Francis Spufford has heard all the arguments against Christianity. He understands the objections of Dawkins and Hitchens and he realises it's a guess as to whether there's a God or not. But here he offers a defence of his faith
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.
But hey, that's not the bad news. Those are the objections of people who care enough aboutreligion to object to it. Or to rent a set of recreational objections from Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. As accusations, they may be a hodge-podge, but at least they assume there's a thing called religion which looms with enough definition and significance to be detested. In fact there's something truly devoted about the way that Dawkinsites manage to extract a stimulating hobby from the thought of other people's belief. Some of them even contrive to feel oppressed by the Church of England, which is not easy to do. It must take a deft delicacy at operating on a tiny scale, like fitting a whole model railway layout into an attaché case.
No: the really painful message our daughter will receive is that we're embarrassing. 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.
The funny thing is that, to me, it's belief that involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable. Belief demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires continual, fluffy pretending – pretending that might as well be systematic, it's so thoroughly incentivised by our culture. 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™.
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. 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.
A consolation you could believe in would be one that wasn't in danger of popping like a soap bubble on contact with the ordinary truths about us. A consolation you could trust would be one that acknowledged the difficult stuff rather than being in flight from it, and then found you grounds for hope in spite of it, or even because of it, with your fingers firmly out of your ears, and all the sounds of the complicated world rushing in, undenied.