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.