Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Only Human

from The Trouble with God, a new edition of which is to be published by John Hunt Publishing in October 2005.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

  –Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

In the summer of 1991, at the Sea of Faith conference in Leicester, two intellectual bruisers debated religion and humanism. One was Nicolas Walter: anarchist, peace activist and passionate rationalist. The other was Don Cupitt: elegant, Cambridge, deanish and donnish. Their debate was not the familiar one which had raged for a century, between humanism and Christianity. What was at issue was not humanism but the kind of humanism which might speak to the condition of a postmodern world at the scruff-end of two Christian millennia.

Walter was clear and evangelical about the kind of humanism he and the Rationalist Press Association espoused, and particularly about its attitude to religion:

We reject the whole of religion, not just the difficult bits. We reject the whole of the Bible, not just the supernatural bits. We reject Jesus the man just as much as Jesus the God. We reject the doctrines of all the scriptures, and the deeds of all the churches. We see religion not as a necessary stage in the evolution of humanity, but as a long mistake – rather as Communism and Fascism were short mistakes. We see the shift from religion to non-religion as a process not of progressive revelation of changing truths but of progressive realisation of changing lies. We see not so much the loss of faith as the recovery of sanity. Whether we prefer a Hegelian or Marxist or Darwinian or Freudian or some other interpretation of religion, we think not just that it is wrong now but that it was always wrong.

To his humanist opponent, this kind of humanism was old hat. Cupitt argued that, in our own generation,

The various Enlightenment, liberal and Marxist versions of humanism have broken down no less dramatically than traditional religious belief. But the business of making meaning, of re-imagining ourselves, our values, our world, has to go on. In the past, it went on communally and unconsciously, and the result was what we call religion. But now we have become conscious of what we are up to; and because we do it consciously, it will be a sort of humanism; but because we know we still need communal myths and rituals it will also be religion. We shall be religious humanists, making believe… We urgently need a new, this-worldly religious humanism as our human way of first imagining new values and a better world, and then actually working to bring them about.

If this was not the old scrap between religious believers and non-believers, nor was it a return match between the warriors of secular humanism and the religious humanism of the Ethicists and Unitarians (or Nonitarians, as so many had become). Cupitt’s religious humanism – radical religious humanism, as he called it – was something very different from the old bloodless, filleted, half-this-half-that, facing-both-ways stuff of the 1933 Religious Humanist Manifesto which had been deservedly routed on the field of battle by the oddly combined forces of rationalists and the noble army of mitres. Cupitt was not in the business of resurrecting the “rational religious sentiment” of the South Place Ethical Society, aware as he was that late twentieth century man and woman wouldn’t have an idea of what a rational religious sentiment might look like when the lights were switched on – and that the only reward you get for facing both ways is a chronic crick in the neck. Nicolas Walter, modern and progressive, was tilting at a windmill which had long since lost the wind in its sails and had ceased to grind. Cupitt, post-modern and very present tense, was proposing a new kind of religious humanism which was as post-humanist and post-rationalist as it was post-Christian.

Cupitt’s humanism had begun where the humanism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had ended, with the conviction that the God of the Christian church, objective, transcendent, supernatural and interventionist, was a fiction. He had no independent existence outside human consciousness: no ears to hear our prayers, no eyes to see our good and evil deeds, no tongue with which to praise or reproach us, no loving arms in which to enfold us, no plan, no purpose, no will. He just wasn’t that kind of being. All the gods, not just their gods but also our god, the god of Anglican priest Don Cupitt, the god named God, were human creations, imagined into being by human communities trying to make sense of a complex and often terrifying world. Those same human communities, urged on by Plato and his disciples, had come to think of their gods as real: more real than the “real” world. But belief in real gods now produced far more problems than it had ever solved. People no longer invoked God or a pantheon of spirits to explain why things happen as they do, or how they came to be what they are. The old proofs of God’s objective existence now seemed pathetic: a bright twelve-year-old could demolish them. And the very idea of an omnipotent and omniscient being, cracking his metaphysical whip, commanding this and forbidding that, rewarding here, punishing there, had come to seem terrifying or disgusting, neurotic and spiritually alienating.

So far, so religious-humanist in the old sense. The authors and signatories of the 15 theses of 1933 would probably have said “Yes, exactly so! That is why we must abandon God! God is dead, and we must bury him, mourning his loss if we will, but taking leave of him, with or without ceremony. Nevertheless, while abandoning him, let us hold on to the truths he has given us, for they are true truths, and it behooves us to demonstrate that we remain good religious folk…”

Cupitt’s developing and more radical version of religious humanism, however, was rooted in late twentieth century culture, and particularly late twentieth century philosophy – and culture and philosophy were not what they were in Julian Huxley’s and Bertrand Russell’s day. Both had become radically modified by the “linguistic turn”, involving a bewilderingly complex series of developing understandings of the central importance of language in shaping our understanding of ourselves, the universe and everything. First, Ferdinand de Saussure had proposed an understanding of language as a complex system composed of relationships between signs, or words, rather than between words and things “out there”, which had been the traditional and therefore “common sense” way of thinking. Saussure’s structuralism was carried further by the poststructuralists, who argued that, far from us creating language to describe our concrete experience of the world, language actually creates us, in the sense that a complex structure of codes, symbols and conventions precedes each of us and essentially predetermines what it is possible for us to do and even think. We are born into a language-made world. Poststructuralism was taken even further by Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionists, who sought to demonstrate that the meanings conveyed by language could never be fixed and absolute but must always be “ideological constructs” which attempt to make that which is the product of a particular culture or thought system seem natural, inevitable and objectively true. If all this gives you a pain in the brain, I tender my apologies now. The point is that Cupitt was strongly influenced by this linguistic turn, though never a captive of any particular version of it, and it was this which gave his own understanding of religious humanism a new and radical twist.

In scores of articles, lectures, and more than twenty books following Taking Leave of God (1980), Cupitt has argued that we are in transition from an ancient metaphysical and God-centred vision of the world and of life to a new “humanistic and language-centred” vision of life and its meaning. This involves the abandonment of the traditional conception of knowledge as a fixed canonical body of truth, communicated to us by tradition and ultimately by divine revelation, and its replacement with a conception of knowledge as created entirely by human beings, and therefore flexible, disputable, and always subject to change. The old absolutes and fixed points have simply disappeared. In the old world picture to which the churches and mainstream religious institutions are still rigidly committed, Truth has a capital letter and exists “out there” in the eternal Divine Mind. Human beings simply have to tune into a revelation of this ready-made divine order of things, and fit themselves into it.

Under the old regime… God’s function was to guarantee the objectivity of the world and of truth. In the new world picture, the chaos of experience is getting turned into an ordered world by us, now and all the time. Only we have a world. We are the only makers of our world. We are the only world-builders. The world is built by language; only we have language and we, therefore, make the world what it is” (Address to SnowStar Institute conference, Niagara Falls, Canada, March 2002, reported in Axial magazine, Spring/Summer 2002).


A world with nobody whose world it is is hard to imagine. A world seems to need to be known. Somehow, everything is channelled through us, comes to a focus in us. We seem to be the only language-users, and so the only beings who have a complete world. In us [that is, in the human animal], the world becomes described, known, lit-up – in short, conscious of itself” (Sea of Faith magazine, January 2001).

I want to dwell for a page or two on this emphasis on language.

Did we create language, or did language create us? In a biological sense, virtually all animals have acquired in the process of evolution a capacity to communicate with each other: to signal danger or the desire to mate, to threaten or to reassure, perhaps to indicate the whereabouts of food. Only humans have developed the astoundingly complex system of sound-signs and written-signs which make up verbal language. Verbal language alone gives us the capacity to think complex thoughts, imagine complex constructions, make complex logical deductions, reason, reflect, be fully conscious and conscious of our consciousness; and it is primarily verbal language which enables us to communicate precisely what we think to other humans. In this we are unique. It is one of the primary characteristics that make us human. In this sense, language makes us and precedes us, or at least precedes us as reflective, thinking, knowing beings. In the beginning was the word: the rest followed.

The idea that we, the world and everything are in this profound sense language-created is not as new as we might suppose. It was certainly not invented by Saussure, Derrida or Cupitt. It is implied in the Greek-influenced opening of John’s gospel just quoted. It is there right at the beginning of the Bible, in the third verse of Genesis chapter one. God says “Let there be light”, and then there is light: the word precedes the thing. Light is spoken into existence. Cupitt argues from this that “Only a nihilist can understand the use of “God” correctly. He sees how, when confronted by pure chaos, God [in the Genesis myth] uses language to divide up the cosmos and form a world. He then invites Adam to join in, by naming the beasts” (Sea of Faith magazine, January 2001). In Native American and Inuit tradition, the world was spoken, sung or chanted into existence. In Australian aboriginal mythology, in the beginning was the alcheringa, the “dream time”, when trees and plants, mountains and plains, animals and people, were sung into being. J R R Tolkein draws on these ancient traditions in the creation myth he invents for his imagined world in The Silmarillion, which is created from thought and music. “Iluvatar, the One” who, at the “beginning of Days”, is all there is, makes the Ainur, the Holy Ones, “of his thought;

and they made a great Music before him. In this Music the World was begun; for Iluvatar made visible the song of the Ainur, and they beheld it as a light in the darkness. And many among them became enamoured of its beauty, and of its history which they saw beginning and unfolding as in a vision. Therefore Iluvatar gave to their vision Being, and set it amid the Void… And a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Iluvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

In Tolkein’s fantasy, evil too is sung into being by way of the deliberately discordant variations introduced by Melkor, Tolkein’s Lucifer-figure, who “sought to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself”. (Every singer will know that every choir has its Melkor!)

A contemporary illustration of the extent to which we are made, moulded and shaped by language is the influence of the mass media. Acres of forest are consumed each day to supply the newsprint which supplies us with yesterday’s stories. In Britain alone we watch 110 billion person-hours a year of television and listen to around 200 billion person-hours of radio. We find more time than we’ve ever found before to read new novels, see new films and go to new plays, and nearly half of us are finding yet more tales on the worldwide web. Somehow, between consuming all these stories, we contrive to find odd moments in which to work for a living, eat, sleep and make love. But just as we are what we eat, so too we are what we read. The media shape our appetites, our aspirations, our politics. Spend your adult life reading the Daily Torygraph and you’ll be a different person from the one you would have been had you chosen the Grauniad. And think what you might have been had you subscribed regularly to the News of the Screws…

Every single one of the stories we read, hear, see, changes us a little and makes us a slightly different person from the one we were before. But the stories which most clearly make us what we are are the great foundation stories of our culture: the origin myths, redemption stories and epic tales of love and death. Every man, woman and child on the Indian sub-continent has been formed and shaped by the word-signs which constitute the Mahabharata – whether or not they have actually read the great epic or had it read to them. Every Arab has been shaped by the Koran, every Jew by the Torah. And everyone in Christendom and post-Christendom is what he is, speaks as she speaks, lives as he or she lives, in ways shaped by the Bible and Shakespeare. These are our very foundations, their themes, their inflections and their nuances forming the bedrock of the culture – both “high” and popular – in which we live and move and have our being.

Of course there are stories and stories. When we assure our children that “it’s only a story”, we are telling them that the wolf didn’t really make a meal of Little Red Riding Hood. There are tall stories (which may or may not be short stories) and any journalist will tell you there are “good stories” which may or may not be accurate. And, of course, there are true stories and false stories – whatever story the sixth-form philosophy teachers may tell you. It is an essential part of growing up that we learn to tell the difference between this and that kind of story, to know when fact is fact and fiction is fiction. That’s why there is a growing emphasis on “media literacy”. We may understand that every story is a construct, every story-teller has an intention, and that no story tells the whole story: all good postmodern dicta. But we still need to know the difference between “There was a holocaust” and “There was no holocaust”, between “I never had sex with that woman” and “OK, I’ll buy you a new dress”. And if these distinctions are important in the little stories, how much more so are they in the big ones. Are the creation stories of Genesis 1 and the resurrection stories of the Gospels “true” or “false”, history or mystery, factual report or pure poetry? If they are true, is it the truth of the police notebook recording the details of a road accident or the truth of “all the world’s a stage” or “my love is like a red, red rose”? Are we talking about the objective truth of an up-to-date telephone directory or the sound of the bell that rings true? We need to know. If media literacy is important in helping us discern one kind of story from another, theological literacy is hardly less so in enabling us to discern a poetic from a prosaic truth.

Sorting out Biblical history from myth, what “really” happened from poetic licence, was the project of liberal modernist theology. It was and remains a useful project, up to a point. Some of it is easy, some difficult, and some impossible: it is easy to place the story of God talking through Balaam’s ass, and Jonah’s adventures in the big fish, as fables which “ain’t necessarily so”; harder to ascertain whether Moses and Abraham were historical figures and the Exodus an historical event; and impossible (despite the work of the Jesus Seminar) to be sure what Jesus actually said. But all this is no longer of primary concern. The reasonably well-read, reflective reader has come to understand the Bible stories as literature, and essentially as fictions. Some of these fictions relate to historical events, places and people, as Hamlet relates to Denmark and one of its early kings: but Hamlet is a work of fiction, and so are the Bible “histories”. Some Bible stories are parables: fictions within fictions. Others are myths, poems, fables, fantasies, morality tales. All are human stories which have made us, as we have made them. The Bible’s God is the grandest fiction of them all. Jesus too is a fiction. There was almost certainly a teacher named Jesus in first-century Judea, but we have no way of relating the Jesus of the Jesus literature – the Gospels – to the man. The only Jesus we can be sure of is the Jesus of the Jesus literature. Of this Jesus we can say confidently, as we cannot say of the historical Jesus, that he did change water into wine, did raise Lazarus from the dead, did teach that we should love our enemies, was crucified and buried, did descend into hell, did rise again, and did ascend into heaven. We can demonstrate that all these things really do happen in the story, just as we can show that Hamlet really does see his father’s ghost, and Frodo Baggins really does succeed in destroying the ring in the Crack of Doom.

This is not cynicism, nor is it scepticism. It is realism (in the everyday, not the philosophical sense). And this kind of realistic approach to our foundation texts, our religious and cultural myths, has one great instrumental merit. Where the old liberal modernist approach lopped off a branch here, filleted out a bone there, thinned this out, cut that down, till little more than a dry skeleton of the story remained, our postmodern understanding of language, text and story enables us to reclaim the lot as Grand Fiction, in all its preposterous, glorious profusion and confusion. God did make Eve out of Adam’s spare rib! He did drown the world, except for Noah’s ark! The star did stop in the middle of the sky right over the stable, and Mary was a virgin! That’s the story. And we can see that it is a true story, not because it all “really happened”, but because the great themes of life and death, love and hate, good and evil, redemption and salvation, are wrestled with in ways which are true to our experience.

A humanism which fails to acknowledge, or which actively denies, the richness and continuing instrumentality of myths generated by the religious imagination seems to me both an impoverished and an old-fashioned humanism, whether it calls itself secular in an atheist sense or religious in the pared-down sense of the 1933 manifesto. The history of religion, says Nicolas Walter, is the history of a “long mistake”, of “changing lies”: it is “wrong now” and “was always wrong”. Thus are banished the age-long accumulations of religious writing, music, art, dance, architecture: the infinitely complex system of imaginative symbols by which human communities explored their own humanity in a mysterious, awesome, wonderful world; the long search for values which transcend the needs and desires of our own egos; the myths and legends, fables and fantasies, stories, songs, proverbs and exhortations of the Hebrew Bible and the “New Testament”, the Mahabharata, Rumi and Hafiz, the “dream time”, John Donne, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T S Eliot, R S Thomas, Bach’s passion music, Mozart’s masses, Mahler’s Resurrection symphony… One long mistake’ Some mistake, surely?

Standard models of humanism which suppose that only in the last century or two has the human species achieved liberation from a darkness which lasted from the year dot to the dawn of the Rationalist Press Association and the National Secular Society is surely too thin and undernourished: an anorexic humanism. For those who take a particular pride in the wholly human spirit to cut themselves off from some of the crowning achievements of human culture seems both tragic and absurd. It’s like drinking non-alcoholic wine, or making love without taking your clothes off: nice up to a point, but nothing like the real thing. So long as mainstream humanism persists in cutting itself off from mainstream humanity in this way, for just so long will it seem to many a dry, arcane interest, as blind in one eye as the Plymouth Brethren are in the other.

So humanism needs to be more generous and imaginative in its response to the rich range of religious culture, ranking Blake’s Imagination no lower than Winstanley’s Reason. It needs to catch up with postmodernity, if not with postmodernism, in extending its radical scepticism towards religion to include a no less radical scepticism towards ideas of progress, science, and objective ethics. It needs to become more radically atheist in rejecting not just the deification of imagined gods but the equally dangerous deification of humanity.

I do not mean by this that humanism should become less critical of the dangers, inanities, cruelties and hypocrisies of religion and its institutions. God forbid. Fanaticism, dogmatism, superstition and the kinds of mysticism which are better described as mystification need to be kept under constant criticism. They are too dangerous to be ignored in the name of tolerance. The rationalist are right to insist that to oppose reason is unreasonable, and the secularists are right to expose religious privilege in politics (such as automatic representation for “faiths” in the British parliament) and education (such as the requirement that worship in schools be of a “mainly Christian” character). But such critiques will have a stronger bite when they are seen to be based on a commitment to human culture in the round, and to values of generosity and inclusiveness.

In arguing that, by recognising them as fictions and myths we can press the old, old stories back into service, I do not wish to suggest that we take it all at face value. I have argued that, just as we need media literacy to help us evaluate the stories in our newspapers and on our television screens, so we need theological or atheological literacy to evaluate those in our mythologies. Such stories never have only one meaning, if only because we ascribe meanings rather than take them off the peg. The Genesis story of the role assigned to humankind in naming and tending the beasts of the field and the fruits of the garden may be read as a reminder of human responsibility, or as an encouragement of human domination. The resurrection story may mean that death is not the end of life, or that faith, hope and love cannot be killed. The story of the “promised land” means liberation to some, enslavement and genocide to others – and, as I write, death on the streets of Jerusalem every day. That millions of Christian fundamentalists in the United States and Zionist zealots in Israel read the story one way, and insist that it gives modern Israel more than three thousand years later the right to occupy both banks of the Jordan, only reminds us what can happen when we mistake history for myth and a fictive God for a real. That generations of black slaves in America took the story as their own song of freedom, hearing Moses, way down in Egypt-land, telling old Pharoah, “Let my people go!”, reminds us how the same tale can be a very different story.

I have followed Don Cupitt in referring to “radical religious humanism”. Some readers may doubt that “religious” is an appropriate qualification for the kind of humanism I am arguing for. They may be right. It is not an ideal term, and I invite my readers to find a more suitable one. But what I am seeking to describe is a humanism which is secular (in the literal sense of belonging to this world and this age), rational, ethical and imaginative, and which feels free to draw on, to feast on, the best of our long, complex, diverse heritage of religious expression. Such a humanism will know all too well the madness, brutality and repressiveness of religion at its most inhumane; but this will not blind it to the glories it glimpses of religious inspiration at its best. We know there are bad people, but that does not make us anti-people; bad politics, but that does not (or should not) make us anti-political; bad art, but we are not philistine; bad science, but we are not anti-scientific. And there is wretched religion all around us, but that is no good reason for imagining that we should base our humanist life-stance on an undiscriminating war on anything and everything expressed in religious language and deriving from religious commitment.

Radical religious humanism is a humanism which makes free with the resources of religion in its richly diverse forms, as with the resources of the whole of human culture. We know that we made it all, so we can unmake it and remake it. If we call on God to help us, we know we are using a resonant figure of speech. If we seek God’s will, we know that we are simply looking for the best course in the circumstances. If we pray, we know we are talking to ourselves – and why not? An internal dialogue can make a most effective conversation. If we ask forgiveness, and for the strength to follow the light of our conscience, we know we are expressing our desire to be better people, and doing so in metaphors. If we say we are working for the republic of heaven, we know we are talking about our own responsibility for making the world, and our little part of it, a better place.

This kind of radical religious humanism is not the last relic of Victorian doubt, or modernist Christianity’s last desperate kick. It is something new. It rationalises religion and enriches humanism. It dissolves ancient differences between sacred and secular, the human and the divine, the natural and the supernatural. It does not deify humanity but it understands that our values are human values, and could be no other. It offers change, growth, renewal. It is for those who look for a life on the ocean wave rather than a safe harbour. It is for the seeker rather than the finder, for those who would make their own meaning and purpose rather than buy them off the peg. It demands faith, hope, charity, determination – and a well-developed sense of humour.


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