Believing in Nothing and Something Approach to Humanist Beliefs and Values.

David Hart, author and SoF steering committee member, reviews a new book by Geoff Heath.

This is a very timely book, emerging this year as something of an English philosophical commentary on 'the war on terror' and some of the implications of the terrifying combinations of naive realism and nihilism that now stalk the political capitals of the western powers, and usually wreak their worst elsewhere in our fragile globe. In the course of his argument Heath calls 'the war of terror' a sort of American jihad, and argues cogently that believing what might be the case (on the part of certain politicians) is no justification for killing innocent people. He goes back to the English radicals (whom Tom Altizer castigated us for so much neglecting) and specifically to Milton—who argued that there was no truth that would justify persecution. He also has a chilling epigram from Nietzsche: 'Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this strangest of guests?'

As so often is the case, some biographical background helps illuminate the philosophical substance. Geoff Heath started out as an inner-city clergyman in the 1960s, ministering in the challenging situation of the Bow Mission as an ordained Methodist minister while Honest to God was simmering on the South Bank. As if that was not soul-searing enough, he then spent a period of ministry among the mining communities of the Worksop Circuit in the Midlands before resigning his orders and eventually becoming Principal Lecturer in Counselling and Human Relations at the University of Derby. With such a distinguished ministerial and academic pedigree, he is clearly a firm supporter of the innovative work of The Multi-Faith Centre at Derby University, and hopes that it can, once built, (in 2004—ed.) become a meeting-point for those who believe and for those who don't.

Heath no longer believes in the Christian God, or in any of the stories of the dogmatic religions: in his opinion as a psychologist, dogmatic believing is often a form of paranoia and can damage the individuals who are susceptible to its forms and lead to the death of any dialogue in the inter-religious context in which we now live.

Heath believes we have to be honest about the stark facts of an amoral universe that we inhabit as a species which is nothing particularly special, sharing as we do 98% of our human genes with other primates. And behind us four and a half billion years from the Big Bang and just a sperm-chance in the microcosm. Geoff had a still-born younger brother, and though he does not dwell on this I sense that the shadow of Nothing is cast by this fraternal loss for the author. We all now recognise that we are no more than biological stardust (hence we believe in Nothing); on the other hand, for the first time in our history we have an opportunity to say who we will be and to define our religious identity (and here is the Something with which SoFers will themselves be familiar!). He follows the line of modem Darwinian Adam Phillips who argues that since the individual is going nowhere in particular we must go on inventing the future. Phillips would be a worthy Conference speaker, I think!

Heath is critical of the sad attempts of the institutional denominations, Canute-like, to stem the waves. He cites the 1996 Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, which solemnly declared that Hell was a state of non-being...his outrage is that the Commission should presume to teach us what surely we already existentially know, from the individual hells born in our own hearts.

Existentialism is an important backdrop to Heath's thought, and his humanism is not rationalist but is a fragile not entirely realistic set of values. These values include 'religious' ones, such as forgiveness (he cites Jonathan Sacks' definition: 'the freedom to be different from the past that constructed us') and also simple 'human' values such as 'trust'...a risky business, he admits, but one thoroughly worthwhile in every human venture..

This is a very fresh account of both a loss and an invention of belief by an individual who has made a long spiritual journey, and regards himself as still a voyager on the way: let us salute him as a fellow traveller and learn from this book that the best sort of Methodist is not always 'staunch'... thank God!... just as the best type of Catholic is not always 'devout'.

This book may be ordered for 9.95 from:

BBR, PO Box 625, Sheffield, Sl 3GY: or
Credit card orders may be phoned or faxed: 01246 271 662 (P&P 2)

Further information about Geoff Heath and his other publications can be found on