West London Humanists and Secularists

"The Sea of Faith"
A Talk by Alan Hayes - Meeting 20/06/2013

The question posed by Alan Hayes was whether religion, especially in the Christian tradition, has anything to offer if "God" is taken out of the equation.

He explained his background, as a mathematician and as a longstanding active Humanist in Leicester. The Humanist and Secular tradition in that city has traditionally been very strong, with a dedicated building and a large membership in the 1970's, when it seemed almost as though the intellectual battle against religious dogma had been won. Subsequently however, activism has fallen off.

Personal factors related to the baptism of Alan's grandson led him to explore the scope for improving relationships with those with a nominally religious outlook, and he discovered that the "Sea of Faith" group locally was putting on a programme of excellent speakers. The founding argument of the Sea of Faith is an acknowledgement that "Religion is a human construct" while at the same time having as much claim to be regarded as valuable as has any other human construct, which Sea of Faith would therefore study and promote.

Alan traced the development of this school of thought (particularly within the Church of England) to John Robinson's book "Honest to God", although his concept also has much in common with the Quaker notion of the God Within. This line of thought had been developed by Don Cupitt in his book "Taking Leave of God", which had led directly to the foundation of the Sea of Faith movement. He had also presented a 1980's TV series with the title Sea of Faith which had helped to spread understanding of this approach.

Now in North Leicester alone, four CofE vicars are members of the Sea of Faith, along with one Roman Catholic, and Unitarians (a Quaker-like Christian church which rejects the concept of the Trinity) as well as Alan himself.

Alan Hayes had reached the conclusion that prayers are best regarded as a communal ritual; it was a mistake to pay much attention to the supposed literal meaning of what was being said. They define an approach to life, not a report on life. Likewise, the stories of (for example) the Bible can be regarded as a "big fairy tale for adults to live by". This fits in with the psychological account of the importance of stories to a person's mental life, stressed by people like David Boulton (a former member of the Plymouth Brethren, now a nontheistic Quaker). However, Alan Hayes acknowledged that sometimes fairy tales can be harmful.

One of the philosophical inputs to the movement is the book "The Philosophy of As-If", by Vaihinger, a student of Kant and Nietzsche who concluded that most of our understanding of reality is best regarded as a "useful fiction". Hence, rather than endlessly debating assertions of truth, it was better to focus on how people actually relate to life.

A recent book exploring a similar viewpoint is "The Christian Atheist" by Brian Mountford. Other relevant contributions to the debate have included Richard Holloway's "Keeping Religion out of Ethics", "Godless for God's Sake" by a group of Quakers, and the Dalai Lama's "After Religion", focussing on global ethics.

Alan concluded that interfaith contacts may well be better taking place in schools, allotments, councils etc. rather than in interfaith forums, let alone a "humanist church".

In the discussion that followed, Alan made the point that the teaching of RE in the UK is in a parlous state and that this represents a good opportunity for humanists to make some input. He also made the comment that some believe that the much awaited/needed reformation of Islam might start in the UK.

A fair amount of incredulity was expressed that ordained vicars could lead services, preach and lead prayers and praise to a God in which they did not believe. Alan's distinction between literal and cultural belief was obviously hard to internalise.

Other questions were asked about how Humanists and Secularists could develop a positive Narrative especially as much current dialogue with religions seems to be mired in antagonistic debate about the existence, or otherwise, of the God entity.

A point was also made that religious organisations are very effective in mobilising supporters especially in their work to help people in need. Little confidence was however expressed in the longevity or effectiveness of new atheistic 'churches' as in North London. Perhaps the former Leicester activist model is a better example.

Finally Social Media was put forward as an alternative and more modern route for encouraging group action or expression of opinion on behalf of secularists such as campaigns against religion based schools.

Roger Haines et al - 15th August 2013