Ray Billington on converting to non-theism

Ray Billington, author of Religion without God, on how he deconverted from Christianity (methodist flavor) to non-theism (via atheism):

Let me begin with a health warning. I am an official Christian heretic. Thirty years ago, my book The Christian Outsider was declared by the Methodist Church, of which I was then a minister, to be guilty of false doctrine. Nowadays heretics are no longer burned at the stake (though, judging from the letters I received, some regretted this change) and I was simply expelled.

Maybe they were right. What I had tried to describe was a conversion in the opposite direction from usual: from a belief in a personal God to a rejection of it. I remember the moment well: I was actually (and this is ironic) preparing a sermon for the following Sunday, and reading Julian Huxley’s Essays of a Humanist. As I read, I came to the realisation that I not only agreed with his ideas, but felt the same drive within me. I walked up and down my study saying over and over again, “I am an atheist”. It was an experience of great joy which has motivated me ever since, though I now describe myself as a non-theist rather than an atheist. The reason for this, I hope, will become clear.

[…]

My conviction now is that to reach the highest peak of religion we need to embark on our own personal act of exploration into what is often termed the ‘fifth dimension’. We may be approaching that dimension via a well-worn path, particularly, if we are Christians (as I was), the way of Jesus. But the ultimate experience of the transcendental cannot be gained by standing on anyone else’s shoulders; it is a way which we each of us must find for ourselves. Others, especially spiritual leaders of great insight, may point us in a particular direction which looks promising, and we may follow that path for a while, perhaps for years. But ultimately we must follow our own path, blaze our own trail, if we are to discover what religion really means.

[…]

And this is what concerns me with our general interpretation of the word religion. The trouble is that it has been appropriated by the world’s monotheistic religions – especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and forced into a kind of spiritual, god-shaped straitjacket. The result is that those who do not or cannot bring themselves to wear this straitjacket are assumed not to be religious, and even describe themselves in this way.

So I find this exclusive attitude sad, and it’s not just because of the conflicts to which the often opposing claims of these religions seem to lead. More importantly, it causes people who may well be sensitive to the transcendental dimension but follow non-theistic, perhaps openly atheistic, paths, to conclude that religion is not for them. […]

I think this is (more or less) the direction religion is and must be moving. To draw the picture with the largest brush available: if at first humans had some form of vague spirituality that slowly morphed into polytheism, which in turn was displaced during Karl Jasper’s Axial Age by the great positive and dogmatic religions we now know, then now is the time for these world religions to be replaced by non-dogmatic forms of moral and religious enquiries (to channel MacIntyre). In a sense, religion is the last human endeavour that must move into the enlightened, self-critical, scientific age by giving up its certainties and pursuing instead more disputable, but also more flexible and useful thinking about the world.

Billington’s non-theism is an apt term. Of course, it just means what atheism is supposed to mean, but is much better at indicating that it includes everything outside of theism. Naturally, if Billington is to come full circle with his thinking and reach a fully enlightened religion, then he will have to accept (the possibility of) theism once more, though at another level: theism (and even thomistic christianity) is a valid religious outlook, though only if it accepts itself as a mere hypothesis and one that must always be put back into question (and for real, not just in some self-affirming movement of doubting faith). Theistic dualism might well be the best interpretation we currently have of the world (though i think not), and it might be one to which we must return in a suitably altered form in a suitably distant future, but neither it nor any other religious view can ever be the final one.

Direct link to the transcript and some kind of non-mp3 audio file [sigh].

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