Why God Is Just an Illusion; Ever since He Was a Young Boy, Ludovic Kennedy Has Held an Abiding Distrust of God. Here, in a Fascinating Yet Highly Controversial Analysis of Religion, the Distinguished Writer Argues That Faith Is Just a Dream and There Is Greater Spirituality in Nature and Art .

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ALL MY life I have fought a losing battle trying to understand what the word God means. My mother was the first to try to enlighten me when I was six or seven, telling me God had made the world and everything in it, and I ought to kneel and say a prayer to him morning and evening, as I had seen my father and Christopher Robin do.

So I said the Lord's Prayer and asked God to bless my parents, sisters, grandparents, the dog Ponting and anyone else I happened to fancy. But try as I might, I was never able to form a picture in my mind of who I was supposed to be talking to.

It was no better when I was first taken to church, which my mother said was the place where God lived.

I had hoped we were going to meet him and say hello. He was not at home that day, so instead we sang hymns to him which said he was invisible and unknowable, but also merciful and wise. How could he be merciful and wise, I wondered, if he was also invisible and unknowable?

During ten years at boarding school, I took an active dislike to God. At chapel every day - and twice on Sundays we had to say, with the priest, that we were miserable sinners who had offended against God's holy laws and there was no health in us.

I minded that a lot, because I wasn't aware of what holy laws I was supposed to have offended and found the admission of having offended to be both demeaning and untrue.

I was also obliged to recite what I regarded as a lot of gibberish about God's son, Jesus Christ (but how did God manage to have a son if he was invisible and unknowable?), whose mother was a virgin, (impossible, said the school doctor); and who had risen from

the dead (equally impossible) and spent some time in hell (no reason given) before joining his father in heaven; all in all, a highly implausible story.

When the war came, I joined the Navy and wondered whether, in hairy moments, I might feel compelled to call on God to save me. But when the hairy moments came, thoughts of God never entered my head.

Once, in Newfoundland after an Atlantic crossing, a friend lent me a book which was a revelation. It was called The Age Of Reason, by the radical reformer Thomas Paine, and published in the last decade of the 18th century.

For me, it had all the shock of the new.

FIRST, Paine demolished theology: 'It is a study of nothing, it is founded on nothing; it can demonstrate nothing and it admits of no conclusions.'

Then, as I had done privately, he rejected the virgin birth, the miracles, the Resurrection and the Ascension.

In those days, the conformist view was to hold godlessness in contempt, and fear of God with approval. Yet here was someone telling me that I was not alone in my disbeliefs. It was a heady moment.

I returned to Oxford after the war to complete my university education, and it was here that I first began to research the history of gods and their role in human affairs.

One of the first things I discovered was that the Christian claim that God had made man and woman in his own image was the opposite of the truth.

Throughout history, men and women had created gods (including the Christian God) in their image, to worship or appease as they felt a need to.

One thing did bother me,

though. I had read in many books that a belief in the existence of a power greater than ourselves had, from time immemorial, been common to all people in all places, and there were many examples of it.

For instance, 150 years ago in Australia, a traveller met an aboriginal who told him that one night, his grandfather had taken him outside to look at the stars. 'You can see Bunjil (an aboriginal god) up there,' he said, 'and he can see you and all you do down here.' Yet further research showed that missionaries in the 17th century - a time when European seamen were mapping the world - found many societies which had no notion of a divinity at all, like the Indians of the Gaspe Peninsula, yet were 'charitable beyond anything in Europe'. …