Sunday, November 03, 2013

Hell Would Be Having to Listen to Francis Spufford

Some atheists are really boring, such as R. Joseph Hoffmann. But I've got to admit, I'd much rather have dinner with Dr. Hoffmann than Francis Spufford. Spufford, a Christian, an author, and a teacher of creative writing at Goldsmiths College, makes the history of NASCAR seem fascinating by comparison.

Take this Spufford piece, for example. It just rambles on and on, with paragraphs the size of the Himalayas, saying not very much at all, and doing so in the most supercilious and insufferable manner imaginable. This man actually teaches creative writing? Students of Spufford: run, don't walk, to the nearest exit, and learn writing from someone who can write, not someone who uses the phrase "bizarre category error" twice in the same essay. (Even using "category error" once by itself merits a big horselaugh -- R. Joseph Hoffmann is fond of it, too.)

Spufford starts with a healthy dollop of religious persecution complex; he thinks that being a Christian means there will be atheist "voices ... getting louder and louder" and "shouting right in ... [the] ear" of his daughter, telling her she's wrong. Funny, the only voices I hear shouting when I walk around my town are drunk people, insane people, and fundamentalist preachers. I'd really like to visit Spufford's town to see all these shouting atheists; it must make quite a show.

Spufford claims that "belief ... involves the most uncompromising attention to the nature of things of which you are capable." Really? You mean so uncompromising that you don't actually address the fundamental question of whether your beliefs are true or not? Spufford seems to think that his religious beliefs are justified because (a) they're normal (b) they're part of his imagination and (c) they make him feel good. Most of us have grown up enough to realize those aren't particularly compelling reasons.

He then spends a quarter of his essay attacking a London bus ad which said, "There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Spufford apparently thinks the ad means that "enjoyment" is the sole goal of life and that the ad will be poor consolation for people with lives stricken with poverty, disease, or personal tragedies. But that's not what it means and not whom the ad is directed to, as anyone with connected brain cells can figure out. Hey, why not attack "Coke - Life begins here" instead? How limited must a man's Weltanschauung be if it has to commence with a carbonated beverage!

Like many North American atheists, I used to be a Christian. I ceased to become a Christian because the fundamental claims of Christianity -- which involve a unique all-powerful god, who is actually three different gods, that raped a woman to conceive a son, which is one of those three gods, who then died (but did not really die) to remove sin from me which is only sin because he decided it would be so, and which is not my sin, but rather the sin of a nonexistent ancient ancestor, and I must believe this or be consigned to a fiery hell, and he knows the future and hence everything I will do (but I also have free will) and he also loves me and cares about me, but if I put my hoohah in someone else's doohickey, I'm toast -- are simply not believable to anyone who spends 5 minutes thinking about it. Only someone who was propagandized from birth that this load of puerile nonsense is plausible could fall for it. For me it makes no logical sense, but also no emotional sense. A grotesque fable of one person's sin "redeemed" (whatever that is supposed to mean) by the execution of another, probably mentally deranged, has no emotional resonance at all for me.

What I find more interesting are the reactions to Spufford's piece in Salon. Thirty years ago, the comments would have been largely supportive. Those pesky atheists, they're juvenile, and stupid, and they miss the big picture... how right you are! Now, though, there's a sea change. The vast majority of comments are negative, pointing out the deficiencies in Spufford's reasoning (if one can call it that) and writing style. Now that is progress.

I really think that "Spufford" should be a verb: "to bore with ponderous incoherence". We went to the lecture, but the guy was just spuffording, so we left early. Now, where's that history of NASCAR?


nwrickert said...

Take this Spufford piece, for example.

Once upon a time, there used to be things called "editors". I wonder if Salon E-zine knows about those.

Paul C. Anagnostopoulos said...

Perhaps "spewfording"? You know, just to help the newbie understand the term.

~~ Paul

Kevin Ewe said...

Dr. Shallit, there's just one sentence in your entire post I think you'll want to rethink: "Only someone who was propagandized from birth that this load of puerile nonsense is plausible could fall for it."
Nope, there are lots of converts out there.

Mr. Ed. said...

I'm telling Eugenie Scott that you'd horselaugh at her. (Play along.)
"I don’t know any mainstream scientists who are questioning whether evolution took place," Scott tells "That's not to say we understand everything that happened in evolution or the mechanisms that caused evolutionary change. But … arguments about the details aren’t arguments about whether evolution took place. The creationists make that category error."

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Thanks, next time I see Genie I'll tell her myself.

If I ever use "category error" in a serious way, feel free to shoot me.

Jeffrey Shallit said...


Let me introduce you to a useful word.

KeithB said...

"Everything goes better with Jesus"

Actually, I think the history of NASCAR can be pretty fun with all the moonshiners outrunning the revenuers in their tricked out cars.

Kevin Ewe said...

Hyperbole? Oh, I know what that means. It's kind of like two paraboles facing away from each other.

Sniffnoy said...

What on earth is supposed to be wrong with the term "category error"? It's a useful term. "To state that 2 plus 2 equals 3 is false; to state that 2 plus 2 equals purple would be a category error." As I understand it, it's just another way of saying "type error".

And his first use of it seems entirely correct (though not the broader statement he's making with it -- yes, that would be a category error, but are people really making that error?). His second use of the phrase... yeah, I'm having trouble seeing any category error there.

By the way, the title of this post becomes considerably funnier if we take your suggestion and interpret "Spufford" as a verb. :)

hank_says said...

No, "Hyperbole" is what they play in space - it's like our Superbowl.

hank_says said...

No, Kevin.

"Hyperbole" is like the Superbowl, but in space.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

"To state that 2 plus 2 equals 3 is false; to state that 2 plus 2 equals purple would be a category error."

Actually, I have no problem at all claiming that "2 plus 2 equals purple" is simply false; the use of the term "category error" doesn't add anything to our understanding.

My problem with the phrase is that (a) it is nearly always used as a substitute for thought (b) it nearly always adds nothing to our understanding of the situation and (c) it is often used as a shibboleth to pretend, on the part of the speaker, that he or she is in possession of some deep philosophical knowledge that is not shared by whomever is being attacked. It is a favorite, for example, of creationists and anti-materialists, which is somewhat ironic, considering the origin of the phrase.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shallit, do you have means of quantifying the `idiocy content` of some of the more entertaining posts you encounter? I don't claim immunity either but does the possibility of quantifying them relative to some scaled system of precedents such as a `zero day provable posted stupidity` exist? I assume such objects can only travel along ignorance vectors (certain internet paths populated by prior posted stupidities (pps))terminating at some internet address. The ps (posted stupidity) is like a flowering weed where one can admire the proliferation and tenacity of it's kind. I'm wondering if a biological classification would apply starting with Kingdom..(pun intended).


Fletch Lance said...

Someone whose name sounds like "shallot" should be careful making fun of the names of windbags. I should know.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, come on, Fletch. You didn't even find the way to make fun of my name that Philip Miller did in 4th grade. Get with the program!

Unknown said...

Actually, a minor improvement if you drop the letter d: spuffor, spuffored, spufforing roll off the tongue and even have. a hint of onomatopoeia.

RJS said...

I'm an atheist, but I find Spufford very entertaining.

If you listen to his audiobook, the same passages that you have written off come across very effectively.

He reminds me of Bill Bryson ranting against the idiocies of English life.

Spufford is battlng on a sticky wicket, but he whacks out a few sixes here and then and makes fun of pompous know-it-all new atheists.