Here, alas, probably because religion makes him so very cross, he often sounds more like Owl hectoring Winnie-the-Pooh. “This really is the sort of thing theologians spend their time thinking about,” he’ll tell us peevishly, or “the Roman Catholic Church was very silly” to have authenticated a supposed miracle in Portugal. Throughout a long, excruciating passage about Noah’s Ark he refers to “Mr and Mrs Wombat” and “Mr and Mrs Kangaroo”.
From the get-go we’re into his favourite argument, made many times before, which is that there’s no more reason to believe in the Christian god than any other. “Like you I expect, I don’t believe in Jupiter or Poseidon or Thor or Venus or Cupid or Snotra or Mars or Odin or Apollo,” he writes. “I don’t believe in Anyanwu, Mawu, Ngai . . .” Yes, we get it. Please stop.
A rolling, extensive list of everything else he doesn’t believe dominates part one. Quite a lot of it is about how bits of the Bible are contradicted by other bits, or inspired by previous works, or just not very nice. He’s very angry, for example, about the story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. “Is it possible to imagine a worse trick to play on someone?” he thunders. Likewise, about God’s instructions in the Old Testament about what ought to be done with the Canaanites. “Nowadays,” he writes, “we’d call it ethnic cleansing and child abuse.”
Is it wrong to find all this a bit low-rent? Only very occasionally do you get an insight that stands out, such as the one about Hell needing to be so horrid precisely because the idea of going there is so implausible; otherwise it would be harder to inspire the necessary dread. Also, sometimes, thank God (or whoever) the attempts at wit actually land. “Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s husband,” he suggests as an antidote to the sexism embedded in the Ten Commandments. “Nor her Jaguar. Nor her doctoral degree.”
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