Francis Spufford writes the world’s most tedious defense of Christianity in Salon

November 5, 2013 • 7:03 am

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.

118 thoughts on “Francis Spufford writes the world’s most tedious defense of Christianity in Salon

  1. Spufford’s Englishness is showing — no American could write the article’s first five paragraphs complaining about the public’s view of religion (especially “We’re weird because we go to church”), and not be laughed at as deluded.

    1. Yes, in many countries in Europe overt displays of religiosity are regarded (even by people who claim to be believers) as embarrassing if not a sign that the person displaying them is emotionally unstable.

      On the other hand, a great many Christian ministers of various hues like to play up the Martyrdom card from time to time. It rallies the troops and tops up the offering plate quite nicely.

      1. The few religious people I know hardly ever talk about their religion unless it’s brought up by others.

        It is simply viewed as a private matter.

    2. I can confirm that anything stronger than a bit of ‘cultural christianity’ is generally regarded as a bit odd (at least in my godless sector of northern Britain).

  2. Wow, I was wincing pretty badly halfway through that first excerpted paragraph. And you got through 6,000 words of that?

    This seems to be of a kind with the most popular tack taken by the “sophisticated” apologists. Essentially they focus on immunizing the truth claims religions make by arguing that they aren’t making “scientific” claims, or that it’s all about emotion and aesthetics, not facts, it’s “another way of knowing”. Or something of the like.

    In essence, saying that YOUR personal favorite truth claims aren’t open to scientific, empirical criticism is an only *slightly* more sophisticated version of the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” childhood taunt.

    1. Hmmmmm… I rather liked the first excerpt, but winced at all the ‘over the top–thou dost protest too much’ reaction and complaint inherent in this critique. To be honest, I could not finish this diatribe. Our biases are too far removed from one another, I suppose. I love God refracted through any/all of the major world religions, and find “dogmas” cute. Go figure (Oops! perhaps, rationally, there is not enough evidence to figure out anything. Emotional me…)

  3. The sub-title of his book: Surprising Emotional Sense, was enough to make me quietly & cautiously back away.

    That first excerpt is indeed bad. Pick an image for your metaphor and stick with it to make your point. Don’t jump all around…..maybe that just feels good for him though so it will become his reality.

  4. I actually like Francis Spufford! Eh? Have I gone bonkers? Nope, I like him because he straightforwardly admits what we atheists have been saying all along. Religion derives from wishful thinking, not from evidence, or as Spufford puts it:

    “I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings …”.

    JAC: “… I rarely frequent that website …”

    Is that actually possible Jerry? 🙂

    1. Yes, I think Jerry’s being a bit harsh.

      Spufford is saying “Yes I know its all illogical, silly and old-fashioned, but I believe it because it makes me feel good, so sue me.”

      Which is a lot more honest than Armstrong, Plantinga et al.

      The writing works better if you read it in the style of an impassioned stand-up.

      1. I agreed with bits and pieces in Spuffords ramble:

        “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. ”

        He was perceptive with that — too bad he’s apparently not absorbed what he wrote.

      2. I don’t think its more honest, I think its insulting to other believers. He can paint himself into whatever ’emotionally sensible’ corner he wants, but he doesn’t get to paint every believer into that corner.

        This is the same behavior we see from lots of ivory tower theologians. They all claim to speak for “real” religion and imply that any believer who believes otherwise is doing it wrong. At best its arrogant. At worst, its a conscious bait-and-switch game in which they try and shift the subject away from the parts of the religion which are uncomfortable to them. “Lets not discuss fact claims, that’s not what Christian theology is really about” is directly analogous to “let’s not discuss YECim, it doesn’t represent true Christian theology.”

        1. Observations of Christian history seem to indicate that the “cafeteria” style (pick what you like and pay at the end of the line/life), as opposed to the Thomist style (if they don’t believe what I tell them, kill them), is the modern “way of religion”.

    2. I don’t know. He seems to present a sort of disingenuous relativism – something poised to fall on its own sword. The subtext is that there’s something really real lurking in the background (the stuff you see once you begin to believe and destroy your own skepticism).
      It sounds like the old debating tactic in which one gets the opponent to accept a false dichotomy.

  5. What on earth is “New Atheism”, and how does it compare with “Old Atheism” and simply atheism? The term “New Atheism” seems to imply some kind of cult or structure…

    1. The difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ seems to be that the average punter knew nothing about the ‘old’. They appear to be offended that the ‘new’ won’t shut up and go away; and in fact have gone as far as writing books and being allowed on TV. It’s all rather shocking, really.

    2. I never liked the label, but it is useful. Specifically a “New Atheist” is an atheist in the same sense as us. They disbelieve because of evidence, science and reason.

      This is compared to atheists who’ve never thought about god, atheists who are “spiritual but not religious” and a variety of other atheists whom we might be tempted, from time to time, to call “Not a True Atheist”.

      The actual label isn’t very descriptive, because there’s almost nothing new about it, but it’s used to refer to a distinct group of people. Atheist is an exceedingly broad term, so there needs to be some term to refer to people like us in particular.

    3. It is a term invented to tag certain outspoken atheists as “bad people.” An age old smear tactic that still works surprisingly well, and is typically employed by those who have no legitimate counter to the arguments of their opponents. It is interesting that this tactic still works so well in the internet age when it is so easy to look and see that, for example, the “New Atheists” aren’t behaving any differently, or saying anything different than the “old atheists” did.

      And, they can’t even get the name right. It is “Gnu Atheist,” not “New Atheist.”

    4. I do believe that Epicurus was the first of the New Atheists, making New Atheism at least three centuries older than Christianity.

      But I’ll also be the first to admit that my knowledge of the ancients isn’t encyclopaedic. There may well be a pre-Socratic more deserving of that designation.



        1. I’m not familiar with Democritus’s position on religion and the gods. He strikes me as much more of a Laplace-style scientist for whom such matters simply didn’t have any bearing on reality.

          Epicurus, on the other hand, tackled religion and the gods head-on — and utterly demolished any moral or evidentiary or rational pretenses any might had. And, oh-by-the-way, provided us with the only reason we need to do good and live well: because life is much better worth living when one does good and lives well. Enjoy it while it lasts; do what you can to make it last; and invite everybody to the party. (But in moderation! Too much is as bad as too little.)



        2. Didn’t Epicurus think there were gods but they didn’t give a toss about humans & went on with their own lives? Not quite an atheist perhaps?

          1. I don’t know if it’s clear what Epicurus thought of the reality of the Olympians, but it’s clear that he considered them no different morally from humans. At the most, it’d be akin to the attitude an housecat might take to a lion, or the Netherlands to Germany. Sure, the gods are bigger and badder and could do nasty things to us…but so what? That doesn’t make them special.

            At that point, it becomes clear that Epicurus’s gods, if any, clearly weren’t divine or holy or whatever. That puts him squarely in the atheist camp in my book — and, I’m sure, pretty much all believers would concur. Generally, the ultimate blasphemy is to deny the ineffing specialness of the gods, and denying their existence is but one way to do so.



      1. Epicurus was perhaps the first Deist–he acknowledged the existence of the Gods but said they had little to no influence on the world.
        The first New Atheist would probably be Baron D’Holbach, whose book The System of Nature (1770) is the first scientifically-based all-out denial of God and the supernatural. Like Dawkins and company, D’Holbach incurred the wrath and rebuttals of not only religious folk, but also accomodationists, like the deist Voltaire.
        For an excellent three-part documentary on the intellectual history of atheism, take a look at Jonathan Miller’s A Rough History of Disbelief (known as A Brief History in the US). It can even be found on youtube, thank Ceiling Cat.

          1. Diderot was actually a contemporary of the Baron–perhaps even his best friend. Some have also postulated that he wrote bits and pieces of “The System of Nature.” Philipp Blom’s excellent book “A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment” discusses D’Holbach and Diderot’s relationship at length–I highly recommend it to everyone.

        1. …and they haven’t significantly evolved at all since then.

          That one fact may well explain the religious antipathy to Darwin, come to think of it….


    5. A “New Atheist”
      1.) Includes science in the arguments against God. They do not believe that “there is no necessary conflict between science and religion.”

      2.) Does not consider faith to be a virtue, nor do they think faith-based views should be part of anyone’s core identity. Religious claims are poorly supported hypotheses and should be treated as such.

      3.) Recognizes that religious extremism is rooted, encouraged, and supported by the religious mindset itself. Thus the solution to the problem has to involve attacking this mindset, and must involve criticizing the “moderates.”

      The atheist who would disagree with the above (or disagree tactically on acting on any of the above) is generally termed an “Accomodationist.”

      Spufford’s essay is a religionist’s defense of #2.

      1. You’ve got the classification spot on, of course. My only concern is with the “new” part of the label — as I noted elsewhere in the thread, Epicurus would fit that definition.

        I do think “Gnu Atheist” might not be inappropriate. I’d like to think that even Epicurus (and all the countless rationalists since) would smile at such an appellation, even if the pun had to be explained to them.



  6. He could have replaced his whole explanation of his brand of religion with the following 8 words:

    “I wish it so, I wish it so”

          1. Expressions of the power of faith are common…probably the easiest to point to is Jesus’s directive that anything asked in his name shall be done. And there’s the whole “consider the lilies” schtick. I don’t remember anything this succinct, though….


  7. It is difficult to read, so much so that I would have to read it twice to understand, if I wished to do so.
    His description of how his daughter will feel is similar to how mine feels when I sing in public. My singing is really good specially after Port – I bought some vintage Taylor’s in Port last week.
    I am still very keen on my History course from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr Harari refers to a lot of things as “imagined realities”, religion and limited liability companies among them.

  8. Okay, Spufford. You believe because feelings. Now can we actually have a conversation about how that makes no sense?

  9. I don’t like apologetics that get into self-pitying whining. I acknowledge that a lot of folks convert to a religion because it seems to realign their chaotic personal life in a way that seems to provide coherence up to a point.

    This is a rehash of what William James wrote in “The Will to Believe” in 1896 more or less in rebuttal to Cliffords essay “The Ethics of Belief”, but James was more dignified!

    Several rebuttals to James have been written all noted in the overlong Wikipedia article on the essay, notably by Walter Kaufman.

  10. Now, gross lack of paragraphs aside, I think I might know what he means, and it’s almost reasonable, in a way… kinda…

    There’s a trick to training yourself to think happy thoughts. “Always Be Positive” does take some work after all, and the rewards can be worth it. I can generally maintain a good mood by ‘tricking’ my mind into not feeling the bad, but feeling the good. I’m still aware of the bad, and can work to change it, but I don’t FEEL it as harshly.

    I wonder if that’s what people like this do, only they take it too far. They trick themselves into believing something is true because it makes them happy… but they’re unable to keep a grasp on that forced happiness while it being pointed out it’s built on a foundation of sand.

    This would why explain a lot of liberal believers dislike of atheists. They’ve built up mostly harmless castles of happiness, and then we atheists come in and start ‘harshing their buzz’.

    Perhaps that’s what they mean. Maybe they really don’t care about the truth, if the deem their lies to be harmless fun. If that’s how they feel, then fine, they don’t bother me, and I won’t bother them. But some feel the need to defend it, and I generally don’t turn down a chance to argue with someone.

    So, if I’m right, then this guy just can’t accept the idea that he likes getting high, and must defend it at great length, while other Christians are perfectly fine saying “Sure man, get high, makes for a relaxing sunday, man.”

    1. So, if I’m right, then this guy just can’t accept the idea that he likes getting high, and must defend it at great length, while other Christians are perfectly fine saying “Sure man, get high, makes for a relaxing sunday, man.”

      I must be one of those atheists that wouldn’t mind getting high on a relaxing sunday. Along with coffee ad libitum.

    2. They’ve built up mostly harmless castles of happiness, and then we atheists come in and start ‘harshing their buzz’.

      I’m not sure that most believers actually live in such castles, although they feel like they should.

      I remember my mother talking about an essay she was to present to her Bible study on “joy”, and I couldn’t get past the hypocrisy of it. She’s one of the most anxious, fearful, cup-half-empty people that I know.

  11. The question is whether there are any distinctively and intrinsically religious emotions. My answer is no. There is the natural spectrum of human emotions that is shared by all normal humans, no matter whether they are theists or atheists. The cognitive difference between the two groups is constituted by the fact that the former interpret their deep feelings religiously, theistically and the latter don’t. And the religious, theistic interpretation of emotions is determined by religious, theistic beliefs.

    William James on religious emotions:

    “Consider also the ‘religious sentiment’ which we see referred to in so many books, as if it were a single sort of mental entity.
    In the psychologies and in the philosophies of religion, we find the authors attempting to specify just what entity it is. One man allies it to the feeling of dependence; one makes it a derivative from fear; others connect it with the sexual life; others still identify it with the feeling of the infinite; and so on. Such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arouse doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing; and the moment we are willing to treat the term ‘religious sentiment’ as a collective name for the many sentiments which religious objects may arouse in alternation, we see that it probably contains nothing whatever of a psychologically specific nature. There is religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy, and so forth. But religious love is only man’s natural emotion of love directed to a religious object; religious fear is only the ordinary fear of commerce, so to speak, the common quaking of the human breast, in so far as the notion of divine retribution may arouse it; religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations; and similarly of all the various sentiments which may be called into play in the lives of religious persons. As concrete states of mind, made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions; but there is no ground for assuming a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’ to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception.
    As there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw, so there might conceivably also prove to be no one specific and essential kind of religious object, and no one specific and essential kind of religious act.”

    (James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. Lecture 2: Circumscription of the Topic.)

    1. Nicely said. A point that I think needs to be repeated often for the believers, particularly the “liberal” and moderate believers, and most especially the Sophisticated™ ones.

    2. You will note that Spufford makes this very point in his essay — and then acts like it SUPPORTS his argument against New Atheism.

      But it’s what the atheists have been saying all along! There’s no need to conclude that religious experiences or beliefs or emotions are sooooo incredibly outside the box of what human beings are capable of that there must be a Transcendent, supernatural explanation. In bringing forth one of the most devastating criticisms of religion as if it were one of the most astonishing excuses for it, Spufford seems to be trying to pull a fast one.

      I can only assume he’s fooling himself, because he simply can’t think we are that stupid. I hope.

      1. “In bringing forth one of the most devastating criticisms of religion as if it were one of the most astonishing excuses for it, Spufford seems to be trying to pull a fast one.”

        Once again you’ve nailed it, Sastra.

  12. Spufford is senior lecturer in the Dept. of English & Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. He leads one of the general workshops on the Creative Writing MA course & also supervises for the Creative Writing PhD.

    Perhaps this turgid & shallow article is part of a “How Not To” course?

    1. Spufford’s article would be great in a course on English composition. It should be required reading in the class covering run-on sentences.

  13. This piece of the article is pretty cool and very true (!):

    “Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture, and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace? I don’t know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the size of Joey and Chandler’s is. Peace is not the state of being we return to, like water running downhill, whenever there’s nothing external to perturb us. Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests, and primate dominance dynamics, and our evolved tendency to cease our sympathies at the boundaries of our tribe. Peace within people is made difficult to say the least by the way that we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering round and round. Peace is not the norm; peace is rare.”

    1. Except that it’s a bit of a strawman. Imagine isn’t about going back to a peaceful state but about imagining we didn’t have the things to fight over (including countries & possesions). It isn’t a comment on human nature that went wrong and religion does add a lot to human conflict.

    2. Sure it’s true — it’s a humanist perspective.

      Why do the gnu atheist critics think that criticism of religion entails that we MUST think it is the only problem in the world and everything would be Utopia if only people stopped believing in God?

      My guess is that there are two reasons:

      1.) a straw man is easier to attack.

      2.) the religious are assuming that we must believe the flip side of what they believe — and they believe that if only every single person REALLY TRULY believed and loved God with all their hearts and minds, then the world would become a paradise.

  14. The question to ask is “Why Christianity and not something else?” Most of us have feelings, just because some people interpret them religiously, doesn’t mean the religion is true.

  15. So, let’s say you go to the movies and absolutely fall head-over-heels in love with one of the characters. No, it’s not rational, but it wouldn’t be the first time it happened.

    Would you then believe that the character is real and loves you back, based solely on your emotional attachment to the character and to Hell with any evidence to the contrary?

    If your friend did so, and it wasn’t just a case of playful hyperbole, you’d (hopefully) eventually enlist the help of a mental health professional to get your friend back to sanity.

    But if the character isn’t from a movie but instead a millennia-old faery tale anthology, it’s somehow perfectly normal.

    Go figure.



    1. I think the majority of religious people do not have a love affair with their faery tale god, and if they did, they would relinquish it if they were shown proof that an afterlife is for real. Most religious people are afraid of losing their loved ones and not being able to see them again. This is what they would want over any god. Funny how real things, people and emotions, are actually more important to religious people than they are willing to admit and clearly more important than their god.

      1. First, of course, I was offering this up as an analogy to Spufford’s “I want to believe it so I will” reasoning.

        Second…you’d be amazed at how many people not only profess love for Jesus, but are in love with him. And I’m even including full-on romantic love from ostensibly straight white guys in that. Check out a Promise Keepers rally if you don’t believe me, as well as most examples of Christian popular music.

        It’s more than a bit disturbing, actually.



        1. There is a theory (popularised by TV’s South Park) that modern Jesus-rock love songs are identical to other rock love songs – they just use “Jesus” in place of “baby.”

  16. When Spufford buys a house does he check comparables, get an inspection and title insurance, etc.? We get sophisticated theology. We just don’t buy it (pun intended).

  17. JC:”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.”

    That is one of the best short critiques of religion I’ve ever read!

  18. Spufford:”. . . 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.”

    This is just the opposite of what Ray Comfort says: “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist!”

  19. Francis Spufford is a throwback to the fifties . Ah, the late fifties, early sixties. I remember it well. The Sunday Times and Observer, full of opinion pieces, criticising the new; ‘…Anger’ and John Brain, and Albert Finney and Colin Wilson ‘the Outsider’. Those society celebs, who all seemed to know Noel Coward and the odious Boothby. When dahling people from good families, – Nancy Spain and Katherine Whitehorse, Isobel Barnett, and Barbara Kelly pouted and excited the commoners at home. They did not go on holiday abroad; the ‘jetted-off’, and were killed in numbers aboard those creaky planes.

    In the Sundays they made weekly, and very conservative, flights of fancy in print, in laboured metaphors, boasting of connections, and other social advantages. Anon Winn and Fanny Cradock, all giddy and cunning at the same time; full of mock innocence and ‘look at the fame I have stumbled-upon!’

    “… You never expect to meet U-Thant or Dag Hammarskjold, or Sukarno or Bulganin, but suddenly you are at a party talking to them over salmon canapés and a delicious chateau-bottled Grand Cru Pouilly de Foullie!!!”

    They drifted in and out of the cheesy side of media; What’s My Line’ and ‘Twenty Questions’ – all ran, we now find, by people a mistake away from a long prison sentence. Dr Isobel killed herself with an electric fire in the bath after being caught shoplifting. Tomalin – plane crash; Gilbert Harding, a heavy drinker, – sadly suicide after his gayness came out.

    Ah, the pretension. Ah the hidden tragedy! Playing the role of the role of the accidental clumsy genius; the fool with hidden depth, or so they pretend. Celebrity fluff in cut-glass accents who truly believed that insouciance and a little fame were a substitute for intelligence. Whitehorne confessed years later that she wrote ‘inspired’ by booze. Spain dead in air-crash.

    And now the boy Spufford … good family, dodgy ‘riting’ ability, backing into the limelight, or, more realistically, busking with comb and paper outside the back door of the Royal Society.

  20. Perhaps the read would have been a lot easier if you had relied on Jack Daniels Back Label to get you through the ordeal. Hitchens would have appreciated your imbibing in his drink of choice

    1. I think it is Johnny Walker, Black Label. And anything read with JW Black is better than reading without. And everything seems better when one adds Hitchen’s to the same thought.


  21. 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.

    What’s hidden in this seemingly naive admission (“I believe in religion because I want it to be true”) is a serious underlying claim: the “feelings” a believer has is what happens when they connect with God.

    I think Spufford is following a very old script, and it runs through all the religions and spiritualities. By emphasizing the emotions they’re not placing themselves at risk of skeptical rebuttal: they’re trying to recategorize the ‘faith process’ as being similar to appreciating art or loving someone. You see, this is how we learn truth in this special situation: God (or Spirit or Higher Power) is discerned through our deep emotional capacity to simply intuit its necessity, presence, and/or desirability. Those people who don’t figure this out — or realize it without needing to figure it out — (the atheists) fail to do so because there is a problem with them: they’re shallow and stunted. And the atheists are this way on the most vital, important point of what it means to be human.

    So from their perspective, it’s not “wishful thinking.” It’s ESP.

    And from our perspective, it’s not only wrong. It’s nasty.

    For all their whining about how mean the new atheists are, we can’t match them. Look below the surface.

    1. “And from our perspective, it’s not only wrong. It’s nasty.”

      And it is the basis for extreme fundamentalism and terrorism.

    2. “…[T]hey’re trying to recategorize the ‘faith process’ as being similar to appreciating art or loving someone.”

      You’re right, although I think they’re slippery even here. I doubt they would insist that I need to appreciate the same art or love the same people as they do.

    3. There’s something that rings disturbingly correct in those observations.

      It’s not unlike how accommodationists claim to have more respect for the religious…by not wanting to disabuse them of their childish fantasies because they can’t handle the truth. Except even nastier still.


  22. “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.”

    This is a very clever bait-and-switch here. Spufford substitutes “belief” with “assent”. But there is an important difference of course, which makes the substitution I think intentional or if not, then very telling. To assent is a conscious decision. Whereas you cannot choose to believe something that you don’t; you can only “claim” to believe so, in effect, lying.

    So we shouldn’t let Spufford off with easy claims of belief. What exactly does he believe? Jesus is the true God? Then does he assent that Muslims and everyone else are deluded? Does he believe the signs of true believers as Jesus said – handling snakes and taking poison?

    I suspect, Spufford doesn’t really believe. He knows this and can’t even bring himself to say it outright, so instead he substitutes his assent for his disbelief. He’s trying to hedge his bets (Pascal’s wager); apparently he believes (really, thsi time) that God can be fooled by claims of belief.

  23. Shorter Spufford: My faith is sustained by a stubborn unwillingness to examine it critically.

    “Come in, if you think you’re hard enough.”
    That’s it! I must not think I’m “hard enough.” (*snrk*)

  24. On the contrary, I understand that religion is about emotion rather than truth. That is my criticism of it. That’s the dead giveaway that it’s a scam.

  25. Don´t let this obvious bollocks put you off his other books. The spectacular failure of this one is a case of Hitchens´ maxim at work. His other books are well worth a look.

  26. One of Spufford’s especially inane lines:

    “Religion without God makes no sense (except possibly to Buddhists).”

    So it makes sense to half a billion people then! I bet many of them find it makes as much emotional sense as Mr. Spufford’s weak-tea Christianity does to him. What a fatuously dismissive excuse for a writer!
    It’s rather appropriate that “Spufford” sounds so much like “sputtered”–that’s all he’s done with his apologetics.

  27. I understood every word Spufford wrote except ‘anorak’ so I looked it up online – ‘a type of pullover coat with a fur lined hood’. Of course I’ve never heard that here in Texas.

    So I give Spufford +1 for teaching me a new word.

    And another +1 for using the word ‘earhole’ – a favorite childhood insult of mine “You earhole!” – but he didn’t use it properly so that gets him a -1 and it cancels out.

    And lastly, -10,000 for wasting my time. Net score for Spufford: -9,999.

  28. Salon, the New York Times, the Washington Post …

    For years I’ve looked forward to each new Radiolab podcast. They are usually interesting enough that it is worth enduring Krulwich’s increasing cute comments tendency (these comments are rarely all that cute, or funny or witty or insightful, Chortling Bob).

    The last 6 months or so it seems there is at least one segment that includes stories where Christian belief is emphasized far beyond its relevance to the subject matter, including recordings of protagonist’s prayers, fervent expressions of conviction of direct deity intervention producing favorable outcomes in dire health circumstances involving surgery, and what sounds to my ears like outright proselytizing.

    I’m wondering if someone holding production reins is recently born agin’.

  29. Whew! Truly a bloated paragraph! When I write, I tell myself, “OK- You’re done- now go back and remove at least half of the commas and a third of the words (for starters).” Spufford apparently never took any writing classes.

    I agree wholeheartedly with “Achrachno”, who commented, “He (Spufford) was perceptive with that- too bad he’s apparently not absorbed what he wrote.” The “bloated paragraph” is actually a pretty good description of how absurd “believers” appear to non-believers, and even has embedded in it passages that seem to evidence a kind of “Freudian-slippage” on Spufford’s part: “…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….which makes the onlooker wince and look away and wonder if some degree of CEREBRAL DEFICIENCY is involved…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.” It almost makes me wonder whose side he’s on, or if the essay was a spoof.

    I agree that most “believers” are programmed in childhood towards an acceptance of their particular religious belief system (RBS: also stands for “Royal Bull Shit”), but I feel that it’s important to understand that emotion’s role is primarily that of maintaining the belief later in life- once an emotional attachment is made to the RBS and it becomes part of the basis for one’s sense of self and sense of self-worth, even a child will defend any kind of errant nonsense vigorously (“..there is TOO a Santa Claus!”)out of fear (an emotion) of a reduction in that sense of self-worth. I saw a comment by a woman (maybe it was here) who said, “I loved growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, because my parents kept telling us that we were better than all the other people in our neighborhood.”

    Later in life, as the individual relies more on their own thinking than on that of their parents, other kinds of fears step in: fear of ostracism from a group; fear of the unknown (NOT having life and how to respond to it explained by a clear-cut set of dogmas); fear of appearing foolish, or stupid; and perhaps the worst: the fear of having to admit one was wrong from the get-go.

    These are all “negative” emotional motivations- some of the “positive” ones; the “gains” (to the human mind, avoidance of a “loss” is perceived as a “gain”, and is the power behind the fear-based motivations)are: the comfort of being in a like-minded group; the feeling that you really KNOW what the world is all about; a feeling of smug superiority to those who don’t believe as you do; that you are on the “winning team”, and, perhaps the worst one, the assurance that those who dispute the beliefs you have incorporated into your sense of self-worth are going to “get theirs in the end” through Hell’s eternal torment.

    I have been involved with a dialogue with a fervent Christian for about five days now: it started with my comment on a Yahoo! article on North Korea in which I said, “I almost wish there WERE a Hell, so that Kim Jong-Un and his father and grandpa could contemplate their crimes against humanity while being tortured.” The first reply, from “Victor”, was, “There is one and you’re going there.”

    I always relish the opportunity to debate Christers on line and I was curious as to the motivation behind his comment. My next reply which consisted of my explanation of the nonsense of such a belief was answered with, “Oh man- you got it bad- you’re definitely going there.” After my next reply, a thorough lambasting by me of the entire Christian belief system, especially the “meaningless, brutal exercise” of a universe where an omniscient God already knows who’s going to Hell, but sends them there anyway, Victor backed off a little, basically telling me that it was “nothing personal”, and that he just wishes the best for me and that he hopes that I find Jesus; that it’s not “too late” for me.

    It’s been a very typical exchange but for the strange fact that he hasn’t bombarded me with Babble verses as most of his ilk do (I thanked him for that)- I laid out my evidence for the Babble being nonsense; I explained to him that it’s most likely a consequence of his birth location as to what religion he’s defending, and reminded him that there’s probably more people in this world thinking that HE’S going to Hell (for not accepting Allah) than think he’s not.

    The usual happens: no comment from him on any of the opposing “evidence” I’ve given; he just keeps coming back for more, like one of those pear-shaped, inflated punching dolls that just won’t stay down. Now we’re back to the “threat” part (which I told him in advance would happen): not having a logical leg to stand on, and frustrated that he can’t convert me by his “example of faith”, he’s back to the, “I don’t want to see you burn forever” business.

    I marvel at the depth to which this individual’s very sense of self must be tied to his faith, and I shudder to think of the fear under which he must labor.

  30. I think Spufford has a point about the atheist bus slogan, and about “Imagine”

    After reading him, I stopped and thought about the times, from childhood to the present, when I was definitely not enjoying my life. Was religion to blame for any of them?


    1. Nor, probably, was anthrax. Is anthrax any less toxic if you haven’t suffered from it?

      Is it relevant in any case? If you haven’t suffered from unicorn trampling are unicorns real?

      1. Suppose the ad had said “We have eliminated smallpox. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. Would that make sense? No, because smallpox is not and never was the only thing we have to worry about.

        Nor is religion.

        1. Smallpox is not something that we’ve needed to worry about at all for some time. Religion is nothing like that. The negative consequences of religious belief are dramatic and ubiquitous around the world. I have no idea where you live, but here we have politicians who seek to drive public policy decisions according to what their “faith” tells them to do. In the UK, where the bus signs referred to are found, there are constant attempts to shut down free speech on university campuses because religious sensibilities are offended. People are killed in the streets as a consequence of religious ideas being taken very seriously.

          If you think unhappy things in the world around you are not considerably affected by religion, you are probably not paying attention.

  31. Well, I just read the first passage Jerry quoted and – Spufford’s absolutely right! All the way from “we’re embarrassing” through to “Rebel cool? Not so much”, Spufford speaks the truth. The religious _are_ all those things.

    Please nobody spoil it and tell me he was trying to be ironic…

  32. 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.

    Absolutely not.

    – Ownership doesn’t mean expertise.

    Clear statistics say that on average atheists are better informed on religion as a whole, including what it means.

    – As far as religion makes claims on reality, what it means in respect to reality, science is the proven arbitrator.

  33. JAC: “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.”

    Christians only fully commit first to the idea that God is sovereign in their lives And this is an emotional commitment because there is nothing else it could be (God being mystery with emotional adjectives). Then and only then do they commit fully to other “ideas” of God and Christianity. And they seem to commit to ideas that attract them based solely on who they are as a person when each idea is encountered and re-encountered in a kind of evolution of a personal religion mediated by the particulars of their strain of religion and the people they collect to themselves within that strain.

    JAC: “Have a gander at this bloated paragraph, for instance… I suggest you don’t try to understand this…

    As an ex-fundamentalist I understood it completely. He is using “insider speak” that manipulates positively the well worn, now modernized, paths of emotional contentment derived from religious myth and metaphor. Although fundamentalists are taught to believe as babies, all their emotions – all of them: fear, hate, love, peace, joy – are directly managed through religious myths and metaphors. Their emotions are manipulated by these myths from their earliest understandings.

    Spufford seems to be providing the religious in crowd with his bona fides. He is also lamenting his failure to pass on to his daughter a myth-managed life. I think atheists should see in this quite a lot of good: kids today have mountains of factual information at their fingertips to inform about how everything in the world works so that it is harder to be led, even by both parents, into simple-minded, emotion-based myths about reality. His daughter stamped a “rejected” across Daddy and Mommy’s forehead.

  34. JAC: “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.”

    Yes he is! He has simply taken the time to think about, analyze and detail the foundational thinking of religionists in a way they will recognize and say Amen to. For atheists with no religious background, I admit it appears demented, but I think his is a very well examined take on modern religious thinking and how it has resolved fact vs faith.

    JAC: “And I don’t think that New Atheists are making a mistake when we consider people like Spufford as outliers.”

    Yes you are! I am a New Atheist and an ex-fundamentalist. And it is clear to me that EVERY faitheist I’ve encountered in discussion in the last decade or so resides towards the emotional/myth end of a religious thought continuum that has rational thought at the other end. Those who grow up religious and put rational thought before emotion-based myths become atheists, like me. Spufford is simply exposing a glaring modern dilemma within religions that he and many others have solved the exact same way, most without even processing it. When it comes to religion, their life decisions will be trusted to their emotional mythical training and the immense contentment it brings. That trust and resulting contentment will always trump rational thought… until something convinces them to eliminate the supremacy of emotion-based myths.

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