The faith instinct

St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral

My colleague Stephen Hough points out an absolutely lovely piece by Francis Spufford in today’s Guardian about faith: about how believers, like him, are increasingly seen as “weird”, embarrassing, old-fashioned, obsolescent. He almost sounds grateful to “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, who, he says, “at least care enough about religion to object to it”. It’s a splendid piece of writing, unapologetic (his new book defending the Christian faith, in a nod to “Christian apologetics”, is in fact called Unapologetic), but aware of what the critics of religion are saying, not ignoring the charges against it.

The meat of the piece comes when he discusses a vicious row he had with his wife in 1997, and says how a piece of music – Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – which came on the stereo in a café managed to break the cycle of argument, to remind him of mercy in the universe:

I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this as well. And it played the tune again, with all the cares in the world.

He goes on to acknowledge that a piece of music playing in a café does not constitute a religious experience: that such an experience would be perfectly possible in a relentlessly mechanistic and uncaring universe. But, he says, the point is the feeling: yes, it sounds as though he is avoiding the intellectual argument, but the intellectual argument is secondary to the inner feeling of mercy. “The feelings are primary,” he says. “I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas… what I felt listening to Mozart in 1997 is not some wishy-washy metaphor for an idea I believe in, and it’s not a front behind which the real business of belief is going on: it’s the thing itself.”

I hope that he won’t mind my responding. The feeling of mercy in the universe, for people who have it, must be powerful; the feeling that there is some benign intelligence at work behind the cosmos, not micro-managing, not intervening, but underpinning it. It must also, I expect, be powerfully reassuring.

But I want to say: we should be wary of being guided by our instincts on all matters. There’s a famous illusion, the Müller-Lyer illusion, which shows two parallel lines, one with fins at the tip pointing in, one with them pointing out:

We cannot help but see them as different lengths, but we know, and can demonstrate easily with a ruler, that they are not. There are other, so-called “cognitive” illusions, which I’ve talked about before: illusions of order in randomness, illusions of cause and effect, which our brain simply cannot avoid even when, intellectually, know that they’re false. Our minds aren’t perfect truth-seeking machines; they are evolutionarily designed to be effective at helping us survive, not at seeing the workings of the universe.

There’s an ongoing debate (among people who don’t believe in God) about whether the religion instinct is an adaptive one, or a byproduct of other instincts. But if it’s either of those things, we will be fooled by it into sensing a God where there is none, just as we are fooled by our hyperactive pattern-detector into seeing skill behind the random guesses of stock-pickers or deliberate aiming in the random strikes of V2 bombs.

I don’t know if I actually want Mr Spufford to change his mind, if his belief brings him happiness. But someone as clearly intelligent as he is must be aware that even a deep and pervading intuition about something tells us very little about whether or not it is true; it’s humanity’s apparently unique gift and curse that we can see beyond what our feelings tell us. Intellectually, Mr Spufford knows there is no external evidence for God, but he feels His presence anyway. Is that enough?


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