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?
Again, Spufford enlists the adagio of Mozart’s famous Clarinet Concerto in A, and, of course, predictably, he again calls it a patient piece of music, but he describes it in more detail, because, he says, he listened to it shortly after having a really serious fight with his wife — which he describes in these words:
Over and over, between midnight and six, when we finally gave up and got up, we’d helplessly looped from tears, and the aftermath of tears, back into scratch-your-eyes-out, scratch-each-other’s-skin-off quarrelling. Intimacy had turned toxic …
That’s only a taster, but it was in this context, or shortly after being apart from his wife, who had gone to work, that he listened to the adagio over a cup of cappuccino. And here is what he felt.
If you don’t know it, it is a very patient piece of music. It too goes round and round, in its way, essentially playing the same tune again and again, on the clarinet alone and then with the orchestra, clarinet and then orchestra, lifting up the same unhurried lilt of solitary sound, and then backing it with a kind of messageless tenderness in deep waves, when the strings join in. It is not strained in any way. It does not sound as if the music is struggling to lift a weight it can only just manage. Yet at the same time, it is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said.
As I have said before, I think this is a remarkable way of describing this particular movement of the concerto. Like Spufford, I’ve listened to this piece of music more often than practically anything else. The first time I heard it, it moved me to tears (a bit like Barber’s adagio for strings, the second movement of his string quartet, which was, I think, unfortunately, used as the theme of the movie Platoon). And while, no doubt, different people will experience it differently, there is, to my mind, nothing patient about it, and I wonder why anyone would describe it that way. The adagio has an incredibly forceful forward movement, and it does, at times, sound as if it were trying to lift something simply too heavy to bear. Captured in some of the sweetest sound ever written is a plaintive, almost pleading, longing, an expression of the tragedy of being human, and far from there being a mercy in the music, or a refusal to deny anything, there is a sense that there is a longing in the human heart that can never be fulfilled, and it is that unfulfillable longing that is both the tragedy and the glory of being human. To be able to long for, and know that you can never attain, the wonder that you long for so hopelessly, is almost unbearably painful, and yet the yearning heart is beautiful.
However, instead of this, Spufford thinks that the promise of the music is that there is an “as yet” being spoken:
It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness.
Which is why he thinks that the novelist Richard Powers is right when he says that the adagio sounds as mercy would sound. That and yet, that mercy, I take it, is the religious promise of the music. Unwilling to remain in the human, Spufford wants to raise it to a higher power, to cut the Gordian knot of human tragedy, and turn it into comedy after all. And in this, he simply betrays the deep humanity expressed in and through Mozart’s painfully plaintive yearning.
Now, the purpose of using the adagio as a foil is because he wants us to think that this is what religion is like. The adagio is perfectly consistent, he says, with a non-naturalistic account of the universe. (Well, yes, one wants to say: of course it is!) It is a structure of emotions. It says nothing at all about what we might or might not believe. And that can certainly be true about a piece of music, which comes to us without any conceptual structure at all — which is one of the reasons, no doubt, that Spufford and I are so at odds about the significance of the music. I don’t feel what he feels when listening to the adagio. I don’t feel that way at all. And what Spufford wants us to think is that religious beliefs are like the music. Here’s how he puts it:
If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.
What he seems unable to acknowledge — or is it that, for apologetic purposes he is simply unwilling to acknowledge – is that the beliefs are simply the secondary accompaniment of the feelings. The feelings, he says, are what is primary to the religious “believer”. Indeed, we might, with profit, it seems, speak of religious feelers instead of believers. What he doesn’t seem to see is that this, itself, is a rationalisation, an attempt to make it seem as though religious beliefs are only along for an emotional ride, and that it is the emotional ride that is important.
And here, sadly, Spufford simply spins off into the empyrean. Of course, he says, there are reasons why the adagio struck him in that particular way on that particular occasion, just after having such set-to with his wife. But still, he wants to go on to say something like this:
I think that Mozart, two centuries earlier, had succeeded in creating a beautiful and accurate report of an aspect of reality. I think that the reason reality is that way – that it is in some ultimate sense merciful as well as being a set of physical processes all running along on their own without hope of appeal, all the way up from quantum mechanics to the relative velocity of galaxies by way of “blundering, low and horridly cruel” biology (Darwin) – is that the universe is sustained by a continual and infinitely patient act of love. I think that love keeps it in being. I think that I don’t have to posit some corny interventionist prod from a meddling sky-fairy to account for my merciful ability to notice things a little better, when God is continually present everywhere anyway, undemonstratively underlying all cafés, all cassettes, all composers.
And this, I’m afraid, simply strikes me as a bit of special pleading. (And confused too. How do you go from quantum mechanics to the velocity of galaxies, by way of evolutionary biology?) How can he simply move on from the “blundering, low and horridly cruel” process of evolution, to the infinitely patient act of love? Love keeps it in being, he says. What? The blunderingly cruel processes by which life comes to be, the multiple tragedies that simply go on and on, for millions and millions of years? That patient act of love?! And what about that narrow, selfish perspective of “my merciful ability to notice things a little better, when God is continually present everywhere anyway, undemonstratively underlying all cafés, all cassettes, all composers.” And we could go on, all suffering, all pain, all desperation, all the myriad ways in which people get sick, have accidents, and die in misery. His merciful ability, notice? Not the interfering sky fairy? Because God is continually present everywhere anyway?
This kind of stuff just makes me angry. Angry that people’s understanding of religious faith is so mind-numbingly self-centred and narcissistic, as though gods are there simply as a promise of the “and yet, and yet.” Again, Spufford wants so much for us to see religion as just one of the perfectly normal things that human beings do:
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.
Sure we do: we dream, hope, wonder, sorrow, rage, grieve, delight …. and so through all the permutations and range of human emotions. But so what? Religion is not “just one form of imagining, absolutely functional, absolutely human-normal.” Certainly, it is human-normal in the sense that religion is widely, almost universally practiced. But it isn’t about emotion. If it is about emotion, how come the Archbishop of Canterbury has been so earnest in opposing gay marriage (not to speak of some of the more rebarbative Roman Catholic cardinals)? Why did he make his speech to the House of Lords condemning, in the most outrageously simplistic terms, the issue of assisted dying? Why has the Anglican Communion almost come unstuck over the acceptance of gays in some provinces, and their victimisation in others? Why do religion and religious believers continuously interfere in women’s reproductive decisions? These things are not emotions; they are not just forms of imagining. They are based on beliefs that lie at the core of the practices that Spufford indulges in week after week, trying to say the words of the creed as though he really believes it all. And out of it comes a willingness to intrude into other people’s lives in ways that “just another form of imagining” simply cannot underwrite. And not only a willingness to intrude, but an insistent demand that they be heeded, and that laws and public policy decisions be made on the strength of these intrusions. If religious belief is just a structure of emotions, as Spufford so fatuously says, on what possible basis can these intrusions be justly made? That is the measure of Spufford’s catastrophic failure to deal with the real centre of religion, the centre that deals with belief and its implications.
I add here a footnote to the above. It is not only Christianity that insists on intruding into the private lives of individuals. All religions do this. Catholic Christianity is perhaps one of the worst offenders, but I would argue that Islam is, if anything, much worse, for Islam does not only insist on its laws being made normative for human interactions wherever Muslims may be found. It goes even further, and dangerously further, in my view. It thinks that no one has a right to criticise or to offend against a people whose threshold for offence is troublingly low. If we think that Christianity is bad in its tendency to seek the instantiation in law of Christian priorities, Islam is much much worse. So, while this post is indeed a criticism of Spufford’s almost laughable defence of faith, it would be unfortunate it were to make it seem as though some other religion might handle these things with more kindness. This is not the way that religion functions. Where it has power, it will use it to enforce its peculiar ways of looking at the world and human relationships, and enforce it with the power of the state, wherever that power includes influence over or control of the levers of political and juridical power. Make no mistake, religion is not, as Spufford says, simply human-normal. It is abnormal, precisely because it has beliefs, and continues to believe, in entities for which there is not a shred of evidence, and because it actually thinks those entities speak to those who believe, and tell them how they — and for the safety of believers, others — must behave, in order for believers to be saved. It’s time we put a stop to the Spufford type of special pleading, because far more is at stake here than just normal human emotions. The wars of religion — which are not only in some dim, dark historical past, but are ongoing right now — are, after all, not just about emotions.