Over at the Guardian Spufford takes off the gloves, and gives atheism — or at least tries to give atheism — a real haymaker this time. No polite “Let’s be friends” this time around. And although he ends by saying (in a knock-off of the title of his new book which, having read his columns, no sane person will bother to read) that he is unapologetic, he begins, in typical apologetic style in his title by calling his article “a defence of faith.” Spufford, mirabile dictu, thinks that religions are composed of emotions rationalised into ideas and beliefs, and his defence upholds the claim that his book “is a defence of Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity.” But if that is all Christianity is composed of — as he suggests as well in his New Humanist piece — then it is strictly irrelevant to questions of belief and unbelief. He seems to think that he has hit upon a wonderful defence of faith — as though no one had ever thought of it before. But there’s nothing new about “enthusiasm.” It has been around for donkey’s years, and most theologians have been cautious about giving their imprimatur to something composed of nothing but emotions. Pentecostalism, where religion is simply drenched with emotion, is certainly an up and coming form of Christian practice, but it is pretty short on specifics, and is intellectually negligible. Which perhaps explains the curious vacuity of Spufford’s attempts at explanation.
Starting at the end of something so empty of significance is perhaps a good idea, for if there is substance to be had it should come before the end. But, sadly, this is not the case with Spufford. He’s still arguing the deep humanity of Christian faith, though for all his words it is strangely uncompelling. This, for example, is perhaps a measure of his desperation:
The emotions that sustain religious belief are all, in fact, deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.
As I said in my comment on his last effort, in the New Humanist, of course the emotions that Christians have are human ones, since Christians are human, and are bound to have them. But it doesn’t help that they have human emotions, and it certainly won’t help to pick believers out from amongst a mixed group of people including various types of believers and unbelievers. Believe it or not, we share the human condition, and we do without a doubt share many of our emotions. Spufford thinks that critics of Christianity falsify the relevant emotions by rationalising them into ideas. I think he means beliefs, here, but never mind; the truth is, despite everything that he may say about the fabric of emotions which Spufford thinks are at the centre of Christian … — ah, but here we have a problem, suddenly — at the centre of Christian what? Believing? Practice? Ritual? Community belonging? How do we distinguish between Christian emotions, say, and Jewish emotions? Could believers, then, simply dispense with belief altogether, and go off together, higglety-pigglety, in a paroxysm of emotion?