WHEN the the computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee was
guest-editing the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, on 26
December, he asked that an atheist should provide Thought for
Andrew Pakula, the atheist minister of a north-London Unitarian
church, said in his "Thought": "While I don't literally believe the
stories underlying Christmas, I do very much believe in its most
important messages." He later criticised the BBC's approach to
religion, tweeting: "I'd say I have faith although I'm an atheist.
BBC says this is impossible - except for Buddhists."
What it means to be religious, and a Christian, is often framed
through the lens of "belief". Debates about Christianity's social
significance refer not only to statistics on church attendance, but
to surveys demonstrating percentages of the population believing in
God, heaven, hell, etc.
Yet Dr Pakula's questioning of how "faith" relates to belief in
a supernatural deity raises questions about precisely what we mean
when we use the term "belief", and about the part that belief plays
in the lives of those who attend church.
I AM a sociologist who conducts fieldwork in different kinds of
churches. I am often struck by the way the significance accorded to
"belief", and the different styles that belief takes, varies across
When carrying out research within Evangelical Anglican churches,
I found that Charismatic Christians expressed the meaning of belief
somewhat differently from conservative Evangelicals.
For conservative Evangelicals, to be a Christian is - first and
foremost - to be a believer. Belief, in this case, is understood
primarily in terms of propositional knowledge: in other words,
"belief that" certain statements of knowledge are true.
One student said: "Feeling God as present - I don't know what
that feels like. I have knowledge, and . . . I believe that God is
always there watching over us, and that his love extends to all of
They also saw belief as relational - what we might describe as
"belief in" - centring on a relationship with God which requires
obedient submission. This is bound up with beliefs about the
correct ordering of human relationships. For example, one minister
preached that "God rules: he's delegated his authority to the head
of the family; and then the father and the mother - under the
headship of the man - are in authority over the children."
YET, contrary to popular stereotypes of Evangelicals as always
certain of their beliefs, and perhaps contrary to how they might
respond to a survey, I found that, as I spent time with them, they
articulated awareness of doubts. And, in sermons, ministers
described doubt as a recurring feature of the Christian life.
Individuals I spoke to described doubt as an uneasy state. For
example, one woman said that it was "this huge black hole of, 'Is
it really true?'" Church leaders encouraged particular practices to
encourage individuals to "cling" to their beliefs.
One minister said: "The default position for all of us as
Christians is drift. We don't have to do anything to drift; if we
don't do anything, we do drift, but we've got to make an effort to
keep going, to continue.
"The old line people used to say to me: 'Read your Bible and
pray every day' - when you chat to somebody about why they've
drifted into all sorts of mess, almost invariably you can trace it
back to "Well, I was in a busy patch, and my Bible-reading and
prayer went out the window.'"
Individuals I came to know also knotted each other into
relationships of accountability - for example, texting friends if
they did not see them at church - through which they established
expectations of regular church and Bible-study-group attendance.
Through these communal and individual practices, they worked to
form themselves and each other as believers.
THE Charismatic Anglicans I have spent time with emphasise
"spontaneity" and "messiness" as central to their relational
believing. a sense of intimate relationship with God, and
conviction in God's unbounded, cherishing love, is at the core.
Singing songs for long periods, and the intense emotional
experiences associated with these, are key practices. The language
expressing this intimacy with God is primarily that of love and
The term "belief" is also used to reinforce a sense of a
pluralist public sphere, when addressing those outside the Church.
They use phrases such as "as Christians, we believe" to articulate
a consciousness of their addressing others with different
In speaking about their practical social engagements,
Charismatics' belief is also infused with the language of hope. One
church leader, for example, quoted the writer Anne Lamott to
describe her work with local parents: "Hope begins in the dark; the
stubborn hope that if you just show up, and try to do the right
thing, the dawn will come."
NON-EVANGELICAL and "mainstream" Anglicans may be less likely to
describe themselves as "believers". An exchange between a Roman
Catholic philosopher and a liberal Anglo-Catholic university
chaplain evokes this. The philosopher told the chaplain: "The
problem with you Anglicans is that you're so vague about your
beliefs." The Anglican replied: "And why is that a problem?"
There is a wider latitude of belief among non-Evangelical and
liberal Anglicans. Professor Linda Woodhead's YouGov survey
(Feature, 23 April 2013) demonstrates that most churchgoing
Anglicans do express a "belief in God", but they do not take their
moral authority from religious leaders or scriptures, but prefer to
make up their own minds.
Regardless of the extent to which Anglicans think of themselves
as believers, different practices of believing are deeply
interwoven into the mundane rhythms of what they do when they meet
together in church.
Any act of believing means an orientation towards an "other" -
whether God, or people - who transcends the self; and towards a
past and a future beyond, but folded within, the present
Perhaps it is in this gesture of the self turning outwards that
belief, in its very diverse forms, remains significant in Anglican
Dr Anna Strhan is the Leverhume Early Career Fellow in the
Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent.