Notorious non-believer Richard Dawkins will ironically be a godlike presence at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival as he beams in from England for a video interview. On the other hand, former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway will appear in the flesh. The 75-year-old Edinburgh resident would surely have relished the opportunity to lock horns again - face to face - with The God Delusion author, whom he has previously met at Scottish literary events.

We've had a couple of good encounters, he laughs. We've treated each other with friendly combativeness. He's an interesting man.

While they might seem like odd bedfellows, Holloway actually has much in common with Dawkins, who is famous for his outspoken views about the non-existence of a supreme being and the irrational nature of religious faith. Holloway has written 12 books, including Godless Morality, which was controversially denounced by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey after its publication in 1999 for daring to suggest it is not necessary to be religious to be moral.

Holloway left the church in 2000 after suffering a crisis of conscience. Although he now refers to himself as a "Christian agnostic", he still keeps some ties with his erstwhile profession.

I'm still a member of the Christian community as it carries many beautiful values, tropes, metaphors and narratives. I've changed my mind so many times in the past that I now handle what I say with a certain provisionality. I'm not done yet - who knows where I'll end up? - but one of the things I have learned is the virtue of uncertainty. If you absolutely know the mind of that mystery you call God then it leads you to do terrible things because, of course, God is on your side.

Although he doesn't mention him specifically, Holloway alludes to neo-atheists like Dawkins in his latest book Between the Monster and the Saint, claiming that "like strong religionists, they are not content to keep their certainties to themselves, and insist on spreading them to others".

In a funny way, they are the flipside to the people they despise, the religious fundamentalists, he says. They are just as evangelical, they're out to persuade you and evangelise about atheism. I find that a bit manipulative. I don't mind someone making a case for atheism but to set out on some kind of crusade to turn people off religion is a waste of time. There are more gracious ways of doing that.

Holloway is intrigued by the existence of humanist marriage and funeral celebrants.

It's a good thing but it's interesting that they've modelled it on the church, he says. They recognise the importance of these frontier moments in human life and one of the things that churches provide is symbols for these great life-defining moments. It's like imitation by flattery; they have ended up becoming like a secular version of the thing they're attacking.

A member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority from 1990-97, Holloway believes that it is misguided to literally interpret the turning points of the Bible, such as Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden after the serpent leads them into temptation, as if they are "some kind of historic claim about human origins".

Some people say I'm not a Christian at all because I don't scientifically believe what they claim to scientifically be the truth. I see it as more of an art than a science. Like poetry or a metaphor.

Holloway first questioned his position after feeling disillusioned over a bitter debate about homosexual ordination at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. He is now a member of what he terms the Church in Exile, its alumni association.

I want to stay attached to it however loosely, partly because I can therefore maintain a witness towards it. Help modify it and maybe even help it understand itself better but without that kind of abusive certainty that characterises religious institutions.

Subtitled "Reflections on the Human Condition", Between the Monster and the Saint explores the moral state we all fall somewhere in between. A lot of us unthinkingly do terrible things to each other, he says. The book is an attempt to try to understand how that happens. There clearly are some monsters.

Holloway cites the case of Josef Fritzl, recently sentenced to life imprisonment in Austria for incarcerating and raping his daughter for 24 years. Some of them are very magnetic and then you have a few people who have the courage and the wit to oppose them, he says. But most of us are positioned somewhere in the middle and unless we're careful we can get tugged in the wrong direction.

With its graphic descriptions of waterboarding and other gruesome torture methods, Between the Monster and the Saint can prove hard going. However, Holloway counters that with some heartfelt personal insights, including some wistful reminiscences about his family pets.

I wanted to talk about the tender, gentle relationships I've had with dogs all my life. The dog is a constant domestic companion. People say that horses have a similar gentleness but you can't have them lying beside you by the sofa while you're watching TV. One of the things that characterises the book is periodic personal reflection so it's not just a dry, academic treatise. It grows out of my experience, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not.

* Richard Holloway is a guest at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 13-17