Friday, 14 November 2014

Honest To God: Faith, Disbelief & Constructions

A couple of weeks back both old and new media were all a-splutter over a headline which read, ‘2% of Anglican priests don’t believe in God’ (The Independent. October27th). Lifted from a YouGov poll of over 1500 clergy on a range of topics, it was a headline designed for our ‘click-bait’ age. Just one glance at it conjured images of head-shaking and spoon-dropping over the breakfast tables of those who still give a damn what happens in the church.

I guess the headline made a good newspaper story. The suggestion that 2% of Anglican clergy surveyed in the poll see God as a human construct and that 16% are inclined to agnosticism makes for good copy. Linda Woodhead’s follow-up comments in The Church Times on the survey – which she developed with YouGov for the Faith Debates series – are more nuanced, noting how clergy, from all traditions, share in an overwhelming sense of commitment to a personal God.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Independent headline – clickbait though it was – and the various reactions I’ve heard to it. I’ve read comments that cover a gamut from ‘Typical C of E’, ‘Boot them out’ to ‘It shows how hard it is to leave ministry’. I’ve been thinking about the headline because I’ve found some of the reactions unhelpful. I want to offer the beginnings of a defence of those in ministry who might struggle with God’s ‘reality’, even to the point of seeing him/her/it as a construct. And that defence is predicated on a sense that we should not parody those who – sometimes with the utmost rigour and boldness – are exploring the possibilities of faith and doubt and reason in a crucible of modern and post-modern thought.

I guess I should flag up that I’m no ‘Sea of Faith’ cleric. I have a strong sense of the reality of God and a faith in a personal God. I am also someone who knows what it means to move from a place of atheism to a place of faith in my personal narrative. At the same time, my training as a philosopher – primarily in secular settings – has taught me to be suspicious, rigorous and questioning. If I have a strong sense of ‘the reality of God’ I also question what those terms mean and am inclined to see the old lines – which shaped ‘The Sea of Faith’ movement, for example – between ‘Realism’ and ‘Anti-Realism’ as a questionable dichotomy.

It is easy to take a headline like ‘2% of Anglican priests blah’ and read that through the prism of ‘x has lost his/her faith and is a time-server, not wanting to lose their pension’ or ‘x should be disciplined for error’. However, I’ve known some clergy – often of a certain post-60s vintage – for whom their engagement with modern critical thought has led them to a place where, yes, in all honesty, they’ve felt a need to affirm God as human construct, but nonetheless want to assert that God and religion have a key, active place to play in humanity’s endless constructions of its realities.

It is now common coin for many atheists to parody Christian (and any religious) faith as a belief in a kindly Sky-Fairy or some grouchy All-Father/Bloke with Beard who serves up nice things for some and rubbish for others. Most thoughtful Christians will blanch at this parody and know that far more nuanced understandings of God are available. But we also need to be prepared to examine our faith in the light of challenges raised by recent thought. Otherwise it’s likely to look comedically inept to some of our more sophisticated critics (who generally don't fall into the Sky-Fairy camp). (Whatever one feels about Radical Orthodoxy, one has to accept that Millbank, Pickstock et al have at least spent a bit of time in the company of recent critical thought.)

I’ve spent half of my life wrestling with philosophical texts by the likes of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Hegel, and so on. I know I’m inclined to take texts and textuality far too seriously, but I feel like I’d be betraying my faith if I didn’t expose its meanings and possibilities to the work of thinkers who have examined the aporias and questions at the heart of logocentric identity and thought. I am – as I’ve already indicated – very serious about my faith and that of others, but when I say ‘I believe in God’ any number of questions and qualifications to and about that statement go through my head. It strikes me as childish to say that that statement is not complex, compromised and part of a matrix of discourses which create and construct our realities. Representation is unavoidable.

I guess I’m asking for a kind of generosity in our readings of headlines like ‘2% of Clergy don’t believe in God.’ I suspect that’s asking for a lot from the sometimes blunt tool that is the media, both social and traditional. I suspect we need more Christians, lay and ordained, who are prepared to seriously engage with the various questions raised by post-structuralism, post-modernity, feminism et al. I’d also like to see more atheists – especially those who tend to deploy scientistic and positivistic strategies – submit their claims to the critical challenges of radical thought. It might help us all to be a bit more humble. 


  1. I love that "2% of Clergy don't believe in God" in this survey as most surveys carry a caveat that "this survey has a degree of error +2%- -2%." I would love to be 98 % certain of anything, including where I live. When a "None Story" makes headlines it shows it is "a slow news day" and nothing to do with statistics. I am not a person of faith nor a person of statistics but can "you" survey people just stop handing over your "stats" to opportunists.

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