Francis Spufford issues a challenge to non-believers
Allow me to annoy you with the prospect of mutual respect between believers and atheists. The basis for it would be simple: that on both sides, we hold to positions for which by definition there cannot be any evidence. We believe there is a God. You believe there isn’t one. Meanwhile, nobody knows, nobody can know, whether He exists or not, it not being a matter susceptible to proof or disproof. The most science can do is to demonstrate that God is not necessary as a physical explanation for anything, which is very much not the same thing as demonstrating that He isn’t there. So the natural, neutral, temperate position here would be agnosticism: a calm, indifferent not-knowing. Yet we and you – wild romantic creatures that we all are – rush instead to positions of faith on the subject. This shared (yet oppositely polarised) extravagance should surely make us soulmates. Or lack-of-soul mates. You say tomayto, we say tomahto, yet we agree in finding the big red salad vegetable important. Atheists and believers are, in opposite modes, the people drawn out by conviction from the dull centre-ground of empiricism. Mes frères, mes soeurs, mes semblables! Let us embrace one another as fellow refugees from the tediously pragmatic!
No? No. Because the idea of atheism as an extravagant faith-driven deviation from the null case goes against one of the most cherished elements in the self-image of polemical unbelief: that atheism is somehow scientific, that it is to be adopted as the counterpart in the realm of meaning to the caution and rigour of the scientific method. Flirting with a picture of yourselves as passionate enthusiasts of God-denial would obviously fuck this right up (as we like to say in the Church of England). The contemporary atheist shtick even has a meme prepared to cover this exact eventuality. Try saying that atheists have a faith position, because they believe in the absence of God, and seconds later, as sure as eggs is eggs, as sure as Richard Dawkins knows a great deal about evolutionary biology and sod-all about religion, someone will pop up to say: no. Atheists do not believe in the absence of God. Atheists do not “believe” in anything. Atheists merely lack a belief in the presence of God. The defining feature of atheism is its calm, principled non-participation in the whole crazy business of taking positions about entities you can’t see. Phew. That’s the flattering reflection in the mirror saved. (Though I’m sure your nose is longer than it was a moment ago, Pinocchio.) But it does indeed rule out the alternative possibility of seeing atheism as theism in negative; of atheists as a kind of glorious reverse-Trappists, devoted to noisily celebrating the non-existence of God, soaring free from the factual, just gone – solid gone, baby – on the poetics of absence. I guess the hugging will have to wait.
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 feeling, 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. You entertain the proposition, and perhaps eventually sign up to it, because it makes a secondary kind of sense of something you’re feeling anyway. The book I’ve written in defence of Christianity, Unapologetic, starts off with our current cultural bust-up over religion, but then swiftly goes somewhere else; and this is because, from our side, the address at which the argument usually seems to happen is not in fact the address at which belief happens. Belief, I want people to see, is made of real, human-normal experiences. It is not a step-ladder of supposition propped on the wobbly dowelling of conjecture. Christianity (which is the form of belief I can speak about from the inside, from within its pattern of experience) is a way of dealing with the territory of guilt and hope and sorrow and joy and change and tragedy and renewal and mortality on which we humans must live. And not necessarily an infantile, or contemptible, or craven way of dealing with those things: one with a certain emotional realism built in, we’d like to think, and a certain generosity of imagination, whether or not (which nobody can know) it happens to be true. So, we’re busy too. Our belief is a concrete thing, grown from habit and memory and perception rather than from abstractions. It’s a weight of experience which pushes us away from the indifferent middle of the scale on the God question.
And yet, of course, we don’t know, and not 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 a perhaps to live out, among the many maybes 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.
This is the basis on which it is, on the whole, rather easy for us to enter imaginatively into your position. For the most part, the attitude of contemporary British Christians to contemporary British atheism is one of sympathetic respect. Empathetic respect, even: I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t recognise the experience of finding God absent. A lot of us have been atheists at some point. Most of us still are, from time to time, it being a recurrent feature of faith that you pass periodically back through doubt again. No, that does not mean that we secretly think you’re right, deep down; that on some semi-conscious level we know we are only building pathetic sandcastles to be washed away by the surging, inevitable, in-bound flood tide of Reason™. It means we recognise that you and we are both operating where we cannot know we’re right. The appropriate response is humility, an adherence to a sense of ourselves as fallible, and yet possessed of the convictions we’re possessed of, the experiences we’re possessed of, the hearts we’re possessed of.
Maybe too – all teasing apart – this might be the basis on which believers and atheists might manage to declare peace, and to talk to each other a little more productively. On both sides, we check our certainties at the cloakroom, and then settle down, fellows at decision-making under uncertainty, to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the houses of emotion our positions enable us to inhabit: both real, in the sense that both are built from experience, and both ultimately resting upon the unknowable. You bring out the dignity of materialism, and we put next to it the Christian acknowledgement of the tragic, the wasted, the unmendable. You bring out the decentring power of the discovery of humanity’s smallness and contingency in the cosmos, and the recentring power of finding that human life nevertheless preserves meaning. We put next to it the egalitarianism of human failure, and the hope for a way out of humanity’s endless game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. We show you ours and you show us yours. And together we admire the patterned gambles that nourish us.
However – and now it’s back to the teasing again – before we do that, I really think you lot need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. You are the ones who claim to be acting on a mere lack, on a non-belief, but as absences go, contemporary atheism doesn’t half seem to involve some strong feelings. It isn’t all reading Lucretius, or thinking about the many forms most beautiful. For many of you, the point of atheism appears to be not the non-relationship with God but a live and hostile relationship with believers. 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. People who don’t like stamp-collecting don’t have a special magazine called The Anti-Philatelist. But you do. You do the equivalent of hanging about in front of Stanley Gibbons to orate about the detestability of phosphor bands and perforations. 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.
Francis Spufford's book Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense is published by Faber in September