Francis Spufford strikes again: defends his faith against atheism

August 31, 2012 • 6:25 am

Francis Spufford must be deeply disturbed by New Atheism.  His conciliatory letter to atheists in New Humanist has, within a week, morphed into a long, semi-coherent tirade in the Guardian against nonbelievers: “The trouble with atheists: a defense of faith“.  His main concern is to justify his faith in the absence of evidence, but also gets in a few licks at atheists.  His main points are three:

1.  The atheist bus slogan is stupid.  The slogan, you may recall, is “There is probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  This really rankles Spufford, but not for the reason you think. No, it’s not the “probably there is no God” part, for Spufford thinks that such a claim is buttressed by no evidence (see point 2 below). No, he objects to the implied dictum that the goal of our life is to enjoy it.  Here’s where he loses it:

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 colours 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. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

I don’t think Spufford is enjoying his life.

But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, 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.

I don’t think he quite gets the point of the slogan. It’s not that by abandoning God we’re suddenly going to have all kinds of fun. It’s that by abandoning God and discarding the crutch of belief, we increase our well being, in Sam Harris’s sense. We aren’t shackled by guilt because we’re gay or have masturbated, or that we’ll go to hell; we no longer think that our actions are being observed by the Great Leader above. What Spufford and Augustine call “cruel optimism” is what we atheists call “realism.”  Yes, a poor person or a drug addict may find some consolation in believing in God, but they’re not going to improve their situation by belief alone. They have to do something, because God is not going to cure their addiction or give them money. No, there is no help coming from above, but there may be help coming from one’s society or government. That’s precisely why those countries with the best social services have lower levels of belief.

Suppose the bus slogan said instead, “You are going to die, so enjoy your life.” That’s a denial of hope, too, but it’s the truth, and the realization of our mortality should impel us to squeeze the most juice from the orange of our lives. It is good for us to know that, and not good for us to think that we’ll be immortal, either on this earth or after death.  There’s no hope coming there, either, so we must make the best of it.

But maybe there is an afterlife? Spufford’s second point is that religious claims may well be true because we can’t prove otherwise.

2. Atheists can’t prove there’s not a god. As he notes:

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.

. . . And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that people mostly expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me. No, I can’t prove it. I don’t know that any of it is true. I don’t know if there’s a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable item.)

The absence of a God is a substantial claim because if there is a god—at least a benevolent and omnipotent and theistic one—we should have evidence for it.  We have none.  So it’s more than just a guess, it’s a reasonable working hypothesis based on observations like the absence of miracles or of God’s intervention into the workings of the world, the existence of unwarranted suffering, the lack of efficacy of intercessory prayer, and the general observation, from science and common sense, that the universe works exactly as it would be if there were no god—at least a god who does anything.

Really, Spufford’s assertion here is like saying that one might as well believe in leprechauns because we can’t prove they don’t exist. It’s the “you can’t prove a negative” argument, which is and has always been wrong: first because you can prove a negative (you can “prove”—in the scientific sense of “finding strong evidence against existence”—that I am not President of the University of Chicago), and you can draw strong inference that something doesn’t exist if there should be pervasive evidence of its existence but there isn’t. The absence of gods is more than a “guess.”

3.  Atheists don’t understand that belief derives from and rests on emotion, not evidence. So why, in the absence of proof of god, is Spufford such a strong believer? (He says that he is “a fairly orthodox Christian” who, every Sunday, says that he says and does his best “to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions.”) It’s because, as he argued in his New Humanist letter, he thinks that acceptance of religious facts comes from emotions, rather than the other way around.

To show this, he recounts in gory detail a long fight he had with his wife.  With their squabble unresolved, and roiling with emotion, Spufford repaired to a cafe for a cappuccino.  And there he heard, on the cafe’s sound system, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. That made him somehow realize that. . . well. . . something fuzzy:

I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this as well. And it played the tune again, with all the cares in the world. . .

And this emotion led him to believe that he apprehended some kind of truth that Mozart had inserted into the Concerto:

I think that Mozart, two centuries earlier, had succeeded in creating a beautiful and accurate report of an aspect of reality. I think that the reason reality is that way – that it is in some ultimate sense merciful as well as being a set of physical processes all running along on their own without hope of appeal, all the way up from quantum mechanics to the relative velocity of galaxies by way of “blundering, low and horridly cruel” biology (Darwin) – is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love.

Well, that’s a huge conclusion to draw from listening to a concerto, and other people listening to the same piece would derive other conclusions. Who’s right?  What really happened to Spufford is that he was soothed by that music, and it stimulated a set of emotions that calmed him down and (presumably) led him to settle the fight with his wife. The same thing happens to atheist.  And, claims Spufford, the same emotions that led Spufford to realize Mozart’s “report on reality” have led him to God.  The emotions come first, and then the belief:

I think that love keeps it in being. I think that I don’t have to posit some corny interventionist prod from a meddling sky-fairy to account for my merciful ability to notice things a little better, when God is continually present everywhere anyway, undemonstratively underlying all cafés, all cassettes, all composers.

That’s what I think. But it’s all secondary. It all comes limping along behind my emotional assurance that there was mercy, and I felt it. And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that people mostly expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me. No, I can’t prove it. I don’t know that any of it is true. I don’t know if there’s a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable item.) But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only those emotions I can prove. I’d be an unrecognisable oddity if I did. Emotions can certainly be misleading: they can fool you into believing stuff that is definitely, demonstrably untrue. Yet emotions are also our indispensable tool for navigating, for feeling our way through, the much larger domain of stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn’t checkable against the physical universe.

The problems with this are too many to analyze.  First, as both I and Eric MacDonald have emphasized, Spufford is analyzing his own journey to belief and assuming that it goes for the whole world. Most people aren’t believers because they have a revelation or epiphany that leads them to faith: they believe because they were taught to believe as children.  If you’re brought up in Pakistan, you’ll be a Muslim; in the Southern U.S., perhaps a Baptist; in southern India a Hindu. Why, precisely, did Orthodox Christianity rather than Judaism come “limping along” after Spufford listened to Mozart?

And that leads us to the second point: for the vast majority of believers, emotion doesn’t precede acceptance of religious truths. Instead, it’s the other way around: you’re often brainwashed into accepting those truths, and then the emotion follows when—as John Haught so often emphasizes—you let yourself be “grasped by faith” and transported into the realms of superstition.

Third, for most of the world’s believers, truths do matter, as Spufford admitted in his New Humanist letter. If Spufford knew with certainty that Jesus wasn’t really the son of God, would he still be an “Orthodox Christian”? Just as Mozart’s Concerto inspires different emotions in different listeners, so does religious “inspiration” (more likely brainwashing) lead different people to different faiths, all of which make incompatible claims.

Maybe we’re in the habit of entertaining emotions we can’t prove (if “proof” is something that even applies to an emotion!), and yes, emotions can certainly be misleading. If faith really is based on emotions, then 66% of the world’s population (those who aren’t Christian) have been misled.  So even if there is a God, the chances that Spufford is right about his faith are no more than one in three (much less if you count all the different types of Christians). But again, for most people the facts (or the brainwashing) precede the emotional commitment, and so those facts matter.

Finally, it hardly needs to be said that religion is not a private thing. If it were, Spufford’s fuzzy emotional experience would just be a mundane tale of someone deluded by a concerto in a cafe, and I wouldn’t care about it. But religion isn’t private: the faithful, feeling that they have apprehended God’s truth, often feel they must impose it on others: through proselytzing, through making laws about sex, abortion, and homosexual unions, through flying planes into buildings and throwing acid in the faces of schoolgirls, through claims about the inefficacy of condoms in preventing AIDs which lead to much suffering and death, and through instilling lifelong guilt and sexual reticence in adherents. Even the Amish, whom many see as religiously innocuous, bring up their children in an austere way of life, not offering them much of a choice except for a brief Rumspringa.

If Spufford is going to defend a faith based on emotion alone, let him face up to all the harm that those emotions have caused.

105 thoughts on “Francis Spufford strikes again: defends his faith against atheism

    1. Nope, that would only have triggered an online purchase of a cattle prod. “Pour encourager les autres.”

  1. Bottom line, he’s got a bad marriage and is probably suffering from later life depression — probably one cause of bad marriage and his silly thinking and writing.

    But by externalizing and wrapping his psychiatric problems in a pop ideology supporting magical thinking he gets an easy platform on one of the world’s premier pop media outlets. Once again, religion works!

    Civilization has learned thru oceans of blood and cruelty that giving public and policy priority to the strong emotions of individuals may lead to warm fuzzy stuff but it also leads to horrific bloodshed. Mass murders of all stripes and levels of public responsibility play to the primacy of strong emotions of one person — firstly their own.

  2. Wow! I feel embarrassed for Spufford. If things weren’t so tight for me right now, I would be willing to donate to a Spufford relief fund.

  3. The second and third point have all the problems that JAC/WEIT says. On the second, he reminds of the the joke about what is the definition of a militant agnostic, one who says “I don’t know and you don’t either”. Surely, if there is a sentient spirit behind the creation of the cosmos, she is very well-hidden, but I still wouldn’t know why any of our religions should have more insight into the matter. The militant agnosticism is an “immunizing from criticism” strategy, in the same way that Karen Armstrong employs “apophatic theology”

    On the first point, Spufford has a bit more of a point, since the English language is a bit ambiguous about happiness and pleasure. Is the point of life superficial, momentary, “material” [I use the word reluctantly since I am not a spirit-matter dualist] pleasures, or a deeper sense of well-being that comes from a sense of harmony with the cosmos and our fellow humans? The German language with its distinction between deep joys (“Freud”) and quick pleasure (“Lust”) is more expressive than English here.
    Here is where some strung-out Christian writers observe interesting human problems before offering usually bad solutions. Modern Christian apologists employ the uneasiness and anxiety of much modern life as a ploy to offer some repackaged notion of “original sin”. (I kind of confusion between “unease” and “disease”.)

    The issue of religion’s incompatible claims is sometimes addressed by the Buddhist parable of three blind men feeling an elephant, but what if there’s no elephant, and instead three different theatre stage props? (if you get my drift).

    1. Don’t worry. The human “spirit” (in Dutch we don’t distinguish between spirit and mind) exists. It’s just a material phenomenon.

      “the uneasiness and anxiety of much modern life”
      I recognize those feelings. “Thus god” remains a non-sequitur.

    2. I’d agree that the ad isn’t the best and might be a little tone deaf for the reasons both he and you state. The dichotomy it sets up will strike many, probably most, who read it as flimsy. You might not enjoy your life as an atheist, after all, or might not enjoy it any more. That’s beside the point, really. More apropos is do you want to live a lie or don’t you? While it is likely that in the long term atheism will improve the lot of mankind more by freeing us to see things as they are and deal with them, the real selling point of atheism isn’t that it’s fun, it’s that it’s true. The ads that I liked better were more along the lines of reinforcement, reminding us that we know in our gut it isn’t true, or assuring us that we are not alone in our unbelief. In any case, the ad isn’t awful or offensive, just not as good as it might be. So?

  4. I couldn’t bring myself to read Spufford’s piece but was pleased to see he was getting a drubbing in the comments. However, the whole bus thing: the line ‘there probably is no god. So stop worrying and enjoy your life’ was a response to existing bus ads for a website that informed you that you would burn for eternity in hell unless you followed some particular sect/cult. I don’t see how the ‘atheist’ bus ad and its mild exhortation to stop worrying (about hell – not anything else) could be perceived as more bitterly inappropriate than telling you that no matter how shit your life is NOW its going to be a hell of a worse afterlife.

    1. Exactly — the slogan makes a single narrow point (an inescapable limitation of slogans) about religiously-induced fear and guilt, and leaves out everything else (eg. the “God’s a Really Nice Guy Who Just Wants To Hold Your Hand” kind of religion you get in UU and the more liberal churches). Spufford is complaining that it’s not an entire treatise on epistemology, moral philosophy and the virtuous life. On the side of a fracking bus.

      IOW: he’s just looking for something to complain about.

      1. “IOW: he’s just looking for something to complain about.”

        Agreed. I only read Jerry’s quotes of Spufford, but that’s exactly what I was thinking while reading it.

    2. “Drubbing” is an understatement.

      This comment (by Kate P.) was recommended by over 1250 people, quoted here in its entirety because its that good:

      Actually, I have to come back to this, I’m so pissed off. In the US, right now, men are using Christianity to justify arguing that women should regard babies conceived by rape as a gift from God, and more generally as a plank of a new and really alarming war against women. A twelve-year-old girl faces execution in Pakistan for blasphemy. In Africa gay and lesbian people are being ‘correctively’ raped and murdered for who they are and the law does nothing to protect them, on the basis of religion. People are dying of AIDS because the Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms. In Ireland the church still continues to close ranks around priests who sexually abuse children.

      But faith makes YOU feel better. So it’s not fair that anyone should criticise religion, because that’s an attack on YOU.

      Have whatever faith you want, enjoy your lovely fluffy inclusive heartwarming beliefs. I’m an atheist, and thus I don’t feel compelled to tell you what you should do or think, as long as it doesn’t oppress others. But don’t expect a lot of sympathy for your whinge from people who actually acknowledge the incredible misery that religious faith causes literally millions of people every day.

      Or, you know, you could live by what Jesus actually said and fight against oppression and poverty, and I’ll applaud you to the rafters…

      1. Exactly. The secular are tired of being force-fed stuff that isn’t really good and is keeping too many in chains.

  5. Wow! That bus slogan must really have been pretty powerful stuff.

    Or else Mr. Spufford should have a long hard think about how he managed to turn his life into the direction where he could write such things.

    Compare the sheer rantiness of his ranting with the alleged ‘rants’ of New Atheists, and you will see that he has taken rantiness to levels unseen since John Cleese in Monty Python.

    Could we take his ranting and use it as a type specimen of a rant – something that can be stored in a museum somewhere and used to check other rants against to see if they really can be classified as a rant?

        1. Hey, I’ve just spelled that with a ‘k’!

          Mr. Spufford will soon be going on and on and on about atheists, what with their Watney’s Red Barrel, and the food’s too greasy….

  6. The minute I saw Spufford’s piece in the Guardian, I feared JAC would react to it. Jerry’s entirely right in everything, of course; but is it really worth his time and energy reacting to such abysmal drivel? Knowing that there’s loads more of the same junk, ever ready for pronto delivery? Why not ignore Spufford and his fluff piece, devoid of all substance?

    And I shouldn’t have reacted either, not even by proxy, except that Spufford’s spurious comments on Mozart’s KV 622 are a serious indication that he knows probably little about music, and nothing at all about Mozart, and shouldn’t write about either. Which version of Mozart’s “accurate report of an aspect of reality” did Spufford listen to? Exactly?
    For a number of variants, see this synopsis:
    Which one is the truly “accurate report”?

    It doesn’t matter? So maybe it’s got everything to do with Spufford’s emotions, and nothing at all with Mozart?
    Maybe Muzak would evoke in him the sentiment of universal harmony and peace. Or, for that matter, an Aquarian pizza:
    One with Everything.

    1. Mozart was a Freemason, so he probably had some sort of religious feeling, but not those of Spufford

    2. I don’t know if it’s worth the bother for JAC, maybe he’d be better off personally to take the day off and go sailing, or to visit some cats somewhere, but I think it’s worth the bother as a service to the world. I think relentlessly calling bullshit when you see it is useful, and the permanence of the web and cross linking of Google amplifies the utility. Google Spufford now and there is every chance that you’ll find yourself here. That’s worth something, I think. It also has a cumulative effect. By dissecting these things over and over the repetitiveness of religious arguments becomes more and more obvious.

    3. Very useful to me; especially Dr. Coyne’s second point, which is the best, most concise rebuttal of the “you can’t prove a negative” that I’ve seen, and will be very helpful to me in the future.

  7. Half of Spufford’s arguments seem to be from a person on drugs (the drug of blind faith?) and the other half are just childish.

  8. Have to say I kind of like the idea of “a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself”

    From a scientistic perspective, where we are quite literally and utterly embedded in, woven in, of and by nature herself, there is such an unself-made calm, isn’t there? The calm from knowing that, just as nature cannot fail to be exactly as she should be, we, as expressions of nature, perforce, also can’t fail to be just as we should be.

  9. I’ve been looking forward to Jerry’s takedown of this all day – I read Spufford’s piece this morning & was left bewildered as to how anyone could go into so much detail & get so worked up over something trivial and then utterly fail to make any convincing points. Perhaps he’s been speaking to Andrew Brown.

  10. Same old, same old. First, expecting that the Universe is organized in the way that caters to one’s emotional needs shows incredible arrogance. Second, this “stuff that isn’t susceptible to proof or disproof, that isn’t checkable against the physical universe” is his way of securing the right to make any number of nonsensical claims without being challenged. This shows terrible intelectual laziness and disdain for truth. And on top of that, it is hypocritical, because that’s not what the religious say every day. One cannot simultaneously claim that God has specific attributes (eternal, omnipotent, all-loving) and history (God created the Universe, Jesus died for our sins etc) and at the same time claim that all this stuff is absolutely unknowable.

  11. Atheists don’t understand that belief derives from and rests on emotion, not evidence

    As I commented on the Guardian, atheists do, in fact, realize that. It’s our central criticism of religious belief. Admitting that his beliefs are based on emotion rather than evidence is conceding that he’s wrong and we’re right.

    1. If every atheist, especially those who abandoned a faith conviction, is not presently aware they chose to forgo emotion when they chose not to invest in faith belief, they are just an encounter away from a statement — like Spuffords — that clearly identifies religious belief is based on emotion. Read that and the light will come on. The realization that occurs about the absolute necessity of emotion for religious faith belief may, ironically, even induce a voila! gratification feeling for some moments. This is a very positive emotion.

      Those non-theist persons yet to verbally internalize the relationship between emotion and ‘spiritual’ faith are already well aware of the evidence portion of the faith definition Spufford wrote, and that the requirement for evidence for knowing things is why they are not theists. Theist’s misunderstanding of what emotion is, is the other important thing to realize.

      Emotion is just chemistry producing physical sensation. I can induce joy, satisfaction, and contentment right this instant merely by conjuring memories about my child’s 5th birthday party that took place decades ago.

      Emotions are not real, but commitment to them is. Enjoy the positive ones for as long as they last, knowing the feeling is fleeting; recognize that negative emotions are a messenger demanding your attention, and to be abandoned immediately once deciphered, and practice clinging to neither. It will in time become a habit.

      1. I don’t think you quite mean “emotions are not real.” I think you must mean that emotions are not necessarily a guide to reality. But keep in mind they sometimes are, otherwise they would not have evolved. For example, the emotion of disgust evolved to protect us from touching stuff that might be contaminated,thus reducing our chance of dying. Same could be said for fear – it’s not an infallible guide that there’s something dangerous looming – it’s a heuristic, an inference, something to at least provoke further inquiry into whether there’s something to be scared of.

  12. Spufford’s over-simplified explanation of ‘enjoy your life’ in that context is tantamount to dismissing the right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as nothing more than the right to have daily drunken orgies.

    Still, Jerry makes good points. Maybe a good bus slogan would be along the lines of “God’s not waiting for you at the end, so live the only life you’ll ever have.”

  13. The bus slogan, while not stupid, is sort of weak. If atheists want to spend money proselytizing, we should come up with something more effective.

        1. And since I have to live in the same religion infested society as you, you are (to paraphrase the ever wise Spicoli) wasting my time as well as your time.

      1. For sure the “probably” should go. Can you imagine an evangelical saying “There probably will be hellfire and damnation,so repent”?

        1. The “probably” was in there to avoid falling foul of the ASA rules about making unsubstantiated claims in an advertisement. The authors knew it would be controversial and did not want it taken down on a technical it.

  14. “I don’t (think) he quite gets the point of the slogan.”
    Or Spufford doesn’t want to get the point.

    “It isn’t a knowable item.”
    Same for gnomes, Father Christmas and the Yeti. So what?

    “Atheists don’t understand that belief derives from and rests on emotion, not evidence.”
    I like this one. You see, believers don’t understand that atheism derives from and rests on emotion as well. That’s why apologists always refuse to get concrete when discussing the Problem of Evil and I always mention Elisabeth Fritzl. Apologetics invariably suck when applied to her (or a similar case), no matter how nice sounding when formulated abstractly.

  15. Nice what Spufford writes about Mozart. Does he know Mozart did it for the money? The Clarinet Concerto was written in order of Anton Stadler? Mozart never wrote just for the sake of creating something.
    Of course it’s still a composition of genius.
    But yeah, perhaps Spufford’s god did send Stadler to Mozart so that Spufford would be comforted 200+ years later. I can’t disprove that.
    I recognize the comfort Spufford got from that piece of music; I have had the same experience many times. I have even learned to manipulate this; I know which music I need when I feel lousy. “Thus god” and especially “thus my personal brand of god” is a non-sequitur.
    Spufford nicely illustrates what the Dutch atheist Anton Constandse wrote 90 years ago: “man created god in his image and after his wish.”
    Which shows btw that New Atheists aren’t that new at all.

  16. Actually someone should let Spufford know that there is evidence for God.

    The evidence can be found in the field of Homeopathy. Jesus holds the conformational state of the water molecules in place during the process of infinite dilution. It thereby imparts these water molecules with memory of the active ingredient.

    This essentially is how the solution achieves efficacy after the active ingredient has been diluted infinitely.

    1. Here is a bit of evidence for god: Two times in a row, this year and four years ago, the Republican National Convention was postponed on account of an “act of god”. Hurricanes in both cases–even though the McCain/Palin convention was in Minnesota!!! If this keeps happening I will have to reconsider my atheism.

  17. What factors are at play when otherwise educated people suspend their disbelief?
    Is it purely psychology? Does the brain itself play a role?
    Are they aware of their rationalizations?

    1. Fincke at the blog “Camels with Hammers” at Freethought blogs has a numerous illuminating entries on this.

      1. Thanks! I’ve been reading about temporal lobe epilepsy and its effects on religiosity- but what I’m really looking for is what explains the application of logic in all areas of thinking except in religion. Hopefully I’ll something at Camels.

  18. Ah, Spuffy. this part amuses me most “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.”. . . And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that people mostly expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me. No, I can’t prove it. I don’t know that any of it is true. I don’t know if there’s a God. (And neither do you, and neither does Professor Dawkins, and neither does anybody. It isn’t the kind of thing you can know. It isn’t a knowable item.)”

    Bullshit. You by your claims that you know your god does “x”, are making the claim that you aren’t guessing and you do *know* something for sure. You also are making the claim that you have the “right” god and all of the others claimed by theists are imaginary. It is a knowable item, if your god was real. If your bible was true, it would be knowable. But alas for you, nothing supports your claims or that of your bible. It’s only now, with modern theists, who have ot claim that their god isn’t “knowable”, an excuse they have created to explain why it does nothing now, when we have science, recording media, etc, all things that this god of yours seems to be allergic too, like a vampire and garlic.

    1. Yes, Christians want to have their god mysterious and also commune with her, which is kinda a contradiction.

  19. On a more positive note than these appalling “abysmal drivel” to borrow from above Occam’s post, I found the following cartoon from xkcd (a hilarious self-proclaimed “webcomic of romance,sarcasm, math, and language”):

  20. Your closing statement accurately hit the point about the fallacy of thinking that religious belief is a private matter. It is time we violate proper social decorum and speak out against the damage that is being done to society in the name of god.

  21. Spufford is right that generic “god” is neither provable or disprovable.

    This is trivial.

    However, religions also make many testable claims. All of which have been…falsified.

    If religion was a private matter no one would care. It would be like believing in UFO’s or fairies. But it is anything but that. It destroys lives and societies on a massive scale and kills millions.

    1. Spufford is one lucky break away from Christian Crazytown. He might have grown up in a church like I did where emotional cuing lead to rolling around on the floor. His emotional epistemology, which leaves no adequate method for distinguishing between various strains of ignorance and bigotry, is why I detest his form of liberalism.

    1. Yeah, a bus slogan in the entirety of atheist thought. Certainly, that is the best, most generous thought one could have upon reading that bus advert.

      1. “Taco Bell avers that their new Nacho Taco shell is ‘Loco!’. Harumph I say! This is a pure category error, as corn meal shells, by definition, have no res cogitans, as demonstrated by Descartes famous maxim Dorito Ergo Yum. QED atheists.

  22. I like this (not):

    He says that he is “a fairly orthodox Christian” who, every Sunday, says that he says and does his best “to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions

    But at the same time:

    And so the argument about whether the ideas are true or not, which is the argument that people mostly expect to have about religion, is also secondary for me

    I’ll take the Nicene Creed as an example:

    We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God,

    begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made;

    he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried,

    and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures,

    and ascended into heaven,

    and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

    from thence he shall come again, with glory,

    to judge the quick and the dead;

    whose kingdom shall have no end.

    And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life,

    who proceedeth from the Father,

    who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified,

    who spake by the prophets.

    In one holy catholic and apostolic Church;

    we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;

    we look for the resurrection of the dead,

    and the life of the world to come. Amen.

    The truth of these things that , “he does his best to mean ‘wholly’,” “is also secondary” for him?

    Speaking of Bollocks …

  23. Spufford’s argument seems to be that he doesn’t know, has no evidence, but that, gosh darn, religion just makes him feel good. But the thing about this is, its only acceptable as a personal choice because he’s bought into one of the dozen or so fantasy worlds that are socially acceptable. I’m sure he’d frown and someone who constructs their own religion from scratch (as some pagans I know have done). And, really, hasn’t he done the same thing from a Christian base? To imagine that Jesus may or may not be real, that’s hardly Christianity. He couldn’t be a minister with that sort of attitude, and probably not even a Sunday school teacher. I’ll bet his own fellow congregants will feel a little weirder around him now having read his views.

    1. +1

      I had read the Guardian article late at night and was going to get back to it, and behold my fave thinker had already demolished it.

  24. “And, claims Spufford, the same emotions that led Spufford to realize Mozart’s “report on reality” have led him to God.”

    Wow! He and Frances Collins should get together in front of a triune waterfall and listen to Mozart (maybe smoke a little pot as well). No telling the magnitude of the revelations that might occur!

  25. I have just looked Spufford up, and discovered he’s a literature person.

    IMO, although there is a lot of truly awful religious art around (including the dreadful statue of Junipero Serra that graces Highway 280 just 20 miles south of San Francisco which I wince at every time I drive past it), religion has a somewhat less corrupting effect on art than science.

    Occasionally, scientific curiosity is motivated by religion (especially in the field of astronomy where religious good scientists seem to be more numerous), but I know of virtually no good examples of good science being !*informed*! by religion (as opposed to !*inspiring*! inquiry).

    On the other hand, while there are lots of very bad Christian novels (“Left Behind”, the sentimental novels of Lloyd Douglas [“The Robe”]) there is enough really good fiction developed in a Christian framework (the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy being the most obvious example- while not up to their standards “Ben-Hur” is much better than anything by Douglas) that I worry less about the impact of the Spuffords of the world.

  26. This explains a lot: – Adults, more than kids, rely on the supernatural

    “The findings show supernatural explanations for topics of core concern to humans are pervasive across cultures. If anything, in both industrialized and developing countries, supernatural explanations are frequently endorsed more often among adults than younger children.”

    U. TEXAS-AUSTIN (US) — As we age, we often rely more—not less—on supernatural explanations for major life events, such as death and illness, research shows.

    “As children assimilate cultural concepts into their intuitive belief systems—from God to atoms to evolution—they engage in coexistence thinking. When they merge supernatural and scientific explanations, they integrate them in a variety of predictable and universal ways.”

    According to the findings, participants of all age groups agreed with biological explanations for at least one event. Yet supernatural explanations such as witchcraft were also frequently supported among children (ages 5 and up) and universally among adults.

    Among the adult participants, only 26 percent believed the illness could be caused by either biology or witchcraft. And 38 percent split biological and scientific explanations into one theory.

    For example: “Witchcraft, which is mixed with evil spirits, and unprotected sex caused AIDS.” However, 57 percent combined both witchcraft and biological explanations. For example: “A witch can put an HIV-infected person in your path.”

    Legare says the findings, published in the journal Child Development[2], contradict the common assumption that supernatural beliefs dissipate with age and knowledge.

    The results provide evidence that reasoning about supernatural phenomena is a fundamental and enduring aspect of human thinking, Legare says.

    “The standard assumption that scientific and religious explanations compete should be re-evaluated in light of substantial psychological evidence. The data, which spans diverse cultural contexts across the lifespan, shows supernatural reasoning is not necessarily replaced with scientific explanations following gains in knowledge, education, or technology.”

  27. I’m getting a bit tired of hearing how it can’t be proven that there’s no God. It’s like arguing with the mentally ill who think they can walk through walls, and when you challenge them to do it, they come up with some excuse about how they can’t do it right at this particular moment, but, trust them, they have definitely done it before. So does it make sense to say that one can’t prove that certain people can’t walk through walls? Sometimes a total lack of evidence and an understanding of how the world actually works is the proof.

  28. “Atheists don’t understand that belief derives from and rests on emotion, not evidence.”

    Nonsense. Atheists understand perfectly well that belief rests on emotion, not evidence. This is precisely why they don’t believe. Here is a more accurate statement. “Unbelief stems from lack of evidence. The cultivation of religious emotions is perceived by atheists as soothing self-deception.”

  29. Does this mean that believing in Leprechauns doesn’t give comfort to people?

    What if God really was a Leprechaun? lol. Does this mean that the Believer will have to keep believing that God is Jesus? Cuz it’s easier to belief a dude with a beard and robe than it is to believe a tiny dude in pointed slippers and a pot of gold? lolz.

    1. Can someone that prays to a Jesus with an extra finger on His left hand still be considered a true Christian?

      Or is this person worshipping a false God?

  30. ” God is continually present everywhere anyway, undemonstratively underlying all cafés, all cassettes, all composers.”

    ALL composers? Has he heard much Stockhausen?

    1. Thus some of John Cage’s works, notably 4’33”, are direct expressions of Dog.

      It may be relevant that after attending a concert put on by Cage and helpers, I had one of the worst non-migraine headaches I’ve ever experienced.

  31. Just a week ago I had never even heard of Spufford, now we have a brilliant new chew toy. Reading the CIF thread was great fun, if we are going to use a spanking metaphor, his bottom has now turned purple and he won’t be able to sit down for a fortnight.

    Apparently he has heard every single argument against Christianity. Well this one is over two hundred years old, so he must have heard it, seeing that he claims to have heard all of them.

    I really would love to hear his refutation of this one, I think that I will probably cry laughing.

  32. It’s a good thing there weren’t any of those poverty-stricken, jobless drug addicts Spufford was so concerned about in that cafe when the concerto came on, they might have spoiled the epiphany.

  33. From Spufford: “The most painful lesson our daughter will receive is that we’re embarassing.”

    Well yes, writing drivel like his in the national press could have that result.
    And damn you JAC, I was going to ignore that article and rely on your summary but you made it sound so bad it became a must read, or at least a must skim over.

  34. Someone may have already tried this gag, but I don’t have the time to search the comments for it.

    I want to listen to the concerto he’s listening to.

    1. Up all night arguing with his wife, off to the cafe, slugs down the coffee, and Mozart tells him god exists. Occam might have brought out the razor at the penultimate point. Sorry mate, it’s just the caffeine you need! And is it’s 9am on Sat here it’s time to get one.

    2. Follow the YouTube link in the Guardian article. I love me some classical, and this is a nice enough piece of Mozart (though not my favorite), but when I want a “religious” experience I go for the haunting ethereal yearning expressed in Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”.

      Either that or some A Perfect Circle, turned up loud.

      But damned if I can see how any of it is a “truth” about the universe.

  35. A bit nitpicky, but I can see the concern with using “enjoy”. Maybe “live your life” would be better?

  36. I’ve only got the one life, that’s it. So I’d better damn well enjoy it, I won’t get any refunds if I don’t.

    “I don’t think Spufford is enjoying his life.”
    In the spirit of total malicious enjoyment, I do so hope Jerry’s right about that 😉

  37. Reading on… “I think that Mozart, two centuries earlier, had succeeded in creating a beautiful and accurate report of an aspect of reality.”

    Oh dear. This is woo of the highest order. Would Mr Spufford care to specify exactly what this was an accurate report of?

    Yeah, if I’d had a fight with the wife, I might choose some music to try and calm me (though more likely Mark Knopfler than Mozart), but I know that it would be something I had chosen because it suited my mood (or maybe even created a mood in me), not because it conveyed some universal truth.

  38. Spufford and I do share some beliefs. For example, we both believe in recycling.

    I recycle cans and bottles and plastic and he recycles arguments – no matter how descredited. Theists love to do that. I don’t know there is no God like I don’t know there are no leprechauns or unicorns or celestial teapots or Greek Gods or Norse Gods or …

    As long as theists keep recycling the same stupid arguments, we’ll have to keep recycling the same obvious refutations.

  39. Spufford : moronic reasoning : his new book = Lindsy Lohan : petty theft : her new movie

    Alas, both of these clowns’ attention-seeking antics appear to be effective.

  40. Comments from article on Royal Society

    “Policy debate these days involves trying to rubbish the science, and that is dangerous,” Dr. Nurse says. “Global warming denialists, those who oppose genetically modified crops and vaccinations, or the teaching of evolution: their trick is treat scientific argument as if it’s a political argument, and cherry-pick data.”

    ….Critics attacked Newton as an occultist for theorizing about gravity, as it was unseen and not mechanical. (Over his lifetime, he would write far more pages on biblical hermeneutics and occult studies than on math and science.) Still, he dominated the society’s early years.

    Many members considered themselves popularizers, in the best and most important sense of the word. Not Sir Isaac. Diffident, most comfortable roaming the recesses of his own mind, he cared not a whit for vox populi. He wrote his grand work on physics, “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” in Latin. A copy sits in the Royal Society archives.

    “Newton thought that knowledge belonged to those who were learned enough to use it,” Mr. Moore said.”

  41. two things here…BOy, is he deeply scared and threatened, but hey! after all, isnt it the Christians that cry that if we only put prayers back in school, EVERYTHING would be solved…
    My predicament is how come Christians can claim such simple answers to life problems, but atheists can’t?

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