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Christianity is not about doing good but making sense of life when sad, miserable sick or poor

A book of apologetics reminds me why that is the faith’s enduring strength

By on Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Atheist advertising campaign launched

I have just finished a stimulating book called Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Published by Faber and Faber at £12.99, it relates the author’s decision to be “unapologetic” about his newfound Christian faith. Sub-titled “Why, despite, everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense”, it is the story of Spufford’s journey into the Christian fold (he is an Anglican) after 20 years as an atheist.

In his conclusion he remarks that “virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place, but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are to be found among those who volunteer to work with the dying, the demented, the addicted, the institutionalised and the very impaired and afflicted, where the best that can be done is to love for the sake of it, and to keep sorrow company.”

I agree with him. To love without hope of response, encouragement or progress of any kind, and often in the face of great suffering, is very hard. I don’t say that virtuous and idealistic atheists can’t or don’t do it, but it is difficult for them to make sense of lives that are seemingly “useless”; hence the atheists’ temptation to bring in euthanasia or “mercy-killing”, as the kindest thing to do under the circumstances – and the fight to keep it at bay by believers whose faith teaches them that there is more to life than this world can offer.

Martyrs also challenge those of no faith. Why lay down your life for something nebulous that can’t be proved, when you have the chance to live? The only answer to that, to paraphrase Julian of Norwich, is that “Love is the meaning”. I think Spufford would have understood the witness of the least-known of the seven new saints, canonised last week by Pope Benedict XVI. This is Fr Jaques Berthieu, a French Jesuit, martyred in Madagascar in 1896 aged 58. The RomeReports news agency relates that his kidnappers gave him a choice: to renounce his faith and live – or suffer immediate death. They tempted him by saying, “We will make you our counsellor. We will make you our head.”

The priest simply replied, “My son, I’m sorry; that I cannot do. I prefer to die.” He was killed there and then and his body was thrown into a river. Before being captured, Fr Berthieu had several opportunities to escape. But his faith and his love for the local people made him choose to stay with them.

This kind of heroic witness is very rare, even among Christians. As I said, to an outsider it can look absurd, illogical, a waste. But Christianity, as Spufford discovered, is not about being “holier than thou” or do-good social work or being a member of a particular political party. It is about making sense of life when you are “sad, miserable, sick, poor [and] lonely”. As Spufford points out, the bus advertisement that encouraged people to “enjoy” their life because “there is probably no God” is insufferably patronising to those whose circumstances, unlike the comfortable lives of the metropolitan elite, have given them a heavy cross to bear. His book, persuasively and beguilingly written, is a worthwhile and thought-provoking contribution to the on-going debate about belief or non-belief.

  • teigitur

    I think I can safely say, there is not a single a-theist helping in our soup kitchen. Ok its in a Church hall, but is organised by a Mormon gentleman.So, yes indeed, a large number of believers are at work in some of the hardest areas of our society.

  • whytheworldisending

    I could respect Darwkins if he showed more faith in his callling. He is supposed to be a scientist, but his rants against God are just that. He steers well clear of scientific method and logical thought in his writings when he strives to convert the undiscerning to agree with his opinions, but presumes that they will do so because his scientific know-how makes him a better judge. Jesus practiced what he preached and lived the good news he brought, but Dawkins belongs with the high priests Jesus challenged. They were hypocrites who were getting rich off the backs of ordinary people by presenting themselves as men of God, when they worshipped only money. If Dawkins isn’t able to use scientific method to prove his hypothesis that God doesn’t exist, then his claims are spurious and he should try and get a proper job doing some real science.

  • Peter

    “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

    The fundamental corruption of atheism lies here.

    The message states that one should enjoy life because there’s no God.

    Or, in other words, the non-existence of God allows one enjoy life if one wants to.

    They are saying, in effect, that the ability to enjoy one’s life depends upon God being non-existent.

    But what about those countless millions throughout the world, young and old, who want to but cannot enjoy life because of severe poverty, hardship, conflict, oppression, illness and disability?

    If the ability to enjoy life is contingent upon God being non-existent, then the fact that they lack the ability to enjoy life must mean that God is not non-existent.

    And a God that is not non-existent is a God that exists.

  • NewMeena

    “To love without hope of response, encouragement or progress of any kind…”  –  To love in this way (even with the certainty of loss) is surely a beautiful and good thing – this is real love. I’m sure most people have loved, in a personal way, like this. It is, paradoxically, a pleasurable pain. But I assure you, it has no necessary connection with religious belief.  

    “Martyrs also challenge those of no faith.”   
    “This kind [the Jesuit priest who chose death] of heroic witness is very rare, even among Christians. As I said, to an outsider it can look absurd, illogical, a waste.”

    This is not a great challenge. The people who choose martyrdom are firm believers, probably with no doubt whatsoever about the veracity of their faith. They are a blink of an eyelid (like the suicide bomber) away from their God and Paradise.
    They may be few in number, as you say, since great physical courage, as in the case of this priest, is needed.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    I don’t pretend to understand atheists, nor do I care much to be honest. But they seem to care very much about us. 

    Why is that?

    Because all the time they wonder, wonder … what if it’s true? Attracted by the Faith, despite any claims they make to the contrary, they cannot give way to belief. God hammers at their door but they resolutely shut Him out. 

  • NewMeena

    “There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  I don’t think there is any corruption here.This is addressed to people whose lives are being ruined by religion: the Sikh girl who wishes to marry a Muslim and trans-religious marriages in general; someone who worries compulsively  about Hell; people who simply are unable to follow the dictates of their religion and feel damned because of this….etc.
    The message simply says there is no God (although this can’t be proven, hence the “probably” -but is as near to being certain as anything possibly can be) so get on with your life (if you wish to) and enjoy it the best you can.

  • Woodie


  • Peter

    In view of what you say, why didn’t the message simply say “there’s probably no God, now stop worrying”?

  • NewMeena

    The science/religion interface attracts the attention of scientists because religion in the past has provided false answers and solutions to questions and problems that science has subsequently answered and solved. Religions sometimes today are unfortunately trying to do the same.

    Dawkins, and every one else, cannot apply science to the question of God’s claimed existence because the religious have stated that God is a supernatural entity. 

  • Woodie

     I wonder if God is real, but not religion, as to me, it evidently is not. please explain to me how god is hammering.

  • NewMeena

    I suppose it could have said that. But the following words might have been added because it is well known to some people that religion CAN spoil lives.
    People whose lives are being spoiled or ruined (as explained above) would, in some cases, recognise themselves and make their escape.

    For those who have escaped, at least partially (“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”!), the Dawkins Foundation can offer help.

  • NewMeena

    The point is that there COULD be a God – I mean a God that is concerned with human beings.  (I like the music as well, and I like church buildings.)

    Such a God is most improbable, and the Christian God even more improbable. Christianity is so obviously something that owes its birth and sustainability, so far, to the Roman Empire.

    Nevertheless I bear in mind that if I have a pile of different cloakroom (draw) tickets (Billions of them – or even an infinite number of them) and I selected one ticket at random – the chance of picking that particular ticket would be billions to one against.
    Very improbable – if I had an infinite number of tickets it would be infinitely improbable.

    I don’t wish to be offensive (really! And I don’t include Benedict C in this) but one very important reason for turning away from Catholicism (for me) is Catholics as often illustrated by this website, people like Pope Benedict and the awful, dreadful Bishop of Shrewsbury (who tries to retain the “faithful” by threats), and some others. 

  • Bob Hayes

    Evangelical atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, are highly selective in their criticism of what they call ‘superstition’. They are vocal in opposition to organised religion but are stunningly silent about the modern cults of the Western World – such as celebrity, acquisitiveness, body image and brand. There is neither hectoring nor indignation from Dawkins and co. regarding the millions who are in thrall to the X-Factor, the latest Apple product, extreme slimming or bodybuilding, Nike etc. These cults can really harm people’s lives – e.g. the young women who die trying to lose weight or the indebtedness, theft and fraud spawned by the cult of acquisitiveness. Of course, Dawkins and co. will not attack these modern cults because they are centred on the cult-of-the-individual: the destructive notion that the individual is his/her own god. In truth the evangelical atheists have created their own god: the narcissistic ‘I’.

  • NewMeena

    PETER  –  I’ve missed your point, I think.

    Life surely SHOULD be enjoyed if it is possible to do so. If it is not possible (somewhere or at some time) to enjoy life then that would be a fact that we would have to accept as simply being so.  The world is a wonderful fascinating place with more than enough for countless lifetimes. But if I were seriously ill and in great pain/distress I would probably wish to leave it. If there was a loving, personal God and a second life (not in Hell) then that would be a bonus.
    This assumes that God is good, of course; implicit in “a loving God”, meaning an unconditionally loving God.
    At their best, human beings can offer unconditional love.

  • NewMeena

    I dislike the consumer junk/celebrity society as much as you seem to. But I don’t think Dawkins can be blamed for not taking it on.
    Isn’t this at root a failure of education?

  • Peter

    “Such a God is most improbable”

    I am of the conviction that belief in a Creator is arrived at first and foremost through reason.

    For example the law of gravity tells us that the universe cannot be infinitely small because otherwise gravity would be infinite and there would be black holes instead of matter.

    This means that every action taking place in the universe cannot depend upon a infinite series of simultaneous actions on progressively smaller scales, but rather that at some point the series must end and there must be an action which does not depend on an action on a smaller scale.

    Something must be responsible for originating such an action at every moment of time throughout the entire universe, for if such actions were not originated, the universe would cease to exist.

    The ongoing origination of actions which keep the universe in constant being, is a continuous re-creation of the universe.  The universe is being continuously created and that which creates is a Creator.

  • NewMeena

    There’s no reason why causes and effects should have pre-determined relative physical magnitudes.

    A squeak from a mouse might make an elephant jump, but a large ship making a glancing blow on an iceberg might knock off a few bits.

  • Bob Hayes

    Richard Dawkins has chosen to attack what he considers the ‘superstition’ of religion. That he is not using his considerable public profile to attack consumerist/celebrity cults suggests he either endorses them or that he simply harbours a hatred of religion. 

  • teigitur

    Would you like to provide examples of how the Holy father and The Bishop of Shewsbury do this?

  • scary goat

    What’s wrong with Pope Benedict?  I like him very much thank you.

  • scary goat

    Evening mr. C.  :-)   How’s Russia?

  • scary goat

     I think there is another problem to this as well as what about those who can’t enjoy life for some reason.  What about all the people who enjoy life because of their faith?  And what is it implying as enjoyment?  Does enjoyment have to be immoral?  Why can’t I enjoy life in a way which isn’t worrying?  And maybe having faith relieves worries.

  • Oconnord

    Your first sentence is correct and shows where your second sentence goes wrong.

    Consumerist/celebrity cults are not supernatural or superstitions, so he chooses not to address them. To infer that anyone who doesn’t criticise the subjects of YOUR choice automatically endorses them is just silly.

  • Oconnord

    In general terms, atheists don’t care about god/s, but they do care about religion. The reason why is apparent if you read a newspaper or a history book. 

    I can only speak for myself when I say that I find gods fascinating, I just don’t limit myself to one in particular, or even the ones that have been “believed in”. I constantly read, or even play xbox games etc, about gods. I find them all interesting.. and all fictional.

  • JabbaPapa

    To infer that anyone who doesn’t criticise the subjects of YOUR choice automatically endorses them is just silly.

    … and it’s a gimmick that some atheist message board militants try all of the time.

  • JabbaPapa

    Why does causality exist ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Life surely SHOULD be enjoyed if it is possible to do so

    This hedonistic philosophy leads to nothing other than a form of nihilism, if you take it to its logical conclusion.

    At their best, human beings can offer unconditional love

    And this is just straightforwardly untrue.

  • JabbaPapa

    The science/religion interface attracts the attention of theologians and philosophers because science in the past has provided false answers and has proven incapable of providing solutions to certain questions and problems that theology or philosophy have adequately answered or established.

    FTFY, kind of — except, have you noticed the implicit category errors in both your own statement and the reverso version of it ?

    Positing personal opinion as if it were necessarily true doesn’t work as a means to invalidate any personal opinions that you disagree with — the far more effective method is to write down something like “I disagree with XYZ”.

    … the religious have stated that God is a supernatural entity


    False statement !!

    God is not an “entity”, because entities, by definition, exist inside material reality, as consequences of whichever antecedent causes. Whatever entities may exist, none of them can be God, because God is not subjected to causality, but He must by definition be the very origin of it.

    In fact : the reason why Science cannot address the question of God is pure and simple because God does not belong to the subject matter of Science — trying to use Science to resolve the question of God would be like trying to use zoology to define the nature of a refrigerator.

  • Andrew

    Does the ‘Dawkins Foundation’ produce an annual report regarding all the people they’ve offered ‘help’ to who’ve decided to become atheists?

    And of not, where are you getting it from that they do ‘offer help’?

  • Kevin

    Why lay down your life for something nebulous that can’t be proved?

    It is proved – at least as adequately as Elizabeth’s royal lineage or British national history (“Queen and country”).

    The initial martyrdoms, such as that of St. Peter, were part of the powerful testimony.

  • Bob Hayes

    Richard Dawkins predicates his arguments on the claimed ‘irrationality’ of religion, as he knows he cannot disprove the existence of God. The worship of celebrity and consumerism can – and do – amount to the deification of people and objects. If evangelical atheists were as rational as they claim to be, they would be concerned about all forms of cult not just those they label ‘religion’. 

    As to your last sentence, I proposed two possible explanations for Dawkins’ silence on the matter – as you are well aware. 

  • TreenonPoet

     So you define people and objects as deities, implying that atheists should reject the existence of those people and objects because atheists reject deities, then suggest that atheists are not as rational as they claim to be because they don’t reject the existence of people and objects that actually exist!!! If you are going to redefine ‘deity’, then you must also redefine ‘atheist’ to be coherent, and point out that your ‘atheists’ are not the same ones that everyone else is referring to (rendering your posts rather irrelevant to the thread).

  • scary goat

    . But I assure you, it has no necessary connection with religious belief. 

    In the sense that, of course, those with no religious belief are perfectly capable of such feelings…..because they are human.  But where does such a concept of love come from in the first place? It is not a materialistic “I want” sort of love, not a result of hormones or whatever, so what is it then?

  • maxmarley

    None of us know what happens when we die.
    But Christians have made a considered choice. They put their faith and trust in God of Love.
    Their canon is the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament.
    “In God alone be at rest my soul”
    This faith has a long distinguished pedigree.
    As for non believers, their god is nihilism or here and now Utopias.
    Their canon is no doubt sincere but what??
    At life’s end they care not because they have no reason to hope in anything .
    But ultimately they don’t know.

  • maxmarley

    The non believers faith In a hopeless credo is truly astonishing .
    May their gods go with them.

  • Oconnord

    I was so well aware I accused you of being ego-centric!

    But on the larger part of your reply… Well it simply does not work. Assertions need to be backed by evidence, Dawkins did not invent gods, he is saying that there is no evidence to support a belief in any god. 

    Your lame assertion that he should stand against certain natural tendencies which you object to, because you think they distract from the supernatural beliefs you hold, is… just sad and lamentable. 

  • Oconnord

    And taking comments out of context is a cheap shot that is often used…… 

    Though rarely as simply as you have done. 

    I’m somewhat surprised to be an  “atheist message board militant”!


  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Cold Scary. Winter has started early this year. Get ready for snow and ice in England this year I reckon.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    “Christianity is so obviously something that owes its birth and sustainability, so far, to the Roman Empire.”

    No. To recast this accurately:

    “Christianity is something that owes its spread throughout Europe and later throughout the rest of the world to the fact that it was born in, and subsequently converted, the Roman Empire, at the time the most powerful political entity in the world, which, having done its job in the History of Redemption, fell”.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Here’s a thought for you Woodie, which I am pretty sure you will not comprehend even after some thought.

    “Pain is God’s megaphone”.

    Next time you are ill (I hope not soon), think on it. God never stops calling you to Him. Never. But can you find the faculty to hear Him?

    That’s my answer to you. 

  • teigitur

    Oh Damo, reducing belief to x-box level. What did you do for fun before x-box came along??

  • teigitur

    The best I have heard yet!! “Helped by the Dawkins Foundation” LOL. Brightened up my morning!

  • Woodie

     are you seriously trying to tell me that pain is god’s way of calling to us? the hammering? and there was I thinking that it was a sense to help us to avoid harm. Animals feel pain too you know?

  • Peter

    You miss the point.  I am not talking about cause and effect and their relative physical magnitudes.
    I am talking about events such as the splitting of a cell, which is the product of biological actions on a smaller scale, which in turn are the product of chemical actions on an even smaller scale, which themselves depend on particle physic on an even smaller scale, and so on.Technology in the future will allow us to probe deeper into progressively smaller scales.However, the principle still stands that the universe is not infinitely small, and therefore, at the smallest possible scale an original action is required for each and every action to take place at progressively higher scales.

  • TreenonPoet

     The ‘original action’ that you postulate would put more energy into a system and violate the conservation of energy. The alternative is to accept that, as we ‘zoom’ in to discover ever more fundamental mechanisms, we reach a scale at which further zooming in is fruitless – a scale at which the absolutely fundamental mechanism is understood without the need to invoke a mysterious original actor. At this ultimate level of detail, causes would not be on a smaller scale than effects. That larger scale effects can be explained in terms of smaller scale causes does not mean that every effect must have a smaller scale cause. To suggest otherwise is to introduce an unnecessary complication, and calling the mysterious orginal actor ‘God’ does not add any understanding whatsoever.

  • Jon Brownridge

     “Something must be responsible for originating such an action at every
    moment of time throughout the entire universe, for if such actions were
    not originated, the universe would cease to exist.”
    This may well be true, but the problem is you can’t assume that the “something” is the theistic God you want to believe in. Even atheists believe in the “something” and in that sense they believe in God. it’s all a question of what you mean by “God”.

  • Bob Hayes

    Please carefully re-read all my posts and then reconsider your response. I did not redefine deity, I pointed out that consumerism and celebrity can lead to people elevating persons and objects to the status of deities – false gods, if you prefer. If atheists, such as Dawkins, are really concerned about people being drawn to ‘irrational’ worship, they should surely be just as concerned about worship of Beyoncé as of the Buddha. 

  • Bob Hayes

    ‘Your lame assertion that he should stand against certain natural tendencies’. 

    ‘Natural tendencies’ – to what are you referring here? Are you saying worship of consumer goods and celebrities are ‘natural tendencies’ ? If so, please furnish the evidence – as you comment in your earlier post, ‘Assertions need to be backed by evidence’.

  • TreenonPoet

     But you were commenting on ”evangelical atheists” – that is, atheists who expound the virtues of atheism. They might also have views on non-deities, but that is not a concern of atheism. As it happens, Richard Dawkins does have a lot to say about rational thinking in general. I think he is driven to address those areas that, in his opinion and his field of knowledge, are causing the most damage. For example, his being an evolutionary biologist, I am not surprised at the attention he gives to creationism and intelligent design (which have medical consequences). His being an educator, I am not surprised at his concern regarding religious indoctrination. Celebrity worship is not the same thing as deity worship and, though it may be irrational, it is not responsible for harm on the scale of religion, and is more likely to be the follower’s choice.

  • shieldsheafson

    The atheist Ivan Karamazov says;

    “I believe like a
    child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating
    absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the
    despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of
    man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so
    precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the
    comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity,
    of all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to
    forgive but to justify all that has happened.”


    Why then does Ivan remain an atheist?

    Because though he believes, he does not accept. He is not a doubter; he is a
    rebel. Like his own character the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan is angry at God for
    not being kinder. 

    That is the deepest source of unbelief: not the intellect but
    the will.