A Godless creed

July 19, 1996

Can one be religious and not believe in God? Gail Vines talks to the members of a movement who see no contradiction

I am not a believer in the sense of believing in God the Father or Jesus Christ as divine," said Iris Murdoch, after she won the Booker prize for The Sea, The Sea. "But I believe that religion is terribly important in people's lives, because it tries to look at the world not veiled by the obsessions, fears and egoism of everyday life. Various priests now tell me that this is what they believe. If only they work fast enough, Christianity can become like Buddhism, before people forget it entirely."

Religion without God -isn't that a contradiction in terms? Not to a growing number of Britons, it seems. Last month, a MORI poll reported that the majority of Britons do not believe in God - only 43 per cent of those surveyed ticked the box "I believe that God exists". Yet a respectable 67 per cent of MORI respondents believe themselves "to be religious", while 79 per cent believe there is an afterlife. "This is surely the paradox of our time," says Robert Ashby, director of the British Humanist Association, which commissioned the poll - "a growing sense of religiosity without gods".

It is a paradox openly embraced by the 700 or so clergy and laypeople in a small but significant movement known as the Sea of Faith network. Most do not believe in God "out there", in the traditional sense. Rather, they see religion, like art and science, as a human creation. Yet - and this is the interesting bit - you would be hard pressed to find people more deeply committed to religious ideas, rituals and ways of life. The demise of God may not, after all, entail the death of religion.

The network was sparked off by Don Cupitt's prolific writings, and his influential 1984 TV series, The Sea of Faith. Cupitt - an Anglican priest, philosopher-theologian and fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge - writes of religion after God, religion that consists simply of spirituality and a way of life. God, as a symbol of our highest ideals, becomes the spiritual requirement - the inner demand that we fashion our lives in accordance with this highest ideal.

Cupitt adopted a philosophical term - "non-realism" - to describe this theological position, but non-philosophers have found it misleading. "It seems one of the looniest slogans ever invented by a brilliantly clever man because it sounds to the ordinary person that you're denying reality," says Frank Walker, a Unitarian minister and organiser of the Cambridge Sea of Faith group. Walker favours the label "religious humanists", while Anthony Freeman, a former priest, has suggested "non-theists" to describe people for whom "god talk" still has meaning. Theists, by contrast, are those who believe in the existence of a god "out there" who communicates with them, while atheists are those for whom religious language has no meaning.

A band of Anglican priests is now trying to defend this theological middle ground, and thereby help make a secular world safe for religious ideals. In 1992, Hugh Dawes, vicar of the parish of St James in Cambridge, argued that Christians need not hold "a credulous belief in the supernatural". His book Freeing the Faith: a Credible Christianity for Today disturbed some but delighted many more members of his thriving congregation, and no one has left in disgust. "People are quite relieved when they hear the clergy say they don't have to believe such and such, because I don't believe it myself," says David Hart, Anglican chaplain to Loughborough University and author of Faith in Doubt: Non-realism and Christian Belief, published in 1993. "The reality of God is now a major issue for discussion and debate."

It is a debate that the church hierarchy has been decidedly reluctant to encourage. Two years ago, the Bishop of Chichester summarily stripped Anthony Freeman of his post as priest-in-charge of St Mark's, Staplefield, for writing God in Us: the Case for Christian Humanism. "The liberals are always perceived as baddies," says Cupitt. "Within the church no one was ever thrown out for having too crude and primitive an understanding of faith. It is only intellectuals that get thrown out, so the church always purges itself from the top down. Does this mean that the drift to decline and fundamentalism is unstoppable? I don't know."

The contemporary hegemony of "factual", scientific-style language is part of the problem, Dawes suspects. "When I talk to primary school children, what they want to know is: is it a story or is it real? For them, there is nothing in between, and I think a lot of adults are in that sort of bind with religion too. Is it a story or is it true?" Two hundred years of biblical scholarship have made literalist interpretations of the Bible and the liturgy untenable, argues the philosopher Mary Warnock. Booked to speak at next week's Sea of Faith conference at Leicester University, she has "wholly non-realist views", yet remains a practising Anglican.

"The biggest stumbling block," says Dawes, "is that most mainstream churches are not prepared to say that religious language is always symbolic language even though I guess the majority of people trained in theology are aware that that is the fact."

"This situation - with the priesthood knowing something that lay people don't - needs to change," says Hart. "Theological information should no longer be a professional secret. It is good news, liberating news. Dogmas have had their day."

Yet attend a service conducted by these radical clerics, and you could be hard pressed to spot the difference. "We worship in a traditional Catholic Anglican manner," says Dawes, "and interestingly, so do quite a lot of other people in the Sea of Faith." Most do not seek substantial change in the traditional ritual, not least because they relish the beauty and symbolic richness of archaic religious texts. "To try to turn the language of liturgy into plain direct language is always a mistake," argues Warnock. "People are much more likely to misinterpret slap-happy language that has no element of poetry."

This intriguing combination - radical theology married to traditional liturgy - has much in common with a movement within 20th-century Judaism, says Rabbi professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, who teaches at the University of Kent. In the US in the 1930s, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan founded a non-realist movement called Reconstructionist Judaism. "It is now a big movement, there is nothing embarrassing about it, it is bona fide Judaism, sort of kosher," says Cohn-Sherbok. "Its followers go to the synagogue, wear prayer shawls, yarmulkes, celebrate all the festivals - you would never know they don't actually believe in God."

More recently, another non-realist movement, still quite small, has sprung up under the leadership of Reform Rabbi Sherwin Wine. "He is also a non-supernaturalist but he felt Reconstructionism was misguided in retaining the traditional liturgy," says Cohn-Sherbok. In his synagogue in Detroit, all the festivals are celebrated, but the word God is not used. "This is arguably more consistent," says Cohn-Sherbok. "You know what is going on."

But both non-realist movements are in the mainstream. "What is so strikingly different about Christianity and Judaism," says Cohn-Sherbok, "is that the Jewish community is much more accepting of a non-realist approach." Don Cupitt, the Mordecai Kaplan of Anglicanism, has been relentless marginalised by his own church. "This is a pity because many Christians who find it difficult to believe in God may still want to be identified with the religious tradition," says Cohn-Sherbok.

Today, those with Christian traditions and non-realist inclinations may attend Quaker meetings or gravitate to Unitarian congregations, which broke away from the Church of England in the 17th century. "Unitarians don't like solemnly affirming beliefs they don't really believe in, that is our objection to fixed creeds," says Walker. "We don't see the point in that." He adds with a chuckle: "But other people may say, well at least they're honest - that's their one virtue - but they're not very imaginative." Perhaps if the established church were reformed, Walker muses "and Mr Cupitt's ideas were openly accepted, Unitarians could rejoin the Church of England, three centuries on."

The conservative public face of Anglicanism today "is partly I suspect about marketing - people believe you have to have a very full-blooded product in order to be able to sell it," says Dawes. "But actually what people want is an authenticity in religious understanding, and for many people this turns on the desire to invest life with significance, knowing you are investing it with this."

But will the churches ever officially bless this postmodern perspective? "Everywhere the churches are growing more conservative," says Lloyd Geering, a radical Presbyterian minister who has taken the Sea of Faith movement to New Zealand. Tried for heresy and acquitted in 1967, he says: "I wouldn't be acquitted today."

As the millennium approaches, church-going is in danger of becoming little more than a leisure pursuit on a par with stamp collecting and bird-watching, something faintly comical and decidedly private," says Dawes. "But the mateyness of some churches is not what most people want," says Stephen Mitchell, a founding member of the Sea of Faith network and vicar of Barrow-upon-Soar and Waltin-le-Wolds, Leicestershire. "They want the power of very simple spirituality, meditation and quiet thinking. We have a great wealth in our tradition to call upon, and in that best sense, it's a theatre that puts on plays of the past and also new productions. It offers the resources of the Christian tradition for people to use as they want to."

"If there is mileage in this gentler form of religion, it will survive whatever people do about it," says Dawes. "I think it is a style of believing that more people are coming to. But if it is not helpful it will die its own death."

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Reader's comments (1)

I personally find the richness of the Anglican tradition helpful whilst having moved on from traditional doctrines. I still retain an academic interest in theology, but I am finding the arguments even for a non-realist approach to God a little arid. My own belief however is that the majority of people are finding that religion in any form is more and more irrelevant to their lives and are stopping going to church in their droves. There is a growing interest in spirituality perhaps, but it is a very pick-and-mix approach which can be satisfied to some extent on the internet or in some self-interest groups.

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