For some reason Salon has taken to publishing lots of articles that favor religion and criticize New Atheism. These pieces are often dreadful, and I rarely frequent that website any more. (Slate, which retains the patina lent by columnist Christopher Hitchens, is much better.)
But Salon has outdone itself this time with perhaps the worst piece about religion I’ve seen on that site in years. It’s by writer Francis Spufford (b. 1964), and is called “Religion’s surprising emotional sense: New atheists are wrong again.” (Subtitle: “Non-believers call me dogmatic, self-righteous, judgmental. Maybe they are. Here’s what they miss about belief.”) It’s actually an excerpt from his new book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Still Makes Surprising Emotional Sense. After reading the excerpts below, I doubt you’ll buy it.
The Salon piece is bad in three ways. First, its defense of religion, and its criticism of New Atheists, is unconvincing. Second, it is written so badly that one can barely read it. It took a great force of will (and a glass of Dow’s 1977 vintage port) for me to get through it. It could serve as an example of horrible popular writing, and I’m not sure why HarperCollins didn’t give Spufford a decent editor. Third, it’s LONG: 6,049 words of text. TL/DR!!! The combination of bad arguments, dreadful prose, and unwarranted length make for a strong literary purgative. It was with great relief that I just tossed the printed-out version into the circular file.
Now we’ve met Spufford before when he published his annoying “Dear Atheist” letter in New Humanist. There he argued that New Atheists are theologically unsophisticated, for we think that religion is about truth, when in reality it’s largely about emotions. That, of course, is the message of William James, John Haught, Karen Armstrong, and Tanya Luhrmann, who argue that to grasp religion you must first commit yourself emotionally to God (an ineffable God for Armstrong), and then the belief will follow, as the night the day. I’ve never understood, perhaps because I’m a scientist, how one can commit oneself fully to ideas about reality which, by the belief alone, become the reality.
I’ve posted two other times on Spufford: on his tirade in the Guardian against the atheist bus slogan, and on his response (posted on his website) to my criticisms of his views. Along the way he’s continued to argue that atheists don’t understand religion, when what he really means is that we don’t understand his rareified brand of religion. He’s also tossed in the “you can’t prove a negative” argument along with the “we can’t justify a priori that science will give us the truth” canard. It’s as if he’s every bad argument against atheism rolled into one.
In fact, the excerpt from his book seems to be an expanded version of his blog posts, and I didn’t learn anything new from it—except that Spufford can’t write at book length. I’m sure you won’t read it, so let me just give you a sample of the prose and then sketch Spufford’s argument.
Have a gander at this bloated paragraph, for instance. Note that the attempt to be clever and use tropes from popular culture obscures his message, rendering it nearly incoherent. I suggest you don’t try to understand this—just immerse yourself in the prose (maybe then you’ll believe it!). It’s about how his daughter is likely to react to his and his wife’s churchgoing Christianity:
No: the really painful message our daughter will receive is that we’re embarrassing. For most people who aren’t New Atheists, or old atheists, and have no passion invested in the subject, either negative or positive, believers aren’t weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable; because, when there’s no necessity for it that anyone sensible can see, we’ve committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes which obtrude, which stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respect-worthy or principled way either; more in the way that some particularly styleless piece of dressing does, which makes the onlooker wince and look away and wonder if some degree of cerebral deficiency is involved. Believers are people with pudding-bowl haircuts, wearing anoraks in August, and chunky-knit sweaters the color of vomit. Or, to pull it back from the metaphor of clothing to the bits of behavior that the judgment is really based on, believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behavior; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidized content of a primary-school nativity play into your earhole, apparently not noticing that childhood is over. And as well as being childish, and abject, and solemn, and awkward, we voluntarily associate ourselves with an old-fashioned mildewed orthodoxy, an Authority with all its authority gone. Nothing is so sad—sad from the style point of view—as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday. If we couldn’t help ourselves, if we absolutely had to go shopping in the general area of woo-hoo and The-Force-Is-Strong-In-You-Young-Skywalker, we could at least have picked something new and colorful, something with a bit of gap-year spiritual zing to it, possibly involving chanting and spa therapies. Instead of which, we chose old buildings that smell of dead flowers, and groups of pensioners laboriously grinding their way through “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Rebel cool? Not so much.
This is crying out for an editor. I can only imagine what Orwell would have to say about writing like that. Spufford tries to be funny, but flops. It is wordy: Spufford uses four phrases when one will do. And the argument gets lost in the verbiage. It is painful to read.
But enough of that. Here, embedded in yet another thicket of words, is Spufford’s message (my emphasis):
The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. For the record, I am not pulling the ultra-liberal, Anglican-going-on-atheist trick of saying that it’s all a beautiful and interesting metaphor, snore bore yawn, and that religious terms mean whatever I want them to mean. (Though I do reserve the right to assert that believers get a slightly bigger say in what faith means than unbelievers do. It is ours, after all. Come in, if you think you’re hard enough.) I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. No dancing about; no moving target, I promise. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.
I suppose many believers, especially the Sophisticated Ones, justify their faith in this way. You have a revelation, or a feeling of One-ness with the Universe, and then it all makes sense if you buy into some pre-existing religious dogma. So you join a church. That is, after all, what The Varieties of Religious Experience is about. But Spufford is mistaken on one count and misguided on another. First, I doubt that his argument holds for the majority of believers. How many Muslims or Evangelical Christians, for instance, become members of a faith because their emotions drive them toward it? Not many, I suspect: they believe because they were taught to believe—taught things like salvation must come from Jesus (or Allah) and that you’ll fry for eternity if you don’t believe it. If you assent to the ideas because you have the feelings, then, it seems to me, you would assent to those ideas that best comport with your feelings. And that wouldn’t necessarily be the faith of your parents and friends. Why isn’t Spufford a Muslim? Because he’s surrounded by Christians? Is that, then, why his emotions just happen to lead him to Christian dogma? Either way, he’s been indoctrinated by his milieu.
Second, it makes no sense to believe in life-or-death propositions—for that, after all, is what religion is about—on the basis of emotion itself. If Spufford does come to believe the tenets of Christianity, it seems to me he should do so on the basis of investigation and evidence, not emotion. After all, if he’s chosen wrong, and Islam is the true faith, then he’s in for a bad time after he dies. It is foolish of anyone to embrace a given faith just because their emotions lead them to it, for accepting the tenets of a faith like Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism has real consequences for not just your worldview, but for what you think will happen to you when you die.
I’m willing to accept that Spufford has become a Christian in this crazy way, but even if he has, the emotions ultimately become fused with the dogma, and if the dogma is wrong then you’re basing your whole life on a lie. In the end, you must believe in empirical realities like God, Allah, Mohamed, or Jesus, regardless of how you came to them. If you don’t, the props of your faith are kicked away and you might as well become a secular humanist. Spufford admits as much in his New Humanist essay:
“. . . And yet, of course, we don’t know, and knowing matters. The ultimate test of faith must still, and always, be its truth; whether we can prove it or not, the reality of the perspectives it brings us, and the changes it puts us through, must depend in the end on it corresponding to an actual state of the universe. Religion without God makes no sense (except possibly to Buddhists). So belief for most Christians who respect truth and logic and science—which is most of us, certainly in this country—must entail a willing entry into uncertainty. It means a decision to sustain the risks and embarrassments of living a conditional, of choosing a maybe or perhaps to live out, among the many maybe or perhapses of this place; where conclusive answers are not available, and we must all do our knowing on some subjects through a glass, darkly.”
But is there nothing but emotion to drive you toward one “truth” or another? Is that a good way to live? Shouldn’t the importance of our beliefs be proportional to the reasons supporting them?
Spufford’s behavior is the antithesis of rationality. It involves making a critical life decision—which rests on certain assumptions about reality—purely on the basis of emotion. He may do that, but I don’t think he’s representative of most believers. And I don’t think that New Atheists are making a mistake when we consider people like Spufford as outliers.
Dogma matters, and I suspect people like Spufford downplay it because they know the dogma to which they assent is painfully embarrassing in the modern world.