Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2002-2003

The Emperor’s New Faith

by Brett Humphreys

When is a Christian not a Christian? According to one statement quoted on the Sea of Faith Network (SoF) website:

“A radical Christian, being an intelligent, modern, thinking person, finds no need for any supernatural notions, actions or events...; accepts no explanation for the coming into being of the universe... other than those rational explanations offered in terms of scientific laws and processes...; does not entertain any notion of a soul or spirit or other non-physical entity... and denies the possibility of any form of survival after the death of the body...; does not suppose that there is a God or any Supreme Being...; recognises that all religion is Man-made...” (Ellipses in original.)

But how can someone who so comprehensively rejects the very foundations of the Christian belief system be called a Christian, however radical? Jan Fortune-Wood, writing recently in The Freethinker (November 2002), provides a clue when she describes the Sea of Faith as “a support group for church people, mainly clergy, who believe none of it but who want to maintain the regulative social and moral functions of religion” – a sort of Clerics Anonymous, perhaps? Much of the material on the SoF site does indeed seem to be written by current or former Church of England clergy.

The Sea of Faith claims to be humanist, and so it is in many ways, although its members range from paid-up humanists like Margaret Chisman through Quakers and Unitarians to people like Salvation Army officer Duncan Park who responds paradoxically to a set of supposedly humanist “hypotheses” by first describing them as self-evident truths and then launching into a diatribe against humanism. What the SoFties nearly all have in common, however, is an acceptance of “non-realism” – a philosophy developed by SoF’s intellectual prime mover, Don Cupitt, to enable its adherents to convert religious belief into make-believe rather than unbelief by treating mythology on a par with reality, a concept that he promotes in his prolific books and regular addresses at the annual SoF conferences.

“The Emperor was vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And the lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold.”

The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837) by Hans Christian Andersen

Unfortunately, SoF writers have a tendency to clothe straightforward secular concepts in religious language. If “God” is no more than a personification of “Love” (Don Cupitt), “a set of ideals” (Ronald Pearse) or “an underlying goodness, beauty and order” (Daphne Hampson), we can surely all agree wholeheartedly with the Bishop of Oxford that “There is a clear difference between atheism and theism and atheists quite properly force us to choose between them. To dress up our human ideals and values and call them God, as the Sea of Faith people do, simply fails to respond to the character of the world as we know it.”

Nevertheless, provided you’re prepared to cut through the theological language, the SoF site has a fair amount to offer. Even Robert Ashby, former Executive Director of the British Humanist Association, puts in a couple of guest appearances. In one (which I’ve mentioned previously) he discusses the use of the H-word; the other is his contribution to the 1998 SoF Conference, whose theme was “spirituality” – a topic that seems to epitomise the gap between secular humanism and so-called religious humanism. SoF’s sister sites in New Zealand and Australia are also worth a visit, although the Australian one is somewhat marred by irritating popups.

Another mainly UK-based “SoF” pursuing a nautical metaphor is the Ship of Fools – subtitled “the Magazine of Christian Unrest” – which was launched onto the Web on 1 April 1998. Despite the similar names – both, incidentally, derived from poems: “Sea of Faith” from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach (written c. 1851, published 1867), “Ship of Fools” from Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (1494) – the two sites are entirely different. While the make-believers treat Christianity with great earnestness and respect, the true radical Christians satirise it so mercilessly that the owner of one Christian listings site refused to provide a link to Ship of Fools because he was “unable to find any social, moral, or redeeming value”.

The site is vast and by no means all explicitly satirical. For example, the good church guide compiled by the Mystery Worshipper, entertaining though it is in parts, is likely to be of value mainly to Christians, though just out of curiosity you might want to check out the write-ups on venues with particular homophobic associations, like Jesmond Parish Church and Holy Trinity Brompton.

Only the most humourless fundamentalist could fail to find anything of value on board the Ship of Fools. The animated logo at the bottom of the home page is a gem in itself. Sample the Fruitcake Zone for an annotated list of links to nearly 50 of the Web’s fruitiest and nuttiest religious sites. Read the ding-dong between Sister Mary Diocletian of the Sisters of Perpetual Persecution(!) and Faith McDonnell of the Institute on Religion and Democracy over the shameful behaviour of bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. Go aloft to the Crow’s Nest for a sceptical view of faith. Unscroll the Unholy Writ to read some of the stories that didn’t quite make it into the Bible. Guess which well-known religious leader is the spitting image of David Bellamy, then visit the Born Twice lookalike gallery to see if you’re right. And there’s plenty more, both on deck and in the cargo hold.

In the last issue I lamented the undeveloped state of The Freethinker’s website. So I’m pleased to say that the site has now been taken in hand and completely redeveloped by Paul Hempstock, a software consultant from Nottingham. The design is much improved, and the number of articles online is already approaching 20 as I write, with a welcome promise of “more and more material from past issues as we update our archives”. One oddity is that the paragraph breaks often differ significantly from those in the printed magazine, even though the wording is identical. I encountered one or two teething problems – for example, the site search facility didn’t work properly and the pages wouldn’t cache for later offline viewing – but these will no doubt soon be overcome. The new site shows great potential.

Despite their contrasting viewpoints, the Ship of Fools and new Freethinker sites show some interesting similarities. An obvious one is the identical set of automatically generated news headlines (supplied by’s “religion” category). Another is a fascination with Fred Phelps and his bizarre hate campaign. The remarkable 1994 Phelps exposé Addicted to Hate (see Web Watch, Spring 1998) is now replicated on over a dozen sites around the Web but The Freethinker has alighted on God Hates Fundies, one of the few with the good sense not to leave the whole long story on a single massive page. This small but well-constructed site was created in 2000 by American college students Mike Friedman and Tim Groth. It seems to have been prematurely abandoned, but among other things it contains a couple of good articles debunking some of the pseudo-scientific arguments put forward by creationists.

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Created : Sunday, 2002-12-08 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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