Devout sceptics
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Date: 7 November, 2003

Click on the book cover above to purchase it and raise money for Christian Aid projects. Image: Hodder & Stoughton


Reviewed by Malcolm Doney

British people don't talk about God. Or so convention has it. The surefish message boards tell a different story, of course, but there you'll find a bunch of unusual people for whom God is very much front of mind.

Generally speaking, in our culture, people are more shy of talking about the divine. Which is what has made Bel Mooney's BBC Radio 4 series Devout Sceptics, such a quietly terrific piece of radio.

Over the course of 10 years she has persuaded 32 prominent people to confide in her their deepest thoughts about the ultimate mystery. Now their confidences (or unconfidences, more like) have been turned into am absorbing book.

Kate Adie, John Humphrys, David Owen, Clare Short and Meera Syal are among the 20 who made the final cut for this fascinating collection of honest and vulnerable confessions. Not one of these people would call themselves a believer, yet most display a remarkable open-ness to the idea that there is more to life than what is available to our senses.

As the eminent scientist Paul Davies says, 'if you're a physicist and you get stuck, there's nowhere to go except theology'. So many of these people are alive to a sense of wonder - alert to mystery and the ineffable.

Novelist Ben Okri thinks 'there is something in us that is greater then the darkness that we have created ourselves… some magic ingredient.' Actor Simon Russell Beale talks about the existence of 'a fount of good' in the universe.

Nature is a powerful source of the divine for many. No less than three people (Children's author Philip Pullman, politician Dennis Healey and Bel Mooney herself) quote Wordsworth's 'Lines' to talk of a presence at the heart of nature: 'something far more deeply interfused'.

These and other sensations leave people, 'moved', 'wondering', 'grateful' - feelings or moments that in Melvyn Bragg's case 'I don't know what do with'.

'Why not go to church/synagogue/temple/mosque?' might be the advice of some. But while there is a kind of nostalgia for God and the spiritual, for ritual and for sacred spaces, here there is an equally powerful distrust for religion and its institutions.

Religion seems to get in the way with what cradle Catholic Clare Short calls its 'clutters of silly teachings'. Another former catholic, Edna O'Brien would like to explore the faith she had as a child but says: 'if I am returning it is to a different God, not the one I was brought up on'.

Organised religion has, wittingly or unwittingly, piled up huge spiritual barriers of fundamentalism, judgment and guilt between God and these people's tender and tentative explorations of faith.

This is perhaps the underlying tragedy to this otherwise hopeful and inspiring collection of interviews.

Listen to broadcast interviews from the last BBC Radio 4 series

Devout Sceptics: Conversations on faith and doubt, Bel Mooney, published by Hodder & Stoughton, 256pp