Feb 20, 2014

Sea of Faith

James Bennett interviews an Anglican priest who does not believe in God.

James Bennett | Magazine Editor

David Paterson is an Anglican priest. He does not believe in God.

On the phone he comes across as your average eighty-year-old Englishman. He is jolly, yet delightfully polite. It’s almost like talking to someone who has just stepped out of an episode of Miss Marple. The last thing that would come to one’s mind is a radical religious thinker.

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Paterson is a member of the board of the Sea of Faith network, an organisation with the aim of exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation. Sea of Faith was founded in the 1980’s by a group of radical Christian clergy and laypeople. They were inspired by the work of Don Cupitt, a philosopher, theologian, Anglican priest and former Cambridge Dean. Cupitt made a documentary series called Sea of Faith in 1984 which “surveyed western thinking about religion and charted the transition from traditional realist religion to the twentieth-century view that religion is simply a human creation.” It was this TV series that inspired a small but committed group to get together with a view to bringing together similarly minded people. After starting with a small mailing list, Sea of Faith eventually began organising annual conferences. Today they have local branches all around the UK, with sister organisations in Australia and New Zealand.

After discovering Sea of Faith while spending hours aimlessly trawling Wikipedia, I was eager to find out more about them. I got in touch through their website, and was granted a phone interview with David Paterson, their press officer. Above, I wrote that Paterson did not believe in God. He himself would say that he does believe in God, but not the same kind of God that most people believe in: “Let’s straighten out the terminology. I always have to do this… By ‘believe in God’ I would normally mean ‘put my trust in’. And that does not entail thinking that God is some sort of objective reality. God is the sum total – or the personification if you like – of our hopes, our dreams and our ideals… God is quite an important concept. But to talk about the ‘existence’ of God is a nonsense. God ‘exists’ only as a human idea.”

“It appears that the members of Sea of Faith arrive at the same point as atheists, but choose to continue in another direction”

Paterson was patient with me as I struggled to grasp exactly what Sea of Faith is about. It appears that the members of Sea of Faith arrive at the same point as atheists, but choose to continue in another direction. After coming to the conclusion that God does not exist, many atheists today take an existentialist approach. They embrace the freedom of a godless universe, and decide that they themselves are the creators of their own ethics, and their own purpose. If they are a member of a church, they will usually stop attending. Those in Sea of Faith have chosen a different path. They come to the same initial conclusion that atheists do, and while they may incorporate aspects of existentialism or humanism, many of them remain members of their churches.

Paterson is patient with  me as I struggle to grasp exactly what Sea of Faith is about. It appears that the members of Sea of Faith arrive at the same point as atheists, but choose to continue in another direction. After coming to the conclusion that God does not exist, many atheists today take an existentialist approach. They embrace the freedom of a godless universe, and decide that they themselves are the creators of their own ethics, and their own purpose. If they are a member of a church, they will usually stop attending. Those in Sea of Faith have chosen a different path. They come to the same initial conclusion that atheists do, and while they may incorporate aspects of existentialism or humanism, many of them remain members of their churches.

The idea of religion having a value is central to Sea of Faith. The organisation hangs on the assertion that religion is beneficial to our lives. I asked Paterson to explain what the value of religion is, after one has rejected God as anything but a construct in human consciousness: “It is an amazing cultural, intellectual, artistic and imaginative feat to have built up all these religions. They really are wonderful ways of enabling people to get a grasp on life.”

At this point I was wondering whether said “grasp on life” was related to ideas of meaning and purpose. Paterson acknowledged these concepts were an important part of religion, but seemed to place more importance on self-understanding, drawing comparisons between religion and art: “Purpose and meaning certainly come into it. But also just to live in a way that comprehends what being alive is all about. We can accept that we have gone a bit further than animals. And we do actually need some sort of a structure, which is why rituals are performed and stories are told. Certainly meaning and purpose are a part of it… Once you have accepted that religion is a human creation, then it is like art and literature and things like that. They are an extremely valuble way to understand yourself.”

I was beginning to understand Paterson’s point. Sea of Faith is a group of people who, although they do not believe in the supernatural aspect of religion, still want to use religion as a structure to explore what it means to be human. When they attend religious services they are seeking the same experience that one seeks when reading literature, going to the theatre, listening to music or looking at a painting. It is something beyond the everyday – an insight into the infamous “human condition”, if such a thing exists.

The moral aspect of religion, so important to a large number of people, had been neglected in Paterson’s answers. When I put this to him, he acknowledged that morals were still an important part of religion from the Sea of Faith viewpoint: “[Religion] is not outside of the moral domain… But that is not to say that you can’t do this from outside religion as well. We are very careful not to say that either purpose or morality are dependent on religion. They have been framed in religious terms and sometimes still are. There is nothing wrong with that and it is a very rich heritage… But it is blatantly untrue that they depend on religion.” He also believes that while morality does not depend on religion, “you can be an atheist and still learn a great deal from religious stories and rituals.”

“I preach using God’s terminology, but never with the suggestion that God actually exists”

Hearing these words come from a practicing Anglican priest is slightly disconcerting. I asked him how he reconciles these beliefs with his work in the church: “Within my congregation I would take the line that how you feel about God is not in the least dependent on whether you think God exists or not. I preach using God’s terminology, but never with the suggestion that God actually exists. I have noticed in the typescripts of my sermons that I very rarely use the word God. And if I do it is to refer to a being in a story. So there is no difficulty in using the bible stories.” Paterson cites the Trappist monk and twentieth-century Christian mystic Thomas Merton to develop this point: “Merton said a very interesting thing, and I think he might have meant the same as us. He said: ‘There is no such thing as God because God is not a thing.’ And I think that’s spot on.”

Being an active member of the Sea of Faith network has not made Paterson’s life any easier. He has come up against hostility within the Church of England: “Various bishops have tried to get me out at various stages. Well… To be honest… Two bishops. Once it was for appearing on the BBC programme The Heart of the Matter to discuss reading the resurrection stories as metaphor. The bishop sort of worked on me for a year to see if he could manage to get me out but he didn’t succeed.” As shocking as it was to hear that not believing in the existence of God is insufficient grounds to get a priest expelled from the Church of England, Paterson confirmed this: “Well, the Church of England is funny that way. It likes to think that it can tell people what they should believe. But as a matter of fact, the process of expelling someone is so complicated and so expensive that it is hardly ever used.” Despite this though, two Sea of Faith members who were clergymen have been successfully dismissed from their posts: Church of England priest Anthony Freeman and Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland.

Paterson claims that his unorthodox views do not cause problems with his parishioners: “I didn’t ever have much trouble with my congregation. But then even course I was not shoving it down their throats. I wasn’t trying to tell anyone else what to believe any more than I would want other people to tell me what to believe.” I asked him what he do if a member of his congregation came to him having doubts about the existence of God. I was under the impression that this would have been a tricky situation. Paterson is surprisingly laid back about it: “Well of course there is a surprisingly large number of people like that. This is why Sea of Faith was set up. There were loads and loads of people who were anxious because they thought that they were losing their faith. Some of them were ordained and some of them were not. What we wanted to do was reassure them that there weren’t losing their faith. They were actually finding a real faith which was not based on false premises.”

“Since my teenage years, I have thought that the traditional churches had made a big mistake in misunderstanding the resurrection stories”

Paterson is also very relaxed about the idea of life after death, which he does not believe in. As a Christian clergyman, I found it hard to believe that not accepting such a key tenet of his religion would not be problematic. He does not seem to see it as a big issue: “Well I ditched the afterlife around my early teens. I don’t think there is anyone in Sea of Faith who would argue that there is a life after death… . I do actually take a lot of funerals. I would not push the idea of life after death on anyone, and I would not challenge it if that is what people want. I was one of the first people who stopped using the prayer book at funerals. Because it isn’t about the person at all. It’s all about God. I changed the method to make the funeral about the person. But of course that is common practice now anyway. Since my teenage years, I have thought that the traditional churches had made a big mistake in misunderstanding the resurrection stories. They are not about a kingdom of God which is going to take place sometime after you have died. They are about building a kingdom of God here. And one of the reasons why we haven’t done that is because we have been sidelined into thinking that it’s something that will occur after death. The resurrection stories are about the death of the old self and the rising of the new. It’s all about new hope, and new beginnings. They should be played out here, on this planet, because there isn’t going to be anything else.”

As interesting as Paterson’s personal experiences were, he was just as eager to talk about the progress of Sea of Faith as an organisation. The annual UK conference, which always has a wide range of guest speakers, is still their main event. However there are many local conferences as well, with twenty local branches in the UK, and organisations in Australia and New Zealand, as already mentioned. The group also publishes a quarterly magazine called Sofia, which discusses ideas around the concept of religion as a human creation. Paterson praises the work of the magazine, but thinks that it can “sometimes tend to be overly Christian.” There is a strong desire in Sea of Faith at the moment to increase inter-faith dialogue . In the Sea of Faith local branch in Oxford, for example, there “six or seven Hindus, two or three pagans, and one Jew.” There is such a strong movement towards diversity and interaction with other groups that this year’s conference will be on the theme of connections: “We’ve already got three speakers. One is a Unitarian, one is Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, and one is Pippa Evans who co-founded the Sunday Assembly.” Paterson himself is extremely supportive of the drive to make connections: “When I moved down to Oxford the first thing I did was join the Muslim-Christian Dialogue. Then I joined the Atheist Society!”

It looks as if the future is bright for Sea of Faith. Their membership subscriptions completely fund operations, and everything seems to be running smoothly. They have successfully created an intellectual space for the free discussion of radical and unusual religious ideas. We live in a time when fundamentalism is on the rise among atheists and people of faith. In Paterson’s own words: “We are in a very good position to bridge the gap between rather extreme opinions. I have worked with atheist, humanists and secularists who tend hate religious people, and also with religious people who tend to hate atheists. And I have tried to show that you can be both.”

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