The Illusion Of God’s Presence by John C. Wathey (book review).

February 26, 2016 | By | Reply More

There are some books that I review and say they are important reads. John C. Wathey’s book ‘The Illusion Of God’s Presence’ should be considered one of them. It’s sub-title ‘The Biological Origins Of Spiritual Longing’ is less about whether there is a deity out there but how religion fulfils a need in people who appear to have a gap in their lives. Although he doesn’t go into it, there is also the way it can be exploited by other people.


Wathey isn’t a brow-beater on this subject. His father was a Presbyterian preacher and his mother, a Catholic. He turned atheist when young, much to his parents’ dismay, when he realised that not all religions could be right. Something, I suspect is a common ingredient to any who don’t have faith with religions. The focus is principally on Christianity but there is also a smattering on other religions as well. Those of you who remember my article on creating religions a few years back will recall that they all have similar protocols.

One that Wathey centres on is a solitary God is always depicted as male but there is always a secondary person who is female. Think about Mary’s status in Christianity and she’s mortal. This parental positions goes back to how we rely on them as babies and he even equates kneeling when praying as akin to the breast-feeding position. When you consider when young, our reliance on parents as a calming effect is it any wonder when older, you need someone of similar calmness to call upon in terms of stress. I can see this won’t be the same for all people but for the majority, I can see his point. As such, it’s not difficult to see how many people depend on religion as their safety blanket.

Having a messiah is a common denominator across many religions, especially those who are oppressed minorities who are waiting for an absentee parent to return to rescue them. In SF, we’ve seen stories that have explored what happens when there is such a return, either through not believing who they are or those in charge of a particular religion seeing this as a loss of their own power. This section of the book is worth reading if you want to revise how you would write a story about this.

Wathey doesn’t pull any punches in regards to how God in Christianity has a nasty side and he points out all the examples of sacrifice and mass slaughter of children in the Bible where, if he existed, would surely have prevented. That alone should make anyone question whether this God is a particularly benevolent being but the self-justification that God sees a bigger purpose tends to cloud this issue. If anything, it is more worrying that these acts were carried out under God’s orders regarding human sacrifice or didn’t intervene preventing them happening. There was one instance when God or the individual pulled back but its far scarier that people carried out such acts regardless as a means to appease him. We see human sacrifice in earlier religions, like those of the Incas, but this was very prevalent in the Old Testament as well.

In case you wondered if the God was always depicted as male, Wathey points out that earlier depictions for earlier religions was as a female, more so as the ladies are more spiritual in nature. I wish he’d done a greater exploration of why the gender was switched although I suspect it had something to do with men ceasing to be hunters and asserting their position at home. The male clearly wanted to be seen as being in charge of everything.

There’s an unusual reference to the Margaret Thatcher photo where her eyes and mouth were turned upside down giving an unusual perspective. I remember seeing a similar thing down with a Marilyn Monroe photo come to that. Wathey’s perspective is on how much attention we pay to faces from babyhood. Although this might be true, I learnt a different lesson from a screened British mid-1980s interview with Clint Eastwood when a question from the audience asked if he would do the ‘Dirty Harry’ line. What sold the line wasn’t the way he said it but how the muscles around his eyes clenched up to add to the intensity. Whatever our ages, we pay a lot more attention to how the muscles convey emotion in the face than the actual eyeballs themselves.

Wathey makes a telling comment that religion is not hardwired into the newly born but can be educated into it. Although I can’t speak for the USA, the number of kids attending Sunday School, as I did when young was small then and even smaller now in proportion to day school. However, this isn’t true of other religions which should make anyone think.

His examination of life after death centres on whether the mind needs a brain to continue existence. One should also wonder where the mind was before there was a body. Wathey points about various things like Alzheimer’s disease where the mind slowly dies that makes much of this absurd. Religion has always been eroded when science replaces belief with proof and there’s no evidence for a lot of things, so hardly surprising if some things are wrong then most or all of it is. Of course, if there’s no God, then there can’t be no devil as well.

One thing that he should have addressed is why religion is losing power, at least in the ‘Christian’ based countries and yet going up in the Islamic states, although when you consider Wathey’s assertion that religion is the faith of the oppressed minority does become questionable against the size of the population.

Something else that I think is a nuisance is Wathey continually referencing chapters that haven’t been read yet for some answers as well as in previous chapters. Granted, a subject as complex as this is likely to be re-read in chunks or even as reference, but the amount of space it takes could easily have been filled with an abridged version of the info.

Nevertheless, this book is a great education and certainly a useful reference book for info you can put to anyone knocking on your door wanting to ‘convert’ you to their faith. The only real drawback, as always, is that believers are less likely to read this book.

GF Willmetts

February 2016

(pub: Prometheus Books. 430 page indexed hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $29.50 (CAN), £19.43 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-63388-074-0-0. Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-63388-075-7)

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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