No one can write about religion now without having in mind the new mockery that accompanies the new atheism. The new atheism’s ‘smug emissaries’ – as the blurb of Francis Spufford’s engaging new book calls them, meaning above all Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – believe in spite of all evidence that eventually the religious will see sense. And yet with their magical belief in the truth of science – their taking for granted a consensus about the value of scientific evidence – and their unspoken assumption that virtually everyone who has ever lived has been out of touch with reality, the evangelical atheists have provoked some quite rational defences of religious faith. Given how much religious believers have achieved – all of human culture up to the end of the 19th century (and most since), including forms of scepticism about religion, as well as ways of evaluating faith and belief – it isn’t entirely surprising that the emissaries of the new atheism haven’t had it all their own way.
You can’t, as Swift remarked, reason a person out of something that they weren’t reasoned into. What Spufford and Roger Scruton want to explain – in their very different ways – is why they can’t and couldn’t be reasoned out of the Christianity that they believe in and live by. Spufford is preaching to the unconverted – though he’s more blokeishly genial than preachy, and writes, at times, with remarkable precision – about the ‘emotional’ truth of Christianity as opposed to its doctrinal authority. Scruton, on the other hand, is making a case, both historical and personal, for ‘our’ – that is, his – church. His book ‘is a personal record of what the Church of England has meant to me, and a tribute to its peaceful and creative presence in our national life’. (I would have thought it would be difficult to write even a ‘personal’ history of the Church of England as an entirely ‘peaceful presence’, but this is what Scruton sets out to do. Given one thing and another, one war and another, we must assume that ‘personal’ has a very personal meaning for him.)
To make all this persuasive, or at least appealing, both Spufford’s and Scruton’s titles, and especially their subtitles, have to do a lot of work. Spufford’s Unapologetic acknowledges that there might be something to apologise for, and that some defiance might be required for the task ahead; and the slightly coy subtitle – on the spine and the cover but not on the title page – sets the terms. Despite everything, i.e. the scientific evidence, the all too familiar arguments against religion in general and Christianity in particular (a dogmatic slave religion for sex-hating virtuous bullies), there is something Spufford calls ‘emotional sense’, which Christianity makes and reason can’t touch. It feels right but, like a joke, it can’t be argued about; you get it or you don’t. (Clearly, these aren’t the glory days of religion.) He wrote his book, he tells us, ‘to try to extricate … from the misleading ruins of half-memory what Christianity feels like from the inside’. As he knows (and we will have to come back to this because he keeps coming back to it), for some people talking about emotions, and what things feel like, is as real as it gets, while for others it just raises questions where there seem to be no answers.
Scruton, on the other hand, believes he has the answers. He talks about the 1662 Prayer Book in his local Anglican church preserving ‘an established habit of solemnisation, which English people of my generation encountered in church and chapel, in school and college, in Scouts and Guides, indeed in every place or gathering where the voice of authority arose – as it arose then naturally – among ordinary people inoffensively perpetuating their national sentiment.’ But this doesn’t move the argument along. The idea of ‘the’ voice of authority, and of its arising ‘naturally’, seems either determinedly naive or wilfully provocative; it isn’t some kind of joke, at least not to Scruton, because this is how it feels to him. The problem with the ‘how things feel’ argument is whether, and in what way, it can be questioned; what kinds of conversation are encouraged, or even allowed. Scruton seems to want two responses: immediate assent on the part of the reader who is either a member of ‘our church’ or longs to be one, and outrage from the rest of us. He is expecting, and therefore inviting, an argument.
There has always been a distinction in writings about religion between those who struggle, and those who struggle while secretly believing the struggle is over. Scruton is suave and fluent, safe in his church, Spufford is on edge. Scruton wants to show the people who are not members of his church what they are missing. For Spufford real comfort is far more elusive. Christianity kicks in for him at the moment when ‘we say … I don’t think I can stand this anymore. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning.’ Because Scruton is more interested in ‘belonging’, in ‘community’ (unruffled assurance rather than desperation is his style), he prefers to talk about ‘modern societies’ and what’s wrong with them.
There are many things wrong with modern societies, but nothing more wrong, it seems to me, than the loss of the habit of repentance. All that is most gross and offensive in the world in which we live comes from the inability of people to live in judgment, to accept the need for remorse and atonement, and to accept that, in begging forgiveness, they must also offer it.
Ritualistic conformity is what’s wanted – Scruton is nothing if not prescriptive – but we are given no clues about how we might come to accept this need for remorse and atonement, or about how exactly forgiveness works. And he is unapologetic about the militancy of the versions of forgiveness he promotes; for him ‘liturgical language’ means ‘words that do not merely bear repetition but that are made to be repeated, like the song of some territorial bird’. He finds this language in ‘so much that is memorable in our recent literature’. D.H. Lawrence, Hardy and Eliot are cited as examples of ‘recent’ literature, reminding us that Scruton’s sense of time too is personal.
For all that it’s a ‘personal’ history, Scruton’s Christianity deals in the larger abstractions, and repeated pieties: ‘Religion, Faith and Church’, ‘A National Church’, ‘Draw Near with Faith’, and ‘For Ever and Ever Amen’ are among his chapter titles. I don’t know whether we should be surprised or not to find, tucked away in the notes at the back, the question of whether homosexuality is as sinful as non-marital sex. ‘The troubling question,’ Scruton writes, though this is not the troubling question here for all of us, ‘concerns not the act but the desire: is it [i.e. homosexuality] like incestuous desire, a transgression of sacred boundaries? Or is it simply a natural temptation, to be resisted as best we can?’ If these are the questions of ‘quiet, gentle, unassuming faith’, we may wonder what is in store for us from the less gentle versions of Christianity. Perhaps Scruton is warning us of something.
In Spufford’s version, Christianity, with its insistence on what people are feeling, comes close to sounding like a version of the more secular psychotherapies. Or perhaps it more simply reveals how the psychotherapies just carried on from where the Judeo-Christian religions left off. So Spufford proselytises by example and illustration and not, as Scruton does, by polemical and often spurious history. Although Scruton can also be evocative in a nostalgic way, Spufford wants us to understand just how bad it really is (i.e. just how bad we can really be). You can’t, by definition, be reasoned into what he calls ‘emotional sense’, but experiences can be described which you might recognise and which Spufford describes often very effectively. Broadly speaking, Christianity in his version is the best way to address what he calls ‘the human propensity to fuck things up’: ‘not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy’, but ‘our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own wellbeing and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.
It isn’t news that we spoil the things and people we value, largely because we value them, but Spufford wants us to believe – he is writing, as he knows, in a long tradition – that the formative experiences are ones of catastrophic disillusionment with ourselves. The moments in our lives when we can’t get round the fact that we are not as nice as we thought we were, or even not nice at all. Christianity makes surprising sense of that experience, for Spufford, partly because it takes the experience for granted. It doesn’t provide a naturalistic explanation but goes back to the notion of original sin, which, mercifully, sets limits to our perfectibility and by the same token, though less mercifully, curtails our aspirations. This is one of the many reasons Spufford values it: it enables us to keep our head in the perpetual crisis in which we live, and, even better, it can still play its traditional role of releasing us from our contemporary idols. Instead of the false hope provided by ‘the loveless calculator that is homo economicus’, Christianity provides the real hope, ‘that counts upon, is kindly raised upon, the mess you actually are’. The perpetual discrediting of Christianity – Spufford is at his most winning when he is retailing the case against Christianity – has worked for Spufford because it works to contemporary Christianity’s advantage. Christianity now, he says, ‘is no one’s vehicle for ambition’: it replaces ambition with love, even though the love he describes sometimes seems exorbitant in its ambition. Self-hatred is always the temptation – for Spufford especially – and other people are there to help us ward it off. ‘The only comfort that can do anything – and probably the most it can do is help you to endure, or if you cannot endure, to fail and fold without wholly hating yourself – is the comfort of feeling yourself loved.’ What people are willing to do to make themselves loveable, and whether it is better to love than to be loved, isn’t what matters to Spufford because he has so much to apologise for, despite the fact that apologising has its limits, not the least of which is that it is always, by definition, too late.
Even though Unapologetic is neither confessional nor mawkish, we get the sense that Spufford has been through something: infidelity and betrayal are often his examples of fucking up. Christianity was something he ‘came back to, freely, as an adult, after twenty-odd years of atheism’ not because it was a self-cure, or a consolation, or even a reassurance, but because for him it ‘corresponds with emotional reality’. And the emotional reality he keeps referring to, and obliges us to think about, is what it feels like to harm other people and oneself. Because ‘emotional’ is a word people get very emotional about, and because it is such a key word here, we have to consider the kind of assent we give to the phrase ‘emotional reality’. What is it getting away with?
Spufford’s Christianity is an acknowledgment – an explanation and a justification – of a predicament. Scruton’s Christianity is more insistently about ‘membership’:
We should never underestimate the human need for membership. We are social beings who are incomplete when we are unable to identify the community that is ours. We long for home and homecoming; our images of peace are also images of settlement … Religious experience is a specific way of encountering and solving the problem of membership, and one that engages another and deeper aspect of the human psyche, which is the recognition of the sacred and the associated fear of profanation.
Like Spufford, he believes his religion is the best one – why otherwise would he believe in it? But then what about his title: is his church, even more than other churches, defined by the people it excludes (the profane)? Which church could be ‘our’ church when some of ‘us’ aren’t even Christians? Scruton hopes his book ‘will be read with interest not only by Anglicans, but also by Christians of other denominations, as well as by non-Christians and non-believers.For it seems to me that our country is greatly misunderstood by the many influential people who fail to see that our national church remains part of its identity, and the key to its past.’ But are we all being included to be shown which of us don’t really belong? If there is a great misunderstanding does that mean that a great understanding is available somewhere else, one that some people believe they have? If something is the essential key to a past, it seems disingenuous to call it merely a part of the identity being described. The phrase ‘many influential people’, without naming names, might sound a little scary to those of us who are not Anglicans, and, indeed, to those who are.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.