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As long ago as 2002, it was reported that a quarter of Church of England members did not believe in the Virgin Birth. (see here)

In 2017, a survey revealed that 31% of Christians did not believe in life after death. (here)

Four years later The Clergy Project was launched to support clergy who no longer held supernatural beliefs.

In the light of these statistics, an assumption might be made that the church is in decline and no doubt the 57% of Christians who believe the bible word for word will claim that these doubters are not true believers and should be expelled from the church. From my standpoint, these figures are in fact a sign of hope that the church is evolving and changing.

In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer we find prayers for rain and protection against the plague, yet I have never heard these prayers used, since only a tiny minority believes this is how the world operates. In forty of years of ministry I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on the threat of hell.

It vexes me whenever I encounter individuals holding forth on the subject of Christianity who haven’t set foot in a church for years and who imagine its members still believe what was taught fifty years ago in Sunday School. Most Christians are intelligent and well-read; it’s naive and patronising to afford them ideas and beliefs that cannot be considered and articulated in a meaningful way.

Why must a belief in prescribed fundamental principles be a prerequisite for belonging to a Christian community at all? In 2000 years we have seen an astonishing diversity within Christian thinking and practice and during that time the way we understand the world, the way we make meaning and interpret texts has changed, so it is hardly surprising our understanding of faith has changed accordingly.

As for the clergy who say God does not exist, Thomas Aquinus, one of the founding theologians of the church himself asserted that God is not a being that exists but existence itself; does that belittle his faith in any way? What does that say about his belief that God exists?

If the church is to thrive today, its clergy and people must continue to be honest about the things they believe (or not!) and indeed about the very nature of faith. Is it really, for example, a matter of giving assent to supernatural (whatever the word supernatural might mean today) propositions, or about living according to certain principles? At the same time, those outside the church should allow that church to change and furthermore acknowledge when it does.


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There’s been something of a minor heatwave here in the UK this week and people have immediately rushed to light their barbeques and enjoy al fresco dining. The Great Barbeque Competition in the First Book of Kings is a dramatic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They set up their rival bonfires and place a prepared sacrificial bull on the top. “The God who answers by fire”, says Elijah, “he is God.”

The prophets call on their God but to no avail; the fire remains unlit. Elijah taunts them – perhaps Baal is meditating, or asleep or has “stepped aside”, a Hebrew euphemism for visiting the toilet!

Elijah has the people pour four large water pots over his offering and calls on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” It ends badly for the prophets of Baal who are taken down the mountain and executed.

One cannot imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other religious leader today setting up such a challenge to see which, if any, gods exist. As the philosopher John Wisdom wrote “The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it once was”. Believers do expect their faith to make a difference, and there is thought to be a difference between believers non-believers. But what is that difference?

John Wisdom writing just before the Second World War in a paper entitled Gods, went on to ask how something that was once an experimental issue could become something very different and tells a parable about two men surveying a piece of ground. One points to things that he thinks show there is a gardener at work. The other sees only signs that no one is looking after it. So they start to look for more evidence in this and other gardens until, having studied everything, they still disagree. You can read the parable here and the full paper. It led to a long debate about the nature of belief. Is belief a way of seeing the world, having a particular attitude towards the world? Is it using a certain vocabulary to talk about life, practising various rituals?

Readers of this blog will know that for me (and I suspect for many believers) God is not an extra thing that exists and is alive in the world but life itself. The practice of faith can make a difference just as art and music can. What matters is that believers and non-believers alike acknowledge that the existence of God is not the experimental issue it once was.



Doubting thomas nicholas piliero


Doubt can play a crucial role within faith; it avoids the certainty of the fanatic, develops humility and as in science, often opens the path to truth. A few years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby created something of a storm when he questioned whether or not God was actually “there”. He is reported to have said “The other day I was praying over something that I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Some headlines ran “Archbishop doubts existence of God”, another columnist of atheist persuasion simply declared “Victory!”, whilst others were keen to support, pointing to the archbishop’s humanity as a man who knew the agony of grief, having lost his first-born child in a car accident.

However there is one concept which cannot be doubted within a Christian philosophy: the existence of God. For Christians, God is that whose existence cannot be doubted because God is existence itself. God is that in whom we live and move and have our being. The language of faith may not always be helpful in exploring that which is essential to life. It may be doubted whether there is any value in exploring existence itself, but to talk about God is to talk about that which cannot be doubted.

People may have reservations about the value of religious practices like prayer and worship, they may have doubts about Jesus and what he said and did and about the institution of the church. They may be uncertain as to what course of action they should take as a Christian, they may lose faith in standing up for justice but not about the existence of God. It simply makes no sense to say existence itself doesn’t exist.

Christian faith should not concern itself with questions over the existence of a separate entity called God, either in or outside our universe. It is about our relationships within the world we inhabit, both with ourselves and those around us. It should lead us in life and love, helping us to make society a better place for more people. The most effective way to bring about these changes may be shrouded in doubt, but God must not.