When you look at it
Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke it’s true
You’ll see it’s all a show
Keep ‘em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you ...
The last laugh is on you ... It’s a view that Adams endorses. Given the inevitability, the irreversibility of death, we must choose, ultimately but also every day, every moment, between laughter – at the absurdity of it all – and despair.
I still have that scrapbook stashed away somewhere in our garage – that Temple to the god of hoarding, that pointless paradise of accumulated ‘favorite things’ that, Karin assures me, will be burned or sent to the tip the moment I cast off my mortal coil. She can be sentimental at times; she can invest great significance into objects that in truth are of little worth. But my hoarding of books and objets de memoire get her down at times.
All of this is at the forefront of my mind at the moment because I’ve just finished reading Adams’ latest book, ‘Adams V God: the Rematch’. I have several of Adams’ books in my library. I may even have the original of Adams V God, which was published in the late 80s. I certainly have ‘The Unspeakable Adams’. He’s been around a long time, and has published around three million words.
Phillip Adams and I are almost contemporaries. He was born in 1939; I was born in 1943. We both grew up in Melbourne. He was probably still at Eltham High (the school my eldest daughter Jordan attends) when I started at Moreland High in 1955. As Adams tells it, he ‘turned way from God’ at the age of six when he grew dissatisfied with her grandson’s ‘inevitable question: “But who began God?”’ It took me much longer. At 15 I responded to Billy Graham’s call to give my life to Christ; by 18 I was heavily involved in the youth movement in the Methodist church, a youth club leader and a Sunday school teacher and a lay preacher. I didn’t declare myself an agnostic till I was around 24.
What lay behind Adams’ rejection of the Christian church and its teachings. I was surprised to discover that Adams’ father was a minister in the Congregationalist Church – the Reverend Charles Adams - but that the young Phillip was raised largely by his grandparents because Adams Senior was away at war. It’s tempting – it’s always tempting – to psychologise, to see some psychological link between the father’s absence and Adams’ rejection His Father which art in Heaven, along with His representatives on earth, especially His Holiness the Pope. [Interesting, Phillip’s mother also dumped his father, ‘in favour of a rather sleazy businessman’ about whom Adams has nothing positive to say.
Adams is an auto-didact. He ‘was forced’ to leave school before completing his secondary education; it doesn’t seem to have done him any great harm, going by his Wikipedia CV: writer, film producer, TV and radio presenter. He’s received awards for his ‘outstanding services to the Australian film industry’, declared a ‘Living Treasure’ by the national trust, awarded the Order of Australia, and made Australian Humanist of the Year in 1987. Even his nemesis, John Howard, expressed his disappointment that there wasn’t a “Right wing Phillip Adams”.
I suppose the closest thing we have to such a beast is the crass and tactless Andrew Bolt, who is more or an argumentative bully than an intellectual presence. For while Bolt is a propagandist, Adams is a deep thinker – outspoken, true, but unlike Bolt, never disrespectful of those whose views her disagrees with, never offensively dismissive of the right of others to have a view.
The problem for the likes of Howard is that the term “Right Wing Phillips Adams” is an oxymoron.
Ah – the outspoken, unspeakable Adams. Unspeakable – despicable in the eyes of some – and always outspoken. For a time there Saturday mornings were a great delight for me. I’d sit sipping coffee at Alta Vita restaurant in Eltham, and read the weekly offerings of my two favourite opinion columnists: Phillip Adams in the Weekend Australian magazine and Catherine Deveny in the A2 section of The Age. They have much in common: they both write well; both lean to the Left in their politics; both subscribe to the view that ‘God is Bullshit’. Deveny gave her comedy performance of 2011 that title and constantly offends god botherers with her outspoken dismissal of their precious beliefs. Adams is a different kettle of fish. He takes their arguments seriously; he is willing to ‘enter dialogue’ with believers the better to understand their ideas – then he dismisses them. Adams is the more intellectual of the two. Adams can be funny, and he’s always intellectually provocative; Deveny is more of a pub brawler – smart and very funny, and at times outrageous: which is what led her to be dumped by The Age. Which had the unfortunate effect of halving my enjoyment of Saturday mornings.
Adams V God: The Rematch brings together essays Adam has written over the past 30 years or more. The first half of the book consists of essays that appeared in the original Adams V God; the remaining essays , in the rematch section, come from the last two decades.
‘The atheist,’ Adams begins, ‘was once as lonely a figure as the biblical leper. No more. ... All of a sudden atheism is fashionable. In a world shaken by a perfect storm of fundamentalism it’s increasing it’s market share, even in the god bothering United States.
For many years Adams was one of Australia’s few ‘public atheists’; as he observes:
...when atheism was mentioned in Australia, it was often identified with me – in the same way that my namesakes, Herbert and George, were linked to meat pies or lottery tickets. I’d only myself to blame, having pontificated on death and religion, mortality and meaninglessness...
[That’s one of the many things I like about Adams: his joy in verbal play, and his ability to choose just the right word. In this case, pontificate has just the right touch of both ironic self-effacement and pompous posturing.]
For Adams atheism is the only real choice, the only world view that makes sense. As he says:
It’s astonishing that people still believe in God. One would have thought that by the middle of the twentieth century, surrounded by nuclear missiles, felt-wick pens, VCRs and Vitamin B capsules, that He would have faded away like that other improbably invention, the Cheshire Cat. Yet He lingers on and, in some ways, looms larger and loonier than ever.
Adams credo is straight forward enough: If you haven’t tested your beliefs, you’re not entitles to them.
He has no time for the Creationists and their attempts to indoctrinate children in Creation Science. Most for their intellectual dishonesty. They claim that they are being open minded, and simply want children to be able to choose between competing theories. The trouble is, theirs isn’t a theory – it’s a dogma. While scientists are constantly questioning their conclusions, testing how robust their conclusions against new findings, new insights, the Creationists push their unchanging truth: that God created the earth in six days and on the seventh day he rested. And the evidence for this? The Bible tells me so.
He saves his most savage verbal attacks for just these kinds of fundamentalists.
As a rough rule of thumb, he writes, the greater the certainty, the more ringing the conviction, the less the humour, the greater the cause to fear. The fundamentalists have created God in their own mean-spirited, frightened and humourless image. If there was a god, I think he would dislike fundamentalists as much as I do.
I’ve given up trying to even talk to fundamentalists because – well, there’s nothing to talk about. Nothing is actually open for discussion. While I avoid them, or having been stuck in a room with them, simply ignore them, Adams engages with them. He reports that he’s received thousands of letters from Christians attacking him for his ‘unspeakable’ and blasphemous writings. His response is to write in reply: ‘Let’s not let a little think like god stand between us.’ How that must rankle! It must drive them mad – madder actually!
Perhaps he is mellowing as he ages. Around page 169, he writes:
There was a time when I saw the world through ideological blinkers, when it seemed there was only one opinion and one truth. I now recognise that truth is a hopelessly jumbled jigsaw, and that everyone has a piece or two that fits with somebody else’s piece or two. And I’ve learned to enjoy the company of people I disagree with ... whereas I’m frequently bored by echoing agreement.
Echoes there of Voltaire, who said to one of his students who kept agreeing with the great philosopher: ‘For God’s sake disagree with me, so there can be two of us!’
At the same time I find myself agreeing with Adams at so many points. Like when he writes:
o I’m ... grateful for the opportunity, for the complimentary pass to life, the most extraordinary entertainment imaginable.
o Even a few decades ago the range of possibilities we know and accept with indifferent shrug would have seemed inconceivable.
o In the light of the plight of people in scores of other countries ... spending time complaining ... is insufferable and obscene.
And especially when he observes:
o For me the problem and the joy of living in this century is that you have to apply more and more paradigms to begin to comprehend the simplest event. That is the price of our learning curves.
God V Adams: The Rematch is, for me at least, a wonderful read. I will go back to it, again and again I think, to reacquaint myself with the highlights: his demolition of the Seventh Day Adventists, the Mormons, and – with particular relish – the Scientologists.
There is not a lot in this book about Adams ‘the person’; his autobiographical writing is limited to his first decade. He recently withdrew from a project to write his biography, falling out with his biographer just before the launch of the book over precisely this issue: the inclusion of too much of Adams’ ‘personal life’ and – so his biographer claims – in particular his relationships with women. The biography has been published, without Adams’ blessing.
There are two particular highlights in this book for me, however. The first is when he ‘comes clean’ about his own beliefs:
I believe in laughter. A highly developed sense of the absurd, particularly one’s own absurdity, is extremely healthy. As long as you’re laughing, especially at yourself, you’re unlikely to be brutal or vindictive... I think that all the things that divide us – from brands of god to national borders – are fairly silly and should be laughed at as often as possible.
Does Andrew Bolt ever laugh at himself? Or Peter Reith? Or John Howard? I sometimes catch a glimpse of Tony Abbott grinning as he trots out his infantile mantra “It’s another Great Big Tax”, as though he can hear how much like a six year old her sounds, but maybe it’s just a knowing sneer. Julia Gillard seems to take her own “moving forward” mantra with straight-faced seriosity.
In the final essay, Hello World, This is Me, Adams writes AS god – or is that as God?
‘I’m not as fond of you mob as you like to think,’ He confesses. Typically of Adams, God saves his final word for his nemesis:
You know the humans that most irritate me? The people that say I talk to them. In person. The ones that say they speak on my behalf. You must have notices that among their number are some of the most boring, self-important, fanatical and hypocritical people on Earth.... God help us.'