Posts Tagged ‘Francis Spufford’

Francis Spufford’s faith without belief

October 28, 2012

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


The dream of a Communist utopia

December 3, 2010

I remember talking years ago to Richard Rosett, then dean of the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Business, about his meetings with Soviet economists.  He said he would ask them how, in the absence of supply and demand, they decided what and how much to produce.  He said they replied that they decided scientifically.  Their economic planning was organized around the biological needs of human beings for food, clothing, shelter and so on.

In that case, Dr. Rosett asked, how did they decide how many red dresses and blue dresses to produce.  Their reply was that it doesn’t matter whether dresses are red or blue.  But Dr. Rosett’s question is a proxy for much else.  No tiny group of central planners can grasp the needs and wants of hundreds of millions of human beings, except in very crude and general terms, and no planning mechanism has been found as effective as the market in integrating human desires with human knowledge.

There was a time, which I remember well, when things seemed otherwise.  The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik in 1957, its economy was reported to be growing faster than ours, and many Americans had much the same feeling in the 1950s and 1960s as they had toward Japan in the 1980s or China and India today.  Then as now I opposed any governmental or economic system that gives absolute power to an individual or a self-selected elite, but at the time I feared the Soviet system would be more effective than American capitalism in increasing and projecting military and political might.

I recently read a historical novel, or fictionalized history, entitled Red Plenty, which recreates that era well.  The author, Francis Spufford, describes the efforts of idealistic reformers in the Soviet Union in the 1960s to overcome the inherent flaws of central planning and make the promises of Communism come true.  He shows why their ideas seemed plausible, and also why they didn’t work out.

This story is told as a series of vignettes about characters both historical and fictional involved in the workings or the attempted reform of the Soviet economy, in a style that is sardonic, poignant and highly readable.  The second chapter is told from the viewpoint of an exuberant Nikita Khrushchev, visiting the United States in 1959 and challenging the capitalist world to peaceful economic competition.  The last chapter returns to Khrushchev in forced retirement in 1968, sitting in his garden and brooding on what went wrong.  Spufford conveys a sense of Soviet life during that period that is so convincing I would have thought he experienced it; in fact, he is a Briton who doesn’t speak Russian.

Along the way he does an excellent job of explaining Soviet and Western economics in both theory and practice. The flaw of Soviet economics is that no system of central planning has been found that can substitute for supply and demand as a means of coordinating an economy.  In a market economy, the price of a product reflects everything that is known about its value and scarcity, without the need for omniscient masterminds at the top.