Theo Hobson has just read Francis Spufford’s new book, Unapologetic, and he has come away convinced that atheists simply don’t understand how mind-scaldingly horrible life really is, and that it is mainly through trauma that one is led to faith. “Christianity,” he says, “must admit the bad news before it can spread the good.” That’s the title of the piece, and it’s wrong. Well, mostly wrong. It’s true that a lot of people do come to religious faith through the experience of desolation, but is this really a good place to start?
Hobson begins by saying, essentially, that faith is an odd decision, so the experience that brings you to faith must be, in some sense, also odd. What is it, he asks, that
motivates one to take this deeply dubious, rationally unjustifiable, tradition seriously?
And this is, he says, a hard problem for the Christian apologist. But doesn’t this already discredit religious belief? After all, we know that our cognitive systems are often systematically misleading. We can convince ourselves, for instance, that we remember something, when we don’t, and we can go on “remembering” like this for the rest of our lives, but this doesn’t give us a good reason to believe it. And if, as Hobson says, people come to faith when they are emotionally vulnerable –
people tend to come to faith [he writes] through feeling unhappy, dramatically, traumatically unhappy, with themselves, with the world
– doesn’t this mean that they are adopting a way out that is likely to be cognitively unreliable, however emotionally consoling?
Spufford, he says, “was shunted out of his atheist assumptions by a shocked realisation of his own fallibility,” possibly by an act of infidelity. (I simply interject here that I have never had any doubts about my fallibility!) But this realisation was seismic for Spufford, and led him on from this one case of immoral behaviour — which he would henceforth regard as “sinful” — to a sense of personal crisis:
It is not something one shrugs at and recovers from: it is traumatic, horrific, to find that one gravitates towards immoral behaviour, or, to put it more bluntly, to evil.
I understand the feeling, but I wonder at the reason for intensifying the sense of the wrong that one has done, to denominate it henceforth, not as understandably human, but as “evil”, wrong in some transcendent sense. In order to achieve that sort of intensity, one has already to have given to the act a more than human significance; one falls back, at this point, on old, forgotten warnings about the depth of the evil that lies in the heart of man. It’s really a fourfold movement. There is the sense of regret, the sense that one has let oneself down; then there is the sense of betrayal, of oneself, and of the person wronged by one’s actions; then there is the need to escape from the embarrassment, the personal failure involved; and then, finally, the only way to put things in order seems to be to raise the intensity of the wrong to the point of transcendence, so that not only does wrong, but one “sins”, offending thereby a transcendent law that is absolute, so that one’s wrong becomes “evil”, an offence that can only be resolved by a transcendent being. Then only can we begin to forgive ourselves.
The interesting thing is that, by raising the ante, so to speak, one has put oneself into a better bargaining position with the person whom we have wronged. (Of course, in Christian theology, the wronged party is always God, but we will leave this aside here.) We can be seen, not only to be taking the wrong with the utmost seriousness, but to have put the wrong into a context where it is permitted to reorder our entire moral awareness, or at least to appear to do that. A secondary effect of this is that we cannot lose. Even if the person harmed should simply shun us, and refuse to take our reformation seriously, we have already put on the mantle of righteousness, which provides a kind of moral impregnability.
I am intimately acquainted with the experience, with the almost suffocating sense of having tilted the moral axis of the universe, and the emotional confusion that attends it. The need to set things straight is almost overpowering, the confusion sometimes impenetrable. Trapped in an unhappy marriage I reached out to someone whom I had grown to love, and who loved me in return. My whole life stood in the balance, and it took almost eight months to steady the scale. But there was one thing that I could not do, and that is to call what I had done evil, for I had known such joy, such freedom, such a wonder at the beauty of life, that nothing could prevail upon me to give it its Christian name. And while, for a time, I vacillated, sometimes almost overcome by a sense that time itself was out of joint, I could not simply confess, repent, and carry on with life as though nothing had happened. But it was then, I now think, that I took my first step away from faith; because faith is unforgiving: it is either total, or it is not.
It’s true, just as Hobson says, unhappiness had led me to faith, a kind of faith that held on to certainties for dear life, lest my world should come unstuck. As a member of a conservative Anglo-Catholic group in the Diocese of Nova Scotia, in the Anglican Church of Canada, I opposed everything that was new, from women priests to new liturgies, anything that threatened my hold on the very narrow certainties of a petrified dogmatism. I wrote pamphlets for the group, spoke at conferences, at one of which Graham Leonard, onetime Bishop of London who later became a Roman Catholic priest, and was made a monsignor by Pope Wojtyła (JP II), the most senior English cleric to have “poped” since the Reformation, spoke earnestly about the growing apostacy of Anglicanism. I took this picture of Graham Leonard playing a recorder when he came to speak at our conference. Interestingly, it was at one of these conferences that, in response to a lecture by the American Episcopal bishop, Christopher FitzSimons Allison, that I began to put some distance between myself and the Anglo-Catholicism with which I had become so strongly identified. Indeed, someone at the conference, after I had spoken, said, earnestly, “Well, if that is what you believe, brother, we’re all praying for you!” It was obvious that my acceptance by the group would be short-lived, and it was. That was the last theological conference sponsored by the group that I attended.
I mention these personal experiences because they are relevant, I think, to what Hobson and Spufford are saying about the reasons for faith. Yes, life is very often a miserable affair, and sometimes, I think, nonbelievers seem not to be sufficiently aware of the barely repressed desperation of so many lives. Was it not Thoreau who said that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”? To escape that desperation, dreams are useful; they play a part; and religion caters to the need to think that there is more to life than just a never-ending boring routine, and then death. The strange thing, though, is that one can believe, and know at the same time that the belief is a lie. One can take part in religious liturgy, and yet not believe a word of the creeds and other formularies that express the doctrines of the faith. “[T]he trick,” as John Schumaker says in his book Wings of Illusion, “is how to know and not know, to see and not see, to believe and not believe at the same time.” (56)
So, when Hobson speaks about “this deeply dubious, rationally unjustifiable, tradition,” he perhaps speaks more truly than he knew. If this is a problem for the defender of Christianity, and honesty requires that we say that it is not intellectual conviction that leads one to religious faith, but unhappiness and existential crisis, and a sense that we have a tendency to “fuck things up” (which is apparently Spufford’s substitute expression for what Christians mean by the word ‘sin’), then does not a problem remain, after all? During the whole of Elizabeth’s sickness — which is the one most devastating thing that has happened in my life — and through her death in Switzerland, and through so much of the distress that I have experienced as a result of losing the one person who had made sense of life for me, there is not one occasion when I could have said that religion provided any consolation. Indeed, now my whole being revolts at the thought of even entering a church. In her journal Elizabeth wrote:
I feel so badly for Eric. I have things so much easier than he does. My struggle with MS will be over in the relatively near future, his will last for the rest of his life.
And that is true — at least the part about ”the rest of his life”, though she did not have it easier by any measure – yet it has never occurred to me during the years since her death, still often desolate with a grief that clings to me like a shroud, that religious faith could be a reasonable resolution of the distress that has taken the place of the joy that I felt when she was here. To read Elizabeth’s journal, and to realise how often she felt that the pain and loss was simply too great to be borne any longer, to have been a witness to that cruelty, is simply overwhelming. The mind simply jibs at very thought that the universe could be governed by a loving, let alone an intelligent power, and it is hard to credit people who do.
In her journal for 10th February 2004, Elizabeth wrote:
As we were getting ready for bed, I told Eric that I had pretty much flushed Christianity down the toilet; it makes no sense to me, and is positively evil as far as I am concerned. Luckily, I went immediately into the bathroom after this comment because the devastating truth of that remark made me dissolve into tears. The church brought us together, and now that things have gone so completely horrible for us, it is not a comfort. It made me very sad to actually tell him that I had let it go long ago.
I quote this because it is important to see that the response that Hobson and Spufford think is at the centre of religious believing is not necessarily, nor even plausibly, the most reasonable response either to the human tendency to cause harm (what Christians call ‘sin’), or to the many evils that may befall us in our lives. Indeed, while I can see that intensifying our sense of moral guilt can be a good strategy for convincing others of the sincerity of our appeal for forgiveness, responding to suffering by taking refuge in the imagined love and compassion of a god seems idiotic. When the Psalmist writes (Psalm 91.7):
7 A thousand may fall at your side
And ten thousand at your right hand,
But it shall not approach you,
he is making the same kind of foolish statement so often made when someone survives an accident in which others are killed. “Now I know there is a God,” they say, or: “He must have been saved for a special purpose.” As though there is a god who, though permitting the mountainous suffering that occurs everyday, selectively and miraculously spares a few.
Life may be, as Hobson says, for most people, “intolerably depressing, hopeless, [and] meaningless.” We might even think, as Hobson does, that “the meaninglessness of modern secular life really is intolerable,” though I see no reason to think that modern secular life is worse than the life of a serf on a medieval estate, or the life of one of the industrial poor of 19th century England, or the life of someone struggling against the wilderness to eke out a bare existence on the American or Canadian frontiers, however religiously devout people were then. It may be true, as Hobson says, that many modern people experience something near despair, sensing “that there is no possibility of normal stable happiness.” I’m not convinced that life was ever much different, nor am I convinced that there is any reason for people who experience this “to see the appeal of faith, in a way that a more contented person is not.” I am reminded that, as her life turned towards death, Elizabeth was able to write in her journal:
I am in complete awe of life. It is such an amazingly precious thing.
Despair she felt, a sense that she was being cheated out of life, yet there was nothing that could lead her to abandon reason and attach herself, whatever the comfort, to something in which there was more reason to disbelieve than to believe.
But that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t traumatised by life. Hobson says:
And here is the crucial, deeply problematic point: Christians are logically committed to saying that atheists and agnostics are too contented. They ought to be more traumatised by life.
But I want to protest: I am traumatised by life! And that is a reason not to believe. I do not ignore the massive suffering that surrounds me every day. I may not be able to do much about it, but it troubles me. And that is a reason not to believe. Hobson goes on to say that atheists
certainly ought to be traumatised by the sheer nihilism of secular modernity. They ought to suffer deep psychological crises, in which they learn of their need for God.
But this is nonsense. In what way is secular modernity more nihilistic than chanting, raging crowds of Muslims, so crushed by the emptiness of their lives that a stupid video is enough to set them off into parosysms of fury? In what way is it more nihilistic that Roman Catholic bishops cursing the light and consigning women to marginal existence as breeding animals? In what way is it more nihilistic than the religious warfare that convulsed Europe for nearly a century? And why should any of these things prompt in us a sense of a need for God?
Which reminds me of something else that Elizabeth wrote in her journal.
I have found myself wishing for something very strange; it would be so comforting to think that heaven did actually exist. I find that it would be nice to think that in some strange realm, Eric and I could be reunited. We have only been together for such a short time; we deserve more. (Thankfully, these thoughts are very brief. The thought of all the other nasty trappings that go along with the ‘heaven’ concept positively repulse me. God is dead.)
The “nasty trappings” she writes about — for we spoke about this — lay in the thought that, if there were a heaven, a place where we could be reunited, all the suffering she was now enduring would have to have a meaning and a purpose, and she found that thought simply repulsive, that some being should actually have planned and purposed her suffering, the pain and the misery and the foreshortened future that she faced every day. Her experience was, and mine is, that not only have we no need for God, but that the thought of a god is directly contrary to our experience. Perhaps we had just lost the trick of “how to know and not know, to see and not see, to believe and not believe at the same time” to which Schumaker refers. Hobson thinks that misery should make us experience a need for God, but in my life misery is what convinces me that it makes no sense to believe that there is one.