Belief, reason and dogma

The first of a series of lectures given at St Brides Liverpool in 2010 and 2011. The list is here.

Why believe in God? The aim of these lectures is to show how believing in God makes sense, despite all the claims to the contrary.

We have gone through a spell of nearly 200 years in which many people believed science could disprove all religious belief, including the existence of God. Then, round about the end of the 1960s, this went into reverse. It became clear that the existence of God was not going to be disproved, and more people held some kind of belief.

But people have not been flocking back into the Christian churches. From the 1970s onwards spiritual searchers took up an interest in New Age spirituality or Buddhism or the spiritual dimension of Eastern practices like yoga. 20 years ago Marguerite and I lived in Sheffield, and I organised the annual Green Fair. Hundreds of people came, and a great many of them were looking for spiritual guidance. They felt they needed a spiritual dimension to their lives. Some of them had looked at a wide range of traditions, from crystal therapy to Indian meditation methods to Tai Chi to driving out to some standing stones in the Peak District under a full moon and dancing naked round them. I heard these stories, and was struck by the variety, but nevertheless if you added them all up the number of providers was still less than the number of Christian churches in the area. Yet none of these people said they had tried going to a Christian church. That was something they definitely knew they didn’t want.

As I was a Christian priest myself, I wondered why. It seems that when people started looking for some kind of spiritual insight, what they didn’t want was people who claim to know all the answers, burden you with a mountain of unconvincing dogmas, and then make you feel guilty if you don’t accept them. That was many people’s experience of Christianity.

Belief and dogma


After a chequered history, by the end of the nineteenth century the word came to bear the precise meaning of

  1. a divinely revealed truth
  2. proclaimed as such by solemn church teaching
  3. hence binding now and forever on the faithful

A Richardson & J Bowden, Eds, A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, London, SCM, 1983, art. ‘Dogma’.

Is Christianity all about irrational dogmas, and is believing in God one of them?

You may have heard that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. In my experience most people just don’t care whether any of this is true. If being a Christian is all about holding an opinion that certain unusual things happened thousands of years ago, why bother?

Other beliefs demand a high price. If you’re a Roman Catholic using contraceptives is wrong, so in theory you mustn’t do it. If you belong to one of the Protestant groups supported by a lot of American money you may be told the world was made in 6 days in the year 4004 BC, together with all the animal species alive today, and they all fitted into Noah’s ark. You may also be expected to take a strong line against abortion, assisted dying, alcohol, women in positions of leadership, same-sex partnerships or sex before marriage.

And if that’s a high price to pay for being a Christian, there is an even higher price for not being one. God made Jesus suffer a cruel death by crucifixion in order to save the human race from eternal punishment in hell, but if you don’t believe it you’re going there anyway.

Why are all these beliefs so popular? It’s one thing to believe them for reasons which convince you; but many people believe them because they have been told that you must believe them in order to be a Christian; and that’s dogma. Most people today are rightly suspicious of dogmas. Unfortunately believing in God is often presented as just one more dogma, and that puts many people off believing in God at all.

If you’re already shocked – if you’re thinking ‘But aren’t these dogmas what Christianity is all about?’ – then that’s my point. In many people’s minds dogma has become what religion is all about. It wasn’t always like this. Next month I’ll take a closer look at how the idea of dogma arose and displaced more credible religious theories.

George Lindbeck has provided a useful classification. Lindbeck spent some time working on dialogue between Christian denominations, where conflicting doctrines prevent church unity. In 1984 he wrote an influential book, The Nature of Doctrine, which classifies theories of doctrine into three types.

  1. The ‘cognitive’ type sees doctrines as truth claims: people believe a doctrine because they think it’s true. This, he says, ‘was the approach of traditional orthodoxies’.
  2. The ‘experiential-expressive’ type treats doctrines not as truth claims but as symbols of inner feelings and attitudes: people believe a doctrine because they find it meaningful. He associates this idea with religious liberals.
  3. The third type is ‘cultural-linguistic’, which means doctrines are authoritative rules for a particular church.

Lindbeck argues that the way churches actually use their doctrines is usually in this third way; what counts is neither that they are true, nor that people find them meaningful, but that they define the church. They are what you have to believe in order to belong. So for example doctrinal propositions like the Nicene Creed are not supposed to be true; they only set rules for churches.1

My response to this is that the bishops who met at Nicaea in the fourth century, some of them risking their lives to argue out each article of the Creed, would have been horrified. To say that all those strongly held opinions had become mere labels for different denominations, would mean that Christianity had degenerated out of all recognition.

Yet Lindbeck has observed all too accurately what doctrines have come to mean to many Christians today. How did this happen?

Origins of doctrines

All doctrines began because someone believed both that they were true and that they mattered. A person or movement in some historical context made a truth claim which seemed important at the time, and it got established because there were good reasons for thinking it was right. In other words they only became doctrines in the first place because they fitted both of Lindbeck’s first two categories: they claimed to be true, and they explained something. This is how all Christian doctrines arose and I would expect it to be true of other faiths as well.

As long as a belief is held for reasons which people understand, it is possible to ask critical questions of it. Exactly what does it mean? In what circumstances does it apply, and when does it become irrelevant? When new challenges arise, can it be adapted to meet them? Should it be adapted? Has it become out of date?

Over time it often happens that the original reason for a belief no longer applies. Either people stop believing it, or it gets reinterpreted to mean something different, or it becomes a dogma, something you just have to believe if you want to be one of us. That’s the point at which it fits Lindbeck’s third category.

An example would be the Sabbath law in the Bible. The ancient Hebrews invented the week. As the Ten Commandments put it,

For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11

Everybody was to have a day off work every seven days. They did it for reasons which would now count as Old Labour. Bad news for business efficiency, but a real blessing for employees, slaves and even cattle.

Later, generations of scribes produced long lists of activities, specifying which of them count as work and therefore cannot be done on the Sabbath. One Sabbath day, according to the gospels, Jesus was going for a walk through some corn fields with a few disciples, and they picked and ate a few ears of corn. They were accused of breaching the Sabbath law. The original reason for the law had been forgotten. It had become dogma, and as dogma it had developed completely different meanings.

Often a teaching becomes dogma at a time of reaction, when people are trying to cling onto a tradition which is under attack. The original doctrine makes sense within a context, for reasons which are known and can therefore be examined, but when it becomes dogma, it is taken out of all context and applied universally.

So why carry on believing them? As Lindbeck shows, dogmas survive as badges of orthodoxy. The story goes that when the nineteenth century dean, Arthur Stanley, suggested to the Prime Minister that the Athanasian creed should be omitted from the English Prayer Book, Disraeli replied ‘Mr. Dean, no dogmas, no deans’.2

This is what happens in churches today. George believes the whole Bible is inspired by God; Georgina believes the whole Bible was not only inspired by God but dictated by God word for word. Georgina mentally preens herself: she is more of a sound evangelical than George. Janet believes in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, John believes not only in the Virgin Birth of Jesus, but also in the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth of Jesus’ mother Mary. John acquires a reputation for being a more devout Catholic than Janet. These kinds of games are played over and over again in churches today; people believe things as a badge of orthodoxy, and the more impossible miracles you believe in, the better Christian you are. For many people today, Christianity is almost defined by dogmas, teachings which nobody believes except the people who think they have to believe them in order to be a Christian.

The threat of atheism

I shall now try to summarise how we got into this absurd position where atheists describe religious belief as completely irrational, and popular versions of Christianity go out of their way to prove them right.

In our society today, there is a kind of default position that science explains how the universe works, and doesn’t include any reference to God, so if you want to believe in God that’s an optional extra. Historically this is unusual. As far as we know, pretty well all human societies have believed in some kinds of divine beings, and next month we’ll look at the reasons. What was it about modern Europe that persuaded many people to disbelieve, often at great personal cost?

The first time significant numbers of people became atheists seems to have been the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century atheism became popular among the educated classes in France, and in the nineteenth church leaders saw it as their greatest threat.

Many historians attribute the rise of atheism to a materialist philosophy in which everything that exists consists of matter. Everything is reducible to atoms pushing each other in accordance with laws of nature. You can’t have a mind unless you’ve got a brain. So matter came first. If this is the original motive for atheism, then it developed as a theoretical philosophy.

There is an alternative explanation. Puritans were writing tracts warning people against losing their faith, thereby giving Satan another soul to torment in hell for eternity. There were so many of these Puritan tracts that there must have been Puritans losing their faith. Why? We don’t have writings by Puritans who lost their faith at that time, but judging from the tracts it is easy enough to see what was happening. Puritan teaching had it that all humans are wicked sinners and deserve to spend eternity suffering agony in hell, but God chooses to elect a small minority to a blessed afterlife in heaven. In those days people took the terrors of hell very seriously, and many of them panicked. Is there no way you can know whether you are saved? It became a common belief that if you live a godfearing life and you are blessed with the outward signs of success – like money – that is God’s sign to you that you are one of the elect who will go to heaven. If you do live an upright life and have plenty of money, that’s a comforting thing to believe. But now imagine how you would feel about it if you were an unmarried girl who has got pregnant, or a hardworking man who can’t earn enough to keep his family. What would it feel like then? Looks like you’re destined for an eternity of suffering. It’s easy enough to see why many people preferred to believe there is no God at all. It was the only available alternative to absolute terror.

In the same way when historians looked at the many educated people who lost their faith in the nineteenth century, and asked why, they found that it was rarely for scientific or philosophical reasons: usually it was for moral reasons, and the most common moral reason was that they could not believe in hell. I don’t know but I would guess that today as well, when people who are brought up as believers become atheists, the most common reason is not the theoretical arguments but bad experiences.

So we have two accounts of the rise of modern atheism. One explains it in theoretical terms as an explanation of how the world works, the other explains it in existential terms as a response to intense personal panic. If you’re an atheist you’ll probably prefer the scientific account because you think it’s true; and if you’re a church leader determined to defend Christian teaching, you won’t want to believe your doctrines drove people to stop believing in God. So both sides usually prefer the materialistic explanation. As a result the modern debates about belief in God usually focus on the scientific and philosophical arguments.

Thus at the beginning of the nineteenth century many educated Europeans believed that the existence of God was on the way to being disproved by materialistic science. Now if everything in the universe basically consists of atoms obeying laws of nature, then everything is determined. It isn’t just that God doesn’t exist. Human beings do not have free will: all our thoughts and actions are determined by the laws of nature, so when we think we are choosing between alternatives, we aren’t really. And furthermore all values, all purposes, are mere inventions of the human mind; nothing really has value or purpose. The real reason why you are sitting here is that your muscles moved you in a cause and effect sequence which was determined right from the beginning of the universe; you may think you chose to come here, but that thought is just the result of a few chemicals pushing each other round your brain.

Today the issues are still debated and we’ll look at the current debate in a few months; but throughout the nineteenth century it looked as if once God goes, so do all our values and freedom. What was left looked pretty bleak. This was the context in which church attendances went up. People looked to the churches to provide an account of reality which had room for freedom and values, and didn’t depend on modern science.

Church responses to the threat of atheism

The churches produced a variety of responses, and I am going to describe them as dualist, fundamentalist and postmodern.

Most churches adopted a dualist response along the lines of Descartes’ philosophy. They divided reality into two parts. Science explains how the observable physical universe operates, religion explains the unobservable and spiritual, and our values. This meant the churches accepted secular knowledge and restricted religion to spiritual matters which science could not study.

In 1799 the influential theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote: ‘Religion maintains its own sphere and its own character only by completely removing itself from the sphere and character of speculation as well as from that of praxis.’3 In other words, he wanted to separate religion completely from both science and morality.

Nineteenth century churches emphasised spiritual realities beyond the reach of science. Roman Catholics saw more visions of angels, saints and the Virgin Mary than they had seen before. Evangelicals started to have intense conversion experiences. Some of them rediscovered speaking in tongues, or the imminent second coming of Christ. Protestants and Catholics alike expected more miracles; before then divine intervention was considered a rare event, if it happened at all, but in the nineteenth century it was considered very common. The papacy insisted on accepting some very unlikely miracles and legends. At a more popular level more people saw ghosts. If you’ve ever been to a spiritualist church and received messages from the dead, that church was probably founded in the later nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth.

Across the Christian spectrum, from Roman Catholics to Evangelicals, the clergy were professionalised and promoted lives of holiness, inward spiritual experience and worship which produced a sense of being close to God.

That was dualism, the most common response to atheism: religion in its own compartment, with its own spiritual phenomena, completely unrelated to the secular world and empirical science. None of these ideas were completely new. Older ideas, still kicking about somewhere in their traditions, were revived and given a new importance: they became important because they populated the spiritual world and thereby defied materialist science.

The second response was to turn modern secular knowledge on its head. According to modern secularism science has the facts and if the Bible disagrees with them, then the Bible is just plain wrong. The tradition which eventually came to be known as fundamentalism turned the argument on its head. The Bible has the facts and modern science is mere theory. If science disagrees with the Bible, science is just plain wrong.

There’s a problem with the word ‘fundamentalism’ because it’s used differently in Britain and the USA, but the basic idea is that they refused to divide reality into two parts as the dualists did. They kept reality together, and insisted that the Bible is the supreme authority.

They are now best known for opposing evolution, and insisting that the world is about 6000 years old. How did that happen? In the early nineteenth century, because many Christians were afraid that science would disprove the existence of God, they jumped on every scrap of evidence that Christianity was right after all. At the time the biggest scientific advances were in geology. People tried to relate the findings of geologists to the stories at the beginning of the Bible. They looked for evidence of the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood. In 1857 Hugh Miller’s book The Testimony of the Rocks was published. It argued that the latest findings of geology proved that the Bible is true. It was an immediate best seller. It was exactly what many people wanted to believe.

Notice that date, 1857. Only two years later another book was published, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was immediately apparent that the two books were irreconcilable, and that Darwin’s science was much better. Large numbers of people, whose hopes had been raised by Miller’s book, were determined to prove Darwin wrong.

The third response to the threats from science is a version of twentieth century postmodernism. The argument runs that modernism believes in a single universally true account of reality, namely the one provided by modern western science, and when other accounts of reality conflict with it modernists dismiss them as wrong. Postmodernists reply that modernism is just one tradition among many, and it has no right to exalt its theories to the status of absolute truth. On the contrary different traditions provide different accounts of reality, each one based on its own system of rationality, and there is no neutral system of rationality through which you can judge between the different traditions and declare one truer than another.

Some theologians have seized on this argument to reclaim older religious traditions over against modern secularism. The most influential Christian theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, is often considered a forerunner of postmodernism. He argued that we should not judge the Bible on the basis of modern secular knowledge, but we should judge modern secular society on the basis of the Word of God. Today many followers of Barth draw out the postmodern implications; the idea is that Christians have their own understanding of reality which is quite different from modern secular liberalism, and owes nothing to it.

An alternative version of the same idea is Radical Orthodoxy, a product of British Anglo-Catholics. They also think Christianity has its own distinct rationality and its own beliefs about the universe, but instead of looking back to the Bible they look back to medieval Christianity.

So then, three ways the Christian churches reacted to atheism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most common was the dualistic one: science is okay in its own limited world, but we’re interested in the spiritual world beyond the reach of science. The second was fundamentalism: The Bible is the supreme authority and if science disagrees science is just plain wrong. The third is the postmodern one: you choose your reality, I choose mine and there is no rational way to judge between them.

Put those three together and we can see that they all have a negative attitude to modern society, and in particular to modern science. This negative attitude worked for a while. For the reasons I have described it filled the churches in the nineteenth century, but over the last 50 years it has been emptying them again. Why? Those movements needed to show that they were not just a minor adaptation of modern secularism but a full-blown alternative to it. They therefore insisted that the claims they were making were self-justifying and modern science had no business passing judgement on them. This meant denying that their claims could be rationally justified by modern secular standards. In other words their religious claims served their purpose because they were dogmas.

This is why, in the churches of Liverpool today, you will find over and over again an expectation that in order to count as a Christian there are things you must believe which cannot be rationally justified. Many people think all religious belief is like this, including believing in God; over the next few months I hope to show that it is only true of degenerate forms of religious belief.

20th century decline of atheism

During the twentieth the scientific threat to religion subsided. From the time of Einstein and quantum theory, scientists began to realise that the universe is far more complex than they had previously thought, there is no way they can prove that we have no free will, and there is no way they can disprove the existence of God. Some theoretical physicists started arguing that despite their previous beliefs, if you look at the evidence for the way the universe works, creation by a divine mind could be the best explanation.

On the other hand science has proved its worth and we all take it for granted in many ways. We are comfortable using new technologies based on the latest science; or at least, if we are not, our children will show us how to use them. Those science-defying dogmas which were once so popular now seem just plain silly.

So to return to those people who feel a need for a spiritual dimension to their lives, and would like some kind of guidance or insight, but don’t want to be given a load of incredible dogmas to believe. They are absolutely right.

Unfortunately most church leaders are responding to the situation by being all the more determined to defend their dogmas. I believe they should do the opposite. It is time for religious faith to let go of its nineteenth century heritage. There is absolutely no virtue in believing things which seem impossible, just for the sake of calling yourself a believer. The confident believer should be able to resist the attraction of a holier-than-thou self-image. The search for truth is too important.

Over the next few months I hope to show that believing in God, far from being contrary to reason or science, is an essential part of our understanding of who we are, how we relate to the world around us, and how we can make the most of our lives.


1 Lindbeck, George, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, London: SPCK, 1984, pp. 16-19.

2 Chadwick, Owen, The Victorian Church: Part 2 1860-1901, London: SCM, 1970, p. 132.

3 On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799.

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