Victorian reconverts to Christianity from high ranking secularists
Prof. Tim Larsen undertook some excellent research on high ranking Victorian members of secular/freethought societies and notable critics of Christianity who nevertheless subsequently became Christians.
From the blurb on the back of Prof. Larsen's book Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England:
"As sceptics, they had read, written about, and lectured on all the latest ideas that served to undermine faith, such as biblical criticism and Darwinism. Nevertheless they went on to judge that faith was more intellectually compelling than doubt and to defend Christian thought in their writings and lectures and in public debates with Secularists."From the description at Amazon:
"The Victorian crisis of faith has dominated discussions of religion and the Victorians. Stories are frequently told of prominent Victorians such as George Eliot losing their faith. This crisis is presented as demonstrating the intellectual weakness of Christianity as it was assaulted by new lines of thought such as Darwinism and biblical criticism. This study serves as a corrective to that narrative. It focuses on freethinking and Secularist leaders who came to faith. As sceptics, they had imbibed all the latest ideas that seemed to undermine faith; nevertheless, they went on to experience a crisis of doubt, and then to defend in their writings and lectures the intellectual cogency of Christianity. The Victorian crisis of doubt was surprisingly large. Telling this story serves to restore its true proportion and to reveal the intellectual strength of faith in the nineteenth century."
Ed Babinski put Tim Larsen and I in touch. We had some initial conversations. Later when Prof. Larsen's book was published I reviewed it and sent my review to Prof. Larsen and he responded appreciatively.
14th June 2005
Greetings Prof. Larsen (and Ed)!
Ed kindly forwarded me your correspondence and the link to http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2005/may20.html all of which I've been reading with much interest and admiration for the intelligent work of both of you! Any more articles or correspondence that I can be copied in on would be gratefully received although I doubt I will have as much to say as either of you!
I came to interest in this topic of "deconverts and con/re-converts" after, like Ed, collecting together "deconversion stories" and being particularly impressed by the quality of some of those who "left the fold" such as Michael Goulder, Gerd Ludemann and others, information about whom I collected together at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/decon.html#profs
Whilst being aware of Christian testimonies in abundance I was surprised that if conversion/reconversion of well-read critics of Christianity was as common as deconversion of priests, missionaries etc (such as I have collected at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/decon.html#links), then why hadn't I heard about them? i.e. surely these stories would be a good apologetic tool and therefore commonly encountered. On the other hand if it wasn't so common then maybe something was up! So I set off to find out if conversion/reconversion of well-read critics was proportionally speaking as common as deconversion of well-read Christians by emailing a number of freethought/atheist etc. societies to find out if they knew the sort of thing you've found in your work on Victorian skeptics. I actually found very little, although there were eventually a handful who turned up. However those I managed to get in contact with I thought had poor reasons for reconversion and were not the well-read critics of Christianity prior to reconversion they had been billed as. (For details, nearly all my research on this is available at or via http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/conversion_asymmetry.html).
For instance Dr. Garrett (who even has a page on the secular web) told me that he was only in the Australian skeptics to combat creationism (something he still does as a Christian) and although he read some material critical of theism, he had read nothing critical of Christianity (we had a long conversation that starts at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/feedback/garrett/1.html). Others were of a similar ilk, although there are some intriguing people who might confound my "asymmetry of conversion" hypothesis at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/asym/posscandidates.html that I have yet to follow up - and of course your findings with Victorian skeptics. Likewise there are more candidates I have yet to follow up on the other side of the coin at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/asym/possasymcandidates.html.
I have been careful to point out to some of the people who take this up with me that what I am looking for are people well educated in arguments against Christianity before converting to it. The mirror of a missionary and Christian apologist who deconverts. The reason why such people interest me is because I think they are likely to have something interesting to say. I want to know why they con/recon-verted. One doesn't need to be educated to change beliefs, but I consider it less likely a person poorly of half-educated in matters of religion and religious criticism will give interesting reasons for their change of belief. (I explain this further at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/asym/asym_faq.html and the parent page http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~slocks/conversion_asymmetry.html).
So I initialy asked freethought/atheist etc. societies, just as a first stab at it being likely that most of their members were significantly better read than average (although not guaranteed to be so) than a non-member. It appears you have had the same thoughts, although from a Victorian perspective.
I was wondering what drew you to the Victorians and do you think there is anything specific about the Victorian era that might have led to a more symmetric de/reconversion amongst those educated in the arguments against a position they subsequently espoused? Is this something you think still happens in the same proportions, and have the reasons for deconversion and reconversion changed do you think? Or any other thoughts you might have of course (my questions are not necessarily the best ones!) Maybe the phrase "subsequently espoused" is too simplistic though, given that as you point out in your conversation with Ed, the positions they reconvert to are seldom the exact positions they had in their original Christian beliefs, generally being less condemnatory of those who do not share their beliefs.
One other observation. You mentioned at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2005/may20.html that part of the attraction of the Victorian skeptical societies was the superiority of the arguments against those commonly found in Sunday school etc. i.e.
Skeptical critics of the Bible and orthodox doctrines whom they read and heard were cleverer than their parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers. Unbelief was a mark of intellectual maturity for them, just as it is in the standard Victorian "loss of faith" narrative. They went on to become skeptical lecturers, debaters, and writers.For the well-read deconverts I've come across I don't think this is generally the case. That is they have a lot of very ingenious apologetics (I am still often impressed by the sheer brain work of apologists) sophisticated theology, spirituality and biblical studies up their sleeves as Christians. Indeed as Michael Goulder says:
"So of course it's a sad blow to them to find I've betrayed the cause. And it's a sad blow to me, too. The communion of saints has meant a lot to me. And I find it very hard to say my old bishop - Bishop Hall - who ordained me in Hong Kong, an extremely devoted and saintly man, or my old tutor, Austin Farrer, whom I respected enormously - to think that they are wrong; I don't think anybody finds it easy to leave a community where he's revered its members not only for their intellectual power but also for their sanctity."Is it possible that the Victorian skeptics deconverted to from a straw man version of Christianity? A weak childish faith that they could easily ridicule only to be surprised at the sophistication of scholarly theologians later on? Many of us have even been "woken from our dogmatic slumbers" by some of the more progressive theologians as Christians. I was particularly impressed by Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Macquarrie as a Christian and I can imagine being surprised as a non-Christian by them if I had not already encountered them as a Christian, wondering if I had missed the bigger picture...
I do find it odd though that George Sexton would have described Christ (or at least the Christ as depicted in the Gospels) as a perfection that has to be accounted for, when the Gospels portray him as believing in hell. Something about which as Bertrand Russell said:
I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.And, as Ed pointed out, the New Testament's place of torment is something more pro-active than the "choosing damnation for oneself" that Christians often use as an apologetic for hell.
BTW, I'd quite like to put a copy of all this correspondence on my website. Is that okay with everyone? (Otherwise I could just make summaries).
15th June 2005
I'm glad you've made contact! It is fascinating to me that we are interested in the same question. I am totally convinced that the reconverts in the Victorian period were no different from the Secularist leaders who never reconverted in terms of their de-conversion stories, the reasons that convinced them, etc.
The material about their Sunday school teachers, etc. (as I say in the article) is the exact same as for the deconversion narratives of atheist advocates who remain so till death. I know probably all scholars say this, but I think you need to start by reading some of my published scholarship in this field, especially my article in the academic journal, _Church History_ (as opposed to the popular journal, _Christian History_). More than you will probably want to know will appear in my book, _Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England_ by OUP. I have written seven chapter-length case studies of major Secularist leaders going into careful detail regarding the views they held as freethinkers and how they endeavoured to answer them as reconverts. Another chapter will include mini-biographies of another 30 figures or so who seem to fit the reconversion pattern to varying degrees. At least half of them are also Secularist leaders who reconverted: they just did not publish enough on their views before and after to justify separate chapters on them.
15th June 2005
Thanks very much for your reply,
I'll do the decent thing and read your forthcoming book rather than ask for it regurgitated in emails at this stage! If I have some questions or issues I want to raise about some of your research findings I'd quite like to ask again after reading your book.
I've put a reminder in my electronic diary for September (then to repeat monthly) to check to see if your book is published. So there's some extra pressure on you to get it finished - your public is waiting!
You mentioned to Ed that if he wanted an advanced taster to let you know and you'd serve up an illustration or two. If that is available to email then I'd be keen to receive it too (also an electronic version of your paper if available). I'll still buy your book (or borrow it from the library if it's very expensive!) but anything to whet my appetite would be welcome.
No problem about keeping any personal material out of my website. I'll probably make a little summary and send it to you before it goes online to check I have not misrepresented anything you've said.
Thanks again for your input and I look forward to some good autumnal reading!
15th June 2005
Thanks for this. If you will give me a postal address, I would be happy to post you various bits of my research that have already been published (and possibly some bits of the forthcoming book). I have lost the thread on the 'taster'. I think that was on bias against Christianity as an intellectual project in Victorian Studies. If, however, you were hoping for some other kind of taster, let me know. best wishes, Tim
28th July 2005
Your mailshot arrived today ("Thomas Cooper and Christian Apologetics in Victorian Britain", and your article in Church History - "The regaining of faith: reconversions among popular radicals in Mid-Victorian England").
I just wanted to say thanks very much for doing this for me. I'll read these with great interest, and I've got a recurring entry in my electronic diary to check for your book every month starting from September!
16th Jan 2007
I am writing to tell you that my book is now out! _Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England_ Oxford University Press, 2006. I tell the stories of numerous leading Secularists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers who came to faith and defended the intellectual crediblity of this change (NO deathbed conversions). I would be grateful if you would acknowledge these findings on your website. best wishes, Tim
17th Jan 2007
Thanks very much for remembering me and for informing me that your book is out.
It’s a little pricey (that’s academic publishing!) so I’ll order it through my local library probably this weekend (or next weekend at the latest – I go there nearly every weekend). At least that will ensure I read it in 3 weeks!
look forward to it very much and am intrigued to see what your research has found. I will of course link to it from my site and may make some comments if I can think of anything to say. In the meantime I’ll also put up the description as at Amazon.
Thanks again and I look forward to reading the results of your hard work!
18th Jan 2007
Many thanks for these kind words and attentive response. Best wishes in your life and work, Tim
19th March 2007
Thanks again for alerting me recently to your latest publication. I got "Crisis of Doubt" through inter-library loan and finished reading it last weekend. There was a delay in borrowing as there were other borrowers waiting before me to get this from the British Library – and I had to give it back promptly as there were yet more people waiting – so your book is in demand! It is a shame it is so pricey – I noticed some interesting comments on your book and academic pricing from some fans of yours at http://amywelborn.typepad.com/openbook/2006/12/crisis_ofsometh.html
Despite only having it for a week and a half I read it very carefully and made copious notes and gave it a good mulling over.
I was very impressed by this book. This is a fascinating period of history and there were some pretty colourful characters, described and analysed convincingly and fairly. I was intrigued to find such fascinating source material with references to the publications of high profile reconverts in the secular magazines of the time, debate reports with excerpts from transcripts (where available), autobiographical excerpts and so on. I also found your style very clear, scholarly and engaging and I looked forward to the odd hour or two each night when I could get a chance to read some more!
I think we have been looking for similar strands of evidence, in that we have been looking for intelligent, well read critics of a view who subsequently converted to it. Also we have both been careful to point out that when numbers on each side are so different, more interesting are the proportions who switch sides. You explained this in the book and it was as you’d previously presented at http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2005/may20.html
More concretely, a major, unique Secularist camp meeting was organized in 1860. Edward Royle observes in his book, Victorian Infidels, "This meeting was the greatest single demonstration of Secularist strength." This camp meeting recognized eight national leaders of the Secularist movement: G. J. Holyoake, Joseph Barker, Charles Bradlaugh, Austin Holyoake, John Watts, J. H. Gordon, Robert Cooper, and J. B. Bebbington. Three of these eight-Barker, Gordon, and Bebbington-went on to convert to evangelical Christianity.
Not only is this a startling result in its own terms but, once again, the stories told in the annals of the Victorian loss of faith are not nearly this impressive. A comparable event would be 3 out of 8 members of the executive committee of the Evangelical Alliance, 3 out of 8 preachers at the Keswick convention, or 3 out of 8 of the occupiers of the most prestigious Anglican bishoprics losing their faith. It would capture the attention of historians if 3 out of 8 key leaders of a national political party switched sides. In fact, more leaders of Victorian Secularism converted to Christianity than leaders of the Church of England (such as John Henry Newman) converted to Roman Catholicism.
In the introduction you mention:
A far greater percentage of Secularist leaders became Christians than Christian ministers became sceptics
However apart from the above example, I don’t think there were any statistics on this. Did you have any more data on the percentage over than the above 3/8? I was also wary about the statistical validity of extrapolating from small numbers. Anyway, not that it matters too much as I am willing to accept that well-read and leading Victorian critics of Christianity were reconverting in greater proportions than well-churched Christians were leaving the fold.
As far as I can see you’ve delivered the goods for the Victorians. (The following lists and other summaries are partly for Ed’s benefit (cc’d in this email) but also to give the opportunity for you to correct any misunderstandings or misremembering of your book).
There were chapter length entries on:
Frederick Roland Young
John Henry Gordon
John Bagnall Bebbington
and shorter entries (a paragraph to a couple of pages) on:
Johnathan Barber 1800-1859
Henry N Barnett
John Bayley 1814-1880
Annie Besant 1847-1933
Albert T Bradwell
Richard Carlile 1790-1843
Walter Cooper 1814-
David Knell Fraser
James Keir Hardie 1856-1915
Henry Hurdis Hodson 1810-1832
William Harral Johnson 1834
(Partick) Lloyd Jones 1811-1886
Eliza Mills 1796-
Michael Cyprian O'Brian 1848-1928
Robert Owen 1771-1858
William Peplow 1814-1856
George William Mac Arthur Reynolds 1814-1879
George John Romanes 1848-1894
John Roughly 1817-1873
Thomas Shorter 1823-1875
Charles Southwell 1814-1860
James Spilling 1825-1897
Henry Townley 1784-1861
Henry Vincent 1813-1878
Alfred Russel Wallace 1823-1913
"A Working Man" 1811-
Many of these people (particularly the chapter length list) were prolific and, at the time, well regarded and leading critics of Christianity amongst major freethought circles of the day. It seems they all (if I remember correctly) started out as Christians (I expect the majority of Victorians would have been brought up Christian), subsequently becoming vociferous critics of Christianity through their own prodigious reading, wrote articles in influential rationalist and secular publications of the day, went on lecture tours and so forth.
I noted you summarised the following common reasons for reconversion to Christianity which was evidenced in the first hand material presented:
- Growing frustration with scepticism as merely negative and destructive
- reconverts came to believe that secularism offered no basis for morality or for making ethical choices
- reconverts began to wonder whether scepticism was the result of a procrustean system of logic, an oppressively narrow definition of reason, thinking that humans also know by other methods
- reappraisal of the bible
- being "haunted" by Jesus
- interest in spiritualism
- reassessment of previous assumption that radical politics naturally led on to an opposition to Christianity
- Intellectual influences - reading, the impact of sermons and lectures, relationships with learned Christians and the study of apologetics.
The reactions of the secularists to reconversion were similar in some respects to the reactions I’ve witnessed of Christians to the well-churched who deconvert. i.e. the false ascribing of underhand motivation such as reconverting for money (c.f. accusations of deconversion so that you could sin!) and accusations that they could not have understood the arguments to start with (c.f. “you were never a real Christian!”). Some leading secularists (particularly Holyoake) usually maintained strong friendships with their former colleagues after reconversion. However the vast majority were quick to slander as far as I could tell from your book, and there was general bafflement from the secular camp at how reconverts could have been won over by the arguments they used to describe their reasons for reconversion. One of the character’s apologetics was described as best countered by his own previous secularist arguments! (Sorry, I forget who that was).
I did share some of that bafflement but possibly because the arguments for reconversion were only briefly described which was a little frustrating. However I noted a few curiosities that I would like to ask about, or at least air for thought.
Some of the arguments given for reconversion were clearly specious to a modern understanding. These might have not been so easily countered for Victorians, but would hold no water today. For instance, Thomas Cooper used a poor argument (here) for the authorship of the gospels that I can’t imagine would stand scrutiny today against the analysis of the evolution and copying of material in the gospels. Even if I’m wrong about that (i.e. how much such criticism was used even then) he had a false argument for the age of the Earth in an attempt to refute evolution. Likewise one of Jonathon Barber's reasons for being convinced of the intellectual cogency of Christianity was the argument from design. Sexton also used the argument from design and John Bagnall Bebbington explicitly used William Paley's argument. Maybe they would have reconverted anyway even without those arguments, but it is discouraging that they latched on to arguments which nowadays are so clearly specious to the modern scientifically literate. So either they were genuinely misled by the poorer knowledge of their day or some of their arguments were rationalisations for beliefs held on other grounds. This is not a criticism of character as unwitting rationalisation is quite normal behaviour and not something we humans are often aware of – particularly in times of rather primitive psychological understanding.
There were other, perhaps less obvious errors that would probably not have been known to Victorians. Later comparative anthropology, psychology of religion and insights such as Pascal Boyer’s would go a long way to help the understanding of religious feeling that seems to have haunted some of the reconverts (e.g. Sexton's bafflement at the nature of "god-consciousness"), and they would not have been in a position to know about this. It is also hard to read Don Cuppitt and think that a secular life is a nihilistic one. However the Victorians portrayed in your book were involved in a more vociferous battle, so some temperaments may well have questioned if they were missing out on a larger feeling for life and weren’t having their full psychological needs met. I was baffled though that the moral argument was used as I would have thought they all should have at least been aware of the Euthyphro dilemma. But then your book did not go into too much detail on the apologetics used and how objections were countered. Maybe that is another project – or you might already be able to point out a resource for the specific arguments Victorian reconverts used? They would not of course have appreciated the views of evolutionary psychology for the origin of our moral instincts, let alone have been aware of basic moral rules observed in primate behaviour in recent times. I got the impression they still generally accepted evolution as a process and would have accepted that animals have evolved their instincts. It is odd then that the common mental instincts of humans were not likewise recognised as likely to have evolved. Maybe they thought our brains are “blank slates” and bigger brains are just “bigger blank slates” rather than our instincts also having being worked on by evolution. Matt Ridley’s illustrations of evolutionary stable strategies explaining our moral instincts was an illustration too late of course, and maybe no significant inkling of this sort of thing was present in the Victorian era? Likewise Sexton claimed that religion is a human instinct and a necessary part of the human condition. If he had lived in modern times what would he have made of secular modern Europe and the healthy nature of secular countries (particularly Scandinavia) in contrast to the crime and strife-ridden religious countries of the word? I wonder if there was anything comparable in the Victorian era?
Some gave reasons for their move to Christianity as including the origin of the universe. Again without modern knowledge they would not have known where to start. Physicists such as Edward Tryon, Alan Guth and Victor Stenger describe the universe as indeed being a "free lunch.” My degree is in Physics and as I remember quantum mechanics shows how some properties are impossible to exist together beyond a certain level of precision. One incompatible pair is the limited precision possible for the amount of energy of a system and the amount time it has that energy for. A state of nothingness has zero energy and zero time and so quantum mechanics tells us that nothingness is unstable – i.e. the universe is a quantum event (e.g. paper here). Just as surprising is that the total energy content of the universe is - astonishingly - exactly zero. This odd result is due to the fact that gravitational energy is, (from general relativity), a negative energy which exactly balances out the positive mass-energy content of the universe. This discovery wasn’t even appreciated by Einstein until George Gamow pointed out to him how this was a consequence of Einstein’s own equations – something that literally stopped him in his tracks as they were crossing the street together and nearly got Einstein run over! What hope then for a puzzled Victorian?! I suppose in essence the Victorian reconverts were using a “god of the gaps” apologetic here, although they might not have been in a position to appreciate this. I guess they saw this as a quandary without hope of resolution, not (understandably) appreciating what physical theories were around the corner.
Some of the other quandaries were time honoured of course, but I was hoping for more details. One of my initial reasons for looking for well-informed people who change their minds to a position they were once critical of was that they must have interesting reasons for their change. Sexton and others held that atheism has no philosophical underpinning for morality and yet without addressing the Euthyphro dilemma I wonder how the felt better off with theism – and yet surely they knew of this dilemma?
There were also examples of individuals who converted to other movements usually criticised by freethought societies such as spiritualism and Theosophy – and you hinted that there were generally quite a few of these if I remember correctly. I would have thought this diversity of leaving pointed more to the relative weakness of Victorian secular arguments in meeting thinking people’s deepest questions rather than merely the pull of Christianity – i.e. since it was not just Christianity but also other movements that were found spiritually attractive.
There were a few examples who struck me as slightly dubious.
William Hone’s famous “blasphemy” was not blasphemy, but rather a political parody as you made clear (portraying politicians’ hubris as giving themselves God-like importance etc.), even quoting churchmen who supported Hone in the “blasphemy.” Also Hone was only an atheist for 2 of his teenage years. The rest of his time was spent as a theist with varying degrees of scepticism. In Hone's “representative convictions throughout many of his years as a freethinker” (bottom of page 34) he describes himself as an admirer of Christ’s character and a believer as much as he could in his miracles. (See excerpt here).
Likewise Thomas Cooper, though becoming convinced against the miraculous claims of Christianity, remained nevertheless an ardent admirer of Jesus, writing:
"Let none of these [publication of his discourses], however, misrepresent my motives. I yield to none in fervent admiration and love for the character of Christ. Under all changes of opinion, his moral beauty has ever kept its throne in my heart and mind, as to the most worshipful of all portraitures of goodness."
Given the criticisms in "Crisis of Doubt" of Jesus’ character as portrayed in the bible (particularly his approval of hell) this does seem like a rather uncritical and surprising acceptance from a critic of Christianity. This lead me to think that the portrayal of Jesus as morally perfect in the general culture still had an influence that was not consciously appreciated as being culturally determined. I realise these were intelligent and well read men, but such dichotomies of position are somewhat fishy. On page 106 you wrote: 'It cannot be said that Cooper never felt the full weight of sceptical objections to religious faith.' However I thought that he surely did not feel the full weight since he always viewed Jesus as morally perfect whereas most other critics did not. Actually it was frustrating that in the reconversion accounts little was given for the reasons why for instance Jesus came to be seen as a perfect moral character. Previously his dubious advice and cruel condemnation of non-believers had been roundly denounced by some of the Victorians who subsequently reconverted. Nothing though was given to explain why they concluded that he was no longer morally criticisable.
Young was not an agnostic or atheist, "but may always have been a theist of some sort." (Excerpt here). Nevertheless since he was explicitly anti-bible and anti-Christian he could count, although it should be acknowledged he was already primed for disillusionment with the secular movement since he was a theist.
During this discussion you state in the book that that the requirement for agnosticism or atheism is a "narrow" definition of secularism. I was listening to a sociologist (Barry Kosim) discussing the “secularisation hypothesis” recently and I noted that he too took the broad view that the process of secularisation is not only loss of faith, but rather even within religious believers is a shift in individuals away from accepting authority to using their own human judgement and reason. Also religious dissent, such as movement away from the established church to the charismatic churches, is described by Steve Bruce (prof. of Sociology at Univ. of Aberdeen) as not a refutation of secularisation but rather an illustration of how it works. As such even those who change between religions or even convert to a religion are part of the larger sociological process that leads to a gradual secularisation of society if their process is one of abandoning authority for thinking and examining for oneself. There is little doubt that even if there was a proportional asymmetry in favour of reconversion amongst Victorian informed intellectuals, the secularisation of society (particularly Britain where most of your Victorian reconverts come from) has been a major trend, lending weight to these early movements back and forth as just part of the larger picture of secularisation. From my investigations (at least what I was able to find from writing to secular organisations) the Victorian pattern has not been maintained in the modern period. Indeed if one takes not just deconversion, but what is professed, the statistic that you ask for (3 out of 8 of the occupiers of the most prestigious Anglican bishoprics losing their faith etc.) is easily obtained or exceeded. Indeed you speculated that there might be hidden data on both sides that people held onto their positions without declaring their unorthodox beliefs. This does appear to be the case. From http://www.religioustolerance.org/resurrec8.htm :"The beliefs of mainline Christian clergy and academics tend to be between those of the liberals and conservatives. A survey of mostly mainline Protestant clergy shows that many doubt Jesus' physical resurrection. Percentage of doubters are:
* American Lutherans: 13%
* Presbyterians: 30%
* American Baptist: 33%
* Episcopalians: 35%
* Methodists: 51%
There is a massive gap between the beliefs of the clergy and laity in mainline and liberal churches. A recent survey of randomly selected Christians revealed that 96% believe the resurrection to have been an historical event."
The quest for the historical Jesus has produced numerous dissenters from orthodoxy such as the Jesus Seminar and even explicitly “ex-Christian” scholars like Gerd Lüdermann, Michael Goulder and radical "non-realist" Christians such as those at the Sea of Faith. The modern theologians who take a very different approach to traditional orthodoxy are impressive in both absolutes and proportions. Lloyd Geering at How Did Jesus Become God - and Why writes:
"There is general agreement, among all but conservative scholars, that the Easter faith began with visions in Galilee and not with the discovery of an empty tomb in Jerusalem."
To quote the radical bishop John Shelby Spong:
"The defensiveness of the hierarchy [of the Church of England to the revelation that many bishops do not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus] revealed a startling unwillingness to share common-place biblical scholarship with a questioning public. Most biblical scholars regard the emptiness of the tomb to be an early Christian legend but they don't actually believe there ever was an identifiable tomb in which Jesus was buried in the first place."
Also, as Anthony Freeman says:
"How is it, for example, that not a single professor of divinity in Cambridge is currently an ordained member of the Church of England? And how is it that the English clergy have so effectively insulated their congregations from the fruits of critical scholarship over the past hundred years? Is the reason perhaps that 'no priest dare admit officially to things which every first year theological undergraduate needs to know'?"
Following the (previous) bishop of Durham Dr. David Jenkins' doubts aired on national TV, a poll was taken of the UK's 31 diocesan bishops. Two-thirds of them were of the opinion that it was not necessary to accept the divinity of Christ to be a Christian and one third denied a belief in the physical resurrection.
If the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed except by assenting to the fantastic descriptions included in the Gospels, then Christianity is doomed. For that view of resurrection is not believable, and if that is all there is, then Christianity, which depends upon the truth and authenticity of Jesus' resurrection, also is not believable. If that were the requirement of belief as a Christian, then I would sadly leave my house of faith. With me in that exodus from the Christian church, however, would be every ranking New Testament scholar in the world--Catholic and Protestant alike: E. C. Hoskyns, C. H. Dodd, Rudolf Bultmann, Reginald Fuller, Joseph Fitzmyer, W. E. Albright, Raymond Brown, Paul Minear, R. H. Lightfoot, Herman Hendrickx, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, Phyllis Trible, Jane Schaberg, D. H. Nineham, Maurice Goguel, and countless others.
[John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop's Search for the Origins of Christianity p. 238]
Similarly as reported on the Sea of Faith website:
The recent programme on Rev Andrew Freeman emphasised his failure to believe in a literal resurrection, but it failed to also inform viewers that all significant theologians for the past 100 years agree with him. In what sense then is he heretical?
So it appears your search for 3/8 bishops etc. at least denying what is generally taken as orthodoxy is easily obtained, if not surpassed, in the modern world. Not even 13% of critics of Christianity would have doubts about Jesus’ non-resurrection to balance the 13% of American Lutheran clergy, let alone the 51% of Methodist clergy and “every ranking New Testament scholar in the world.”
If the same proportion of modern well-read religious sceptics were changing camp to Christianity as is documented for the Victorians then that would be an argument for the power of Christianity on people's minds and hearts and the insecure nature of criticism against Christianity. However it appears that this pattern has changed dramatically, there being a very small proportion of reconverts, and those of dubious credentials (see here). Rather the majority of non-fundamentalist Christian scholars no longer take central tenants of Christianity seriously (i.e. as supernatural events).
Also as Ed noted in previous correspondence between you and him:
In our own day I can't say that I've read about any members of The Jesus Seminar turning back toward a naive conservative Evangelicalism. And I expect with the rise and acceptance of the scientific method applied to biblical studies there would be far less a chance of such a thing happening today than during the Victorian era. (In fact many professional religious scholars today, whether members of the Jesus Seminar or not, started college holding conservative Evangelical views of the Bible, but later grew more moderate or liberal in their views.)
So whilst you are surely correct in your well-done research on Victorian informed reconverts, this does seem to be part of the birth pangs of a wider secularisation when taken on the larger view.
I hope that lot is of interest and if you have anything further to point me to then I’d be keen to pursue it. I realise you are on sabbatical and I don’t want to burden you, especially not with anything that might be too much opinion. Nevertheless I thought you’d be interested in my part of the spectrum of friendly feedback judging from your previous good interactions with Ed.
Thanks again for a fascinating study. When "Crisis of Doubt" is out in paperback I’ll make it a permanent feature on my bookshelves and I look forward to any further publications of yours that you think might be of relevance to our common interests.
19th March 2007
Wow! I am deeply honoured that you have read my work so carefully and thoughtfully. You raise so many issues in your email - really all the big, germane issues of WHAT IS ACTUALLY TRUE - that I do not have the time (or perhaps even the competence) to address them all. I will, however, try to offer a few reflections as an unfair exchange for your generous gift of insightful feedback. There are some many threads of arguments and they easily get tangled . . . First, you raise a lot of questions about whether or not the arguments that the Victorian reconverts used were the right ones or would stand the test of time. As I say in the book, some would better than others and this is equally the case for the Victorian deconverts. (Many Victorian atheists, including Charles Bradlaugh, for example, were willing to deny that any such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed at all - he was purely and entirely a mythical creation. I don't think such an argument would have mainstream support today - certainly not in the Jesus Seminar. So, again, the same counterfactual could be made: if these Victorian sceptics had had to wrestle with the fact that there was such a person who made some kind of impression on society through something he said, or did, or was - would they have ended up in a different place on the spectrum?) I am also deeply touched that you are frustrated by the brevity of my presentations!! The book was 80,000 words _over_ the contract agreement - of which I had to cut out 20,000 (ending up with a book 20,000 longer than the longest allowed for a PhD thesis in Britain!). I assumed that readers would think that I was telling them more than they wanted to know about the multiple intellectual turns of most of the many figures in the central chapters - as did my publisher! The connection to secularization is slippery terrain. Steve Bruce argues that what intellectuals believe is completely irrelevant to secularization: his own theory allows for a fashion among intellectuals for religion or Christianity (this would just be an uninfluential sideshow). I frankly don't know what to make of your attempt to conflate moves toward more liberal forms of Christianity with secularization / loss of faith / unbelief. I think perhaps you are too quick to label religious change as religious decline. There has always been religious change - the move from Judiasm to Christianity in the first century and from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism in the 16th century were both moments when baggage that had come to be seen as untenable got dumped, but I am not sure if it is best to view these as part of the long march of secularization. I happen to be on Sabbatical in Cambridge right now - including giving a paper at a Divinity seminar and a great deal of networking - and it does not feel on the ground the way that Anthony Freeman describes it in the quote you give. In fact, if anything, practicing Anglicans are decreasing because of a fashion for hard- nosed, uncompromising Roman Catholicism (Eamon Duffy would be a prime example as a professor of Divinity). Again, I truly did not expect you to give me such careful and generous feedback. I am in awe of your intellectual rigour and seriousness. Feel free to contact me again any time you think I might be of help. I would be grateful if you would be willing to mention my book on your webpage. best wishes, Tim
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