This Whole Article, I Just Can’t Even

I have to ask: does the Guardian never get sick of itself? Since the mid 2000s it has published countless attacks on atheist and secular thinking, repeating the same old arguments to the point of inanity. I used to argue against these on my blog but gave up a few years ago, recognising it as an exercise in futility. However, I wanted to highlight this latest piece by Francis Spufford, because as well as being repetitive and unoriginal, it is just so poorly written. It is a paceless and incoherent dirge of clunky run-on sentences, in a tone of prancing sarcasm and hysterical self-pity. Are you ready? We’re going in:

My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We’re weird because we go to church.

This means as she gets older there’ll be voices telling her what it means, getting louder and louder until by the time she’s a teenager they’ll be shouting right in her ear. It means that we believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we’re too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds. That we build absurdly complex intellectual structures on the marshmallow foundations of a fantasy. That we’re savagely judgmental. That we’d free murderers to kill again. That we’re infantile and can’t do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we teach people to hate their own natural selves. That we want people to be afraid. That we want people to be ashamed. That we have an imaginary friend, that we believe in a sky pixie; that we prostrate ourseves before a god who has the reality-status of Santa Claus. That we prefer scripture to novels, preaching to storytelling, certainty to doubt, faith to reason, censorship to debate, silence to eloquence, death to life.

For most people who aren’t New Atheists, or old atheists, and have no passion invested in the subject, either negative or positive, believers aren’t weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable; because, when there’s no necessity for it that anyone sensible can see, we’ve committed ourselves to a set of awkward and absurd attitudes that obtrude, that stick out against the background of modern life, and not in some important or respectworthy or principled way, either. Believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity play into your earhole, apparently not noticing that childhood is over. And as well as being childish, and abject, and solemn, and awkward, we voluntarily associate ourselves with an old-fashioned, mildewed orthodoxy, an Authority with all its authority gone. Nothing is so sad – sad from the style point of view – as the mainstream taste of the day before yesterday.

What goes on inside believers is mysterious. So far as it can be guessed at it appears to be a kind of anxious pretending, a kind of continual, nervous resistance to reality. We don’t seem to get it that the magic in Harry Potter, the rings and swords and elves in fantasy novels, the power-ups in video games, the ghouls and ghosts of Halloween, are all, like, just for fun. We try to take them seriously; or rather, we take our own particular subsection of them seriously. We commit the bizarre category error of claiming that our goblins, ghouls, Flying Spaghetti Monsters are really there, off the page and away from the CGI rendering programs. Star Trek fans and vampire wanabes have nothing on us. We actually get down and worship. We get down on our actual knees, bowing and scraping in front of the empty space where we insist our Spaghetti Monster can be found. No wonder that we work so hard to fend off common sense. Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – la la la, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the sound of the real world.

This is a melodramatic caricature. Worse, it’s dated. The only example Spufford gives of atheist oppression is the London atheist bus campaign, way back in 2008. It was a light-hearted crowdsourced campaign – and set up in response to existing fundamentalist propaganda on bus adverts, although Spufford doesn’t mention that. It was never going to change the world, but in this harmless little campaign Spufford sees something much more sinister.

Take the well-known slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday disbelief. The atheist bus says: ‘There’s probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with recognisable human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because, really, how would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. To say that life is to be enjoyed (just enjoyed) is like saying that mountains should only have summits, or that all colours should be purple, or that all plays should be by Shakespeare. This really is a bizarre category error.

But not necessarily an innocent one. Not necessarily a piece of fluffy pretending that does no harm. The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if you weren’t being ‘worried’ by us believers and our hellfire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? Well, in the first place, that it buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing. Given that human life isn’t and can’t be made up of enjoyment, it is in effect accepting a picture of human life in which those pieces of living where easy enjoyment is more likely become the only pieces that are visible. If you based your knowledge of the human species exclusively on adverts, you’d think that the normal condition of humanity was to be a good-looking single person between 20 and 35, with excellent muscle-definition and/or an excellent figure, and a large disposable income. And you’d think the same thing if you got your information exclusively from the atheist bus, with the minor difference, in this case, that the man from the Gold Blend couple has a tiny wrinkle of concern on his handsome forehead, caused by the troublesome thought of God’s possible existence: a wrinkle about to be removed by one magic application of Reason™.

There’s a bizarre category error here, certainly. Transport for London accepts advertising from more or less anyone. It has run adverts from the Alpha Course and other fundamentalist loons. One advert, from an outfit called ‘Jesus Said’, carried a link to a website warning nonbelievers that ‘You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell.’ There are limits. To his credit, Boris Johnson pulled an advert from Anglican bigots promoting the quack homophobic idea that homosexuality is a ‘disease’ that can be cured through ‘reparative therapy’. Promotions for the Islamic hate fest al-Quds day were also pulled. But adverts for Iranian propaganda arm Press TV are apparently okay.

My point is that, in a pluralist society, surely atheists should be able to use these facilities, if religious nuts can, and that it’s better to promote a positive message of carefree enjoyment, than incitements to hatred and fear. Spufford’s tired anti-consumerist objection is just silly here, but in the next para, it becomes problematic.

But suppose, as the atheist bus goes by, you are povertystricken, or desperate for a job, or a drug addict, or social services have just taken away your child. The bus tells you that there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life, and now the slogan is not just bitterly inappropriate in mood. What it means, if it’s true, is that anyone who isn’t enjoying themselves is entirely on their own. What the bus says is: there’s no help coming. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s any help coming, in one large and important sense of the term. I don’t believe anything is going to happen that will materially alter the position these people find themselves in. But let’s be clear about the emotional logic of the bus’s message. It amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ 1,500 years ago, and it’s still cruel.

This para is almost flattened by the weight of its assumptions. Not only does Spufford read so much into the atheist bus campaign that simply isn’t there. He denies the ability of working class Londoners to evaluate it critically. As Spufford must know, London’s poor face a great deal of challenges, including overcrowded and substandard accommodation and a failed job market caused by the disastrous austerity strategy. London bus advertising that might, or might not, make them feel unhappy has to come fair low down on the list. But Spufford doesn’t have to talk to poor people, or listen to them. This is the religious caricature of the dispossessed: simple folk, shuffling in sackcloths between cleaning jobs, carrying a prayer book and twirling rosary beads on the 5am tube. No atheists in foxholes, and none in council tower blocks.

It’s the overall defensive nature of the article that gets to me. Believers are oppressed all over the world. In the twenty first century they are oppressed mainly by other believers, and not so long ago by totalitarian atheist regimes. Let’s not have any delusions about the moral perfection of atheism. Atheists can kill. But who exactly is harassing Francis Spufford for his beliefs, or asking him to apologise for them? He criticises atheists who ‘contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do.’ But if it’s pathetic to worry about the established Church (which has land, and legislative influence, and a media platform, and frequently takes stupid and bigoted positions – if it’s not too militantly atheist of me to say so) what does it say about Francis Spufford who believes himself persecuted by a group of mid-2000s writers and scientists, one of whom is now dead?

From the anti-capitalist angle he takes, I’d guess Spufford would place himself on the political left. But there is an increasing convergence between his kind of pro-faith left arguments, and those on the conservative right. This week Michael Nazir-Ali, bishop of Rochester, told European judges that the ‘human rights agenda’ has become an ‘inhuman ideology’ that promotes an ‘increasingly aggressive secularism’. Nazir-Ali’s going to be the next Archbishop, and he’s going to lead a growing anti-liberal religious critique mobilised against secularism, multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the rule of law and personal autonomy. I’m not at all surprised to see the CiF left jump on that bandwagon. But do the defenders of the faith ever consider that it’s this shrieking defensiveness and melodrama that makes religion such an unappealing prospect to younger generations?

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4 Responses to “This Whole Article, I Just Can’t Even”

  1. Robin Carmody Says:

    All that, and Spufford even uses the phrase “bill of goods”, which always seems like another way of saying “I haven’t left the house since 1958”.

  2. Raunak Says:

    “It is a paceless and incoherent dirge of clunky run-on sentences, in a tone of prancing sarcasm and hysterical self-pity.”

    I totally agree from what I’ve read here. I’m amazed you could read that book. I couldn’t even complete the excerpts you’ve shown here!

    • maxdunbar Says:

      Oh I didn’t and probably couldn’t read the whole book, I am just quoting from the Guardian excerpt

      • Raunak Says:

        my bad! 🙂
        Secularism is often a hot topic of discussion among my friends, who consist of Hindus, Christians, Catholics and Muslims. There is one thing we all agree with and that is our rejection of secularism the way it is practiced in India. Secularism should not give every religion the freedom to do whatever it wants. Under the veil of secularism, mosques, churches and temples spring up anywhere and everywhere here. And if you question the inconvenience they cause to daily life, you are labelled communal!
        Prefer the model of secularism that tolerates all religions but also prohibits public display of one’s belief. And this includes Atheism,which I also consider to be a belief. “Leave your religion at home” should be the motto preached.

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