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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Morgan

"The God Desire" & "The Best Minds": Doubts, Desires, and Delusions

In this edition of Marginalia, a book that might be unsure of its audience, but is very, very certain that God does not exist. Also, a tragedy of society’s failures to understand and care for the mentally ill.

The God Desire, David Baddiel (2023)

Here’s an old joke:

What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness and an atheist?

Someone who knocks on your door for no reason at all.

I remembered this joke while I was reading David Baddiel’s new book, The God Desire. This is the second work of non-fiction he has published through the TLS, and in the first – Jews Don’t Count – he established himself as both a very funny writer and an insightful, lucid thinker. In the newer book, he is still funny.

I once wrote about Jordan Peterson’s saying that he acts as if God exists and is terrified that he does. Like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and its endlessly proliferating cover versions, there seems to be countless variations on this idea. My own rendition is that I act as if God exists and I am worried that he doesn’t. David Baddiel’s version is that he wishes God existed and he’s certain that he doesn’t.

It is a fact, he opines, that God doesn’t exist, and he insists he knows this as absolutely as he knows “that stone is hard”. And yet he wishes God did exist, deeply desiring it in his bones, a yearning he traces back to when he was six and wished that he and his loved ones didn’t have to die. This tension between disbelief and desire is the organising principle of The God Desire. That precis of what the book is about is fairly straightforward. What’s far more difficult to describe is who the book is for.

Too often, readers and reviewers make the mistake of thinking that if a book fails to appeal to them as its target audience, it must be a failure. But not all books can be all things to all men. Universality is undeniably a quality that endows classics with longevity and is no doubt necessary for what we think of as Great Literature – we need not be eighth-century Greeks to appreciate Homer, or imagine ourselves as Elizabethan poets or peasants to weep and laugh at Shakespeare’s works. But there is a class of literature (and cinema, and music) that is perfect for a particular time or place or person, and it is no less valuable for its narrower scope. I try to make a distinction, when I read a book or watch a film, between those that don’t work and those that don’t work for me. In short, I ask myself: who is this for?

I asked this question often while reading The God Desire, and I couldn’t help but suspect that Baddiel was like the atheist of the joke, knocking for no reason at all. The God Desire describes itself as an “atheist polemic”, and so you might think it addresses itself to believers, in an effort to deconvert them. While Baddiel does argue late in the book that there is value in leading the religious to atheistic waters, he argues earlier that it is all but impossible to make them drink. He insists that it is a mistake for atheists to use reason and logic against faith because “it won’t change the opinion of those who believe because they can always fall back on the beyond logic and reason thing”. This begs the question: does Baddiel think we should argue against religion without using reason and logic? Good luck.

Perhaps, then, religious readers weren’t who he had in mind while writing this book. Perhaps his target audience consists of his fellow unbelievers. What might his message to them be? Not to be too quick (or too caustic) in dismissing the comfort and narrative provided by religion? In one mood on any given page, Baddiel seems to take this view; in another mood on any other page, he rejects such comfort (along with the comfort, awe, and wonder derived from science) with as much hard-headed certainty as found in the pages of The God Delusion. This is ironic given how squarely Baddiel places his book in opposition to its titular sibling by Richard Dawkins, who is often seen as the king (or, if you’re feeling smug, the pope) of what Baddiel calls “macho atheism”. More of his scorn is cast at these “immature” cynics than at religious fundamentalists.

Halfway through The God Desire, it depressed me somewhat to think that the book boiled down to a prosaic injunction for atheists to play nice, that Baddiel’s message might be little more than don’t be too mean to believers. Not an objectionable message in and of itself, but not ground-breaking, and again I ask myself: who needs to hear this? Who is for? It strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that the immature, terminally online type of atheist – who loves nothing more than insulting “religitards” on social media and who such a message of tolerance would be aimed at – would read a book like this. But maybe I’m falling foul of the fallacy I described earlier of thinking that because this book isn’t “for” me, then it isn’t for anyone. I might see the vitriolic new atheist types as increasingly fringe in our cultural conversation, but that doesn’t mean no one should bother addressing them.

Still, I can’t help noticing how close Baddiel occasionally comes to sounding like a macho atheist himself. In spite of his message of tolerance and understanding, and in spite of a lovely section praising the ambiguity in the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Baddiel seemingly can’t pass up a single opportunity to repeat – like a mantra or affirmation, which ultimately makes one wonder who he’s really trying to convince – that God definitely doesn’t exist. This is like that kind of joke that goes on for so long that it becomes tedious, until it tips back over into funny again, except now it is an absurd kind of funny. You laugh at how ridiculous the repetition has become.

In the end, I’d have found The God Desire far more satisfying and intellectually provocative if Baddiel had spent more time mapping out his own ambiguity, instead of leaning so hard on his philosophically unsound conviction that God definitely doesn’t exist. And yet – here’s some ambiguity for you – it is still worth taking the hour or two to read this short book. Baddiel tells his stories well and, again, he’s very funny. It’s no coincidence, I think, that at the end of The God Desire we are left with the notion that we should embrace the very human ability to laugh – “at our own futility, at nothingness, at the knowledge that the living are just the dead on holiday”.


The Best Minds, Jonathan Rosen (2023)

Jonathan Rosen’s account of an individual’s descent into extreme mental illness is actually many things – biography of his childhood friend, Michael Laudor; potted biographies of seemingly everyone in a twentieth century who’s-who in the arts, philosophy, academia, and psychiatry; a history of “madness”, its vilification and glorification, and how governments have struggled to accommodate the mentally unwell – and it brings all of them together in a seamless, eminently readable whole.

The Best Minds ultimately operates at two levels, each augmenting and supporting the other. At the highest level, this is the story of how Michael Laudor (whom Rosen met when they were both ten years old) excelled at everything he tried, from reading at the earliest age to gaining admission to prestigious courses with seemingly little effort, then suffered a mental breakdown and a diagnosis of schizophrenia, recovered and graduated from Yale Law School summa cum lauda(or “summa cum Laudor”, as Rosen puts it), before succumbing to schizophrenia in extremis and committing a horrific act of violence. At a foundational level, The Best Minds is about the tragedy of society’s failures to understand and care for the mentally ill.

Rosen brings to his book a cinematographer’s toolbox, taking in a panoramic view of the late twentieth-century with a wide-angle lens, to place things in a broad context and show the relationships between even seemingly distant ideas, people, and events; he then zooms in with fine precision to observe a vital detail or make a refined point. He often sets up the background of a verdict he will make – without showing his hand and making the reader feel as if they are being led to any particular place – so that when he drops the hammer, it feels inevitable and the argument in its favour is already plain to see.

Rosen is particularly good on critiques of postmodernism and critical deconstruction. After revealing the moral and intellectual failures of 1970’s and 1980’s academic thinking, he delivers this finishing blow:

“Foucault’s obsession with hidden power engendered a low-level paranoia that took the place of thought while making you feel smart.”

I can’t think of a more concise yet robust description not only of Foucault, but also of his contemporary followers who insist on a reductio ad absurdum of his philosophy as the only basis for interpreting culture. Before reading The Best Minds, I had many criticisms of the relativistic and postmodern dogmas largely born in the era Rosen describes, but I would not have seen how they interacted with and negatively influenced our views of mental health. Rosen presents a compelling and, to my mind, solid case for this view.

Much has been made – too much, in fact – of Rosen’s friendship with Laudor. This raises interesting questions (perhaps to be explored in an essay here on Art Of Conversation) about the dynamics between a book or film and its marketing. Much of the marketing for this book, including its own blurb, emphasises the personal relationship the author has with his subject, but Rosen himself is disarmingly candid in the book about the distance that grew between the two men. Nothing here hinges on Rosen being front and centre in the story; instead, his childhood friendship is simply an additional element brought to bear on a book Rosen could have told anyway. As Freddie deBoer put it in his Substack review of The Best Minds, “the book’s great feat is not a triumph of memory but of research”.

Rosen is a fiction writer, and he brings the tools of that profession to his book. However, while The Best Minds benefits from a novelist’s sense of narrative, it suffers a lack of an editor’s pen. The book runs to more than 500 pages, and it could stand to lose maybe a fifth of that, mostly from the first section describing his and Laudor’s childhoods, which is interesting but throws the pacing off. There were occasional passages and a chapter or two in the middle section, where Laudor is at Yale, which made me wonder how necessary they were to the story or the larger arguments Rosen is making.

That said, where the book succeeds – and it succeeds in most places – it absolutely glows. The penultimate chapter might just be the best of the whole book, and it relies on the set-up established in all that comes before it. Rosen describes in this late chapter the concentric spheres of trauma and suffering that radiate outward from Laudor’s horrific crime at its centre. Rosen reveals the outward-rippling effects of violence that are so often masked by our attention to the violence itself.

The Best Minds has much to offer its readers, and if it errs on the side of a little too much, it’s worth it – and it’s fascinating enough that you won’t mind taking the scenic route.


Marginalia, plur. noun: “In getting my books, I have always been solicitous of an ample margin … for the facility it affords me of penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe

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