The cover of my latest issue of New Humanist (Sept./Oct.) is emblazoned with a big picture of Anthony Grayling with his resplendent hair: the article is about his New College for the Humanities scheme, which I’m dubious about (see here and here for dissenting views). But the topic of this post is another piece in the same issue, a three-page letter by Francis Spufford called “Dear atheists. . .” (now free online; reference below). Spufford is an English writer of nonfiction whose books have been widely praised.
In his letter, though, he decries the stridency of modern atheism and claims that it’s almost a religion itself in its zeal and fervor. He faults atheists for a lack of empathy, a failure to understand that believers, too, have doubts, and for a dogmatism that overlooks the possibility that we, too, may be wrong. He notes that, in response to doubts on both sides, “The proper response is humility.” (That word always sets my teeth on edge, for I find the faithful far less humble than the doubters.)
But it behooves us to listen to the criticisms of our opponents, if for no other reason than to sharpen our arguments. I’m not going to change my mind about the absence of God, but I want to understand the faith of someone as smart as Spufford. Maybe people like him do have some valid points to make about our behavior.
The first is his attitude toward the question, “Are the assertions of religion true?” That, of course, is one of the defining questions of New Atheists.
Along with many Sophisticated Believers™, Spufford remains ambivalent on the question of the role of evidence in religion. At first he says it’s largely irrelevant: religion is not about evidence, but about community and feeling, and you believe in God as a result of those feelings. That, of course, was one of the main points of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience: faith comes largely through personal revelation and experience. Here’s Spufford:
“In any case, over here on the believers’ side too, we don’t spend that much time fixated on the question of God’s existence, either. Religion isn’t a philosophical argument, just as it isn’t a dodgy cosmology, or any other kind of alternative to science. In fact, it isn’t primarily a system of propositions about the world at all. Before it is anything else, it is a structure of feelings, a house built of emotions. You don’t have the emotions because you’ve signed up to the proposition that God exists; you entertain the proposition that God exists because you’ve had the emotions.”
Well, that may seem true for Sophisticated Believers™, but remember that the vast majority of religious people are believers not because they have emotions that have driven them to faith, or because they’ve examined and signed on to the evidence for God: they’re religious because they were brought up to believe. So you may have the emotions and then later find evidence for God, but preceding all that is the childhood brainwashing.
Nevertheless, Spufford admits that without real evidence for God, religion means nothing. All the stained glass, flying buttresses, and religious music in the world mean nothing if there’s not really a God or a Jesus:
“. . . 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.”
So in the end, like many Sophisticated Theologians™ including Polkinghorne, Haught, and Plantinga, Spufford says that religion must rest on a base of truth. The problem of course, is that what the faithful see as “truth” is not the same as what scientists see as truth, or even what the layperson sees as truth when not thinking about God. To Spufford, truth is “a willing entry into uncertainty” when we have no answers. But think about how that comports with scientific or everyday truth. Do we “willingly enter into uncertainty” when we undergo a medical treatment, or do want the evidence that it actually works. Do scientists willingly enter into string theory when we don’t yet know of a way to test it? If Christians really respected “truth and logic and science”, then they wouldn’t willingly enter into the uncertainty of Christianity, for there is no good evidence for its tenets.
This is the ambivalence of the science-friendly believer. They see the disparity between the evidential bases of faith and of science, get nervous, and then write piffle like the paragraph above to justify the fact that they, too, have “evidence.” This is what leads to the follies of accommodationism. The main thing I want to highlight here is that many smart believers, when pressed, do admit that their faith is based on evidence, and that puts religion into the realm of empirical testability.
But there’s one part I am posting to solicit reader response: the accusation that we atheists revel in certitude, self-righteousness, and delicious anger at religion. This is in fact the ending of the piece, and Spufford’s main point.
“. . . I think you need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. . . It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe : atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking. . . The Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment is Free site—where you’d think that it wouldn’t be that surprising to find discussion of, you know, belief—is inhabited almost entirely by commenters waiting for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure. It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them. Now this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you. It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them. Take it from a religious person. This, we know.”
I was going to post my response to this common accusation (especially to the comment “it is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them”), but I thought that it might be better to let the readers, with their diverse opinions, respond. Some of you might agree with this, while others disagree. But I’d like to hear how atheists respond to Spufford’s accusation. Have atheists really become too smug, self-righteous, self-satisfied, aggressive, and dogmatic?
Spufford, F. 2012. “Dear Atheists. . .” New Humanist 127:34-36.
UPDATE: Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald posted his take on Spufford’s letter, including something that Spufford seems to have neglected:
But still, Spufford manages to avoid the real issue about belief and unbelief, and that has to do, as I said earlier, and will not repeat at length here, with the political and social implications of religious believing. Looked at from this point of view, the decision to base your life on beliefs which not only can you not prove, but which, on the balance of the evidence, seem unlikely to be true, seems incredibly irresponsible. If religious believing had implications only for the individual believer, then it could be easily dismissed as a harmless idiosyncracy, but since almost all religious beliefs have incredibly serious implications for many people, religious belief cannot be regarded as harmless. Indeed, a glance at the behaviour of religious believers worldwide day by day makes it very clear that religion is something to be feared and justly criticised. “Houses built of emotion” is one thing, but beliefs that can lead to mass beheading for mixed-sex dancing, or the marginalisation and victimisation of gay and lesbian people, and the second-listing of women, is quite another, and it is for the latter that religious belief is justly held to require more justification than Spufford offers. I think I will withold my respect for now.