Douglas Adams and God. Portrait of a radical atheist

Behind this slightly provocative title, there is something that no Douglas Adams fan should ignore: he had a very strong opinion about religion. Hence here are a few elements for the portrait of a radical atheist intellectual.


COMPERE – And now ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! The skies begin to boil! Nature collapses into the screaming void! In five seconds time, the Universe itself will be at an end. See where the light of infinity bursts in upon us!


COMPERE – But what’s this? What’s happening? Who’s this? I don’t believe it. A big hand please for the Great Prophet Zarquon!

ZARQUON – Er, hello everybody, sorry I’m late, had a terrible time, all sorts of things cropping up at the last moment. How are we for time? Er…


Douglas Adams

The hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy, Fit the Fifth.

dna42One day whilst conducting an interview on the Internet, a web surfer asked Douglas to verify whether or not he had the intention of “executing his threat” of writing a book on atheism. Very serious, Douglas answered that he was sorry to see that the web surfer saw that as a threat.

Douglas had not been an atheist all his life. When he was young, he was extremely religious. Let’s remember that when he was born, his father was studying for a postgraduate degree in theology, and had a view to taking orders. Douglas was brought up in the Christian tradition. He has been Sacristan in the School chapel at Brentwood (Cambridge) when he was 17 years old (for about a year and a half. According to Rev. Tom Gardinter, he was then « a great sermon taster » (quoted in MJ Simpson’s Hitchhiker). In 1984, he said he was «very firmly agnostic. I have terrible rows with my girlfriend who is a convinced atheist. This seems to me irrational. There’s no evidence either way» (interview in Time Out, quoted in MJ Simpson’s Hitchhiker).

Douglas does admit that he did not always have the same pint of view on religion, and that he even was a committed Christian when he was young. “It was in my background,” he conceded, “I used to work for the school chapel in fact.” Then one day something clicked. “I was about eighteen I was walking down the street when I heard a street evangelist and, dutifully, stopped to listen. As I listened it began to be borne in on me that he was talking complete nonsense, and that I had better have a bit of a think about it.”

Why the sudden change? “In the years I’d spent learning History, Physics, Latin, Math, I’d learnt (the hard way) something about standards of argument, standards of proof, standards of logic, etc. In fact we had just been learning how to spot the different types of logical fallacy, and it suddenly became apparent to me that these standards simply didn’t seem to apply in religious matters […] Why not? Because they wouldn’t stand up to it.”

But atheism did not occur to him straight away, “I became an Agnostic […] I was extremely doubtful about the idea of god, but I just didn’t know enough about anything to have a good working model of any other explanation for, well, life, the universe and everything to put in its place. But I kept at it, and I kept reading and I kept thinking. Sometime around my early thirties I stumbled upon evolutionary biology, particularly in the form of Richard Dawkins’s books The Selfish Gene and then The Blind Watchmaker and suddenly (on, I think the second reading of The Selfish Gene) it all fell into place. It was a concept of such stunning simplicity, but it gave rise, naturally, to all of the infinite and baffling complexity of life.”

DNA often described himself at the end of his life as a ‘radical atheist’, an expression that often left his readers perplexed. In a long interview he did with the American Atheist Society, he explained the expression: “If you describe yourself as “Atheist,” some people will say, “Don’t you mean ‘Agnostic’?” I have to reply that I really do mean Atheist. I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference). I see not a shred of evidence to suggest that there is one. It’s easier to say that I am a radical Atheist, just to signal that I really mean it, have thought about it a great deal, and that it’s an opinion I hold seriously.”

For Douglas, there is no room for hypocrisy on the matter: “People will then often say “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it.”

Douglas Adams states that there is neither arrogance nor irrationality to his point of view as it is based on pure logic. “Isn’t belief-that-there-is-not-a-god as irrational, arrogant, etc., as belief-that-there-is-a-god? To which I say ‘no’ for several reasons. First of all I do not believe-that-there-is-not-a-god. I don’t see what belief has got to do with it […] As a carapace for the protection of irrational notions from legitimate questions, however, I think that the word has a lot of mischief to answer for […] I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance and takes me on to my second reason.”

In his opinion, God has absolutely no more reason to be: “God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining.”

It is quite amusing to remark that certain believers saw in Douglas Adams’s works a denunciation of those who question the basis of religion! On the website Chapel42 we can read Douglas Adams supposedly invented the story of Deep Thought to make fun of those who search for answers to insoluble questions, and that he illustrates the stupidity of those who try. As for the number 42, they believe that it is a sign of God telling us that it is indeed the answer to life, the universe and everything… that God is 42!

Atheism aside, Douglas Adams had a religious funeral. Would he have approved? In any case, it turned out to be deeply moving and respectful of DNA’s opinions nonetheless…

More Readings :

 > DNA’s interview with American Atheist