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