Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Atheists and monsters

I have a letter in New Humanist responding to Francis Spufford’s recent defence of his Christian belief, a brief resume of the case he lays out in his new book. The letter was truncated to the second paragraph, my first and main point having been made in the preceding letter from Leo Pilkington. Here it is anyway.

And while I’m here: I have some small contributions in a nice documentary on Channel 4 tomorrow about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I strolled past Boris Karloff’s blue plaque today, as I often do, erected on the wall above my local chippy. He was a Peckham Rye boy named William Henry Pratt. Happy Halloween.


Since I’m the sort of atheist who believes that we can and should get on with religious folk, and because I have such high regard for Francis Spufford, I am in what I suspect is the minority of your readers in agreeing with the essence and much of the substance of what he says. It’s a shame, though, that he slightly spoils his case by repeating the spurious suggestion that theists and atheists are mirror images because of their yes/no belief in God. The null position for a proposition that an arbitrary entity exists for which there is no objective evidence or requirement and no obvious way of testing is not to shrug and say “well, I guess we just don’t know either way.” We are back to Russell’s teapot orbiting the Sun. The reason why the teapot argument won’t wash for religious belief is, as Spufford rightly says, because a belief in God is about so many other feelings, values and notions (including doubt and uncertainty), not ‘merely’ the issue of whether one can make the case objectively. While this subjectivity throws the likes of Sam Harris into paroxysms, it’s a part of human experience that we have to deal with.

Spufford is also a little too glib in dismissing the anger that religion arouses. The Guardian’s Comment is Free is a bad example, being a pathological little ecosystem to itself. Some of that anger stems from religious abuses to human rights and welfare, interference in public life, denial of scientific evidence, and oppression, conformity and censure. All of these malaises will, I am sure, be as deplored by Spufford as they are by non-believers. When religions show themselves capable of putting their own houses in order, it becomes so much easier for atheists to acknowledge (as we should) the good that they can also offer to believers and non-believers alike.

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