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Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense

Francis Spufford

Amazingly defensive book which shows just how much religion has been side-lined in last few decades. Even the subtitle is illuminating - Christianity makes emotional sense (but the obvious corollary that it doesn't make rational sense!)

Starts with a laundry list of why author's kids will find their parents' religious beliefs weird and embarrassing. The list manages to mix up serious reasons for this, with straw men to try and reduce the sting.

Here's some of the serious negatives he lists:

We believe in a load of bronze-age absurdities
We promise the oppressed pie-in-the-sky when they die
We're too stupid to understand the irrationality of our creeds
We build absurdly complex intellectual structures on the marshmallow foundations of of a fantasy
We think everyone who disagrees with us is going to hell for eternity
We're infantile and can't do without our illusionary daddy in the sky
We brainwash young children
We oppose gay rights, individual moral autonomy, women's right to choose, stem cell research
We think transsexuals are yucky but we think it's ok for middle-aged men to wear purple dresses
We cover up child abuse because car more about power than justice
We've provided religious cover-stories for racism, wars, slavery and exploitation
We think the world's going to end and we want to help it get there
We teach people to hate their natural selves
We prostrate ourselves before a God who has the reality status of Santa Claus
We prefer faith to reason

Most people would see these as serious objections to Christianity

And these are some of the sillier ones that few would offer

We are hair-shirted enemies of everyday pleasures
We advocate wishy-washy niceness
We'd free murderers to kill again

The next strawman is the atheist bus slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Spufford objects to the word 'enjoy' on grounds that we shouldn't be chasing happiness because we usually look for it in the wrong places. Whereas most people would interpret slogan as saying "Stop worrying about God judging everything you do and you'll reduce your cares and have a better chance of enjoying life."

Spufford then takes a crack at John Lennon's Imagine, accusing it of suggesting that if you just took away religion everyone would magically start living in peace. Whereas most would interpret the song as pointing out that religion is often an impediment to peace.

An amusing outline of what he means by 'sin'. Complains that society has trivialised the word. It now means "enjoyable naughtiness", and when Christians start wittering on about it, they get classified as killjoy religious fanatics.

But Spufford sees sin as meaning "the human tendency to fuck up .... (specifically)the human propensity to fuck things up." We break things, including promises, relationships, and our own and other people's well-being. At some stage, everyone recognizes this - when a marriage ends, a career stalls, a relationship with a child fades when you only see them on Saturdays, or when a supposedly recreational coke habit turns out to be exercising veto powers over every other hope and dream you once held.

And the biggest problem of all is that not only did we get to this fucked-up state of existence by making conscious choices, but we continue to make those same choices because they're the easier ones.

You pray in depths of pain and despair, and you get no answer. This probably happens to Christians far more often than to non-believers, because they go to the well more often. But afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, you realize that help did arrive, just not in the form you expected.

Spufford says he is aware of all the brain science that 'explains' how we interpret things that are just happening in our brains as spiritual stuff - sensory deprivation, deliberate breathing hyperventilating, mindful relaxation exercises, the effect of magnetic fields etc - but he argues that he can only experience a supernatural being through his bodily states. But then he agrees that you don't need 'God' to explain what you're feeling.

And he recognizes that the 'spiritual' feeling he has - the connection with a higher power - at these moments, is the same as that reported by buddhists or hindus or mystics, and so is likely to be just an artifact of the way all our brains are constructed.

Sweepingly writes off Dawkins and Russell by erecting a strawman of the type of God he believes in (which seems to be a very abstract "We think he is the universe's environment"), ignoring the fact that most Christians have a far more concrete idea of God, and want to impose those ideas on the rest of us.

Confronts issue of evil - how does God allow it to happen? "Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can't escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There he must be, benignly silent, as a child is raped at a truck stop."

Hannibal Lector collects church collapses. "Did you see the recent one in Sicily? The facade fell on 65 grandmothers at a special Mass.' Lector enjoys them because it suggests that if their is a being in charge of the Universe, it must be a being as cruel and entertained by suffering as he is. What's more, he says that it is faith that creates the black joke. Without faith there'd be nothing but indifferent material forces at work. If the universe is made, then it's very obviously badly made. (As David Attenborough pointed out when asked why he didn't credit God when contemplating all the beauty of nature - "Because I see the horrible suffering from parasites and predators as well").

One of more offensive passages where he tries to get past the role religion, and Christianity in particular, has played in both wars and institutional cruelty. Spufford tries to excuse it by claiming that wars would happen independently of religion because they're mostly about power. (And of course he manages to slip in the accusation that the Nazis ideas were based on Darwinian fitness, so there!) But he ignores or tries to glide over the multiple wars fought because the sides had different types of Christianity; the 'witches' killed in the name of religion, the torture of people who didn't subscribe to the exact same interpretation.

Lists off the Theodicies - the excuses - and demolishes them. 'We suffer because God is refining us' is wrong because it doesn't make us stronger, it makes us resentful and looking for someone to blame. 'It's part of God's plan', but can't justify the means to an end - does not compute with a God of love. 'It's because we have free will' doesn't take into account all the suffering that isn't caused by people - the tornadoes and tsunamis. 'Suffering doesn't matter because it will be all milk and honey in Heaven' - so God is like the doctor who knows you're in agony but stops to have a beer and a chat before he brings along the morphine to ease the pain? 'It's because of Adam and Eve's Original Sin' just pushes the problem back one step - why did God set up the situation in this way? And worse, it's trying to have it both ways - the nasty side of our free will is the reason for The Fall, and it's also caused by The Fall as well.

Spufford: "I've never heard of anyone being comforted by these secret truths, or even feeling that they have been substantially answered by these things."("God moves in mysterious ways" - when something bad happens, we don't have the foggiest idea why he should do this, but we're still 100% sure that we understand that he wants us in Heaven with him).

So how does he deal with the problem? He doesn't - it's too hard, just ignore it.

("God moves in mysterious ways" - when something bad happens, we don't have the foggiest idea why he should do this, but we're still 100% sure that we understand that he wants us in Heaven with him).("God moves in mysterious ways" - when something bad happens, we don't have the foggiest idea why he should do this, but we're still 100% sure that we understand that he wants us in Heaven with him).

Quotes a church newsletter which thanked God for fixing the vicar's car (via a very cheap quote from the local garage). But what does it say about God that he would do that, but wouldn't get out of bed to stop the Holocaust?("God moves in mysterious ways" - when something bad happens, we don't have the foggiest idea why he should do this, but we're still 100% sure that we understand that he wants us in Heaven with him).

Spufford assures us that most Christians have given up on Hell (except for "a tiny faction of headbangers"), because they couldn't reconcile the God of love with the apparent state-sanctioned endless torture of Hell.

(This comes back to one of my problems with the book - he's depicting a "nice" sanitised version of Christianity, and then asking why those nasty atheists keep taking potshots at the religious. The social problems caused by religion don't come from these "nice" Christians, they come from the anti-science brigade who want Evo edited from the textbooks, who think oppose vaccination and deny climate change, and from the bigots and racists who cloak their hatred in evangelical christianity.)

Spufford tries to answer this by suggesting that Christians are just conservative, and find it difficult to change, not because they are trying to adhere to the instructions in Leviticus. And he comes out with this incredible statement: "We don't obey the twiddly behavioural bits of ancient Jewish law at all, in fact, grace having replaced them." Which has two huge faults. Firstly it ignores the fact that every Christian trying to justify their bigotry and homophobia trots it out as the reason for their prejudice, and secondly, why is it in the Bible if you're not supposed to follow it? Despite the apologists efforts to pretend that the inconvenient bits aren't there, Jesus (according to the NT), made it absolutely clear that he wanted people to obey all the rules.

Spufford wants us to ignore the fact that the church has always been misused by imperfect men to exploit others. This is just, as he said earlier, "the human propensity to fuck things up". He argues that the church is the channel through which mending enters the world. (I don't have a problem with this - at the local level, churches do a great deal of good, both for parishioners and for the local community. I object to religion when it tries to impose its dogma on the rest of us.)

At very end of book he comes to what he personally feels to be the emotional benefit of religion - the relief of being forgiven.

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