Practising, but non-believing Christian?

Yesterday’s Guardian (UK) had a short piece on a talk by Martin Rees, head of the Royal Society, and part of it was:

In an apparent swipe at colleagues such as Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert who have launched blistering attacks on religion, Lord Rees said he felt it was “not helpful” to cast religion as anti-science. “Among scientists there are adherents to a variety of religions. Creationism is not compatible with science, but many people hold to religious views and religious attitudes which are fully compatible … There should be, at the very least, peaceful coexistence between science and most organised religion.” Lord Rees describes himself as a “practising, but non-believing Christian”. Church-going “was a custom of my tribe and I stick with it”.

Never mind the content — it’s the “practising, but non-believing Christian” part that I find interesting. I don’t object to it. In a way, I’m rather sympathetic. It’s one thing to discard the various supernatural beliefs that come with our religions, and another to try and get rid of religion altogether, possibly wiping out the socially and culturally valuable aspects of the local religion in the process. (Not that I think getting rid of religion is a real possibility.)

But I also wonder if the “practising but non-believing” option is that realistic. Few put it as explicitly as Rees, but there must be many people in church who care little about the theological commitments of their sect, even down to not really being interested in God and all that. But how can you reproduce such lukewarm commitment to traditional observance, with the supernatural rationale behind the behavior being gutted out? Doctrinally liberal churches keep losing ground, while fire-breathing fundamentalist movements can count on steady growth. The kind of ultraliberal position Rees adopts must be even more difficult to pass on to the next generation. “Believe or you burn in hell” seems to be a much more effective motivator than “don’t believe but observe the traditions anyway.”

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • “Q” the Enchanter

    You’re probably right, but I could imagine Rees’ raising his son as a church-goer, and the son’s finding church-going a pleasant enough experience, so that later he develops the nostalgic and sentimental attachments sufficient to motivate continuing on both with the church-going and with passing the habit along to the next generation.

    Another plausible motivator would be the parenting philosophy of a friend of mind, a formerly-believing atheist. In his view, it’s critical that children be brought up in belief so that they develop the habits of good behavior before having the capacity to critically examine the foundations of being good–the idea being you want to able to inculcate, say, the idea that hitting your sister is wrong without eliciting Pyrronian objections. (I think of this as the “religion as moral training wheels” theory–get the kid riding the bike without having to assuage his fears of falling over by appeal to reaction forces, reference frames and mass distribution. Or something like that.)

    Couple that parenting strategy with the sentimental and nostalgic attachments I mention above and you have the potential makings of a fairly robust cultural replicator.

  • Ken B.

    I have a better suggestion for moral training wheels: genuine moral training! Including the moral idea that lying, including lying to children about the workings of the universe, is a bad idea. What your friend is doing is quite immoral. Best to tell the children that hitting is wrong, here’s why, and here’s what will happen when you hit.

    New traditions are not impossible to start, including walks or picnics or brunch on Sunday, when other families are stuck at church listening to stories of the Empty Tomb.

  • Mark Plus

    For some reason, the idea of a “practicing, but non-believing christian” makes me think of Creative Anachronism.

  • Common Sense

    I think I understand his reasons, and am not at all unsympathetic. We have to give credit where credit is due.

    I love sacred music, and the one place I can go to listen to a lot of it is in Christian churches. Of course, like any of the arts, good music programs need to be funded, so if it is a diverse and open-minded congregation with a fabulous music program, I could certainly justify joining and contributing just as I might the become a sustaining member of the local opera company. (To a lesser degree, I also have a certain fondness for the ritual and pagentry that has followed me from my childhood, so I guess I could use treatre compny as equally as opera company.:))

    Secondly, whereever you are in the regard to religion, I think it is unwise to dismiss the moral teachings of Christ out of hand. The message of this man was often simple and one of love of neighbor and embracing and accepting people from all walks of life. Its the theists who have thrown in the miracles, and doctrine hellfire and brimstone on the poor man. I would guess he would recoil from those messages as quickly as I do.

    I am not Christian, nor do I belng to a congregation or any religious sect. My reasons are that the foundations of my spirituality exist elsewhere. However, if I can ever get past my own resentments, distrust and narrow-mindedness when it comes to organized religion of any stripe, I certainly can’t rule out attending servies of occasion or becoming a member. The important thing would be to separate the superstition from the elements that fit my values and sense of beauty.

    I liken it to being an American Citizen. There is plenty about my government I don’t agree with (indeed, I abhor) but there are also core American values, as laid down by the founders, that to me are quite sacred. I can’t dismiss these out of hand because of the actions of selfish, self-serving men, women, corporations and the theists who attempt to use patriotism for their own ends. And, at this point in my life, because I still have some faith in that ordinary citizens have the power to clean house and end the corruption through protest and the voting booth, I am not yet ready to renounce my citizenship and leave the country.

    What is important is to stay true to the values of the founders (i.e Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Paine) and to make sure I clearly articulate what I believe is right about my country, and what I believe to be immoral. I believe there is certainly a place for that type of approach when it comes to religion.

  • Da Rat Bastid

    “Practicing but non-believing” is a term designed to claim they have more followers than they actually have.
    See, I think there is the possibility that organized religion will collapse under the weight of its’ own lies. It may not be in our lifetimes, but inevitably it will turn into myth.
    Sure, it may not completely “die”, but it will not be so significant. Like Europe after WW II.
    Why? Because Hitler was propped up by Evangelicals Just like Bush, and and also like Bush, Hitler helped discredit conservative fundamentalism in Europe.
    That was due to their complicity.
    See, this is the silver lining of all of this: Fundies can’t help but go rightward. That’s the way the story (bible) ends.
    But, people will tire of death and war, and humanity will remain.
    I just hope it doesn’t take too many more lives…

  • Jim Lippard

    “‘Practicing but non-believing’ is a term designed to claim they have more followers than they actually have.”

    You don’t see it as the opposite, that there are some followers “in name only,” who don’t count as true believers?

  • Bill Garnett

    Many American churches are merely country clubs without the tennis courts.

    It seems to me no accident that many notable religious people of the past spent considerable time in seclusion and in isolation to explore the spiritual realm.

    I offer the following:

  • Shlomo

    Attending church and synagogue is a social function for many. That’s it. They can fulfill the need for belonging by going to a building and behaving like everyone inside, if only for a few hours a week.

  • Ian

    “Doctrinally liberal churches keep losing ground, while fire-breathing fundamentalist movements can count on steady growth.”

    This is less true in the UK, where tea-drinking, effete vicars are a fairly accurate stereotype. There’s very little fire-and-brimstone Christianity there.

    “Church-going “was a custom of my tribe and I stick with it”.”

    Anyone else see the problem here? There’s lots of stuff that’s the ‘custom of people’s tribes’; that is hardly a reason for going along with it.

    What Rees seems to be saying is that he doesn’t believe a word of what he recites on his knees in Church (i.e. he lies), but he says it anyway. How nice.

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