What is the Sea of Faith Network?

The following appeared in the AHS (National Association of Atheist, Humanist and Secular student societies) eNewsletter for 2011 06 14

The Sea of Faith Network exists to explore the assertion that religions are all human creations; that is, not supernatural in any way.
In some ways, this is obvious. Most religions regard the others as ‘mere’ human creations, but their own as something different, more objective, given to them as a revelation from a divine principle, or divine beings, or a single unique Being. If religions are products of the human mind, like the arts, philosophy, mathematics and the sciences, they don’t have to compete for the position of being ‘the revealed Truth’. But as insights they may have a huge value in human development, as those other disciplines have.
The Network was founded in 1987 in the aftermath of Don Cupitt’s television series on the diminishing power of religion in human affairs. The title is taken from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’; but the Network has used the phrase as a metaphor in many ways very different from Arnold’s – for exploring, risking, setting sail on an immensity out of sight of land, surfing, plumbing the depths, surviving storms, steering by the stars, and many more.
We don’t have a set of doctrines, not even an agreed statement of intent (though that has been attempted from time to time); but we are united in the realisation that, whatever our religious, non-religious or anti-religious beliefs, we humans are responsible for them, for their consequences and for their future development. There’s no infallible divine principle out there who must be right in telling us to do cruel, destructive things to each other
That leaves room for a lot of diversity in our membership. Some are so disgusted with the mess that religion has made in the world that they have left organised religion completely. Some are leading lights in the British Humanist Association. But others still belong to the faith they came from (indeed some are clergy and priests, as the original founders were, and have remained so).
There are a lot of Quakers in the Network, and many members who would call themselves atheist, secularist or humanist. Some members are very involved in interfaith dialogue. In principle, the term ‘religion’ in our aim must refer to all religions, but there are only a few Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, Jews, Taoists or Buddhists among our members, a short-fall that some of us think we should do more to correct. We do not insist on any exact philosophical position on whether you can know that God doesn’t exist, but most would regard ’existence’ as irrelevant to the ‘idea’ of God, even if the ‘idea’ still appeals to us.
The scientific discipline of observation, theory, experiment and falsification is, by most of us, acknowledged as the only valid tool for establishing propositions which are either true or false. Religious beliefs are opinions, different ways of looking at things, of interpreting things. The myths of Animism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. have insights many of which are of great value.
It’s hard to go on trying to say only what we would all agree about. I’ve probably already crossed the boundary. So what follows are some glimpses of where my exploring has got me personally.
The human world has big problems to face. Religion as a force for good – a source of insight and compassion, a prophetic critique of power struggles and greed, a vehicle of respect, co-operation and peace-making – has been lost in truth-claims, dogmas and pontificating about ethics. Most of what flourishes is bad religion. Does the Network have a vision of good religion to offer?
There’s an energetic dialogue going on now. Anti-religious atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others usually get mentioned) are news. And surely we should be out there too in that debate. There are many things we might be saying. That the Church should listen to its critics. That theist religion must plead guilty to the charges against it. We might acknowledge the harm ethical monotheism has done. And we might suggest that the atheists listen to what Animist, Hindu, Buddhist and many other faiths have been saying and living for centuries, very different from the stereotype of ‘religion’ (= dogmatic ethical monotheism) which they rightly oppose. And we might seek to demonstrate how much of human thought, emotion and behaviour is not rational. Our minds do lots more than think. So although the scientific method is a marvellous tool for explaining things, making models, finding new understanding, inventing ever-growing new techniques, that’s not all that we humans do with our lives. Wonder, love and hope are perhaps more central. Science can – I don’t doubt – explain these human experiences, and the explanation may well be very important; but people also live them, they gossip about them, write stories, paint pictures, play music and take part in rituals about them. The world is an inspiring place for us. Explaining it all can make it even more exciting, but we mustn’t let explanation replace or destroy our experience of this treasury of delights.
In itself, the cosmos is meaningless. Meaning is a human creation, a human concept, a human need which only we can satisfy. This need has evolved in our huge brains. Science, the arts and the religions have also evolved – they weren’t created – and they are still evolving. In biological evolution a large gene pool is vital for healthy flourishing and development. It’s the same with religion. In embracing new ways of celebrating the cosmos, there’s no need to throw away the old ones. You never know when an ancient insight from the other side of the world may come in useful. There is no final answer, and all human systems of understanding have deep flaws, contradictions and inadequacies in them, often unseen without a historical perspective. We need to be able to stand outside the ideas of our own place and time, our culture, assumptions and obsessions. The ‘search for truth’ is always contingent, provisional and plural.
There is no final truth at which we will some day arrive. We will always be exploring new unknowns and finding new questions to ask.
The Sea of Faith Network – in my view – has ways of addressing these issues which should place it at the heart of the debates. Its specific contribution is to provide a basis – namely, that all religions, including one’s own, are human creations – which might enable atheists, humanists, secularists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Pagans and all the others to listen to one another’s insights, value them, challenge them, learn from them and be constantly developing new insights from the encounter. The Network is nowhere near that yet; but, in my view, that should be our aim.
I would go so far as to say that anyone who seriously wants to understand secular politics, theology or philosophy in today’s multicultural and fast-changing times should consider visiting our website www.sofn.org.uk. There you will find information about our quarterly magazine Sofia, local groups, day conferences and the annual residential conference at Leicester University.
Annual Conference 22 – 24 July 2011
Leicester University
Brain, Belief and Behaviour
Psychology & Religion

A conference on religion and psychology: getting to the heart
of our understanding and appreciation of religion
as a creation of the human mind,
the evolution of our brains,
and our behaviour as the earth’s most intelligent species.
With main speakers:
COLIN BLAKEMORE Professor of Neuroscience
at the Universities of Oxford and Warwick,
GWEN GRIFFITH-DICKSON Director of the Lokahi Foundation and
Professor Emeritus of Divinity of Gresham College.
ALAN ALLPORT Emeritus Professor of Experimental Psychology,
and Senior Research Fellow, St Anne’s College, Oxford.
Plus Workshops on
Don Cupitt’s newest book ‘The Fountain’; The Might of Metaphor;
Atheist Spirituality; Beliefs about Believing;
Advaita – or what’s wrong with the West?; Who is the Sea of Faith for NOW ;
Religion and the evolution of the Machiavellian mind; Music Therapy;
A Social Constructionist Approach to Religion; ‘Painting Your Brain’;
Religion and Society; What is Consciousness?;
A fresh look at the Passion Narrative;
Implications of developments in Psychology and Brain science for ideas of moral
and legal responsibility; AND MANY OTHERS.
More details on our conference website www.sofconference.org.uk