At the request of the British Republican movement (of which I am a member), I recently completed an online survey on the provision and presentation of the BBC.
The survey had around eight sections exploring various aspects of the BBC’s radio and television programming. The final section had to do with the personal details of those completing the survey. It enquired about the responder’s ‘Religion/belief’’ and listed an extensive range of religions with which to identify. I put myself into the ‘Other’ category and wrote ‘Secular Humanist’ in the appropriate box.
I avoided the ‘No Religion’ category in the belief that, as with several categories, for example, “Buddhism”, there was no requirement to suppose that religious/spiritual belief involved the acceptance of God or gods. Therefore, to state that one is a ‘Secular Humanist’ is to recognise belief in and acceptance of a philosophical and ethical position that could be termed ‘religious’.
The focus of belief and acceptance of a secular humanist is the human being and, as with Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, the paragon of animals”, to touch the human is to touch the divine.
This belief has profound implications.
It is not, however, the purpose of this article to write a philosophical and ethical treatise on what it means to be a secular humanist. Rather, I want to overview one of the several foci of my post-retirement being. A recent article in this blog, “It’s a no-brainer – really!” returned to the subject of republicanism and an explanation of why I am a republican, that is, why I am fundamentally opposed to monarchies and monarchical rule, royal families and royal institutions.
This article will explore some of the background to my becoming a secular humanist.
In 1996, following several years of working as the Manager for Domestic Programmes with the charity World Vision UK, part-time youth and pastoral work in several Northampton schools and churches, I completed post-graduate studies in education and became a teacher of the Humanities at Campion School, a Northamptonshire rural secondary school.
At the same time and at my request, I was removed from the Accredited List of Ministers with the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My physical separation from the Christian Church was a quite sudden phenomenon. The intellectual divorce was more of a gradual process. There is no doubt that my changed professional roles and responsibilities assisted this process. So, too, was my link with a network known as the Sea of Faith.
I first became aware of this network in 1985, when a BBC television programme called ‘The Sea of Faith’ was shown on Australian television. At around this time a book of the same name was published. I watched the television programme and bought the book. I have subsequently read this book more times than I have gone through the entire New Testament. It is the most read book on my bookshelf – secular or religious.
Let part of an article in a recent edition of Portholes, the magazine of the network, describe its beginning:
“Our organisation takes its name from the lines in the poem “Dover Beach” by Thomas Arnold in the nineteenth century in which he describes the slow decline of traditional religion as being like the ebbing tide. The movement started shortly after Don Cupitt’s 1984 ground-breaking TV series “The Sea of faith” and his accompanying book, something of an intellectual tour de force with which he explains the historical development of Christianity that has led us to the present situation, and the concept of religious non-realism.
Cupitt claimed that even after we have given up the idea that Christian beliefs can be grounded in anything beyond the human realm, Christianity can still be believed and practised in new ways”.
(N.B. Don Cupitt is a teacher of the philosophy of religion, an ordained Anglican minister, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of over forty books)
It is worthwhile pointing out that the term ‘non-realism’ essentially refers to the belief that there is no God as believed in by traditional monotheistic religion. God is not real. God is a construct of the human imagination – perhaps the greatest construct, but a construct nevertheless.
The Sea of Faith movement believes that no human being can legitimately speak with absolute certainty on the matter of religion; if they could there would be no need for faith. The important thing is to approach the matter with an open and questing mind and to join the conversation. That seems to be the raison d’etre of the movement.
When I arrived in the UK in 1991, I made contact with the British Sea of Faith network (to my knowledge there was no equivalent Australian network of its kind), but did not pursue any great interest in it. I was still an ordained Baptist minister with a future, as I thought at the time, in the church’s work in urban areas. I duly completed a doctoral dissertation in this area of study.
However, as briefly outlined above, since the mid 1990’s, both professionally and personally, I have withdrawn from my association with the Christian Church and formal religion of any kind. Prior to my retirement from secondary school teaching in 2012, I formally joined the Sea of Faith network in the UK – as I also did with the British Republican Movement.
These two organisations now form the intellectual and political foci of my spiritual and social being.
(*The title for this article derives from Nigel Leaves’ book, Surfing on the Sea of Faith: The Ethics and Religion of Don Cupitt. Leaves is an Australian academic and Chair of the Perth branch of the Sea of Faith Australian network)