Inside the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford

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"Some might be surprised to see an avowed atheist take the pulpit in a Christian church,” I said as I began my sermon at the University Church of St Mary The Virgin back in February. “Others will know that this is far from unprecedented, although admittedly the atheist before you would usually be an ordained one.”

I was fairly confident this joke wouldn’t offend the congregation of Oxford University’s liberal Anglican church. There are and have been many atheist clerics in churches like this, sometimes avowedly but usually in all but name. Most don’t like the A-word because of its anti-religious connotations, but if being an atheist means fully accepting a naturalist worldview and rejecting the existence of a literal, personal God, then many churches are full of them.

So I wasn’t too worried that my hosts would think their vicar had invited them to dance with the devil. If anything, I expected more criticism from my secular comrades. Sam Harris famously made the case that these apparently harmless liberal theists are are at least as dangerous as their hellfire-proclaiming brethren. The moderates make religion more acceptable, shielding it from criticism and delaying the day it finally dies.

AC Grayling made this point forcibly to me in an interview in 2009. “The moderate, gentle Sunday Christian is a big fig-leaf for the extremist wing,” he told me, “because there is a continuum from your gentle Sunday Christian to your suicide bomber, [because being] a gentle Sunday Christian makes it seem respectable and all right to have what are in fact extremely stupid beliefs, which are to some people used as an excuse for doing very bad things.”

If Grayling and Harris are right, then by taking the pulpit that day I was making life easier for religious extremists and was in my small way furthering the cause of fundamentalist terrorism. To me, this way of thinking reflects a kind of tribal divisiveness that is antithetical to the kind of humanism I admire, expressed on a T-shirt I was given by the Humanist Society of Scotland bearing the old Scottish proverb “We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns”. It was chosen because it represents a humanist value, that under the skin we’re all the same. We are all God’s children, to put the same thought in a different linguistic skin.

There are all sorts of ways of dividing up people according to their beliefs and practices. “Religious vs non-religious” is only one, and not always the best. If we want to end religious extremism, we should make divisions within religion more obvious and salient, cutting off the fundamentalists from the ecumenical coalition of the ­reasonable. We should also remind moderate Christians that their faith was not established on the principle that followers should set themselves apart.
“If you had only read the Gospels and were not familiar with the history of Christianity, you might have been more surprised if a minister of the church were delivering the sermon, since Jesus clearly had a low opinion of the priestly caste of Pharisees and Sadducees of his time,” I continued. “In that light, we might conclude that the near monopoly ordained Christians have had on speaking to congregations was a departure from the spirit of Jesus’s teachings. A more inclusive church is arguably a more ­authentically Christian one.”

I was preparing the ground for a challenge. Not an ­aggressive one, but a challenge nonetheless, aimed as much at atheists as at churchgoers. The challenge concerns what religiosity entails.


In my sermon I approached this by repeating that tired cliché of our times: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” I told the congregation what I thought people meant by this. They mean that they reject the creeds and institutions of traditional religions, organised or not. They can’t accept that any religion has a claim to divine truth when history suggests that every religion is the product of the particular time and place in which it emerged. Religions are too obviously human institutions to own universal truth, and sacred texts too obviously the product of the human hand to claim divine authorship.

Nor do the best-known teachings of the main religions make sense to them. They don’t believe in the stories of ancient miracles, of angels dictating God’s word, of a saviour rising from the dead. Even more unbelievable is the need to perform certain rituals in order to attain salvation, or at least to have a relationship with God.

But rejecting all this does not mean they are willing to embrace the full-blown naturalism of atheism. They cannot believe there is nothing more than the physical realm. They believe that there is more to life than the material, and that something they give the label “spiritual”.

All this I can see. But I think the division between the religious and the spiritual that it suggests is profoundly misleading. Consider the category of the “spiritual”. It is often used to cover anything that cannot be understood in purely physical terms, like love, beauty and morality. These things comprise the “something more” than the physical that those who call themselves spiritual often seek.

Of course, all of these things are valued by the vast majority who consider themselves neither religious nor spiritual. Only in gross caricature do atheists solely pursue material wealth and sensual satisfaction, without any regard for ethics, love or the other things that elevate our lives from those of animals. The materialism embraced by atheists asserts the physicality of the substances that form the universe; it does not deny that this physical matter can give rise to experiences and values that cannot be described in the language of the material sciences. Love only exists because of biochemical reactions, but love is more than a biochemical reaction; just as music produced by the grooves in a record is more than just marks on vinyl. So what is often called “spiritual” can at root be as material as anything else.

There is, of course, another way of understanding “spiritual” that almost all atheists do reject. I called this “literal spirituality”, since it asserts the literal existence of spirits of some kind. This is the idea that as well as the substances and forces that are described in the physical sciences there are other kinds of substances and forces that are governed by their own laws, if governed by laws at all. This is the kind of spirituality that asserts the existence of souls as well as bodies; of a heavenly realm that occupies a different time and space to that of the earthly realm; of a creator God who is not made of carbon, oxygen or any of the elements that make up physical beings.

I suspect that many people who claim to be spiritual, not religious, reject this literal spirituality too. And that leads me to wonder if they should say, “I’m not spiritual, but I am religious.” This might sound impossible, since it is often assumed that to be religious is to be literally spiritual. But that is not how all religious people see it. One of the most frequent criticisms levelled at prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins, for example, is precisely that he assumes religion boils down to a set of spiritual – or supernatural – beliefs and that, once you reject these, there is nothing left. It is often claimed this is wrong, for two reasons.

First of all, it is claimed that religion is more a matter of values and practice than of doctrine. A Christian, for instance, is someone who lives her life according to Jesus’s teaching, not someone who asserts the resurrection or the divinity of Christ. Secondly, it is argued that religious creeds are not to be understood as statements of empirical fact anyway. Bible stories are not to be read literally; the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation does not imply that the altar wine would be found to contain haemoglobin if placed under a microscope.

I am very sympathetic to the claim that religion can be understood in this rigorously non-spiritual way. What I cannot believe, however, is that this is how religion actually is. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of religious people are literally spiritual, in the sense that I am not.

I can back up this claim with the results of a survey of churchgoers I conducted in Bristol. This is a university city with a large hospital, where if anything you would expect more liberals than in the country as a whole. And yet I found the large majority believed that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. Only a small minority disagreed with these statements. As for the main reason why they went to church, it was not for reflection or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

One Methodist minister who helped me out with the survey wrote to me afterwards to express her dismay that so many of her flock held these naive but “unfortunately predictable” beliefs. “As a more liberal and radical disciple I am a little disappointed that the majority of Christians have not moved as much as I had hoped,” she wrote. This appears to me to be typical of the divide between the theologically sophisticated who give sermons and write about religion, and the majority of those in the pews.


Whatever the state of the religious community today, I do believe that it is possible and in many ways desirable to have religion without literal spirituality. Those who have advocated this view have tended to be religious people like Don Cupitt who find themselves uncomfortable with what they have come to see as the superstitions of their faith. They have sought to preserve the specific framework of their native religions while doing away with their supernatural aspects.

But my primary interest is not in the specifics of naturalised Christianity or any other religion, but with what a non-literal-spiritual religiosity looks like in general terms. I think there is such a thing – not just for the religious but for many atheists such as myself. This variety of religiosity is an attitude, a way of orientating ourselves to life.

Intellectually, it is essentially a matter of rejecting the maxim that man is the measure of all things and living according to the assumption that we are in a sense answerable to something other than ourselves, ethically as well as scientifically. This is the spirit of good philosophy. Historically, at least, philosophers have not thought that they can simply create their own truths, invent their own values. They have been driven to see the world as it is, or at least as clearly as it can be seen. They are answerable to truth, to the demands of rationality, to the commands of ethics. They sincerely follow their path, willing to give up any belief they might have, if given good reason to do so.

Effectively, the religious attitude is a way of living with reverence and in awe, with a deep respect for the good and the true and with a sense of wonder and mystery. Together with the intellectual element, this leads us to a moral seriousness, an acceptance that we cannot fully understand all that matters, and that the best we can do is sincerely strive for the true and the good, in a spirit of openness, humility and self-doubt.

Atheists are often perceived as being incapable of this kind of religiosity, since talk of a need to orientate our lives towards something other, something greater than themselves, has traditionally been understood as requiring something transcendent: that which exists over and above the immanent, physical world of the here and now.

But it needn’t be understood in this way. The values and truths that are greater than any one of us do not need to exist in a transcendent realm, independent of time and space. To recognise something as truly good is simply to recognise that it has claims to goodness that go beyond their apparent goodness for us here and now. True goodness is not so much eternal as atemporal: part of the immanent world but permeating it across time and space. It is not outside time but it is not confined to particular times either.

I think it is because I share this kind of religiosity that I often find myself something of a kindred spirit – “spirit” in the figurative sense, of course – with the kind of open-minded, intelligent, reflective religious believer with whom I can have fruitful and respectful dialogue. We share both a deep sense of obligation to take life seriously and a belief that in religion we find certain insights and resources to help us do this, even though we have problems accepting religion’s supernatural aspects.

Of course, I often find that I share this with other atheists too, but not always, perhaps not even mostly. Too often their attitude is summed up in the famous bus slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Giving up religion for them seems to be an ­attempt to shake off existential angst. In contrast, the religiosity I admire is never long free from worry, carrying the responsibility of being born with a solemnity that just getting on and enjoying life doesn’t have.


I would not say that this attitude is the very essence of religion, even less that only religious people can have it. Indeed, the attitude is lacking in those who follow a religion dogmatically or out of habit. If we treat religion empirically, we would have to conclude that it is primarily characterised as organised groups promoting certain creeds and practices. Nonetheless, religion at its best is about promoting the right attitude to life, where specific creeds and practices are means to the end of living well.

Atheists might balk at my use of the term “religiosity” since, quite rightly, religion does not own these virtues of deep moral seriousness. But, as a matter of historical fact, religion has been the main vehicle for exploring and maintaining these virtues and so, by historical precedent alone, it is reasonable to think of them as religious in nature.

We should not get too hung up about nomenclature. The key point is simply that when we consider what is most important about living life in a religious spirit, we should see that we can do this whatever we believe about the spiritual or the supernatural. And so, I concluded my sermon, that is why there should be room for atheists in the community of the religious. And, I could have added, room for the religious in the community of atheists.

After the service had ended, many appeared to be receptive to my argument. Three different people described what I said as “generous”, which surprised me, since it seemed the generosity was theirs in inviting me in. One did grumble to the vicar that the sermon ought to have been a discussion of a passage of scripture, but, as the Gospels show, you can’t please everyone.

Delivering the sermon did involve some awkwardness. I couldn’t bring myself to sing the hymns, and to have the Nicene Creed recited as soon as I left the pulpit seemed designed as a warning not to overestimate how much atheists and Christians have in common. But I did not feel I had given succour to religious fundamentalism. Indeed, it is a kind of fundamentalism to believe that the world is neatly divided between atheist and theist, heathen and believer. I would ascend the pulpit again if asked and I would hope that many atheist groups would be willing to have believers in their midst. Our shared religiosity is common ground enough to justify mutual curiosity and respect.