Well, not all of it, naturally, I mean, there's masochism and then there's reading 'The Graun' from beginning to end! No, I have just read a bit of it, in fact, just one article sent to me as a cutting by a friend and thus, happily, I have now discovered Mr. Francis Spufford and his excellent essay on why he is a Christian believer. My only irritation with Mr. Spufford is in knowing that if I run this blog for another 50 years (and that's a threat not a promise!) I will never be able to write as well as he does. I was hooked from his opening paragraph:
My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We're weird because we go to church. This means as she gets older there'll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she's a teenager they'll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we're too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy. That we're savagely judgmental. That we'd free murderers to kill again. That we're infantile and can't do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we teach people to hate their own natural selves. That we want people to be afraid. That we want people to be ashamed. That we have an imaginary friend, that we believe in a sky pixie; that we prostrate ourseves before a god who has the reality-status of Santa Claus. That we prefer scripture to novels, preaching to storytelling, certainty to doubt, faith to reason, censorship to debate, silence to eloquence, death to life.
Right, I thought to myself, that's a nice deep hole you have just dug for yourself, Mr. Spufford, let's see how you get out of it. He began well enough with a sort of pat on the back to 'Archbishop' Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens but instinctively one felt he might have been holding a dagger as he did it it:
But hey, that's not the bad news. Those are the objections of people who care enough about religion to object to it. Or to rent a set of recreational objections from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. As accusations, they may be a hodge-podge, but at least they assume there's a thing called religion which looms with enough definition and significance to be detested. In fact there's something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief. Some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like fitting a whole model railway layout into an attaché case.
How right was that? Those who virulently attack religion can at least be said to care about the matter and that includes the little minds, usually unable to think for themselves, forced to pick up the trifles deposited by the two great anti-religionists of our age. But for the Great Unwashed Masses (GUM) the response to arguments over religiosity is neither pro or con, it is simply total indifference mixed with, er, like, you know, sort of, embarrassment:
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 that obtrude, that stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respectworthy or principled way, either. 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 behaviour; 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 liquidised 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.
What the GUM make of Islamists getting hot under the collar over perceived insults to Allah from people who now have no need of a collar because their heads have been removed, one can only guess. But Mr. Spufford is surely right, in our 21st century western world to believe in a god will earn you either a discreet rolling of the eyes, or a pat on the back and the suggestion, old chap, that you have another drink and tell us what you really think about the Man United team these days. And if, by accident (and it surely would have to be by accident) you bump into 'Archbishop' Dawkins, all you will receive in place of blank incomprehension will be a load of semi-scientific waffle which will miss the crucial point of theism by a mile. Thus, you will not so much 'meet' as pass each other in a mutual fog of misunderstanding. Mr. Spufford is absolutely straightforward and honest in telling us that his religious beliefs are founded on emotion - and he makes the case, persuasively, that surprisingly, emotion provides a very sound basis:
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. We dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight, surmise, joke, detest; we form such unprovable conjectures as novels or clarinet concertos; we imagine. And religion is just a part of that, in one sense. It's just one form of imagining, absolutely functional, absolutely human-normal. It would seem perverse, on the face of it, to propose that this one particular manifestation of imagining should be treated as outrageous, should be excised if (which is doubtful) we can manage it.
Please read his essay, it is a delight whether or not you accept his premises.