Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday
Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have âno religionâ. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the ÂŁ2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.
In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees â recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion â say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection âAn Oral History of the Water Industryâ.
Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his motherâs bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from âabout the age of twelveâ he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (âthey more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from himâ) and that, because of this, he began to âannounce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermonâ. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Hollidayâs reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:
In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (âI did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and â what I now know to call an exegesis â [laughs] and really unpicking itâ) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (âI liked attention I guessâ). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.
As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected âin any [laughs] spiritual or religious senseâ by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who âhad a very, very strong inner faithâ and from members of the âworking classâ congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply âhavingâ âbeliefâ:
In line with observations in Lois Leeâs Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own âscience trainingâ and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.
Holliday took his own âbelief or lack of itâ forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: âIâve preached in the Church of Scotland and Iâve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral sinceâ. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says âagreed with meâ on aspects of Christian non-belief but who âoutraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I wasâ. Holliday himself continued â at least until this first interview session in 2009 â to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not âupsettingâ his audiences:
At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: âread his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheismâ. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for âquite an aggressive cancerâ, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others â an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):
Hollidayâs generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: âdonât undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphansâ.
This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.