitudes in recent years. He himself realized that he might be overtaken by events: "what I had originally intended as a radical scenario may now be thought to be old hat."

After some speculations about bow religion may have originated in prehistoric times Kennedy takes us to "Judaeo-Christian mythologies", with a summary of early Christian history, including the Arian controversy. He has little time either for Jesus or for what Christians have made of him. But it is when he goes on to describe the wholesale killing that occurred later, in the name of God, that we meet his strongest denunciation of religion. Most of this will be familiar to anyone with a degree of historical awareness, though I had not previously encountered the horrific story which occurred as late as 1766 in the northern French town of Abbeville. The young Chevalier de la Barre failed to doff his cap to a passing religious procession, because it was raining. He was sentenced for blasphemy to have his hands amputated, his tongue torn out, and then to be burned alive.

We then move, with relief, to the coming of the Enlightenment. Atheists began to declare themselves more openly, though at first only very cautiously, for obvious reasons. But Kennedy sees an accelerating trend towards rationality after the publication of Darwin's theory in the mid-nineteenth century. This, I think, is a considerable simplification of a complex story—many of those who helped to prepare the way for Darwin, after all, were churchmen, as Michael Ruse has pointed out.

A measure of how much things today have changed comes from the account Kennedy gives of the furore which erupted in 1954, when Margaret Knight, a psychologist, gave two talks on the BBC entitled Morals without Religion. The broadcasts were greeted with fury and horror by most of the press although the Church of England Newspaper thought she ought to be listened to and so did Donald Soper, a well-known Methodist preacher. Dr Knight followed up her broadcasts with a little book and many readers wrote to her to thank her for speaking out. Not long afterwards Bishop John Robinson's book Honest to God appeared and caused a sensation by implying that a God "out there" was no longer credible. Like Margaret Knight's book, Honest to God seems to be all but forgotten today.

I think that Kennedy was right to fear that his book would soon be rendered old hat by subsequent developments. (There is very little about Islam.) All the points he makes have been made again and again by others in recent years. But one can understand why, as he says, writing it did him good, and it is worth reading if only to see how far we have come in just a few years.

%T All In The Mind
%S A farewell to God
%A Kennedy, Ludovic
%I Hodder and Stoughton
%C London
%D 1999
%G ISBN 0-340-68063-6
%P xvii + 302pp
%K religion
%O illustrated

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