The Sea of Faith Network
The Sea of Faith Network and its members claim that religion is an entirely human creation; a view shared by Richard Dawkins and his militant atheist followers. However, as philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt says in his video interview, “Unlike Dawkins I believe religion continues to be interesting even after you have given up belief in any supernatural world”. Hence, the SoF strap line: “Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation”. As SoF are the main proponents of the view that you can be religious without supernatural or metaphysical belief most of the material for this discussion will come from their writings and broadcasts.
The SoF movement started in 1984 as a response to Don Cupitt's book and television series, both titled Sea of Faith. Educated in both science and theology at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s, Cupitt is a philosopher, theologian, Anglican priest, and former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In the book and TV series, he surveyed western thinking about religion and charted a transition from traditional realist religion to the view that religion is simply a human creation in which humans express and articulate their highest ideals.
The name Sea of Faith is taken from Matthew Arnold's nostalgic mid 19th century poem Dover Beach, in which the poet expresses regret that belief in a supernatural world is slowly slipping away: the “sea of faith” is withdrawing like the ebbing tide.
Following the television series, a small group of radical Christian clergy and laity began meeting to explore how they might promote this new understanding of religious faith. Starting with a mailing list of 143 sympathisers, they organised the first UK conference in 1988. A second conference was held in the following year shortly after which the SoF Network was officially launched. Annual national conferences have been a key event of the network ever since.
The Sea Of Faith Network holds national and regional conferences and promotional events each year and there is an active network of local groups who meet regularly for discussions.
Currently there are national networks in the UK, New Zealand and Australia with scattered membership in the USA, Northern Ireland, South Africa, France and The Netherlands. The world-wide membership, as of 2004, stood at about 2,000.
SoF has no official creed or statement of belief to which members are required to assent, seeing itself as a loose network rather than a formal religious movement or organisation. Its stated aim is to “explore and promote religious faith as a human creation”. In this it spans a broad spectrum of faith positions from uncompromising non-realism at one end to critical realism at the other. Some members describe themselves as on the Liberal or Radical wing of conventional belief while others choose to call themselves Religious or Christian Humanists. Some even refer to themselves as agnostic, atheist or non-theist.
SoF is most closely associated with the non-realist approach to religion. This refers to the belief that God has no “real”, objective, or empirical existence, independent of human language and culture; God is “real” in the sense that He is a potent symbol, metaphor or projection, but He has no objective existence outside and beyond the practice of religion. Non-realism therefore entails a rejection of all supernaturalism, including concepts such as miracles, the afterlife, and the agency of spirits.
In his first book in this genre, Taking Leave of God Cupitt wrote, “God is the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity, their claims upon us and their creative power”. Cupitt calls this “a voluntarist interpretation of faith: a fully demythologized version of Christianity”. It entails the claim that even after we have given up the idea that religious beliefs can be grounded in anything beyond the human realm, religion can still be believed and practised in new ways.
Cupitt began writing in 1971 but his non-realist phase started in 1979/80 when Taking Leave of God was published and since that time he had written 47 books. During this time his views have continued to evolve and change. In his early books Cupitt talks of God alone as non-real, but by the end of the 1980's he has moved into postmodernism, describing his position as 'empty radical humanism': that is, there is nothing but our language, our world, and the meanings, truths and interpretations that we have generated. Everything is non-real, including God.
While Cupitt was the founding influence of SoF and is much respected for his work for the network, it would not be true to say that he is regarded as a guru or leader of SoF. Members are free to dissent from his views and Cupitt himself has argued strongly that SoF should never be a fan club. Both Cupitt and the network emphasise the importance of autonomous critical thought and reject authoritarianism in all forms.