Francis Spufford is the author of the wonderful book, Red Plenty, a novelistic account of the failed Soviet economic reforms in the Khrushchev era. It is interesting throughout and shows why the system was unreformable. Now he has written a new book, Unapologetic, in which he defends Christianity against New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins. The first chapter was published in The Guardian.
The atheist bus says: “There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.” All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognizable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t “probably”. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is “enjoy”.
I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colors should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.
But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being “worried” by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible … …
… Suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are poverty-stricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there’s no help coming. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing “cruel optimism” 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.
A consolation you could believe in would be one that wasn’t in danger of popping like a soap bubble on contact with the ordinary truths about us. A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied.
via The Guardian.
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, asserts, correctly, that there is no empirical or logical proof of the existence of God, and that as a scientific hypothesis, the Christian religion and other religions make no sense. He has no sense of religion as a source of meaning and purpose in individual lives, or as a source of community. What Dawkins has instead is a great sense of joy and (you might say) reverence in learning of the wonders of the natural world.
Spufford, surprisingly, agrees that the truth of Christianity is unprovable to those who don’t already have faith. He wrote this for the New Humanist magazine.
We believe there is a God. You believe there isn’t one. Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof. The most science can do is to demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything, which is very much not the same thing as demonstrating that He isn’t there. So the natural, neutral, temperate position here would be agnosticism: a calm, indifferent not-knowing. … …
Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science. In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all. Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feeling, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions. You entertain the proposition, and perhaps eventually sign up to it, because it makes a secondary kind of sense of something you’re feeling anyway.
via New Humanist.
The question is whether you can have a solid religious faith without making assertions of objective fact. Richard Dawkins in the preface to The God Delusion says the metaphorical faith of people such as Karen Armstrong, and by implication Francis Spufford, is beyond the scope of his book. His argument is with religion as an assertion that revelation takes precedence over scientific fact. This is not a straw man. This is in fact what most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution is compatible with Christian belief, but it still is necessary to believe that the human race is descended from one man and one woman who were guilty of original sin, and to believe that as fact, not metaphor.
One problem with Spufford’s religion of personal experience is that it does not speak to those who do not have the religious experience he speaks of, of whom I am one. And most Jews, Christians and Muslims believe as they do not because of their subjective personal experience, but because they accept a certain religious revelation as objectively true. This brings religion into Richard Dawkins’ field of fire.
Click on The trouble with atheists: a defense of faith for Spufford’s full article in The Guardian.
Click on Dear atheists… for Spufford’s full article in the New Humanist.
Click on Dear Christians… for a rebuttal to Spufford.
Click on The dream of a Communist utopia for my review of Red Plenty
I do not have a good answer to the questions raised by Spufford. I believe that the religious life can be a good one, but I am agnostic in the sense that Francis Spufford defines the term. That is why I am a Unitarian Universalist, a member of a tiny, much-ridiculed sect which bases our religion on affirmation of certain values rather than assertion of certain doctrines. I know from experience that both atheists and believers would find this response inadequate, but, for myself, I can’t find a better one.
If you are curious about Unitarian Universalism, click on Our Unitarian Universalist Principles, UUA: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and First Universalist Church of Rochester.