Could a Humanist Ever Frolic In The Sea Of Faith?

By Noel Cheer

Part 1: Definitions and Downsides

Despite the widespread disapproval of religion in Humanist circles, if we were to rid the term religious of outdated restrictions then some varieties of Humanism can be shown to be religious dispositions. The grounds for accepting or rejecting religion are better understood once the methods of scratching the religious itch are seen separately from the universal itch itself.
Let me drive a stake firmly in the ground now and return later to defend it. I want to propose that there are at least two kinds of humanism: secular and religious. Much of this paper will be addressed to those who say that religious humanism is a contradiction in terms.
There is much in common between the two forms of humanism. Members of both groups agree that all human activity and institutions are made only by humans. All of our art and culture and all forms of religious expression are human products. We agree that nothing comes in from outside because there is no outside in the sense that Plato or other supernaturalists thought, and think.
Traditional Christianity is dedicated to opposing what it takes to be corrosive of spirituality: materialism, secularism and humanism. But we of the Sea of Faith Network find value in materialist[1] explanations of the origins of the cosmos, of life and of consciousness. We take the view that humans emerge up from the earth and not down from the heavens. In taking the view that this life is all that we will ever have, the secular is immensely important and the human is where we locate our priorities and our values. Those of us who retain some affection for a Christian upbringing but who can no longer assent to what we take to be its essential affirmations, call ourselves Post-Christian. We take the view that, while traditional forms of Christian expression have more-or-less lost the plot, the plot remains important.
All Humanists have in common a moral earnestness. We yearn for a better world, and the more active among us try to bring it about.
Yet we differ, deeply.
Religious Humanists make the claim that the religious dimension of a human being is our best part, even while conceding that some forms of religion expression have done much harm.
On the other hand, secular Humanists show, in speech and in writing, what can justifiably be called a deep loathing of religion.[2]
While secular Humanists call for no religion, religious Humanists call for better religion. There is a third position represented by the hybrid Universism [3] which like secular Humanism, rejects faith as slavish credulity but claims to put religion on a rational footing.
The remainder of this paper and its sequel will discuss the possibility of a coming together, while not denying the canyon that separates secular from religious Humanists.[4]
A Question of Definition
Of all areas of knowledge which deal with human activity, it is in any consideration of religion that there is the greatest muddlement in the lexicon.
In everyday speech, 'faith' and 'belief' often mean 'provisional knowledge' as in "I believe that it will rain tomorrow" while the radical religious humanism of the Sea of Faith treats it as a much more profound matter. It is not merely a matter of believing that, but of believing in -- it is an existential concern. What is it that "holds your conscience captive" [5]?
You seek, like a swimmer, to be able to put your feet down and feel solid ground. Would you invest your very selfhood in the matter? 'Faith' and 'belief in' questions are questions of trustworthiness and value.
'Spirituality' is all of the above and additionally (if other people become involved) the practical answer to "who is my neighbour?" and what then are my obligations? [6]
The word religion names the secular Humanist's biggest scandal. Secular Humanists do not define religion as much as characterise it and then proceed to denounce it from an assumption that religion is inescapably supernaturalist, corrupt and daft. As Rob Wheeler of the SoF in the UK observed:
"The trouble with most books arguing for [secular] humanism is that they start with a crude critique of religion, focusing in an entirely unbalanced way on the horrors committed by Roman Catholicism in the past and the idiocies of Evangelicals and Fundamentalist in the present. Having shown that religion is mad, bad, dangerous and false they tend to assume that there is nothing else they have to do. Secular humanism naturally follows by default, QED, and requires no justification in its own right. At this point we can all stop thinking. ... [7]"
Most dictionaries still define religion in terms of an acknowledgement of a super-natural order of reality and our consequent behaviour towards it [8]. A Google search for [Religion definition of ] will yield in excess of 10 million hits.
This is my major disagreement with the majority of secular Humanists who have expressed themselves in print.
Those of us who are religious but do not subscribe to supernaturalism, take the view that those who do are guilty only of mistaking metaphor for metaphysics of mistaking the map for the territory to which it is said to point. Instead, we should see that religious language ...
"does not convey us truth about the world (thus competing with science ...), but is evocative, expressive, or emotive in character, or is performatory and celebrative in a social context, or is moral in its imperative function, or it has poetic metaphorical meaning. Thus God talk should be construed primarily as a form of personal and social moral poetry. If this is the case, then religion does not give us knowledge or truth; instead it expresses mood and attitude. [9]"
To put it another way, religious ideas are not of a propositional nature which invite debate, evidence, rebuttal and logical proof. Instead they deal with matters of existential importance, of what is so valuable that we would be at all times guided by it and we would commit our lives to it. The passionate anti-religious Humanist, too, knows this feeling of deep commitment.
Take this passage from Richard Dawkins, the voluble scourge of all things religious:
"Yet, by the book's [The Sacred Depths of Nature] own account, [Ursula] Goodenough does not believe in any sort of supreme being, does not believe in any sort of life after death. By any normal understanding of the English language, she is no more religious than I am. She shares with other atheistic scientists a feeling of awe at the majesty of the universe and the intricate complexity of life. Indeed, the jacket copy for her book the message that science does not 'point to an existence that is bleak, devoid of meaning, pointless,' but on the contrary 'can be a wellspring of solace and hope' would have been equally suitable for my book, Unweaving the Rainbow, or Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. If that is religion, then I am a deeply religious man. But it isn't. And I'm not. As far as I can tell, my 'atheistic' views are identical to Ursula's 'religious' ones. One of us is misusing the English language, and I don't think it's me. [10]
This paper takes the view that Dawkins ought to re-evaluate his position in the light of developments in the philosophy of religion.
To insist that religious thought and expression confine itself to the supernatural is similar to asking physics to retain phlogiston, for astronomy to stay with Ptolemy, medicine with Galen, and for biologists to agree that crocodiles emerge spontaneously from mud on the banks of the Nile. To imprison religious expression within pre-Enlightenment thought forms, as many Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians still lovingly do, and as Dawkins does for ease of ridicule, is outdated, dishonest or both. All forms of human thought move on, and so does the religious. One of the most significant scientific re-appraisals occurred in the early 1960s with Thomas Kuhn s paradigm shift the radical re-orientation of the accepted perspective of a particular scientific discipline [11]. At the same time the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A. T. Robinson published Honest To God [12], a comparable religious paradigm shift. Since then there has been an upswelling of scholarly analysis and reflection about Christianity in particular and religion in general. While, as Don Cupitt wrote of the institutional church ...
"doctrine remains unreformed and religious thinking is not yet free. Protestantism has largely decayed into fundamentalism. [13]"
... the opposite has occurred amongst scholars. New evidence has emerged about Christian origins. Advances in archeology, of comparative literature even of depth psychology now leave us open to talk of religion in terms that do not shackle it to the supernatural.
Radical Christians and post-Christians of the Sea of Faith Network see religion in terms rather like the following.[14]
First, we might use the clarification proposed by the Canadian historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith.[15] He suggests that when we use the expression "a religion" we are talking about an historical cultural phenomenon such as Christianity, Judaism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- and so on. They each have a history and they change slowly over time, usually in response to other historical phenomena which impinge on them. The traditions are ongoing and cumulative.
But when we talk about 'religion' -- that is without a qualifying "a" or "the", then we are talking about the personal piety or faith of an individual human being, even without reference to any particular formalised path of faith. In maintaining this distinction between a religion and religion we suggest that the religious impulse is logically prior to any form of its expression [16] as when we feel the existential need to find (or make, we cannot readily distinguish) values, by which life is centred and enriched in people, events, places, and objects. The Canadian academic, novelist and critic Robertson Davies wrote:
"[The word "religious"] comes from a Latin word which means to take care, to pay heed, to give thought to something. That is the word religere which is the opposite of neglegere, from which our word "neglect" comes to ignore, to close one's eyes to things, to live on the surface of life. [17]"
This unsought, hardwired itch [18] may be scratched in countless different ways, not all of which call on a supernatural schema. What we have identified as sacred [19] we commit ourselves to deeply, even totally. This paper submits that under the same rubric fall a range of phenomena as diverse as: the hymn-shouting Pentecostalist; the Theravadin Buddhist who is indifferent to the notion of God ; the level-headed Anglican bishop; the mystic of many flavours (Sufi, Hindu, Christian, New Age, spontaneous and passive); as well as the atheist who fulminates against any or all of the preceding.
The itch is universal in homo sapiens and the range of scratches is so extensive as to include even contradictory points of view [20]".
Paul Tillich [21] wrote that religion
"is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary" [22]
This approach, while succinct, is not without difficulties. The most obvious is raised by Richard Dawkins:
"But if the term religion is allowed such a flabbily elastic definition, what word is left for conventional religion, religion as the ordinary person in the pew or on the prayer mat understands it today -- indeed, as any intellectual would have understood it in previous centuries, when intellectuals were religious like everybody else? [23]
Dawkins wants another noun, but all he really needs is some qualifying adjectives. There is a universal propensity in humans to assign value and then commit one's being to it. Traditional paths of faith are historically and culturally-specific subsets of this general disposition. As noted above, forms of religious expression make up a variegated set, and their advocates do not always agree.
There are two other difficulties. It is possible to count some of the more resolutely anti-religious secular Humanists as being religious, if only because of the sincerity of the anti-religious feelings. To value a life free from supernaturalist superstition and to commit oneself to that belief is a matter of deep personal integrity. The particular way in which the skeptic puts integrity into action is to reject the cant, the double-talk and the hostility to Enlightenment knowledge that for so long has stood for Christian orthodoxy. Anti-Christian? Yes. Religious? Yes.
The other difficulty arises where one s ultimate concern is something commonly held to be deeply bad. Nazism, cannibalism, satanism have all attracted people who have given over their lives unconditionally. One response could be to say that, if it is that bad then its not really 'religion'. But that would be an evasion. We ought to honestly concede that they are religious orientations but that they lack the life-affirming focus by which we applaud most forms. Retain the noun, use more adjectives.
We could do worse than to quote Ronald Cavanagh for our definition:
"Religion is the varied, symbolic expression of, and appropriate response to, that which people deliberately affirm as being of unrestricted value for them". [24]
Bad Things Done in the Name of Religion
David Boulton, a Quaker and a prominent member of the UK Network of Sea of Faith conceded that it is ...
"the baggage which comes with the word religious which is the problem: baggage to do with dogmatism, authoritarianism, holy war, patriarchy, dressing up in silly clothes, vicars' voices, bad reproductions of sentimental paintings of earnest men in robes and langorous women in very little, washed in the blood choruses, misty mysticisms, life after death, gaseous spiritualities and money-spinning new age quackery". [25]
And ...
"Today, barely half way through the first decade of the 21st century and the third Christian millennium, we are living through a mighty revival of religion in its crudest, most bigoted, most pernicious forms. [26]
In Part 2 I will offer positive account of religious practice but I must first acknowledge that many of the charges levelled against religious expression have merit.
In order to get a balanced view, the reader is urged to maintain Wilfred Cantwell Smith s distinction between 'religion' and 'a religion' so that we place the blame at the appropriate feet.
Three or four decades ago we might have been justified in thinking that religious faith and practice were fading away, at least in the West. Dwindling church membership, then and now, supported that view. It was widely assumed that, as people became more educated, they would just give up on religion. As I read it, secular Humanists pray for that day. Sort of.
Several major forces have abruptly changed all that. Religion has erupted in the news media. In the positive reportage we read of religious activists promoting peace and justice and of scholarly Christian radical theology. In the negative we see forms of fundamentalism which are anti-intellectual and anti-science as well as both Islam and Christianity subverted to terrorism and militarism.
The document, A Secular Humanist Declaration [27] sets out objections to what it refers to simply as 'religion' : the idea that supernaturalism explains anything; symbols and myths acting as disguises for bad behaviour by sophisticated minorities'; the literal readings of scriptures; religions encouraging a morbid view of dying; the dependendence on divine assistance.
Most SoF people would (could?) say "amen" to many of these items. But we treasure myths (properly understood [28] ) as we treasure music -- as vehicles for existential truth. Look, as I recently did, into the eyes of a day-old grandchild and give me a 'rational' account, you philistine!
Let us consider two of the major grounds for complaint: politicization mixed with terrorism, and hostility to rationalism.
The interaction between a formalised religion and a political point of view is always a difficult one. Each, according to their precepts, makes claims to be the commanding viewpoint in the life of a subscriber. If 'religion' is to be taken seriously, then surely it sets the agenda for all major decision-making. But 'politics' makes its claims also of idealism, pragmatism, 'feet-onthe-ground'. As formal adherence to Christianity shrinks, what remains is both theologically and socially more conservative.
Marion Maddox, a senior lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University in Wellington, notes that the term 'faith' has ...
"become shorthand for a particular, socially conservative and economically liberal variety of Christianity, associated with the outer reaches of fundamentalist and Pentecostal Protestantism, and the currently ascendant conservative end of Catholicism[29]".
William Chavanne has chronicled the process by which the religious right came to public notice[30] . He listed the societal changes that fueled it.[31] and how the political right co-opted the religious right as voting fodder.[32]
Islam too has a built-in capacity for politicization. As Don Cupitt explained:
"Islam ...has never reconciled itself to critical thinking, or to the idea that the individual thinker may be right against the world. It cannot accept the idea that religion needs continual self-criticism and reform in order to develop aright". [33]
Westerners raised in a democratic tradition generally find Islamic shari ah law unpalatable, because of its incontestability. This is not the place to attempt to defend it but only to suggest that attempts to understand it will reward the researcher. There is a possibility that the West may, in time, help Islam to soften its insistence in shari'ah law [34].
Most promoters of religion will defend its a-rational nature on the grounds that religion is subjective rather than objective, inviting us to undertake non-scientific activities such as assigning value, of loving, of being compassionate. But we may not defend incursions into the domain [35] of science if the scientific method is violated. Much of the 'Intelligent Design' attracts such accusations. On the other hand, classical Christianity has made life difficult for itself by preserving pre-scientific knowledge in dogma, like spiders in amber, long after it has been superseded.
Lloyd Geering speaks as strongly as any Humanist (even atheist) against theism and argues passionately for a "Christianity Without Theism". These are some of the characteristics of theism -- the belief in a real, supra-personal God -- that he dislikes:
"it added to purely human words a dimension of absolute authority which they did not deserve ... the patriarchal and male-oriented character of the culture to which it lead ... For centuries the Western world has encouraged us to believe that our future is in the hands of a benevolent and all-powerful God and that we have been placed here on earth to prepare for an eternal destiny elsewhere. [36]
Who or What is to Blame?
There can be no doubt that atrocities of many kinds have been conducted in the name of religious faith. A catalogue would exceed the size of this paper. But it is too simple just to say that it follows 3 that an improvement would be made by banning religious faith. Indeed the suggestion is so ludicrous in its Canute-like naivety that it ranks alongside any suggestion to ban sex, automobiles, alcohol and chocolate.
The way forward is to follow the suggestion of Cantwell Smith. In separating the itch from the scratch [37] we allow for the possibility that the bad might lie in one court but not the other, as it does in the often-quoted parallel case of sexuality.
So, this paper takes the view that the itch , which takes on many names: religion, faith, belief, integrity .... is natural to the human condition. It is as ubiquitous as language and as problematic as sexuality.
And, like sexuality [38], the uses to which the religious disposition may be put are widespread. We deplore some of those uses without demanding an end to the capability.
In the concluding article I will attempt to give a positive account of religious faith and practice.

Part 2: We re All in This Together

In Part 1, I argued that there exists a universal human capacity to establish meaning in life by assigning value to people, places, objects and events. If such valuations become life-directing then the term religion is as good a name as any for the exercise of this capacity if we agree that conventional religious expressions are historically - and culturally-coloured examples.
In Part 2, I will argue that, although we should be grateful for the clarity of thought and for the social  activism of secular humanists, rationalists, skeptics and atheists, they understate some important human requirements of the kind that are celebrated by organisations such as The Sea of Faith Network [39] .
Who Needs Religion?
It is a widespread attitude among Sea of Faith people that a religious outlook is not only healthy but is  essential to a fully-realised life. Its expression need not be conventional.  The founding figure of the  original Sea of Faith Network, Don Cupitt, has recenty discovered that the idiomatic uses of "Life" and "It All" now occupy the space that "God" once routinely occupied in everyday speech [40]. But while the secularisation of the West, in particular, has brought many advantages, it has also created what the critic George Steiner referred to as a nostalgia for the absolute, a sense of disarray, a 'dessication' [41].
This loss is felt at the personal level also. Carl Jung wrote,
Among all of my patients in the second half of life, that is to say over thirty-five, there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them feel ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers and not one of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook". [42]
The reader is invited to keep an open mind about what can be said to constitute 'religion' , as Part 1 requested. For example, it would be an insult to the scholarly work of Jung and countless others to fail to see past the stereotypical old man with a beard in the sky approach when talking of God.
The religious humanist takes the view that, while secular humanism has many commendable features, it offers an incomplete reading of all the richness and potential of the human person. [43]
There is a constellation of ideas around the word 'holy' which comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'halig', meaning healthy, sound or whole. 'Heal' 'health' and 'hale' (as in 'hale and hearty') come from the same source.  Religion, at its finest, deals in wholeness. We might combine themes from Jung, Steiner, Neitzsche, Jesus, the Apostle Paul and Darwin and suggest that the characteristic of human wholeness is a yearning for transcendence, not into a supernatural world but into a fully realised humanness. This is not metaphysical transcendence, but aspirational transcendence. We are all born animals but, if the circumstances are right then we develop both the aspiration and the competence to transcend the animal substrate to become spiritual beings.
Let us be clear, while such transcendence does not look to denial of the flesh, it assigns the highest priorities to spiritual attitudes to love, faith, hope, and mutual support. It is these fruits of the spirit that should have the casting vote, not the flesh. Relegate the flesh, but do not deny it. [44]
The personal journey that our humanness invites us into is one best under-taken in the spirit of reconciling that which our analytical science has put assunder. Adam Kirsch, writing in the NY Sun, heavily criticised Daniel Dennett's recent book Breaking The Spell [45] on a number of grounds. The most substantial is this:
The ... dilemma for Mr. Dennett is that there are kinds of truth [which] the positivist cannot measure. At the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about. ... For what dooms his book, not just in literary but in logical terms, is his complete failure to recognize the existential demand of religion. [46]

To consider such demands, it is necessary to recognise that a large percentage of our important mental processes are subconscious, subjective and a-rational. Whether or not one laments this failure to measure up to the stern demands of Rationalism, it is nevertheless a fact. Those who spend most of their mental
activity in aesthetic pursuits attest to the sheer delight in not being wholly bound by reason or Reason.
We all possess an unconscious region of the mind which operates out of the reach of our awareness and so is not accessible to conscious introspection. But it can inject thoughts into the conscious region of our mind as, for example, it does in dreams [47] and it can be informed and nutured by activities as diverse as exotic religious ritual or reading a good novel.
One recent development is that, when we have spontaneous, un-called-for mental events, we now have psychological explanations by which to account for them. Or, more, simply, there is no need to postulate another order of reality when confronted with classic religious experiences such as mystic encounters, visions, or voices that encourage or warn. While acknowledging that they are often crucially important in the life of the owner, we can state with confidence that they come from 'down there' rather than from 'out there'.
Wholeness is the stated goal of both the religious Christian tradition and the secular psychotherapeutic tradition. Our western Christian tradition formerly looked to the church to facilitate a process of reprioritisation whereby the spiritual values of mercy, pity, peace and love [48] are made to override the fear and greed and self-absorption that is our animal legacy. But now we look to the psychoanalyst to help bring the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind into harmony. [49]
During the 20th century, Christian religious thought has moved in the direction of existentialism. It has done this at the expense of the institutionalism characteristic of the grand historical tradition and even of the systems of philosophy that its theology ran in tandem with.
Don Cupitt s quarrel with traditional Christianity reaches even wider:
The whole history of Western metaphysics from Plato to Nietzsche rested upon a mistake, and it was a
very bad mistake. We were running away from time, finitude and contingency. We forsook Being and took
refuge in dreams of absolute security, rational necessity, timelessness and total knowledge and control. But now with the end of metaphysics, philosophy is at long last returned to its original and founding question, the question of Being. [50]
The cognitive content of religious belief is now even less accessible to rational thought than was thought to be the case in earlier formulations [51] because as the then Professor of Philosophy, Antony Flew explained:
Existentialism is generally opposed to rationalist and empiricist doctrines that assume that the universe is a determined, ordered system intelligible to the contemplative observer who can discover the natural laws that govern all beings and the role of reason as the power guiding human activity. [52]
This ought not to be seen as a rejection of rationality but an assertion that the human person cannot be fully accounted for by using only rational terms.
In the existentialist view the problem of being must take precedence over that of knowledge in  philosophical investigations. Being cannot be made a subject of objective enquiry; it is revealed to the individual by reflection on his own unique concrete existence in time and space. [53]
Flew explained how his inability to penetrate below the surface leads to anxiety:
Man is in a condition of anxiety arising from the realization of his necessary freedom of choice, of his ignorance of the future, of his awareness of manifold possibilities, and of the finiteness of an existence that was preceded by and must terminate in nothingness [54]
This is the very anxiety that Cupitt suggests that we must live with, even revel in. By dismantling the gods, by taking leave of the Christian God, we grow up into the human creatures that wemight be.
Taking Leave of God
To reify is to treat an abstraction as though it were concretely real. Many of the authors that we have already quoted see religion as a life-guiding abstraction, as for example, in Cantwell Smith's "personal faith". However important this abstraction is, we cannot visualise it as we would a concrete object. Hence, Cupitt writes, " 'God' is the religious concern reified". [55] The abstraction is clothed in personhood, and so made available to thought. His justification for saying that is that we are products of the Reformation, one result of which was to show that religion can be criticised and reformed.
This has been going on for a long time, as David Boulton observes:
After all, most educated 'believers', with the exception of fundamentalists ... have gradually abandoned the idea that angels and demons, including the devil himself, are 'real' objective beings. Instead, they are seen as figurative and allegorical, human projections of good and evil. A 'real', objective God is for many modern believers the sole survivor of this ancient belief-system. But Sea of Faith suggests it is time to 'take leave' of a 'real' God 'out there', to recognise that 'he' too is figurative and allegorical. This is not to deny the reality of the experience which is sometimes described as 'experience of God', but it is to understand the experience and its reality in a different way. [56]
The plea was made in Part 1 to acknowledge that religious expressions can undergo paradigm shifts as have science and economics and much else. The last 40 years of the 20th century saw an acceleration of Christian scholarship which erupted, like an earthquake [57] with the publication of Bishop John Robin-
son's Honest to God. [58]
In 1967, Lloyd Geering, [59] publically reflecting on the controversy stirred up by Robinson, was tried for heresy by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. Jim Veitch reported that the Assembly found that no doctrinal error had occurred and dismissed the case [60].
In 1980 Don Cupitt, then Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, published Taking Leave of God [61] which he described as a resumption of the discussion about the nature of God begun by John Robinson and shelved for too long. He took his title from a sermon by the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, who said that
"Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God" [62]
Cupitt argued that we ought to acknowledge the reification and that
"faith in God must be understood as expressing an autonomous decision to pursue the religious ideal for its own sake". [63]
Nigel Leaves, an Australian Anglican clergyman and academic, wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the evolving theology of Don Cupitt. It was later published in two books: Odyssey On The Sea of Faith [64]
and Surfing On The Sea of Faith [65]. In the first, he chronicled the development of the theological orientation of Cupitt over a period of about 30 years.
In the present paper we can use Cupitt's own 'odyssey' as a microcosm of the development of radical, protestant thought over that time, an orientation described by Cupitt as 'Protestantism squared'. This summary by Leaves is derived from Odyssey and covers the period from 1970 to the present day:
  • The Negative [66] Theology: There is an objective God who was revealed to us by Jesus.
    Non-realism: Though the word 'God' need not be abandoned, the notion that it referred to an objective reality should be.
  • Postmodernism and Anti-realism: The application of non-realism to philosophy. There is not 'the world' but only 'our world'.
  • Expressionism: A world without God is not a world without value or ethics.
  • The Turn to Be-ing: Following Heidegger to say that only 'coming' to be ('be-ing') exists.
  • Ordinary Language: Religion persists and is expressed in everyday language. Some secular institutions
    better reflect Jesus' 'Kingdom' message than does the church, which is trapped in its institutionalism.
  • The Religion of the Future: Religionshould be about affirming life we must pass through nihilism to radical humanism.
Cupitt uses the term post-Christian to assert that Christianity has re-invented itself from within. Not only is post-Christianity still religious rather than secular, but it is continuous with Christianity. [67]
The major changes in emphasis that have taken place in the second half of the 20th century have resulted in a sort of DIY approach to religion, one that is well-suited to the confident individualism of the New Zealand psyche. While most religious humanists would look on traditional religious institutions as
optional sources of inspiration, they are unlikely to submit to them as authorities with the power to limit or command. We take the view that, for the expression of faith to be genuine, it must be one s own.
Lloyd Geering wrote:
"the moral imperative which we experience in the human condition has been internalized. This does not
make morality any less important than it was before, but it does make it possible for us to become more morally responsible persons".

Why Secular Humanism isn't enough
Human beings have two capabilities which are so much in evidence that they separate us from other animals to a significant degree. We can confidently assert that they are 'hardwired'.
One is a capacity for language which, in the majority of people, is expressed in one or more of the natural languages.
The other is a capacity to ascribe life-directing significance to people, places, events, and ideologies. In the majority of people this is expressed in involvement with a formal 'path of faith' ('a religion') and/or an ideological movement such as Communism, and/or in social activism such as Greenpeace; and/or in any one of a multitude of society-watchdog organisations such as the several Humanist or Rationalist or Skeptic organisations.
We in the West live in a disenchanted world in which many hunger for the mental, emotional and spiritual life which was previously fed by ritual and rich metaphors and myth. In seeking nourishment, many fall prey to political spin doctors and the advertising industry which has have never stopped believing in the a-rational part of the human psyche. Such merchants of coercion have turned to their advantage the vulnerability that the western mind displays when it is separated from a commitment to transcendence. Starved of soul-satisfying myths, symbols and metaphors, many in the west have turned to New Age
phenomena, to occultist teledramas or to unscholarly treatments of theological themes. [68]
But the post-Modern twenty-first century cannot give us assurances of any kind. Things are just too free-floating. Like the progenitor of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, Abraham, each of us must be prepared to set out, with only our faith, and without any forward reservations. We are invited to simply throw in our lot with Life [69] and to accept, in faith, that simply be-ing human is worthwhile.
Although the opinions of fundamentalist Christians may be totally opposed to those of secular humanists, the conviction with which they are held classify them all 'religious' in the terms explored in Part 1. We must observe that not all expressions of faith result in tolerance for other points of view and so a secular independent keeper of the peace is needed. As Rachael Kohn [70] said at the 2005 Conference of the Sea of Faith Network (NZ) the secular democratic society is the best guardian of religious freedom.
While rationalism and secular humanism deal admirably in truth, as defined by philosophers and  scientists, [71] it is what can be called 'existential truth' that religion and religious humanism deal with. It is here that a statement is 'true' if what it says illuminates the human condition such that life is enriched,
relationships are enhanced, and we are inspired to live lives that are more decent and more loving. Plato's 'Myth of Er' in the Book X of his Republic is one such example. It was even called by Plato a 'noble lie'. We know that much quality fiction and quite a few movies suggest ways that life might be improved. They
exhibit a 'truth' about the human condition even though their story-lines are fictitious. It is now a  commonplace, at least among liberal Christian theologians, that much of the Bible has this quality: it is literally fictitious but it has the force and effect of fact.
Since the language of faith deals with the most profound aspects of our existence, then 'existential truth' is much more relevant to our faith than is the philosophical or logical. Scientific and philosophical truth equips us to handle the objective world about us, while existential truth helps us interact subjectively with objects of value, including ourselves.

The Canadian academic, novelist and critic Robertson Davies wrote:
We are obsessed with the notion that to think is the highest achievement of mankind, but we neglect the fact that thought untouched by feeling is thin, delusive, treacherous stuff. [72]
For the most part, secular humanists value only the logical/scientific meaning while religious humanists embrace also the existential. Or, to put it another way, if a secular humanist embraces the existential version then she is already on the slippery slope towards religion. Once we step into the domain where we
deal with what the scientific method systematically excludes -- subjectivity, aesthetics, moral claims -- then we are entering the area in which religion operates.
A purely secular world is simply not able to safeguard that which is most precious about being human. Twenty years ago, hard-right economic policy and a surrender to the dynamics of the market elevated fear and greed to primary virtues, and social compassion was marginalised. Neither is the scientific viewpoint alone a sufficiently rich foundation on which to build a life, because, in order to operate objectively, science must ignore our subjectivity. While that is good for science, the very subjectivity of which we are made -- all our hopes, loves, fears, ecstacies, joys and terrors -- are of no account there.
The philosopher Jacque Monod was no friend of religion but he touched a nerve when he wrote:
The ancient covenant is in pieces:man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the
universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose. [73]
Any new and radical approach to religious thought must start at about that point. It must acknowledge what older systems of dogmatic certitude denied: that time passes destructively; that events (good and bad) just 'happen' without pity for any victims; that death is the last stop on the tramride of our lives. Because we are all in the same captainless and rudderless boat, we must turn to each other for warmth, for support, and for the encouragement by which the humanness,latent in us all, can flower. We must
start here, now, because this is the only time and the only world that we will ever know. Get that right and something worthy to be called 'God' will emerge.
Sea of Faith and Humanism
The name of the organisation Sea of Faith Network comes from a phrase in Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach. It was used in 1984 as the title of a BBC television documentary series and book by the English theologian Don Cupitt. The book and the television series trace pivotal changes in western science,
philosophy and religion over the past four centuries which together call for a radical re-thinking of our faith traditions.
The Sea of Faith Network is neither a church, nor a church substitute. You might call it a talking shop wherein any and all ideas about the expression of religious faith are exchanged sympathetically. There are some Humanists among SoF who are made more comfortable by there being no assertions of dogmatic
certainty nor definitions of orthodoxy. But there are certain 'flavours' and 'attitudes' that go with SoF, as David Boulton observed:
It is our responsibility in Sea of Faith and the growing networks promoting a humanistic understanding of religion to nurture it, to grow it on, to see that it is not entirely swamped by the tidal waves of irrational supernaturalist religion. [74]
SoF does not suit everybody and nor does it try. It treads that uneasy line between a rejection of a supernatural order of things (and the explanations that such an order would offer) and the feeling (conviction even) that all that is profound and enobling about being human, needs forms of expression that sound supernaturalist when what is really happening is that we are talking in the language of transcendence. It is the age old problem of metaphors being taken literally.
Concluding Remarks
To summarise the recurrent themes of my two articles:
  • We are physical creatures before we are mental creatures and we are mental creatures before we are spiritual creatures. Our conscious selves crouch on top of a causal pyramid, the nature of which is slowly being discovered.
  • We are contingent creatures built of atoms, defined by genes, bullied by hormones, bouyed by endorphins, tortured by nightmares and inspired by good music, good poetry and good preaching.
  • We each have a unique provenance and we each live a unique life.
  • We have two strongly-exercised capabilities which separate us from other animals to a significant degree: a hard-wired capacity for language and a hardwired capacity for what is usually called 'religion' -- ascribing life-directing significance to people, places, events, and ideologies.
  • So powerful is this urge that we feel bound, religare, to do something about it. Its forms of expression are so various as to encompass sometimes violent contradictions in the ranks of the religious.
  • The expression of religious faith does not, of necessity, require assertions about supernatural agencies or realms, even though many take that option. Religious faith does not equate to credulity.
  • Scientific discoveries require us to look for improved metaphors by which to express the sheer wonder of life on earth and the possibilities latent in our humanness. If scientific paradigms may be modernised, why not religious paradigms also?
  • New expressions of religious faith are constantly emerging. In recent decades there has been a re-emphasis on earth-centred values and rituals. Many radically religious people -- post-theistic, post-Christian, religious humanist and many others -- take the view that the earth is our only home. It is not merely a transit lounge in which we piously wait for death to waft us away to another world above the bright blue sky.
  • While Christianity persists as the path of faith of the West, it is largely shorn of its political clout, except in the neo-con USA. It is so diverse in its forms, practices and creeds, and has changed so much over time, as to not be readily described or critiqued without considerable qualification.
  • Christianity is shrinking numerically while shedding its liberals and its radicals. In a circling-the-wagons response, spokespeople are moving towards a purity model of Christianity and  away from the compassion approach of Jesus [75].
  • Our deepest values (including the right to chose or reject expressions of faith) are best ensured by secular government.
  • While humans exist, religion will persist in one form or another because to ascribe value and to commit utterly to it is an essential part of being human.
  • The search for better ways to affirm our human-ness will go on as long as humans exist and at, rock bottom, that is what religion is. The ambition to be radically, totally human is about as sacred as it gets. The difference in our time is that we are now free to experiment with expressions of faith as never before.
Noel Cheer 2006
Noel Cheer was invited by the editor to explore the term humanism as applied in both The Sea of Faith Network and in the NZAHR.


Ashby 1999, "Humanism without Adjectives", a paper presented to the 1999 UK SoF Conference by Robert Ashby, Executive Director of the British Humanist Association. The reformatted excerpt, comes from the January 2001 issue of the SoF (UK) magazine "SoF".
Borg 1994, Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time HarperCollins

Boulton 1996, David Boulton, A Reasonable Faith: Introducing the Sea of Faith Network published by the SoF (UK) and available on their website
Boulton 2001, David Boulton What on earth is religious humanism? in SOF 45 / January 2001. SOF, is a journal of the Sea of Faith Network (UK).
Boulton 2004, David Boulton "Seek ye first the Republic of Heaven: Religion Evolving, Revolving or Devolving", a keynote address to the 2004 annual Conference of The Sea of Faith Network (NZ).
Buber 1937, I and Thou tr. Walter Kaufmann pub T&T Clark Edinburgh 1970
Campbell 1976, The Portable Jung edited by Joseph Campbell, published by Penguin Books
Cavanagh 1978, Ronald R. Cavanagh "The Term Religion" in Introduction to the Study of Religion ed. T. William Hall, Harper and Row San Francisco 1978
Cupitt 1980, Don Cupitt Taking Leave of God SCM Press
Cupitt 1998, Don Cupitt The Religion of Being SCM Press
Cupitt 2001: Don Cupitt, "Comparative Religions" in Guardian 27 October 2001
Cupitt 2003, Don Cupitt, Life, Life. Polebridge Press, CaliforniaDavies 1997, Robertson Davies (1913-1995) Happy Alchemy, Penguin Books 1997
Dawkins 1999: Richard Dawkins, Snake Oil and Holy Water in April 10, 1999
Dennett 2003, Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Penguin
Flew 1979, Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy Pan Books, London
Geering 1983, The World of Relation, An Introduction to Martin Buber's "I and Thou". Victoria University Press
Geering 1980, Lloyd Geering: Faith's New Age Collins, London
Geering 2002, Lloyd Geering, Christianity Without God Bridget Williams Books (NZ) and Polebridge Press Santa Rosa California
Hutchison 1981, Paths of Faith McGraw-Hill 1969, 1981
Jung 1933, Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of His Soul. Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc,. NY.
Leaves 2004, Nigel Leaves Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: The Life & Writings of Don Cupitt, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California
Leaves 2005, Nigel Leaves Surfing on the Sea of Faith: The Life & Writings of Don Cupitt, Polebridge Press,, Santa Rosa California
Monod 1970, Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity Collins/Fount Paperbacks
Robinson 1963, Honest To God SCM Press 1963 Sea of Faith Network Websites: NZ: UK: Australia:
Steiner 1974, George Steiner, Nostlagia For The Absolute, the publication of the 1974 CBC Massey Lectures.
Tillich 1964, Paul Tillich Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions Columbia University Press 1964
Tillich 1964, Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, Ch 1, OUP, New York.
Veitch 1997, "Presbyterians in Conflict: 1965-1970" by James Veitch in Stimulus Vol 5 No 2 May 1997
Wheeler 2006, a review of On Humanism, by Richard Norman (Routledge. 2004. 170pp. £8.99. ISBN: 0415305233) by Rob Wheeler. Found in the web page of Sea of Faith Network (UK)


1. The term as used here does not mean 'acquisitiveness'.

2. The Humanist Manifesto I of 1933 was quite happy with 'religious Humanist' and said that "Religion consists of actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant". By the time of Humanist
Manifesto II in 1973 the atmosphere had chilled to where religion was seen as series of obstacles to self-realisation. The website associated with The Open Society has a feature
called "The Fundy Post" of which they say "[It] is published under the banner of 'We read this crap so you don't have to.' Now, if you really must read it, you can. The Fundy Post Newswire provides links to all the best stories about religion, from New Zealand and around the world." Some of the idiotic things done in the name of a religious path of faith are written up in what are called 'best stories'. My reader is invited to look for any intellectual merit at all in this approach.

3. see

4. An article written by Naomi Sherer, found at is mostly an ill-informed rant against all things religious, but its title "Religious Humanism as Oxymoron" sums up a widely-held opinion.

5. from the recent movie Luther

6. that spirituality is rooted in relationship is the theme of Buber 1937 and this is even more clearly articulated in Geering 1983.

7. Wheeler 2006.

8. As early as 1978 Cavanagh (qv) could contrast two quotes: from Webster's Third New International Dictionary: "Religion is a belief in an invisible superhuman power ...." and from the American College Dictionary: "Religion is the quest for the values of the ideal life, and for the means of achieving them, and includes a world view that relates this quest to the surrounding universe."

9. Paul Kurtz, "Should Skeptical Inquiry Be Applied to Religion?" Skeptical Inquirer magazine July/August 1999:

10. Dawkins 1999

11. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

12. see Robinson 1963. To students of religion the material in his book was not especialy new or shocking but that a Bishop of the Church of England should write "... a more radical recasting ... is demanded ... in process of which the most fundamental categories of our theology -- of God, of the supernatural, and of religion itself -- must go into the melting caused an uproar which has not yet ended."

13. Cupitt 2001

14. I don't want to appear to be talking ex cathedra: SoF has no cathedra. Nor do I want to say that I speak "for the membership". But I hope that my views would be widely agreed with amongst SoF people.

15. In The Meaning and End of Religion Mentor Books New York 1962/1064

16. It is quite consistent to suggest that cause-and-effect runs the other way that the participation in a religious milieu induces religious feelings. While conceding a degree of reciprocity, we see the evidence as favouring the priority of religion over religions .

17. Davies 1997 pages 349-350 passim

18. "Man ... is an animal born to believe." Disraeli 25 November 1864.

19. in the general or secular sense of setting them apart or above other items as being worthy of veneration. "My mother s memory is sacred to me". This often leads to expressing 'worthship', the word that gave us 'worship'.

20. "... a secular society is not hostile to religion, but provides a kind of neutral environment in which different faiths are free to pursue their ways and works". Hutchison 1981 p522

21. Paul Tillich 1886-1965, German-born U.S. theologian and philosopher whose discussions of God and faith illuminated and bound together the realms of traditional Christianity and modern culture. Some of his books, notably The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), reached a large public audience not usually concerned with religious matters.

22. Tillich 1964 p3

23. Dawkins 1999 But the person in the pew or on the prayer mat may not be a philosopher of religion.

24. Cavanagh 1978 p19

25. Boulton 2001

26. Notes from his address at the SoF (NZ) annual Conference, 2004

27. A Secular Humanist Declaration Issued In 1980 by The Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (now the Council for Secular Humanism)

28. not as "fallacy" but in the use of "pictorial language to express truths which cannot be expressed so readily or so forcefully in any other way." G. B. Caird, St Luke, Penguin Books 1963 p79 If the reader can handle poetry then she can handle myth.

29. "The Rise of Faith-Based Politics" , Dr  Marion Maddox, Senior Lecturer, Religious Studies Department Victoria University Wellington at a one-day Conference of the Auckland group of SoF 21 May 2005. Emphases added.

30. William Martin Chavanne is Professor of Religion and Public Policy, Department of Sociology, Rice University. The quoted is from the transcription of a presentation made to the 1997 Annual Forum of The
Center for Progressive Christianity.
Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at For more information about With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America, see

31. op cit

32. op cit

33. Don Cupitt, "Comparative Religions" Guardian, Saturday October 27, 2001

34. Much of the attention is focused on reformulating the sharia, the centuries-old body of Islamic law deeply embedded in a medieval psychology. "Can Islam change?" By Ziauddin Sardar New Statesman 2004

35. Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rock of Ages, (Jonathan Cape 2001 ) proposed Non Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) which he explained as the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. NOMA has met with some, though not universal acceptance.

36. Geering 2002 especially pp137-144 but elsewhere passim

37. my words, not his.

38. the connections between sexuality and religious practice (especially monastic and mystical) has a long history. Phenomena such as St Anthony's succubi, mass sexual hysteria as in Huxley's The Devils of Loudon, and the current revelations of paedophilia by celibate priests are all likely to be explained by reference to psychological dynamics.

39. The name comes from a phrase in Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach: "The Sea of Faith / Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore, / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. / But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world".
The phrase was used in 1984 as the title of a BBC television documentary series and book by the English theologian Don Cupitt who has become the founding figure of SoF which has independent but co-operating networks in NZ, UK and Australia. The book and the television series trace pivotal changes in western science, philosophy and religion over the past 350 years which together call for a radical re-thinking of our faith traditions.
40. Cupitt 2003 amplifies this.
41. [T]he decay of a comprehensive Christian doctrine had left in disorder, or had left blank, essential perceptions of social justice, of the meaning of human history, of the relations between mind and body, of the place of knowledge in our moral conduct. The thesis of Steiner 1974 pp1-2
42. Jung 1933 p264
43. There is another axis for which there is not the space to explore, the idea found in Borg 1994 in which we can see forms of religious expression spread out on a spectrum with conscientious conformity to the require ments of some aspect of personal purity at one end and self-giving mercy, pity, peace and love (Blake s phrase) at the other.
44. The middle way of The Buddha said almost exactly this.
45. Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett 450pp, Penguin, £25
46. If Men Are From Mars, What's God? by Adam Kirsch, February 8, 2006 in
47. We might note Jung s insistence that the mission of psychotherapy is to get the unconscious and the conscious components of the mind to work in harmony, leading to 'individuation' , another way of
saying 'wholeness'.
48. from Blake.
49. Campbell 1976 p279
50. Cupitt 1998 p106
51. Look at Alexander Pope's deism in his Essay on Man.
52. Flew 1979 pp107-108
53 .ibid,
54. ibid
55. Cupitt 1980 p18
56. Boulton 1996
57. In Geering 1980 p15: "But when religion itself is caught up in the confusion of change ... then, as in an earthquake, it seems as if the very ground beneath can no longer be relied on".

58. Robinson 1963

59. Emeritus Professor Lloyd Geering has been writing and lecturing on the condition of Christianity since the 1960s and the need to radicalise it since his retirement from Victoria University of Wel ington in 1983. He was instrumental is setting up SoF in New Zealand.

60. Veitch 1997

61. Cupitt 1980

62. From a sermon: Qui audit me. Christian Humanists point to Jesus' saying in Mark 2:27: "The Sabbath was made for Man[kind], not Man[kind] for the Sabbath".

63. Boulton 1996

64. Leaves 2004

65. Leaves 2005

66. "the negative or apophatic tradition, in which God is deemed unknowable and ineffable" Leaves 2004 p21

67. Leaves 2005 p83. This point is debated among post-Christians.

68. We might remember that, though The da Vinci Code offers itself as fiction, it is treated as factual by many of its readers.

69. Articulated in Cupitt 2003

70. Dr Rachael Kohn is heard across Australia by radio and on the web every week on ABC Radio National in the programmes: The Spirit of Things and The Ark.

71. "A statement is true if what it says is the case actually is the case" typical PHIL101

72. Davies 1997 p 153

73. The concluding words of Monod 1970.

74. David Boulton at the SoF (NZ) Conference, 2004

75. Borg 1994 especially pp53-58



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