In the second interview in our new strand, Belief and Non Belief in 21st Century Britain, Caspar Melville, chief executive of the Rationalist Association, and editor of New Humanist magazine, interviews Francis Spufford author of Backroom Boys and Red Plenty about his latest book, Unapologetic, why despite everything Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.
Recorded at University of Westminster radio studio.
Caspar Melville: Unapologetic – what are you unapologetic about?
Francis Spufford: I’m unapologetic about asserting that religion is a normal and legitimate part of human experience; I’m unapologetic about wanting to disrupt the rather cosy recent cultural consensus that religion must be stupid and must have a zoned off zoo, apart from the science that would make it know better; I’m unapologetic about not wanting to be patronised; and finally I’m unapologetic about – and this is where I stop being combative and start being somebody who is up for conversation – I’m unapologetic about saying that a lot of the contemporary atheist case being made now in Britain getting religion wrong. Wrong enough that it is talking past the experience of religious people. It may look like engagement but it is more like liners far apart on a windswept sea.
CM: Let me just ask you for a brief thumbnail sketch of the book. You start in a café in Cambridge, and write in an immediate way – it almost sounds as if you are angry, combative as you say, and then you move into a deeper exploration of faith. Give us a sense of how the book flows.
FS: I begin with where people think the debate is now – religion as a disastrous set of disastrous social attitudes and a set of mock scientific ideas about the universe – a roll call of all the things constantly repeated about religion. And I go, No, No, this treats it as a thing made of ideas, when it is actually a thing made of experience. I then give examples of mine, because you can’t really talk about feelings in the abstract. Feelings aren’t lived in the abstract. I try to mine my own religious history to give me something definite to talk about, and then go on from there to try and build, from scratch, a ‘picture in action’ of how the emotions in my religion, Christianity, fit together with each other – I hope in defamiliarised terms, terms that take nothing for granted, so even if you don’t share any of the reference points or starting points you can still get how the bits slot together. It’s an Ikea version of religion, that you have to put together yourself at home. A flat pack religion that is surprisingly comfortable once you’ve worked out what this strange Swedish diagram is.
CM: You say in the book that you are not trying to convert people…
FS: No, absolutely not!
CM: …..but you are trying to explain religion to people who may misunderstand it, and you think there is a lot of misunderstanding. You start with a strongly worded case against the atheist bus campaign, where atheists raised money (the British Humanist Association gave it a seal of approval) for ads on the side of buses that said, ‘There is probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. You take umbrage at this, and you actually go for it quite strongly. Why did that particularly annoy you?
FS: Not because of the word ‘probably’ on the side of the bus, because my view is that nothing is being asserted there – calculations about probability about God really don’t mean very much. No, the aggressive word on the side of the bus, as far as I’m concerned, is the word ‘enjoy’. ‘Enjoy your life’. Not that enjoyment is bad, the more enjoyment the better. But it’s a smallish part of human life that unwittingly buys into a model of what human life is supposed to be like, and which is all too familiar from contemporary marketing, in which life is supposed to be about fun. The default state of humanity is to be having a good time. External forces occasionally perturb us and cut us out of the good time we are supposed to be having. This seems to me to be crap as a description of how human lives actually run (excuse my language – I find that my efforts to avoid blasphemy mean my profanity count has gone way up!).
It’s not that I think that all atheists, everywhere, think life is a bed of roses and I don’t think the atheist bus is a philosophical statement by all atheists – I do recognise that it was itself a reply to those nasty posters prettily threatening hellfire.
CM: Yes, I wondered why you had devoted quite so much ire to this campaign, which came out of a very particular place. It was a young Guardian journalist who wanted to answer back to another bus campaign, a Christian poster that gave some sort of solace – what an atheist would consider to be a false promise. An atheist would criticise a position that said, don’t worry about life now, you’ll get a better life later. An atheist would rather say, don’t worry about hell and damnation, be concerned about life as you’ve got it right now.
FS: I don’t have any problem about answering back against those posters, but a characteristic mistake is being made here against what the hellfire posters represent. They come from a tiny fraction of British Christianity, and I wish they’d shut up too, because they certainly don’t represent my religion or the religion of most people in this country. Hell is obsolete, hell is not a feature in 99% of contemporary British belief. We’re not in the hellfire business, and speaking for myself, I’m not particularly in the heaven business either. I don’t see religion as primarily about promises about what happens after you die.
So the atheist bus seems to me to be talking past the issue. The reason I make such a big deal of it is that campaigning against hell is absolutely fine, but look what happens when you take things that way. You find yourself saying that religion is primarily a source of anxiety, and that is not only flatpacked, that is completely two-dimensional. Religion, even if you don’t feel it or agree with it, even disapprove of it (and this is an ambition of the book) is a vast feeling thing that has lots of social, philosophical and cultural consequences. It doesn’t just cause fear. So the idea that we’d be fine if the fear caused by religion was removed is, to me, untrue in its picture of what my religion is like, and is untrue of what religion is and does. And yes, I suppose I am picking on the bus, but it is a handy way in, to expand the picture, to say there is more to talk about.
CM: You’ve said, don’t lump me in with the Taliban or with fundamentalist Christianity in the US. In other words there is this straw man idea, you object to how religion is treated all of a piece. But isn’t there a danger that you are doing the same to atheists? I found myself reading your book and saying, well I don’t think this…. The piece you wrote for New Humanist magazine prompted more letters than we’d ever had, and one thing every letter said was, we absolutely agree with Francis Spufford that you shouldn’t parody, mock or scorn religious people – we’re not in that business.
It’s true that there are people who do that, they are the equivalent of the hellmongers of religion, so I felt you conceded too much ground, more ground than you needed to, certainly in the earlier parts of the book, in this anger. You give this list of what non-religious people think of religion – bronze age absurdities, and so on. But almost the worst thing, you say, is that ‘my daughter is going to be embarrassed because we are treated as weirdos.’ Is it really that bad? Do you really think the secularist/atheist argument, the Dawkins argument, is so strong it needs the strength of retort that you’ve given it?
FS: Yes. Not because most atheists – who are immensely civilised – are angry, shouty people who are in your face. I entirely take the point that I have committed the mirror image, I have assumed that the atheist equivalent of the hellfire mob are characteristic of all atheists. I concede that’s not true. Nevertheless, the public discussion of religion has been amazingly shaped by the pervasiveness of what I would see as the daftest version of the atheist case. I’m going to point the finger at Richard Dawkins here, because I think The God Delusion specifically has made our ability to talk about religion harder. It has made conversation stupider and nastier. It is a profoundly stupid book as far as I’m concerned. And I know ‘stupid’ is the thermo nuclear weapon of insults, and I know I am wandering off with my attack of spleen against Dawkins (a wonderful evolutionary biologist, by the way, I have learned a lot from him!). But it is hard to convey the air of derision around religion now, for example in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section – all the comments are hostile. It is very difficult to talk about belief in public, except in some specially set up churchy place, without people thinking you are taking some sort of diabolical liberty.
CM: But Comment is Free is not exactly your everyday place – it is a ‘toxic little ecosystem’ as one of my New Humanist readers described it.
I wonder if it is because you are an intellectual. After all, religion is everywhere these days, it’s everywhere on the streets. But perhaps not in intellectual circles….is there a particular problem amongst the intellectual elite?
FS: No. That comes precious close to those arguments about the Brights, as were. That the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist, with its self-pleasing little implication that atheism is cleverer than religion.
CM: But isn’t that true?
FS: No. What is true is that in this culture, religion has been moved out of the charmed circle of ‘educated common sense’. It is no longer something that has to be taken seriously.
CM: Or taken for granted.
FS: I don’t want it taken for granted. I want it discussed in terms that concede mutual uncertainty, and I want it tugged back slightly towards the limelight so we can have better conversations about it.
CM: Let’s get onto the more philosophical issues. One of the things you say in the book is that religious people and atheists are two sides of the same coin, both are animated by the idea of meaning, they care about the universe and whether there is meaning. Religious people find meaning in God, and atheists almost find it in the fact that there isn’t a God and they substitute other kinds of meanings. Our NH readers wrote to say this is a false dichotomy – it isn’t about you saying there is a god and my saying there is no god and that there is an equivalence – surely the burden of proof is on the person saying there is a god, rather than on the person saying there isn’t.
FS: First of all, a necessary preface. Given that my book is trying to be about experience rather than about philosophy, mainly what the book does is to say, ‘No, not at this address, somewhere else.” As far as I am concerned the proof of the pudding is in the experience of belief rather than in this stuff and I am talking way above my paygrade if I try to talk about things philosophically.
Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go, but don’t judge all religious philosophy on what I can cobble together in a studio in North London! I
I have no trouble with the fact that there is no evidence, and I don’t want to pull in those things where there is a sort of evidence. No evidence is fine as far as I’m concerned. But if you look at the assumption behind the idea that the burden of proof is on religious people, that assumption is itself not to do with evidence, it is embedded and cultural. It has to do with a religious claim being an ‘outre’ claim. An extraordinary claim, a claim that is sufficiently detached from ordinary daily life that it would require extraordinary supports. In other words, whereas we talk about chairs and tables and hairstyles without anyone having to do any special work of proof, if I announce that a flying saucer just went past, then you look at me with a sceptical light in your eye. The assumption here is that God is like a flying saucer, he is utterly out of context, an event that would require special proof. But from within religion, God is more like the chairs and the hairstyle. So I am not going to agree with you that God is so far away from the ordinary that the burden of proof is necessarily on the person who says he’s there. As far as I’m concerned it’s more evenly balanced than that. I think it is a consequence of the remoteness of religion now from a lot of British people’s experience, that they’ve assigned God to this remote and far way, and therefore inherently improbable, position.
Having said all that, honesty compels me to admit that there are mornings when I look around at the solid, compact, self sufficient material world that science can explain all of, and say, what are you doing here? Why are you in the business of saying, there is more to be said about this? So I am not unhearing of all the inductive arguments which say, ‘final proof not available but we can talk in a Bayesian way about what the absence of evidence suggests in a probabilistic way. I hear that stuff, just as I see the force of Hume in the 18th century arguing about miracles. If you are talking about loaves magically multiplying, let’s look at our experience – do loaves magically multiply? No, ladies and gentlemen, they really, really don’t. So this gives us probabilistic information about how to take the New Testament. I get that, and I feel the force of it, as well. The whole point of my book is to try to indicate what the blob of emotion is on the other side of the scales which tips the balance, or rather tips it back into balance. I am not saying that the religion side of the scales goes down with a definitive clang after which I am not going to pay any attention to Mr Hume and his absurd notions on miracles. I am saying it tips it enough so that the scales wobble in this uncertain way in which there is room to be guided by the heart.
CM: OK, so let’s get to the heart of the book. It goes deeper and deeper, you are taken inside through Mozart’s clarinet concerto, into the bible, into the story of Jesus. Let’s try and capture a little bit of this emotional centre. What is it doing for you? Why is it able to trump your very real doubts, your respect for science, logic and reason?
FS Logic and reason are qualities that can be applied within religion, they are not tools for judging the consistency of claims. Logic and reason belong to us just as much as they belong to the ‘rationalists’, indeed the name of the Rationalist Association is slightly imperialistic in its assumptions about who’s got the reason around here.
CM: You are using reason, here, to argue about emotion. But I want to know what it is that you get from this, what is this emotional reason? Isn’t it possible to justify anything by saying, ‘it made emotional sense to me’?
I was talking to someone yesterday who commented that Charles Manson probably felt what he did made emotional sense to him. It’s a very subjective position. Surely you’re just saying it’s a matter of personal taste, personal preference. Are you saying religion is about personal preference? This is very different from saying God really is there, God made the universe.
FS: What it gives me is a profound, responsive, realistic acknowledgement of the messiness of human motivations and how multiple and untidy – and sometimes clumsy and not entirely well meaning, and occasionally self-destructive, as well as capable of love and heroism and forgiveness – we are.
It seems to me to provide a language to talk about the whole range of human experience, and in particular, it provides something to do with the parts of you that you find hard to take. It provides a place to go with what I’m not going to call sin – I don’t call it sin in the book, because the word has been hopelessly corrupted…..
CM: Do you mean something close to original sin?
FS: Yes, original sin is a friendly and accurate doctrine, not because it has anything to do with the garden of Eden, but because it is observably true that human beings are capable of horrible stuff as well as good stuff. Original Sin is simply a way of saying we are prone to fuck things up on purpose. Any society draws a line between the acceptable and unacceptable, and humans are always going to be voting on both sides of it.
Religion doesn’t give you sin as a series of terrible crimes under which you must cower, but rather as a language to talk about your own biography. The things you screw up, as well as the things you get right. My experience is that allowing a little bit of darkness into the picture here is a friendly thing to do and makes you less anxious about the good stuff because it means you are not wasting energy on pretending. You could talk about it in psychoanalytical terms just as easily. And yes, I am making a truth claim here for religion, because I don’t think it is a menu to be followed according to taste, ultimately it is a gamble, under conditions of radical uncertainty, on it being true – on there being a state of the universe to which it corresponds, though we can’t get at that claim to verify it.
It’s to do with screw ups, it’s to do with mercy for screw ups, it’s to do with being forgiven not because there is a great big judge in the sky who glowers at you and then consents to let you off (how humiliating would that be) but because what you feel when you’re religious, if you’re lucky, is that adjacent to the world you know is an extraordinary bottomless, endless generosity that is wider than anything humans can imagine and on which you can lean. This does not mean we think of humans as pathetic wobbling creatures, who can’t stand up and be autonomous. If we’re honest we can’t be autonomous all the time. Leaning on other humans is very necessary and fine, but not always fair to them. If you’ve done any of the really bad stuff, then you don’t want to be leaning on your victims sobbing, “I’m so sorry, I’ve enslaved you, make me feel better about it”, which is what the author of the hymn Amazing Grace was doing, for example.
CM: Give me a picture of your God. You have spent a lot of time sloughing off the ‘old man in the sky’ image, no heaven, no hell – so what are we left with? A god who is a benevolent force of mercy, beyond humanity?
FS: Yes, but the word ‘force’ is a word out of physics, and indeed out of Star Wars. It’s more that God is the solidity of all solid things, and the movement of all moving things. Another analogy might be The Matrix, except that the world is not made out of code, the world is made out of love.
CM: You’ve said you want to make religion less mysterious, in your book you say religion is ordinary. But all that sounds very mysterious to me! As a non believer, I just don’t get it! I can’t get how you feel that – I can see how you might want to feel it, and that it would be great if it were true, but I don’t know how one goes about acquiring it. Nor do I feel I have a gap.
FS: I can make bits of religion less mysterious, I can talk about how the emotions slot together, but clearly all the time it is propped on something else.
When I was an atheist I didn’t feel a God-shaped space, it’s not part of the human equipment to go round with a gap, nor that I can breathe a sigh of relief that now I’ve got God. That is just not part of human psychology. But I can report that feeling mercy is a genuine experience. It does actually happen and I’ve done my best to recreate it in words on the page. Part of human experience is that though I can press my forehead hard against yours, there will still be no mixing of emotions here. It may be, though, that there is a bit of room for manoeuvre here in that the experiences you think of under a different heading, are the same ones I think of as religious experiences. For example, I would imagine that you too, if you sit down in a quiet place for a while have been known to feel a sense of calm and quiet – or numinousness ( though that is a term I disapprove of because it is so ‘wafty’). I remember reading that Terry Pratchet, shortly after his alzheimers diagnosis, had had a moment when he had felt an assurance of deep safety, some sense that everything was going to be all right, which didn’t rule out where the alzheimers might go. He clearly does not think that is a religious emotion. I would say it was, that was probably (though I can’t know for certain because we can’t press heads together to share thoughts) it was probably the thing I mean when I talk about the presence of God. Maybe this is a categorisation, a labelling, problem.
CM: So those of us who are not religious may be experiencing similar kinds of emotions, that you might call God, without knowing?
CM: You make the familiar argument that no one would set up an anti-stamp collecting magazine – so why set up an anti-religion magazine, or write a book such as The God Delusion? But no stamp collector has ever tried to run my life. Don’t you think you are underestimating the degree of anger people have about religion – whether it is about child abuse in the catholic church, or extreme brands of Islam, or any of the other terrible things religion is responsible for?
FS: Yes, the philately metaphor is obviously only meant to draw attention to one bit of the odd psychology of some atheists who fixate on the continuing nature of some people’s religious belief, instead of going off and enjoying their lives!
And yes, I entirely acknowledge there is a lot of stuff that religion is responsible for, or has done, or continues to do that you would be justified in being angry about. I am not saying that religion has no effects in the world. But I want to say that religion’s effects in the world are much more various than the characterisation of it just as a source of fear, bullying, repressing of questioning, bigotry about sexuality, misogyny. You get an awful lot of talk about religion as if that were its only set of social effects, and those are so dreadful that we can judge the whole package by those. Those are dreadful, those are bad things, but religion is not some special all-evil-all-the-time department of human activity. Religion is an enormously various, culturally complicated, embedded human enterprise through which a whole, vast array of human motives run, including all the conservative motives of keeping everything nicely the same and safe, approved, shiny and reliable and not the nasty dirty stuff that I want to kept away (that’s being rather anthropological). It is also a vehicle for asceticism, carnality, generosity, stinginess – every other pair of opposed qualities you can think of – it is huge, as various as any other aspect of human culture and as various in its effects as politics or law. All I want is for people to see religion as big enough to have lots of things happening in it, and then it seems to me it would make sense to say, not when religion is cruel we shall condemn religion but when religion is cruel we shall condemn cruelty.
CM: But isn’t there something inherent in religions that has licensed the power of men? Licensed the subjugation of women? Is it a coincidence that religions are run by men for the benefit of men?
FS: Societies are run by men for the benefit of men. But it has not only legitimised patriarchy, it has also provided a whispering critique of those things all the way through. I am a Christian and particularly conscious of Christianity’s liberating potential, but it is there in Islam too.
I think what you are saying – or rather feeling – here is the idea of the Almighty God is inherently hierarchical, that the idea of an all powerful God, licenses subordination in some way.
CM: And the people claiming to have special access to the God, can exercise that power – it does seem to lend itself to abuse.
FS: Yes, but observably, societies that don’t do monotheism and don’t have an almighty being, find other ways for the powerful to claim they have special access, to demand that people come towards them bowing and leave backwards. Religion is not our only source of that stuff.
Religions reflect their societies – in the middle ages society was run by a king, so thinks of God as a king, the Roman empire is a world run by emperors so thinks God is an emperor – we project like crazy but that is never all that is happening, there is always a quiet, whispering counter script at work, that gets out around the edges – ‘no, more than that, less than that, other than that, be less certain…..’ Religion is as potent a source of uncertainty as of certainty.
CM: Yes, Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh who has been through religion and almost come out the other side, though retaining his belief in God, says ‘we concede nothing in the way of doubt to atheists.’ The idea that doubt goes hand in hand with faith.
Now some final questions – about secularism in the UK. Do you consider yourself to be part of the fightback against secularism? George Carey, Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi, even David Cameron are joining in – there seems to be a feeling that secularism equates to having no values. Are you part of that?
FS: No. David Cameron wants the 6% of the churchgoing vote, because the next election is going to be extremely tight (I would say that because I am a Labour voter!) I think there is a real danger of Christian self pity here, which is to be avoided. It can work as a nostalgia for a past which is simpler (and whiter). It’s not an accident that the BNP tried the experiment of election leaflets with pictures of cathedrals in order to encourage the Isalmophobic bits of their agenda – you’ll be glad to know that the Church of England stamped this out as quickly as it could because we don’t like fascists very much.
No, the danger here is a kind of self pitying Chritian identity politics which I think would be disastrous and really inappropriate. In particular I detest the idea that George Carey is responsible for, that we are persecuted. No we aren’t persecuted! Persecution is when they burn your churches down or don’t give you licenses to build – it is not people politely laughing at you in the Guardian. I’d argue that we are utterly unpersecuted, though having said that there are lots of things where, under the rubric of free speech people are quite rude, and I’d like to be rude back to some of them. No, Christianity is in a state in this country, which, it could be argued, is largely its own fault and the tools for getting people to think better of us are entirely in our own hands. We will have to talk in a way that people like more, and find ways to describe who we are and what we are in ways that that make more sense. That is not a situation of persecution, that is a situation of being a minority. I can live with that. It is dangerously silly to say we are persecuted, we should save that language for people in other parts of the world – including Christians – who are genuinely persecuted.
CM: And of course using that language is like a red rag to a bull for atheists.
FS: Well I am going to rush around to the atheists side on this one and blow raspberries with you!
CM: You argue that religion is in decline, but in many ways it is growing – but it may be a different kind of religion. You have addressed your book to atheists and secularists, but why aren’t you spending more time talking to the other sides of religion. In Britain there are large areas of growth in religion, but it is Pentecostal, for example – it is charismatic, often literalist, and doesn’t seem to have much in common with your kind of Christianity. Shouldn’t you be building bridges with people within and beyond Christianity and try and talk some sense into them!
FS: Heavens, yes, but not ‘talk sense into them’ because a lot of them already make sense. And I didn’t write this book to talk to atheists primarily, I wrote it to talk to as many people as I could. Atheists are the easiest in a way, because you actually care about this stuff – that’s why I say we are brothers and sisters under the skin. Atheists are interested in theism, much more challenging are the vast numbers of people who are getting on fine and don’t see why they should be interested in religion.
The bridges with other Christian already exist. All fellow Christians belong to a world where we may not like each other but we can understand each other. I have a passage in the book where I picked the Christian I thought it might be most challenging to claim any kind of affinity with, and it ended up being Sarah Palin, unfortunately. But I have to see her as a sister, someone who has got something right. Everything else about her is quite as frightening for me as it is for most other people with my politics who happen not to be religious. But I have to say there is an affinity there, in the language of feeling we are associated, attached, there is something there which is not reducible to politics or American culture or gun control or climate change, or science or creationism – the list goes on and on – but I think she has got something right and I can’t disavow her.
CM: Does that apply to other believers – muslims, hindus, scientologists?
FS: Not scientologists because that isn’t a religion –oh no, of course that’s not a religion, would you like to be in club with scientologists?
Monotheists are easy – we are all worshipers of the one God, oneness makes sense to us. Hindus and other polytheists are harder, but once you are talking at the level of the religious life there is a common language. If I am going to be anthropologically honest I must say that that this stuff is one bit of human culture with many, many forms. Including really silly forms! But scientologists….. atheists are easier to love than scientologists! I suppose the best I can say there is that the motives that run into scientological belief I can respect, but they have been channelled into a deeply unworthy vehicle!
CM: I suppose we had better leave it there. There is so much more to discuss, but thank you very much Francis.
With many thanks to University of Westminster for the use of their radio studio in recording this interview.