The Possibility of (Actual) Dialogue Between Atheists and Christians

Hooray! The much-esteemed Francis Spufford has a new book out this month, a collection of […]

David Zahl / 11.15.17

Hooray! The much-esteemed Francis Spufford has a new book out this month, a collection of essays entitled True Stories & Other Essays. Highly recommended for anyone interested in language and literature, to say nothing of thoughtful Christianity (or, curiously enough, the Arctic!). The earliest piece in the “Sacred” section takes the form of an open letter to atheists–not surprisingly perhaps, given that it was published in 2012, at the height of the New Atheist hubbub. The whole thing overflows with characteristic wit and eloquence, and despite the title, aims to move beyond categories of antagonism. Its stirring final paragraphs are worth reprinting here – a guide not just to dialogue on religious matters, but 2017 life in general:

I’ve never met a Christian who didn’t recognise the experience of finding God absent. A lot of us have been atheists at some point. Most of us still are, from time to time, it being a recurrent feature of faith that you pass periodically back through doubt again. No, that does not mean that we secretly think you’re right, deep down; that on some semi-conscious level we know we are only building pathetic sandcastles to be washed away by the surging, inevitable, in-bound flood tide of Reason™. It means we recognise that you and we are both operating where we cannot know we’re right. The appropriate response is humility, an adherence to a sense of ourselves as fallible, and yet possessed of the convictions we’re possessed of, the experiences we’re possessed of, the hearts we’re possessed of.

Maybe too – all teasing apart – this might be the basis on which believers and atheists might manage to declare peace, and to talk to each other a little more productively. On both sides, we check our certainties at the cloakroom, and then settle down, fellows at decision-making under uncertainty, to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the houses of emotion our positions enable us to inhabit: both real, in the sense that both are built from experience, and both ultimately resting upon the unknowable. You bring out the dignity of materialism, and we put next to it the Christian acknowledgement of the tragic, the wasted, the unmendable. You bring out the decentring power of the discovery of humanity’s smallness and contingency in the cosmos, and the recentring power of finding that human life nevertheless preserves meaning. We put next to it the egalitarianism of human failure, and the hope for a way out of humanity’s endless game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. We show you ours and you show us yours. And together we admire the patterned gambles that nourish us.

However – and now it’s back to the teasing again – before we do that, I really think you lot need to be a bit clearer about what the emotional content of your atheism is. You are the ones who claim to be acting on a mere lack, on a non-belief, but as absences go, contemporary atheism doesn’t half seem to involve some strong feelings. It isn’t all reading Lucretius, or thinking about the many forms most beautiful. For many of you, the point of atheism appears to be, not the non-relationship with God, but a live and hostile relationship with believers. It isn’t enough that you yourselves don’t believe: atheism permits a delicious self-righteous anger at those who do. The very existence of religion seems to be an affront, a liberty being taken, a scab you can’t help picking… You wait for someone to have the temerity to express a religious sentiment, whereupon they can be sprayed with scorn at fire-extinguisher pressure. It’s as if there is some transgressive little ripple of satisfaction which can only be obtained by uttering the words “sky fairy” or “zombie rabbi” where a real live Christian might hear them. Now this, dear brothers and sisters, cannot be good for you. It is never a good idea to let yourself believe that the pleasures of aggression have virtue behind them. Take it from a religious person. This, we know.