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Losing their religion: the priests who turned from God

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

May 25, 2018   13 mins

Over the past 17 years – partly as a response to the events of 9/11 – a form of atheism emerged that has become known as the ‘new atheism’. Thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett have been credited with promoting the ideas of non–belief to a new generation. The movement was able to use the internet and sites such as YouTube to share atheist ideas with a huge audience.

But the internet has a short memory, and can downplay the significance of people who were making their case before we fully entered the digital age. Contemporary atheists (like contemporary believers) are often woefully ignorant of the arguments and thinkers who came before them. And though there are many such significant sceptics and dissenters who are worthy of attention, I wanted to focus on two people in particular, whose thinking made a significant impression on me.   They are the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, and the philosopher and ex–priest, Don Cupitt. The influence of both men continues to make an impression today, even though many are unaware of it.

From the age of 14, Richard Holloway (born 1933) attended a school run by a religious order, which trained young men for the priesthood. From there, he went to spend a lifetime in the ministry, in Africa and America, but largely in Britain. In Scotland, he was promoted Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1992 – positions from which he resigned in 2000. This last step was unavoidable. By Holloway’s own admission towards the end of his career he found himself holding exactly the stances that he had attempted to fight against as a young man.

Holloway’s early works and preaching were expressions of religious orthodoxy which gained him institutional respect. As he later explained it:

In the late 1960s, I emerged from a period of radical doubt about the whole Christian doctrinal system, and I fell into a very common trap: I reacted against my own uncertainties by attacking doubt and uncertainty in others. A closet sceptic, I condemned in others what I was too afraid to look at in myself.

As he also said of his first book:

It was an attack on the kind of theology I myself now write. All along, I can now see, I was my own enemy, the opponent of the other self within, the person who doubted that theological propositions actually represented metaphysical realities, actually described the situation in the heavenly realm. My anxieties about all of this caused me to engage in a classic projective identification and condemn in others what I secretly believed in my own heart. It is one of the deepest ironies of my life that I ended up in my sixties the kind of bishop that I attacked when I was a priest in my thirties.” 1

This took some decades to work itself out. Throughout the Eighties, as he made his way up the church hierarchy, Holloway held onto belief. Though by the 1990s this began to slip. In Dancing on the Edge: Faith in a Post-Christian Age (1997), Holloway aimed to rethink Christianity for those who increasingly felt on the margins of it. Two years later he had written perhaps his most important book, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics. What was it that had made a theologically conservative Bishop turn against the dogma and truth-claims of his own religion?

One thing, which comes up repeatedly in his later books, was the church’s stance on moral issues and in particular the church’s attitude towards women and gays. The 1998 Lambeth Conference, in particular, was a watershed for Holloway. It was there – at the once-a-decade meeting of all Anglican bishops from around the world – that Holloway found something which turned him not just off, but away. The 1998 Conference was riven by a particularly bitter and public row over the church’s attitude towards homosexuality.

At the previous Lambeth Conference, the then Archbishop of Canterbury had managed to contain the division which existed over the matter of women’s ordination. But at the 1998 conference the divide between the liberal and literal wings of the church split wide open and in particularly rancorous terms. The divide between the Anglican church in the developed world and, in particular, that of the African churches, climaxed in one Bishop trying to exorcise the ‘demons’ out of a prominent gay Christian.

Holloway objected to the Bishops’ reliance on the Bible as the ultimate source for moral truth

Holloway said that “in reaffirming Christianity’s traditional rejection of same-sex relationships” the conference “evinced a degree of hatred of homosexuals that many observers found frightening”. But it was not the personal unpleasantness alone that troubled him. It was the theology that lay behind it. He wrote at the time, “The saddest aspect of a very depressing event was the way speaker after speaker quoted the Bible as though it was the final word on a complex subject, so that no further thinking needed to be done.” 2

Holloway did not merely object to specific moral judgements being made by his fellow bishops. He objected to their reliance on the Bible as the ultimate source for moral truth. In the book he wrote immediately after Lambeth – indeed, he later said, “provoked” by Lambeth – he made a clear call for keeping God out of ethics. In this he took scripture out of the equation and argued a case for dealing with some of the very modern complexities of ethics by what he described as a system of ‘ethical jazz’.

The Archbishop of South–East Asia proclaimed Holloway’s book to be heretical and Scotland, by extension, a heretical province

It was a book that was lavishly received outside of the church. But inside it ended his career. In his 2012 memoir Holloway recorded the ‘fatwa’ issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, on the then still Bishop of Edinburgh’s turf and presence, in September 1999. The Archbishop proclaimed a form of ‘anathema’ on the book. The Archbishop of South-East Asia proclaimed the book to be heretical and Scotland, by extension, a heretical province. Local clergy demanded his resignation, but it was not until the following year, in his own time, that he announced he was leaving his position.3

Unconstrained any longer by the strictures or reprimands of the church authorities, this move gave Holloway the opportunity to move further away from the church’s precepts as well as precincts. The following year he published Doubts and Loves, a book which revealed a personal as well as professional move. In it he described a type of person who cannot believe in “a set of claims about ancient miracles” but who is “haunted by some of the values of Christianity and would like to be associated with it in a way that did not violate their moral and intellectual integrity”.

This, Holloway explained, was now his own position. He wrote:

I have asked myself repeatedly in recent years whether I can still call myself a Christian, holding the faith in the way I now do. The answer to my question may be No and this book may conclusively demonstrate my departure from the faith I have given my life to. On the other hand, and this is what I hope, it may offer a lifeline to people who, like me, want to remain members of the Christian community, but only if they can bring their minds, formed by the science and philosophy of the day, along with them. 4

In 2004, in Looking in the Distance he talked of Christianity as a historical force and described its intention at “balancing” the world “without entirely understanding what it was doing”. He was frank about what Christianity and the church had tried to do, but also what it had failed to do, including the things religion could not know. He described the universe as “mystery enough to be going on with, without hanging on to ancient hypotheses that now create more problems for us than they solve”. 5

In his next book, Between the Monster and the Saint (2008), he described religion as “certainly a work of the human imagination”. But again he stressed that this did not mean he wanted it thrown out. “You do not have to believe in the truth of the doctrine to acknowledge that, like a great work of art, the Christian story captures the reality of our experience. Indeed, it could be argued that it was developed over the centuries precisely to account for the human condition.” And, he says:

Like everything else we have invented, religion has been put to evil uses, to such an extent that certain secular thinkers identify it as the root of all evil. Without softening the valid elements of that accusation, the paradox of religion is that its myths and metaphors also provide us with some of the deepest insights into our own condition. Used modestly and understood properly, religion still has much to offer a humanity that is trying to save itself from itself. 6

Over the course of less than two decades, Holloway moved from doubts over the uses to which religion can be put to a complete rejection of its divine origins. That path is one that many others have made and many more doubtless fear making. But what makes Holloway different is not merely that he made this journey whilst himself being a member of the clergy or that he wrote about it whilst doing so. What is different and significant about Holloway is that while he became disenchanted with traditional religion and while he became surer of its man-made nature he nevertheless saw that there remained something in religion, and the Christian story in particular, that deserved and needed to be saved.

In his 2012 memoir, Leaving Alexandria, he described with frankness not only the fundamentalism that had pushed him away from the church, but those few hopes he had still had left for it. His religion is now, he says, “pared away to almost nothing” 7, and he asks what he is left believing. ‘Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons can be learned from them. “The mistake'” he says,”‘was to think religion was more than human.” 8

Though he concludes that religion was a work of the human imagination he reiterates that that itself is not nothing. If it could be appreciated as other works of the human imagination are appreciated – so long as people did not fall over again into thinking it was more than that – if it could be appreciated like Shakespeare, and Proust, Elgar, Tolstoy, Gaugin or Nietzsche (to use Holloway’s list) and seen to have no more authority than them, then the uses of religion might still be for the good. 9

Don Cupitt: The atheist priest

Like Holloway, Don Cupitt spent the early part of his career attempting to uphold the orthodoxy of the church into which he was ordained in 1960. In the mid–1960s, he became the Dean of Emanuel College Cambridge, where he remains a Life Fellow. From this berth, Cupitt began writing books in the 1970s which became more and more unorthodox. In particular he applied a critical, philosophical and historical analysis to the Christian tradition, putting himself further and further from the mainstream of the church.

His participation in a 1977 symposium book The Myth of God Incarnate and a set of television projects including Open to Question (1973) and Who was Jesus? (1977) made him made him one of the most nationally famous members of the clergy. In 1980, he published his most important work up to that date, Taking Leave of God. The book argued (among much else) that a belief in the existence of God was no longer a necessary pre-requisite for Christian belief. This gained him the popular press title of the ‘atheist priest’ and ‘the most radical theologian in the world” It also led to a book–length reply by the distinguished theologian Keith Ward, Holding Fast to God: a reply to Don Cupitt.

Taking Leave of God wrecked Cupitt’s career in the church, but for the following 30 years and more he has continued to write, broadcast and lecture with the support of his college and the imprint of SCM Press. In 1984, he presented a hugely influential, intensely learned and deeply argued series for British television with an accompanying book. The Sea of Faith was so provocative and timely that it became a movement, with Sea of Faith branches opening not just across the UK but around the world.

Cupitt’s starting point was the poem that hangs over much Christian thinking of the last century and a half. Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ written in a crucial decade for Christianity, the 1860s, included the famous lines:

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.

From its opening, Cupitt explained that Christianity had experienced this slow withdrawing roar – the slow but inevitable process of secularisation. Science and Biblical criticism had repeatedly broken against the faith and the churches could not hold it back. The story of the church’s decline in England may be local, he points out, but the impact and the trend are universal.

In The Sea of Faith, Cupitt laid out the process through which England in particular had lost its faith. It consisted of a profound and brilliant tour across the thinkers, scientists and philosophers of recent centuries. He shows how the thought of the writers who lost their faith in the 1840s filtered down through the culture, but he does not over–exaggerate their impact.

For instance, he stresses that while “The bulk of the English middle class did not lose their religion until somewhere between Darwin and Bloomsbury,” he says, “the workers began to lose their faith much earlier. For some generations they continued to respect Jesus and religion; but they felt the Church was not for them.” 10

In ‘The Sea of Faith’, Cupitt laid out the process through which England, in particular, had lost its faith

Cupitt’s analysis of the decline of belief is deeply nuanced. The sea of faith, in Arnold’s metaphor, “flows as well as ebbs; but the tide that returns is not quite the same as the tide that went out”. 11 But by the end of his scan across disciplines and centuries, Cupitt is clear in his arrival at the fact that God is man-made, though “only in the non-startling sense that everything is”.

Certainly a tone more familiar to recent entries into the god debate emerges at the very end, but what Cupitt presents is not straightforward atheism and is certainly not nihilism. “When we have fully accepted these ideas and have freed ourselves from nostalgia for a cosmic Father Christmas,” he says, “then our faith can at last become fully human, existential, voluntary, pure, and free from superstition.” He is arguing for a faith, and a religion, but not as we have previously known it.

He was right to see that this revolution in thinking and the new point of view would be ‘traumatic’, adding “so far as I know, only a few people are yet prepared for it. The majority of people reject it as being incomprehensibly thin and barren after the richer fare they have been accustomed to.” He talked of the importance of rejecting illusions. But, he concluded:

The historic task of religion, of embodying our values, witnessing to them, conserving them, setting them forth in symbols and securing their realisation in human life, remains unchanged. It will be performed all the better after the painted veil of illusion, that has hitherto hidden its workings, has finally dropped away. [11. ibid. pp.271-3]

If Taking Leave of God had not finished Cupitt’s career, then The Sea of Faith did. The fact that Cupitt remained in a position in the church bewildered and angered some more than it would have done had he been out of it altogether. But he stayed inside, in part to have the argument from the inside. Nevertheless, in the decades after the height of his controversial fame, Cupitt stepped very far away indeed. In After All (1994) he began to leave traditional Christianity completely. By 1995, he was beginning to invent an original and personal system of his own creation.

The values we live by, the belief in such ideals as charity, fairness, poverty-relief and the emancipation of women  have come to us directly from Christianity, says Cupitt

In Solar Ethics (1995) Cupitt, by his own admission, sought to create a non-religious metaphor by which people could live their lives and not fear their deaths. Fifteen years later he used The Fountain [2010] as the image of his ‘secular theology’. The idea in both was to focus on an image: “The world is like a fire or a fountain, an outpouring, self–renewing, utterly contingent and outsideless flux of energies–read–as–signs.”

From up close, of course, life looks hectic and feverish, but from a distance all that is forgotten and the movement, and the symbol it is unified in can be seen not just as serene, but as unifying and life-giving. “We should burn, burn away and burn out,” he says. 12

In Cupitt’s later writings he acknowledges that ‘Tradition’ has failed but recognises that we need something in the place of the parts of it that worked. “We need a moral philosophy better fitted to our sociology and our culture’ he wrote in Solar Ethics. 13 As a philosophy, more than a theology, this vision is not just ‘post-Christian’, ‘post-secular’ and ‘post-philosophy’. It is ‘post–’ everything. In Solar Ethics Cupitt writes:

There are no guarantees. There is no objectively-provided Reality, Goodness, Truth or Beauty any longer, at all. There’s nothing out there. To that extent, nihilism has come and is henceforth our permanent human condition. That is so: it truly is so. 14

All this may sound as though Cupitt has ended up with a view so far away from where he started out as to be entirely irrelevant to a discussion of Christianity and its place in our lives. But that would be to miss an important remaining part of his thinking.

Though in his most recent work he has tried not to use references to ‘God’, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christianity’ at all, he acknowledges movingly the manner in which we nevertheless remain imbued with it. His 2008 book The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity makes clear why. In that work Cupitt describes how the post-modern West has become the epitome of ‘secularized Christianity.’

The established church dislikes what he says very much and has retaliated in the most effective way possible – by completely ignoring him

He claims that after the Enlightenment, large numbers of people thought it possible to leave the Church and have no further connection to the Christian religion. But they are wrong he says, because ‘we remain what Christianity has made us, and in many respects the postmodern West is more Christian than ever.’ 15 The values we live by, the belief in – indeed institutionalising of – such ideals as charity, fairness, poverty-relief and the emancipation of women, these things have come to us, argues Cupitt, directly from Christianity.

What we should be trying to save, Cupitt stresses, is not the institution of the church but instead the spirituality and ethics of Christianity. 16 This, for Cupitt, is the true Christianity, the state that Christianity was always meant to find itself in. And it doesn’t matter whether we want it to be or not – it is what we are. “Nobody in the West can be wholly non-Christian,” he says, in a central passage. “You may call yourself non-Christian, but the dreams you dream are still Christian dreams, and you continue to be part of the history of Christianity. That’s your fate. You may consider yourself secular, but the modern Western secular world is itself a Christian creation.” 17

Far more than Holloway, Cupitt has now been for three decades so completely persona-non-grata with the church that his survival within a church-related institution was something of a miracle. The established church dislikes what he says very much and has retaliated over recent decades in the most effective way possible – by completely ignoring him. His publications, from SCM press, have gone increasingly un-noticed. Some may say that they have become too esoteric, too technical or too detached from the subjects which first brought Cupitt attention. Some may even find them to be too far down the road of a kind of modern nihilism.

Nihilism may of course be one reaction to the work of Cupitt. And an increasing sense of religious doubt may be one of the hallmarks of those who over the course of years imbibed the theology and writings of both Cupitt and Holloway. For people who are religious, both men left their congregation a long time ago. But it is striking that for the non-religious, neither man currently has quite the standing or level of appreciation that they deserve. Perhaps one reason is because of the assuredness that has become a hallmark of debate on religion – both from the religious and the non-religious alike.

But, then, as Holloway once said in an interview, people are wrong to believe that the opposite of faith is doubt.  The opposite of faith, as he said, is certainty.

  1.  Richard Holloway, Doubts and Loves, Canongate, 2001, pp.177-8. Also, Richard Holloway  Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubt, Canongate, 2012, p.335
  2.  Richard Holloway, Godless Morality: Keeping Religion out of Ethics, Canongate, 1999, pp.79-80
  3.  Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubt, pp. 326-335
  4.  Doubts and Loves, pp.53–4
  5.  Richard Holloway, Looking in the Distance, Canongate, 2004, pp. 30–1
  6.  Richard Holloway, Between the Monster and the Saint, Canongate, 2008, p.xvi and xix
  7.  Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubtp.188
  8.  Leaving Alexandria: a memoir of faith and doubt, p.343
  9.  ibid., p.345
  10.  Don Cupitt, The Sea of Faith, SCM, 1984, p.25
  11.  ibid., p.18
  12.  Don Cupitt, Solar Ethics, SCM, 1995, p.18
  13.  ibid., p.8
  14.  ibid., p.46
  15.  Don Cupitt, The Meaning of the West: An Apologia for Secular Christianity, SCM, 2008, p.36
  16.  ibid., esp. pp. vii-viii, x and 10
  17.  ibid., p.67

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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