An atheist bishop?

Caspar Melville, the editor of The New Humanist, has a fascinating interview in the May/June 2012 issue with Richard Holloway, the retired Bishop of Edinburgh, which reinforces the point that I have been plugging away at for years, that there is good reason to suppose that there is a great deal of nonbelief among clergy, with the level of skepticism and disbelief rising with rank.

“I am not an atheist.” Not a particularly surprising statement for an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church to make, you might think. But then again maybe it is. Why would someone who served as a priest for four decades and as Bishop of Edinburgh, the most senior post in the Church of Scotland, feel the need to say such a thing at all? One does not generally expect a bishop to be an atheist.

The reason is that so many of the things Holloway has said and written makes him sound so much like an atheist that he feels the need to deny it. What things? Well, things like that he doesn’t “believe in religion”, or in a personal God, that he treats Christian doctrine as “poetry and metaphor”, not fact, and that the Christian Church has made a serious mistake in denying and repressing human sexuality. He has even written a book, published in 1999, the year before he retired as Bishop of Edinburgh, called Godless Morality which, as commentators at the time noted, made a convincing case for a secular humanist morality, leading to him being denounced from the pulpit by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, at a conference in Scotland Holloway himself organised.

Holloway, at times, seems as doubtful of the claims of religion and as critical of the doctrines of Anglicanism as a Dawkins, but still, he insists, he’s not an atheist. He rejects the certainty the word implies, and instead calls himself a “Christian Agnostic”.

What brought a high flier in the Scottish Church, and at one time a potential leader of the traditionalist Anglo-Catholic wing of that church, to this position? This question is answered in fascinating style in Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Canongate), a beautifully written and disarmingly frank account of his journey into, through and out the other side of organised religion. It provides in particular a telling insight into what attracts people to religion, and the kind of intimate struggles that people of faith – who from the outside can look like the most convinced of people – have with their doubts about the dogma they are expected to represent and enforce.

Note that Holloway expressed his doubts at or after retirement, because to do so earlier would undoubtedly be a bad career move for a bishop. I suspect that this is very common among clergy. One can see in his own words his attempt to find a way to justify his staying within the folds of religion, by averting his eyes from the bald fact of his nonbelief. When religious people use words like ‘poetry’ and ‘metaphor’ in interpreting the doctrines of their religion, I am pretty sure that they have given up any form of belief in a supernatural agency and are now engaged in papering over the gaping hole where belief used to be.

Although like a lot of nonbelievers Holloway rejects the label of atheist, one gets the sense that there is no substantive difference between his views and those of atheists. Holloway’s description of himself as a ‘Christian agnostic’ seems to me to be as frank a statement of nonbelief as you are likely to get from someone who wants to remain within the church. As I wrote in my own New Humanist article, some people take refuge on the word ‘agnostic’ to soften the hard edges that they see the word ‘atheist’ as having. Holloway strikes me as being similar to Charles Darwin in that regard.

You should read the rest of the article to see more of Holloway’s fascinating story of youthful enthusiastic belief slowly fading as he gets older and more aware of how removed the church is from reality, especially when it came to issues of gender and sexuality, and the viciousness of its internal politics.

I am becoming more and more convinced that if you look at any religious order that requires its clergy to have high levels of education and intellectual ability to advance to its highest ranks, you will find high levels of secret disbelief disguised by scholarly euphemisms.


  1. KG says

    Note that Holloway expressed his doubts at or after retirement, because to do so earlier would undoubtedly be a bad career move for a bishop.

    Well unless he wanted to become an archbishop, I don’t really see that: a Church of England bishop isn’t that easy to remove. Holloway isn’t the first quasi-atheist C of E bishop. David Jenkins, then Bishop of Durham, referred in the 1980s to the story of the resurrection as “conjuring tricks with bones”, which he didn’t believe in. In fact, according to his wikipedia entry, Holloway published several books which look from their titles to be rather “post-Christian” well before resigning his posts in 2000.

  2. empiricallyyours says

    The moderates among the faithful are increasingly becoming less religious by the day. They shy away from announcing agnosticism or atheism though.

    I’ve been talking with a Methodist minister who doesn’t believe that Jesus is a deity, he also doesn’t believe a word of the supernatural, miracles etc of the bible. Doesn’t think a God is personal or meddles in human affairs and is even waning to get the definition of Christian altered in Wikipedia.

    Because despite not believing what we would consider to be basic tenants of Christianity, he says he is a Christian.
    When asked why, he said a lot of us do because we like what Jesus had to say. Although he doesn’t have figures, he has stated his views are quite mainstream.

    Lloyd Geering is another person who holds similar views. He faced charges of heresy in 1967 in NZ, despite being a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. He also expressed very non-Christian beliefs.

    You can see the documentary on him, The Last western Heretic.

  3. Dunc says

    That’s Church of Scotland, not Church of England. Entirely different organisations.

    Holloway always struck me as a decent chap.

  4. MNb0 says

    Well, Empiricallyours, I also like a few things Jesus said and did. I like them even more if I assume he was human and a child of his time. After all it’s easier to forgive another human being his/her flaws than “the perfect embodiment of God’s Love”.

  5. says

    And yet someone like Ken Miller, who has absolutely no excuse for being a beleiver IS one. It was the bishop’s JOB to ‘believe’ so in a way, his is the more defensible position

    (I only mention Miller because of my bafflement at his belief. He is such a champion for good science and evolutionary biology that I can’t imagine how someone that brilliant can parse so glaring a cognative dissonance)

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