aber & Faber, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, By Francis Spufford

A church champion scores in his grasp of human frailty; his local bias carries less conviction

Since 2009, an "atheist bus" - one of a fleet being assembled to spread the good word - has been cruising around bearing the legend, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life". Francis Spufford writes engagingly: "The implication of the bus slogan is that enjoyment would be your natural state if it weren't for us believers and our hell-fire preaching. Take away the malignant threat of God-talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure, under cloudless skies. What's so wrong with this, apart from its being total bollocks? "

It is a refreshing response that highlights the most striking feature of contemporary atheism - its invincible incomprehension of actual human beings. For atheist evangelists, practically everything wrong with the world comes from irrationality. In contrast, Spufford argues plausibly that Christianity deals with "the human propensity to fuck things up". HPtFtu - as he abbreviates this central fact of life - denotes "our active inclination to break stuff, 'stuff' here including moods, promises, relationships we care about and our own well-being and other people's."

At bottom HPtFtu is the recognition that human life is not a soluble problem, and people who understand and accept this can cope with situations that in secular terms are truly hopeless. "Virtuous and idealistic atheists are at work all over the place," Spufford writes, "but it is observable that a surprisingly large number of believers are at 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 "keep sorrow company."

HPtFtu is not a uniquely religious insight. The same phenomenon of human self-destructiveness has been recognised by atheists. With his theory of the death instinct Freud is the most obvious example, but another is the neglected Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), an early mentor of Gore Vidal, who lived and died an atheist while affirming that religion has a vital role in dealing with human frailty. Religious or not, every serious view of things has accepted there is something radically defective about the human animal.

Evangelical atheists believe that HPtFTu can be cured by deciding to be more reasonable – an unrealistic notion, which for me confirms that this sort of atheism is simply too ignorant and childish to be worth bothering with. Rightly, aside from a lengthy footnote in which he dismisses "the steaming heap of 'evolutionary' manure raked together by Richard Dawkins", Spufford does not respond to recent attacks on religion. Much more interestingly, he confronts the failings of Christianity - not least its squalid obsession with sexuality. Unapologetic is a rare gem, a book that carries conviction by being honest all the way through.

That does not mean it is always persuasive. It is one thing to note that religion has an irreplaceable role in dealing with the flaws of the human animal, quite another to suggest that there is anything special about Christianity. Spufford admits that his preference is cultural: "Christianity was the religion of my childhood. It's the ancient religion... of the place I come from." At the same time he thinks Christianity is "right": "It's something I came back to, freely", after 20-odd years of atheism, because "it answers my need, and corresponds to emotional reality for me." Spufford's story is told by a host of people who go back to their ancestral faith. In a society as pluralistic as ours, returning to religion no longer means becoming a Christian.

Since the book is mostly devoted to spelling out the sense of meaning that comes with living as a Christian, it would make sense for Spufford to view religions as ways of life, which may offer intimations of transcendence but cannot make any claims to truth. Instead he endorses the conventional view in which faith is a matter of having the right beliefs. Arguing for the literal truth of Christian narrative, he scoffs at discoveries that have shed new light on the historical Jesus: "a general feeling that somebody... in the early church, probably St Paul, retrospectively glued Godhood onto poor Jesus".

In fact the Jewish identity of Yeshua (Jesus's name before it was Latinised) is far from being just fashionable supposition. In the more literate debates of the 19th and early 20th century it was understood that the real intellectual threat to Christianity would come not from science but history, and this has proven to be the case. Since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, the pre-Christian character of Jesus and his teaching has been established beyond reasonable doubt. The great biblical scholar Geza Vermes has placed Jesus definitively in a tradition of charismatic Judaism. Jesus may have been distinctive, but he was only one of many Galilean holy-men.

Christians tend to ask how it is that the story of Jesus spread when so many other teachers of his day disappeared from history. For anyone who does not already accept a Christian idea of providence, the answer is clear. It was fortuitous events that made Jesus a universal presence. If Paul had not remade Jesus's heterodox Judaism into a proselytising creed, if Constantine had not made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire, if any one of an uncountable number of events had been different, Jesus would have remained the Jewish prophet he was in historical fact.

In that event, the conflict between Christianity and atheism would never have developed. This is the fundamental irony of belief, neglected or denied by Christians and atheists. In matters of religion, what you believe is determined by chance. We would all be better off if we forgot about belief and focused our minds on how we want to live.

'Gray's Anatomy: selected writings' by John Gray is published by Penguin

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own