Friday, 19 October 2012

The Plastic People of the Universe

I've read a couple of Francis Spufford's books and I've enjoyed them almost without reservation. He's a formidably clever guy who can be totally absorbing, as only a writer who both cares about his subject matter and knows his subject inside out can. He doesn't need an endorsement from me, but I don't think you'll regret diving in if you haven't done so already.

Spufford has plunged in to the culture wars between nonbelievers and believers. Surprisingly, to me at least, his new book, Unapologetic, is a counterblast to the usual, 'aggressive'* secularist suspects, from a Christian point of view. I'm sure his book will be a lot more nuanced, subtle and intelligent than a lot of the incredibly unconvincing arguments in favour of religion that I've come across (I recently tuned into a forty minute discussion about the Ontological Argument for the existence of God, which only convinced me that you can philosophically prove practically anything, however unlikely, provided you define your words and concepts in a sufficiently idiosyncratic way).

So, it's probably worth a read - if you want to test your beliefs, you need to engage with the sharpest, most intelligent counter-arguments, not the lamest ones (unfortunately, it tends to be the lamest ones that are repeated most often - I guess that the most widespread versions of any belief tend to be the most simplified, therefore most easily-reproduced, ones).

So far, I've only read Spufford's piece in the Guardian. He's very good on the emotional aspect of religion, the sense of community, the ritual, the fact that it creates spaces to experience the specialness, the profundity of the parts of our lives that empirical observation, rational self-interest, economics and so on can't reach:
But then, like every human being, I am not in the habit of entertaining only those emotions I can prove. I'd be an unrecognisable oddity if I did.
No problem with that. Emotions are an intrinsic part of the way we're made - they're necessary, they're what motivates us. We need reason, too, but if an emotionless being like Star Trek's Mr. Spock existed in real life, he'd probably be almost catatonic, lacking the motivation to get out of bed and apply his vast analytical intellect to anything at all.

I do have a bit of a problem with some of the straw men Spufford knocks down, though. After lamenting the way that the New Atheists allegedly caracature all believers as stupid, irrational, infantile, guilt-ridden, judgemental and potentially violent, he goes on to lay into the Atheist Bus slogan 'There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life' as evidence that vocal unbelievers are irredeemably shallow, consumerist and bleak:
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™.

These plastic beings don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping. 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.
In other words, you, Mr. smug, smarty pants Dawkins may not have a problem doing away with the consolations of religion from the pampered comfort of your ivory tower in Oxford, but what about all the millions of people living lives of squalor and hardship on a dollar a day, or the parents burying their only child, the refugees, all world's poor lost, lonely and oppressed, with only the emotional consolation of faith to hold on to? It's a point worth unpicking.

I think we need to separate two points here. First, the reality or otherwise of religion's revealed truths. As Spufford himself says:
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.
So although he doesn't advertise it on the side of a bus, Spufford's happy to assert in debate that the certainties of faith are, at best, uncertain. On that point, I don't think we're that far apart. As far as I'm concerned religions are founded on specific claims about a spiritual realm that are unproven. You might choose to accept these claims or reject them. Personally, I find them unlikely. I'm quite prepared to concede that there might be more to life than science and rational thought can currently conceive of, but I do find it unlikely that these deeper truths about the nature of reality have already been accessed and understood by spiritual leaders with a mystical hot line to some divine essence with a suspiciously human nature.

It is horribly bleak to contemplate some aspects of life. But I just can't get my head round point two - life's a bitch, therefore you must convince yourself of the existence of something which would make it feel better. It's as if the world was some giant, insane hospital where the only available treatments are placebos and the only way to prevent pain and suffering is to shut anybody up who might wander in and say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing but sugar in these pills.'

In a way, I do see the world as a giant, insane hospital. It's scandalously under-resourced and the treatments are hit and miss - they range from the pretty reliable to the almost useless, they're unevenly allocated by over-stretched doctors who can't possibly treat everyone, although many do their best and even manage to improve patent's chances in some areas. Placebos might certainly help a lot of patients suffering in the hospital (the placebo effect is a real thing, it does work), but every new real treatment, with actual active ingredients would help more.

Levels of religious affiliation tend to be higher in poor countries and anybody who's visited a poor country can see how a focus on some idea of deeper reality than the here and now might be almost inescapably necessary to keep sane when insecurity, miserable poverty, disease, premature death, unfairness and oppression are the reality of your world. In richer, more stable countries, levels of religious affiliation are lower. There are still intractable human tragedies that require emotional solace, but, with basic needs met, people are relieved from the level of day to day desperation that requires the constant dose of spiritual pain killers.

I've never really liked John Lennon's "Imagine" very much. Some people call it an atheist anthem - I don't know whether it was ever intended to be any such thing and I've never bothered to find out, but it annoys me from line one. 'Imagine there's no heaven'? Then, reassuring people that 'it's easy if you try' as if imagining no heaven required mastering some specific mental trick. For me, the whole idea of heaven requires an effort of the imagination and a conscious, wilful suspension of disbelief.

Imagining no heaven (or rather not having to put much imaginative effort into accepting the reality of a world where I can find no compelling reason to believe in a spiritual reality as described by religions)** doesn't always put me in a particularly great place. I don't for example, tend to wake up thinking 'there's probably no God - whoopee, that means more time to go shopping!' It doesn't mean that I never have difficult or troubling emotions or that I never struggle to find meaning in a life that's occasionally not easy for me and which I know is many times harder for millions of others in less fortunate places. But it's just the way the world seems to be, from where I'm standing and I try to make sense of it as best I can. Quite a lot of the time it doesn't make sense, and I'm left with 'I don't know.' But 'I don't know' feels better, more real and more honest than, 'I'll try to believe in this although it doesn't seem to be real or true, because if it was real and true then the world would be a better place.'

'There's probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life' Well, 'stop worrying' is a pretty good goal to set yourself, although it would be more realistic to say 'worry less.' Most of us realise in retrospect that most of the time we've spent worrying was time wasted, so if we can train ourselves to worry less, or re-frame worrying, that would be A Good Thing (and I speak as a habitual worrier). As for 'enjoy your life', that might involve doing something mind-numbing for long enough to earn the cash to spend your leisure time vacuously drifting around shopping centres looking for shiny things to buy. Or it might involve enjoying learning something new, a significant achievement, friendship, love, wonder, beauty, even reading one of Mr Spufford's excellent books. Things that aren't necessarily shallow and don't necessarily involve being wilfully blind to how life can also be baffling, difficult and full of pain.

I think the description of unapologetic nonbelievers as incomplete, plastic beings who don't need anything that they can't get by going shopping does many of us a great disservice.*** On the subject of shopping, you might be interested to learn that some of us even approve of the "Keep Sunday Special" campaign. You might not see us in church, but there's little that we, as fully rounded, non-plastic human beings can find to disagree with in the proposition that there's more to life than the relentless, mechanical cycle of getting and spending, or as the campaign's mission statement puts it:
We believe in having time for family, friends and community. We believe in time to rest and enjoy ourselves. We believe in working hard and living life to the full. 
 We just don't like being told what to believe, that's all.

*I'm unapologetic about the quotation marks - I really don't think these people, rude and disrespectful as they may appear to some, have ever done anything as aggressive as requiring other people to unquestioningly assent to their particular set of beliefs  without being prepared to accept that those beliefs require justification, or might be in any way arguable or provisional.

**Sometimes, even the side of a bus isn't big enough to write a nuanced belief on.

*** I say 'many of us', advisedly. Non-belief is just a judgement call about what's probably true. Just because somebody doubts the truths preached by clerics, doesn't mean that I'd want to endorse everything else they've said. It'd take more than their godlessness to make me see very much good in Nick Clegg or Ayn Rand, for example.