The Real Battle (Between Atheism and Christianity) Is Always Emotional

Blammo! It’s been a minute since we pointed to one of Giles Fraser’s columns, but […]

David Zahl / 11.15.19

Blammo! It’s been a minute since we pointed to one of Giles Fraser’s columns, but that’s only because we lost track of the marvelously outspoken UK priest and pundit when he moved venues a couple years ago, from The Guardian to UnHerd. Well, the joke’s clearly on us, especially if it’s meant we miss out on pieces like his recent “The Battle to Believe in God.” Under the auspices of reviewing what sounds like a phenomenal book, Alec Ryrie’s Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (out next week in the US), Fraser fires off a characterization of Christianity–and its relation to atheism–that’s as compelling as it is, er, unapologetic. To wit:

What Ryrie’s account achieves is an explanation as to why atheism often remains so angry. That it is angry seems undeniable — from the vituperative nature of exchanges on social media, to the hardly concealed fury of its leading lights, Dawkins, Hitchens etc, there can be little doubt it is driven as much by passion and righteous indignation as by following the consequences of cold clear dispassionate rationality. “Reason is a slave to the passions” as David Hume rightly noted.

For Ryrie, a scholar of the Protestant Reformation, the passion in question has its roots in the protest against the abuses of the church of Rome, of well-padded priests feathering their own nests, of the bullying authority of the Papacy…

Scepticism has grown intellectually respectable since its sectarian origins. But Ryrie’s contention that its power and effectiveness derive as much from its emotional impact as its rational argumentation makes considerable sense to me… [D]isproofs of God’s existence are about as effective in creating atheists as proofs are in creating believers. Such arguments are shadow boxing. The real battle is always emotional.

If it sounds like he’s channeling Jonathan Haidt, well, do yourself a favor and listen to the discussion they had on Fraser’s podcast last year. But here’s where the piece really heats up:

[Francis] Spufford explains Christianity by reminding us of the sort of work it is intended to do. The proper starting point is not the question of God’s existence, but what he calls “the HPtFtu” – or, “the human propensity to fuck things up”. The propensity extends to our relationships, our attempts to be good, even to our rationality. Emotionally, Christianity begins within the unfixable realities of human life, its tragedies and absurdities. [ed. note: for more, listen to the most recent PZP!] Even its blood-soaked history, including that of the Reformation, is just yet another example of the HPtFtu.

Christianity grows out of the broken and unfixable. Its USP is to be found within and alongside the stuff that doesn’t work… Christianity is a prolonged meditation on all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t work. It gains its emotional power by its connection with failure – moral, emotional, intellectual. I suppose that is why I read the New Atheist critique of Christianity as often obviously correct, and yet strangely irrelevant. What they take to be a kind of philosophical or quasi-scientific explanation of things is often much more like a cry for help. And to accuse a cry for help as being intellectually confused is a peculiar kind of response.

Yes, Christianity does have substantial things to say about human pain. But 99% of the work that it requires of us is to recognise our inability to fix ourselves, our incapacity. That’s what monks were doing in the desert. They were not punishing themselves for being sinful, or anything like that. They were living up close and personal to their own fragility, their own pain and failure. If you want to attack Christianity on its own terms, attack it here (as someone like Nietzsche does, for instance).