Notes from an Interview with Dr. Michael Goulder.

The brilliant English scholar Michael Donald Goulder, after having been considered for the position of Anglican bishop, suddenly resigned both the priesthood and the Christian Church in 1981 to become what he described as "a nonagressive atheist."

After almost thirty years in the Church, Michael Goulder announced that he had lost his faith and resigned his orders. The break came hard to him. For fifteen years he had been running courses for the West Midlands clergy, passing on to them the messages of the academic theologians, so that they in turn could hand them on.


"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."

Goulder was asked why he did not feel able to join his old comrades of the myth group (Sea of Faith) in trying to save something from the wreckage of traditional Christianity? He replied that he thought the one thing you could not do without in Christianity was a belief in God, and if you took that away it was questionable what was left.

Dr Goulder was asked to respond to the claim of many Christians to know God through the Bible. He did not think that really plausible:


"You see, I think the knowledge of people through scripture depends on the faith of others from an earlier generation. Those people lived in a world where belief was indeed genuine, real and profound. But then, it was maintained by large numbers of hypotheses which we would regard as bogus. For example, people who were Jews in Jesus' time had no doubt that God had given them the Law on Mount Sinai a thousand years before. We can't accept that as a plausible basis for faith. You ask me whether the trust of one generation in another over the centuries was all nonsense - and that is a harsh word. I don't wish to be harsh about people who believed in something which was very plausible once and which has seemed plausible to me for most of my life: I am far from feeling that people are to be despised who carry on with such views. I think the difficulty is that people believe in it because they think they've experienced it; or because they think they've got some structure or proof which will hold water; or it is simply a way of looking at the world, where God seems to intervene all the time and to answer prayer.

But I think the proofs don't work. I think the idea that God intervenes in our lives won't do, because there are so many times when things go wrong. And those who have testified - as so many people do - to these marvellous experiences: once you start looking at them, you find that half the people testifying are a bit cranky and it's hard to draw the line as to why certain experiences should be valid and others not."

Asked why he ever did believe, Goulder replied:

"Wouldn't it be nice if we were all as rational as you would like us to be? It seems to me that what we start off with is the weight of tradition on our shoulders: this is what your fathers believed - this is what your community believes. You ought not lightly to shrug all that off and hardly anybody does. I am a rather biddable person by nature, and I bought all that when I was young and, of course, I bought it with enough enthusiasm when I was prepared to be ordained. One begins to ask questions as soon as one is preaching it and talking to people and up against the problems that are involved. What drove me out of the Church ultimately was the courses I had to teach on belief in God to responsible people including clergy. You feel rather awful after you've kept people's belief going, week after week, and then say to yourself as you go home 'I'm not sure I really believe this myself.' Gradually the penny drops, and in the end it drops with a clatter."

Dr Goulder was asked if he never steps out of his front door on a beautiful Spring day and thinks what a marvellous place the universe is - maybe there is something our there?


"I say the first part, but not the second. It seems to me that the world is a marvellous place, and I'm full of wonder at it. I really enjoy nature, as indeed I enjoy a lot of things. But it always seemed to me that those religious people who say 'Don't you find the world wonderful? Well, then, you're a Christian . . .' that the 'Well, then' part is just an obvious fallacy."

Source: Gerald Priestland "The case against God" ISBN 000626851X