belief and illusion

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™.

Francis Spufford. This is from the first chapter of his remarkable new book, which Francis was kind enough to send to me in typescript a few months ago. It is an amazingly funny, insightful, honest, and moving book, and I hope everyone with even a passing interest in the realities of religious experience will read it.