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A bishop’s foray into the homeland of humanism      

07 February 2020

During a robust exchange of views with atheists, John Saxbee discovered common ground — without losing his convictions

IT WAS not the best of beginnings. The usually very efficient intercom controlled access to the Humanists UK building in central London seemed determined to make me stay put. Was it pre-programmed to go into lock-down mode when a bishop hoved into view? Eventually, a member of staff tripped the switch, and, at last, I was in.

The occasion of my visit was to participate in a dialogue inspired by the book Religion and Atheism: Beyond the divide (Routledge, 2017). My inauspicious entrance proved to be totally at odds with the tone and tenor of the day’s proceedings. A dozen or so contributors — mainly academics, but not exclusively so — engaged in an entirely constructive and eirenic debate in relation to issues which have so often proved divisive and seemingly intractable.

As might be expected, “it depends what you mean by . . .” was an oft repeated refrain. Language is a minefield when it comes to what words mean in disparate contexts and from various points of view — and religious language even more so.

For example, as this dialogue demonstrated, when theism becomes pantheism, and then panentheism, and so on, it is a challenge to achieve a meeting of minds around theological concepts which lack much linguistic or philosophical coherence.

Yet we did coalesce around a commitment to find common ground on which we could all stand, while acknowledging the sincerity and intellectual integrity of each other’s convictions. After all, it’s all very well having an open mind — but not at both ends! But, yes, we had to handle very different understandings of, for example, G-O-D on both sides, as well as either side of the “divide”, and we had to acknowledge and forswear gross misrepresentations of each other’s character, commitments, and convictions. Not all theists are radical fundamentalists, and humanists are not lacking a moral compass.


MORE positively, however, we could identify commonalities which offered real potential for enhanced mutual understanding, and consequential scope for going forward together, rather than perpetuating a seemingly unbridgeable divide.

By way of illustration, our discussion found all of us, theists and atheists alike, owning mystery as important to our fundamental beliefs and concerns. Whether it is scientists such as Einstein musing on why there is something rather than nothing, or students of human nature wondering at the phenomenon of consciousness, or theologians wrestling with the ultimate inscrutability of the divine nature — all find mystery at the heart of their particular preoccupations.

Furthermore, whether mystery is an incomprehensible certainty or a comprehensible uncertainty is a common conundrum confronting all those engaged with what have been described as “ultimate questions”. Indeed, how we position ourselves in relation to this conundrum may be of greater significance than our particular -ism, be it naturalism, humanism, or theism. It can certainly serve as a point of departure for constructive dialogue.

Meanwhile, other issues in the discussion touched on uncertainty as a significant common denominator, along with experiences of transcendence as also common to people of all faiths and none.

Missing was any attention to ecological concerns, which are clearly shared across the board, amounting to an existential threat requiring a co-ordinated response from all shades of opinion, religious and otherwise. Likewise, left hanging in the air was whether, on a global scale, secularisation is a fact or a myth, given predictions of exponential growth in religious-based allegiances during the rest of this century.


ON A personal level, I came away with an enhanced sense of confidence with respect to the integrity and sustainability of my own Christian beliefs. There was no question of entering into this dialogue with the sole, or even main, intention of being confirmed in my own convictions. No dialogue should be conducted on such a self-serving basis.

On reflection, however, where an environment has been created in which an honest exchange of strongly held beliefs is encouraged, then those beliefs can be reinforced because of, and not necessarily in spite of, being robustly challenged.

Indeed, robust exchanges were a key feature of proceedings from start to finish. Inevitably, there will be those who cynically suggest that forthright proclamation of the gospel is being sacrificed for the sake of an uneasy truce or a callow avoidance of hostility. But Christians through the ages have not been afraid to debate with those who espouse a variety of contrary views, and it would be only people of very little faith who fear to do so.

That said, all genuine dialogue must be predicated on the possibility that minds — including one’s own — might be changed, for richer or poorer, for better or worse.

In any event, this dialogue, now constituted, is destined to go forward with clear evidence of good will on all sides. The scope for it to expand and develop further is very evident — and gaining entry into each other’s otherwise closely guarded homelands will no longer be quite so challenging.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

Religion and Atheism: Beyond the divide, edited by Anthony Carroll and Richard Norman, is published by Routledge.

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