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Honest Reflections: Musings Of An Indecisive Ponderer

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This is part 11 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.


Part 11 explores the ‘death of God’ – why is Christianity and belief in God declining in the West? - and gives my reflection on why God struggles to 'grow' in the modern world.

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.

7,400 words

Image by Pexels on Pixabay


“This country is a swamp. In time you will come to see that for yourself. This country is a more terrible swamp than you can imagine. Whenever you plant a sapling in this swamp the roots begin to rot; the leaves grow yellow and wither. And we have planted the sapling of Christianity in this swamp.”

-Father Ferreira[1]

“Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God! …

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this?... God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. …

Here the madman fell silent and again regarded his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time has not come yet. The tremendous event is still on its way, still travelling - it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time, the light of the stars requires time, deeds require time even after they are done, before they can be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than the distant stars - and yet they have done it themselves."

-Friedrich Nietzsche[2]

“I would like to believe, but I can’t.”

The words came from a fellow student at my college bar. Our small college Christian Union was running ‘Text-a-Toastie’, an evening where students could text us a question about Christianity alongside a toastie flavour, and we’d bring them the toastie and discuss their question. I’d just had a really sincere, interesting discussion with this young woman when she made that statement. And her words bothered me.

Here was a student interested in Christianity and clearly willing to give the Christian God a fair hearing. She felt perhaps Christian faith might provide a sense of purpose her atheistic worldview lacked; a part of her wanted to believe in a universe permeated by profound love rather than profound indifference. And yet…she couldn’t bring herself to believe.

“There wasn’t enough evidence,” she simply said. God could not be proven, and science provided a comprehensive and rationally satisfying explanation for the world around us without needing to bring Him into things. Christianity would be lovely to be able to believe, but her hope that perhaps the nihilism threatened by atheism’s spiritless world was in fact an unsophisticated lie masquerading as a brutal truth was just that – a hope. God was ‘my truth’, not established fact.

I’ve often felt that there’s something now about the modern West that makes it something like Fr. Ferreira’s ‘swamp’. Though the 17th century Japanese setting of Sushake Endo’s historical novel, Silence, lacks the West’s long history of Christian worship and influence, Fr. Ferreira’s words that Christianity seemed prone to ‘grow yellow and wither’ there seems to apply equally to the West. At a time in human history where Christianity is increasing in almost every other part of the world, a Western church that is merely maintaining its existing congregation is doing well indeed. Of course, decline is not the story in every church, and indeed it affects some denominations more than others. But growth is the exception; decline is the general rule.

And there were two reasons the woman’s words bothered me. Firstly, I was disconcerted because I understood exactly where she was coming from. Christian though I was, I too had thought, is this all too good to be true? Is God just a convenient social construct? I may have experienced moving, profound encounters with the divine, but I knew that niggling doubt that perhaps this was all in my head, an illusion encouraged to make life more pleasant.

For years, I had strived to find a faith that wasn’t so debatable, that transcended these niggling doubts. A faith so firmly grounded in factual reality that when my irreligious peers wondered ‘is there more to life?’, I could show them that this wasn’t just hopeful speculation, but an avenue to a scientific-like discovery of the greater reality of God. I wanted a faith stronger than hope.

But I didn’t find it. Eventually the day came where the spell of Christian enchantment broke in the face of a seeming brute inanimate reality. When I too, like the woman, decided that the God I loved was probably wishful illusion, nothing more. That day, the words of the eminent German Father of Sociology, Max Weber, came home to me: our “fate is to live in an age alien to God and bereft of prophets.” I would have to accept: God doesn’t ‘grow’ here.

But of course the story didn’t end there. Though it wasn’t so clear to me at the time, there was a second reason her words bothered me. ‘Not enough evidence?’ I thought. Something about this just didn’t sit right with me. But more on that later.    

Though Nietzsche is famous for proclaiming the death of God, he wasn’t in fact the first to use the phrase.[3] But his proclamation is nonetheless noteworthy for its prescience. It’s notable he gave the words to a madman, as in the 1880s at the time of writing, though belief in God was increasingly unfashionable amongst the philosophical classes Nietzsche mixed with, to go so far as to proclaim His ‘death’ was crazy. But the most far-sighted of prophets often appear mad, and Nietzsche had the foresight to notice that the lightning had struck, even if it would be some time before the world heard the thunder. Indeed, it would be another eighty years – long after he himself was dead – that Nietzsche would begin to be proved right when belief in God began to steeply decline amongst the Western population at large.[4]

Yet, Nietzsche’s madman never goes into explicit detail about how God is supposed to have died. Nor does he explain why, if he is right, the ‘tremendous event…has not yet reached the ears of men’. The more I’ve thought about this question, the more it’s bugged me. What is it about the West that has turned it into such a ‘swamp’? How has a culture so steeped in Christian faith come to turn away? If it took a madman to proclaim God’s death, then perhaps I am a bit mad myself for trying to conduct the post-mortem.  


“And today?...Who imagines nowadays that a knowledge of astronomy or biology or physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world? How might we even begin to track down such a ‘meaning’, if it indeed exists? If anything at all, the natural science are more likely to ensure that the belief that the world has a ‘meaning’ will wither at the root!”

-Max Weber[5]

And C.S. Lewis: “A similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees as either Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams…The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture.”

-C.S Lewis[6]

No one I’ve read comes closer to capturing Ferreira’s ‘swamp’ or Nietzsche’s ‘tremendous event’ than Max Weber and C.S. Lewis. Both were academics active in the decades following Nietzsche’s death and both observed a creeping but fundamental change coming over Western society. They both noticed there was something different about ‘modernity’ and ‘modern man’.

Weber in particular spent the majority of his academic life fascinated by Western modernity – what it was like, how it was different, and why it came to be. And in a lecture hall in Munich in 1917, he made this famous declaration:

“Our age is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation, and above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”[7]

Weber believed that modernity was ultimately defined by an acceleration of what he called the ‘process of rationalisation’. This ‘disenchanting’ process transforms our actions so they are no longer marked by an unthinking interconnectedness with the world around us where tradition above all governs our decision-making, to one where our behaviour is determined by rational, objective calculation of means and ends. In the former, we existed within shared networks of meaning, acting within an intricate web of relationships with each other, our environment and the divine. Now though, modernity frees us (or disconnects us) to exist anonymously to both each other and the wider universe. Relationships in a rationalised world are no longer valuable in themselves, but are instead transactional and functional exchanges in pursuit of independently chosen goals. 

Unsurprisingly then, what makes a society ‘modern’ as opposed to ‘pre-modern’ is most obvious in areas where the process of rationalisation is nearest complete. Take the rise of supermarkets and decline of small, local shops. On my weekly trip to the supermarket, I frequently see the same cashiers, security staff and shelf-stackers. But I do not know any of their names. Our relationship is purely functional. No sense of duty or honour is upon me or them to do more than make the economic exchange that provides me the goods I want and them their wage. Whatever ‘polite niceness’ passes between us may lubricate the social wheels of our exchange, but it does little to displace our respective anonymity to each other. Yet once a similar economic exchange becomes more ‘traditional’ – say buying eggs from a neighbour who keeps chickens – a different association emerges. As writer, Mary Harrington, who herself keeps chickens, observes, “the moment you make trade more local – which is to say, more personal – you swiftly become caught in additional layers of obligation, whether to the birds that depend on you for food and safety, or to the neighbours whose subsistence is now (in however tiny a way) more bound up in yours.”[8] Rationalisation removes this complexity.

Modern society then has three key hallmarks where rationalisation drives and defines the vast majority of interactions: capitalism, bureaucracy and science.

Capitalism reduces economic life to quantifiable laws of supply and demand, providing the business-owner a reliable methodology for turning a profit. Yet in so doing, it atomises society into economic units, breaking down bonds of kin and country and promoting impersonal forms of exchange. The capitalist doesn’t lend money for reasons of friendship. 

Bureaucracy extinguishes the personal in its bid to mechanise humanity for the sake of ruthless uniformity, efficiency and results. Personality and local differences fade away as the professionalised workforce enables statesmen and executives to control vast populations and direct immense resources. 

Finally, science focusses its observations on the ‘material’ world – which in effect means the world it is able to quantify and measure – and so constructs a highly predictable picture of reality that exists without regard to the perspective of any subjective observer. This knowledge gives us unprecedented ability to shape our material world. Yet, the realm of truth it paints is completely objectified, utterly devoid of life, motivation or spirit. 

The process of rationalisation then is the ultimate efficiency drive, distilling reality so only what is relevant to achieve the desired ends remains. Everything is reduced to the categorizable, measurable and predictable so that any unnecessary friction which might disrupt the system can be identified and expelled. Capitalists have no time for sentimentality. Bureaucrats are conditioned to leave their personal lives and opinions at the door. Scientists do not hope for miracles.

But what is the desired end the process of rationalisation is accelerating towards? To understand this, we must recognise that fundamental to the process is the objectification of everything it touches. As Lewis noted, a rationalised world is a “world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness.”[9]

An object diverges from a subject in one fundamental respect: it possesses no will of its own. When we objectify anything – whether person, creature, or material – we regard it only in terms of its function. It becomes an instrument whose purpose is dictated by the user, and which exists for their pleasure alone. We do not exhibit gratitude to objects, for how can you offer thanks to something which has no choice but to contort itself to your will. The fact that the objectified subject may in fact be a creature with desires of its own is irrelevant. A rock cannot protest as we chisel it into a statue, a battery hen’s life matters only insofar as it provides us our roast dinner, and a sex worker’s value reaches no further than her ability to fulfil our own lust. Something’s status as an object then tells us more about the beholder than it does about the thing itself.

In its most simple sense then, greater power – an increasing ability to shape reality to our will – is the end goal rationalisation moves us toward. As Lewis recognised, “We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them.”[10] We analyse, objectify, and rationalise so that we can become master. With this mastery, we have an unprecedented ability not just to meet our needs, but to fulfil a myriad of conveniences and desires. Modern dental care, disease prevention, rapid and efficient transport, underfloor heating, computer games, Netflix are just some of the undoubtedly numerous benefits conferred by the process of rationalisation.

But there is a price we must pay for rationalisation’s bounty. As Lewis again observed, we are led to make a “magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return.”[11] What Lewis describes as ‘losing our soul’, Weber instead describes as ‘disenchantment’. Not only does rationalisation’s objectifying habit exorcise the world of anything meaningful outside of our narrow conception of what is useful to us, its very process is intrinsically purposeless. Science: the accumulation of knowledge; capitalism: the accumulation of money; bureaucracy: the accumulation of control – each answers the ‘how’ without ever providing us with a ‘why’. Already, Weber had noticed this about modern humanity’s relationship with technology: “All natural scientists provide us with answers to the question: what should we do if we wish to make use of technology to control life? But whether we wish, or ought, to control it through technology…is something that we prefer to leave open or else to take as a given.”[12]

Power without meaning or soul. Drive without destination. This is where we find ourselves. Indeed, the only purpose left to be found is a vague notion of ‘progress’. Yet, however ambiguous the apparent destination, it is noticeable that whether we are seeking progress through political equality, the discovery of unlimited clean energy, or the elimination of cancer, none of these goals – however admirable – can be untethered from rationalisation’s advance. As such, ‘progress’ is inevitably aligned with rationalisation’s tilt towards the accumulation of power, the ultimate quest to colonise reality with an ever greater number of objects that we can master. Until we are masters of everything – perhaps even death itself – progress will not cease.

Yet the magician’s bargain extracts a cost steeper still. Unless you are infinitesimally fortunate enough to be one of the richest, most powerful, or intelligent people on the planet, you will find that the promised power is more elusive than you perhaps thought. As Lewis highlighted, “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”[13] For brief periods, we might find ourselves a possessor of the promised power, but just as frequently, if not more so, we find that we are in fact the one’s compelled, who have become an object in the grip of artificial forces we neither chose nor can control.

Indeed, the majority of modern life is lived within these two ‘modes of being’ – between possessing rationalisation’s power and being subject to it. A significant portion of our child- and adult-hood are spent within what Weber described as an ‘iron cage’, an “order…of machine production which today determine the lives of all individuals who are born into this mechanism…with irresistible force.”[14] As exaggerated a description of school and the working week as this might sound, the freedom and euphoria felt by child and adult alike when they are allowed to leave the ‘iron cage’ on weekends and prescribed holidays suggest this description holds more than a nugget of truth. For these brief windows, we become the directors rather than the directed, permitted at last to enjoy the promised rewards of our toil and labour, however briefly, before we once more must return to our cages. For most, only the lottery or retirement offers any long-term hope of escape. Until then, our lives are given over to playing modernity’s Great Accumulation Game.

And winners or losers in this game, we all have little choice but to play. Tossed about in this whirlpool, we are empowered and yet trapped, free and yet cascaded down a torrent, scarcely able to surface for breath. And should we ever pause to ponder why we play, there is little we can answer but to say that we must. So we continue objectifying the world and each other, living a frantic, impatient, myopic existence where nothing matters except winning the great contest. Action, not reflection, is the virtue of the age as we busy ourselves in pursuit of modernity’s rewards. Ours is a world marked by hurry, noise, isolation and anxiety, with few finding the spiritual rewards of peace, gratitude, contentment, and perhaps most of all: fulfilment.

But as elusive as spiritual contentment might be to our present age, this does not necessitate nihilism. The process of rationalisation might itself be a nihilistic hamster wheel that spins because it just does, but people still hold networks of meaning that rest beyond rationalisation’s disenchanting touch. The scientist can still marvel at the wonders of the natural world, the professional can enjoy the contentment of a good day's work, and we all now have more money than ever before to spend on our family, hobbies and charitable causes. Indeed, as our age’s belief in progress demonstrates many meaningful pursuits can be enhanced by the forces of rationalisation. Unfortunately, for meaning to court rationalisation’s potency, it must play with fire in more ways than one.

To begin with, rationalisation is anathema to the discovery of meaning and therefore renders all meaning ultimately ‘irrational’. As Weber noted, “we cannot learn the meaning of the world from the result of its analysis, be it ever so perfect…[G]eneral views of life and the universe can never be the products of increasing empirical knowledge.”[15] All ideals and values rest fundamentally within the world of assumption not fact. “These assumptions lie outside the realm of ‘science’. They are not ‘knowledge’ in the sense ordinarily understood, but a form of ‘having’.”[16]  Unless you possess these assumptions already, you will not find them through reason. 

This makes things very problematic for any sense of ‘truth’ regarding meaning. Essentially, relegating meaning from the world of facts to the world of opinions makes ideals and values eminently debatable. As contemporary essayist, N.S. Lyons, points out “starting from the insistent attempt at pure objectivism we arrive at pure subjectivism… [and] from Modernity, we derive Post-Modernity.”[17] Indeed, Weber anticipated the later post-modernists when he said life is now “about the incompatibility of ultimate possible attitudes and hence the inability ever to resolve the conflicts between them.”[18] Anyone watching the Culture War debates raging across the West today recognises first-hand how intractable disputes over values can become when you cannot resolve them through reasoned argument alone. Though I, like Weber, do not believe this is as devastating for the idea of ‘truth’ as many seem to think, it undoubtedly encourages uncertainty and cynicism in our rationalised world.  

And there’s a further problem: rationalisation is actively indifferent to networks of meaning, including their continued survival. As Lewis himself noted, “We do not look at trees as either Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams.”[19] There is no greater analogy for this than the naturalists of the Enlightenment who, in order to study an animal or plant, first had to kill them. Natural history museums today are filled with ‘sacrifices’ of perfectly preserved taxidermies killed so we could understand, categorise and explain. There is nothing sacred as far as rationalisation is concerned. All of life (and indeed of non-life) is held equally dispassionately and objectively. Once the dissecting knife of this ‘Devil’s advocate’ is turned on whatever you find meaningful, it will coldly continue to render flesh from bone until everything is bared for all to see. Whether the patient survives the process is not any of its concern. The purposeless quest for objectified knowledge must go on regardless. 

And all this means rationalisation is passively hostile to us outworking our sense of meaning in the world around us. We may try to reharness capitalism’s voracious power towards moral goods like climate sustainability and buying local. Yet only through strategies which appeal to the rational self-interest of a business’s bottom-line can we ultimately hope to orientate their activity towards these subjective values. We become teachers, nurses and social workers desiring to help people only to find the bureaucratisation so complete that targets, efficiency directives, and standardisation actively work against our desire to form meaningful relationships with our students, patients and clients. Finally, the primacy of science in our knowledge economy hasn’t only sidelined the ineffable which so often gives us meaning, it has reinforced an increasing tendency to pursue the ‘useful’ in a blinkered fashion. Current anxieties around artificial intelligence are merely the latest in a line of technological innovations where the increase of power and knowledge has trumped concerns about ethics, safety and wisdom. If our age seems nihilistic, it is largely because the demands of the all-encompassing Great Game so often sideline all other motives. 

Yet, despite the challenges, meaning does continue to grow, sometimes even thrive, in this rationalised swamp. Harsh though the conditions might be, they aren’t toxic. Indeed, the key question is not whether meaning can thrive in this swamp, but why certain plants are much better adapted than others. There is no clearer demonstration of this than the comparative fortunes of (Ir)religion and Christianity.


“Today liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is superstitious, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions…Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers – held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time – are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.”

-John Gray[20]

I said earlier that there was a second reason my friend’s comments at the bar bothered me. Why did it irk me when she said there was a ‘lack of evidence’ for believing in God? It was only years later I came to realise why. It was the unconscious hypocrisy. And not just from her, but from the entirety of Western culture.

Every religion has an intersection point around which its metaphysics (how the world is) converges with its ethics (how we ought to live). This ‘reality-orientating principle’ is the heart of any religion, and in Christianity’s case this principle is God.[21] Conceiving of ‘religion’ in this way not only helps theistic religions to build a common ground with atheistic religions like Daoism or Buddhism, it enables us to see how the West’s atheistic (Ir)religion is as ‘religious’ as any of the traditional dogmas it so often sets itself apart from. The atheist philosopher, John Gray, highlights this exact point: “If you want to understand atheism and religion, you must forget the popular notion that they are opposites.”[22]

Modern unbelief and medieval belief are linked more than many commonly think. For over a thousand years, the West shared a monotheistic value order where only one truth, authority and legitimacy held sway under the banner of Christendom. But with the Reformation, chinks began to appear in this order. Once it became apparent that disagreements about the exact nature of God’s will and justice could not be solved by argument alone (and once force proved too costly), multiple ways of ‘being Christian’ became increasingly legitimised. And slowly over time, as Christendom’s universal outlook steadily secularised, this would morph into a new monotheistic order: a modern Western world centred around multiple legitimate ways of ‘being human’. While solidarity in the previous order centred on our status as fellow children of God, now we have a new brotherhood that transcends religion: a common ‘humanity’ underpinned by human rights and the shared human experience. Reality has become reoriented around a new principle: human freedom to explore humanity’s richness.  

Indeed, the most pervasive and obvious form of Western (Ir)religion is literally called Human-ism! It postulates that “in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.” Meaning in this framework doesn’t so much exist within the individual as emerge from within due to an individual’s action. This subtle distinction is important because it highlights why Humanism places such a high (dare I say sacred) premium on the significance of personal choice – we must be free to act if we are to find meaning. Constraints on our actions actively work against the emergence of this meaning from within, and thus we have an imperative (perhaps even [ir]religious duty) to maximise our possibilities. And this is far from selfish, for tied to this (ir)religious impulse is the altruistic obligation to support our fellow humans in doing the same.

Indeed, to take Barbie as simply the latest iteration of (ir)religious Western films portraying this ideal [SPOILER ALERT], the climax of the film has two key elements. Firstly, Barbie helps Ken realise that meaning in his life shouldn’t be tied to being her boyfriend. “Ken, you have to find who you are without me. You are not your girlfriend, not your house, not your mink, not the beach either. Maybe what you thought made you who you are is not really you. Maybe it’s Barbie and…and it’s also Ken.” And so Ken is sent on his (ir)religious quest of self-discovery to find happiness and free himself of the constraints his relationship with Barbie placed on his identity.

Secondly, once she’s done this, Barbie decides she wants to become ‘human’ (notice as opposed to ‘American’, ‘female’ or some other category), despite the discomforts and inevitable death this will bring. She explains her decision by saying, “I want to be with people too that create meaning, not something made up [like barbie dolls]. I want to imagine; I don’t want to be the idea.” There is undoubtedly a certain nobility from the (ir)religious, Humanist point of view to Barbie’s decision to leave behind the idealised, predictable perfection of Barbieland where your purpose is decided for you. Instead, she embraces imperfect human reality to gain the freedom to author her own meaning. But this very nobility highlights the way in which the West, as Gray puts it, is ‘gripped by unexamined dogmas.’

Though Western Unbelievers are all familiar with the scientific arguments against belief in God, they often fail to dwell on (or even realise) how the forces of rationalisation have similarly undermined the very idea of the self-authoring individual. Though capitalist consumerism ensures a maximisation of choice, the advertising industry which fuels it should make us question to what extent our world is one of manipulation instead of free expression. Similarly, how much do our choices really ‘emerge from within’ considering individual free will can largely be ignored as bureaucracies use big data to predict, mould and control enormous populations of supposedly ‘free’ individuals? While neuroscience can highlight what brain cortexes are activated when we think, make decisions, act impulsively or do just about anything, no scientist can empirically locate our sense of ‘self’. If scientists did not themselves possess self-consciousness, would science lead them to believe we had it? Finally, from a scientific level there isn’t a great deal to show how we’re much different from even bacteria who require no mind or nervous system to act on knowledge of their environment. The vast majority of our actions are not the conscious imperatives of our mind anyway, but subliminal and unthinking. Can Barbie or any of the rest of us humans truly author anything in our lives?

The key issue being: if our sense of self is so empirically unsubstantial, if we are more often acted upon than ourselves acting, and if we are actually very often highly predictable despite our apparent ‘free will’, then why should the West feel so strongly that its (and others) political, spiritual and moral systems should be so firmly rooted in the principle of individual choice? If anything, the East’s long-time philosophical speculation that “we are hardwired for the illusion of self”[23] has more evidence. Regardless, the majority of Western people continue to live lives framed around the reality-orientating principle of the self-expressing human individual.

The woman at the bar then may have been right that there is no conclusive evidence for the Christian God, but neither is their conclusive evidence for most of the unconscious Humanist assumptions she held dear. What ‘proof’ is there for any of Western piety’s hallmarks – democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, secularism, equality, progress – that objectively demonstrates their truth beyond any reasonable doubt? You cannot rationalise yourself to a single one of them without first possessing certain unproveable assumptions. Each is as ‘un-factual’ as any god, spirit or demon.

And this brings us to the key question. Though Christianity’s decline at the expense of atheistic (ir)religions like Humanism in the West is often attributed to the stronger rational credentials of the latter, both in actuality rest on equally unproveable ground. Yet despite this, Christianity declines while Humanism and other (Ir)religions thrive? So why the different fortunes?

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Rationalisation has not undermined our reasons for believing but our reasons for obeying. God is not dead; He has been deposed.   


“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problems had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious – such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

-C.S Lewis [24]

“[For years I had been engaged in] a genuine search for the truth, not merely a speakable truth, but a truth I would surrender to.”’

-John Moriarty [25]

‘A truth I would surrender to’. The first time I heard this phrase a year or so ago I was profoundly struck. In just a few words, the rarely noticed link between truth and authority – between believing and following – had been uncovered.

This link between authority and truth is much greater than people often appreciate. This is because truth fundamentally rests on trust. For instance, university students aren’t discouraged from reading Wikipedia for their essays because it is believed to be full of lies; they are discouraged because, unlike academic papers which are vetted by the academic establishment, Wikipedia – which academia does not control – is not trusted to be reliable, to be ‘sound’.

Now it might seem like I’m venturing into the realm of conspiracy theorists here. But let us not forget that what marks a conspiracy theorist from the average person is not a lack of intelligence or a greater degree of stubbornness but a deficit of trust. I didn’t believe evolution was a fabrication as a young teenager just because there were arguments against it which I found convincing. Ultimately, I found these arguments compelling because I distrusted the secular scientific establishment that (as I saw it) ‘pushed’ evolution so forcefully. I believed (sometimes rightly) these people and institutions had no respect for the Christianity I held so dear, and I suspected it was their intention to undermine Christian faith. If only my fellow Westerners could see they were being hoodwinked and give up their blind trust of the scientific establishment, they could see the real truth. My belief that evolution was a secular conspiracy reinforced itself whenever I asked friends to explain why they believed in it: almost never was anyone able to explain how it worked or why my arguments were wrong. While I did come to believe in evolution’s veracity as a later teenager, this was in no small part because I no longer believed the scientific establishment was ‘out to get’ Christians.

And if truths must be first be trusted, then it is vital they come from people, institutions, traditions, and texts we consider authoritative. Real authority commands our obedience even when we dislike it because we trust that the authority knows best. Of course, what that best is can be any number of things – the glory of God, the success of the nation, the harmony of the universe, or your own individual happiness. Regardless, we believe truths and we obey authorities because we trust.  

But trust cannot be taken for granted. It can break – sometimes more easily than we expect. Whether because of a lie, a failure to meet expectations, or worst of all, some kind of active betrayal, we can become disillusioned. We can begin to question if the authority we trusted still remains worthy of our submission and loyalty; we can begin to doubt whether anything it says is actually true. Without trust, truth becomes circumspect and obedience begins to feel like slavery.

And with the benefit of hindsight, I now realise how a loss of trust was key to my own atheistic epiphany. On two fronts, I began to doubt whether Christianity’s God really did know best. Firstly, I was questioning His authority around the arena of sex. Why as a relatively good-looking, eligible young man in a culture so sexually open was I continuing to ‘limit myself’ just on the basis that ‘God said so’? Was God’s way really best? Secondly, for all the intellectual doubts in the year leading up to my atheistic epiphany, the actual epiphany coincided with the unexpected realisation that I’d unintentionally hurt a good friend due to my traditional Christian take on sexuality. Though I’d changed my mind on the subject in the intervening period, finding this out in my final week of university was certainly disillusioning. My assumption that faithful obedience to God would bless, not hurt, those around me was in tatters. Who else might be out there who’d been hurt by my loyalty to Christianity’s God? These two issues broiled a potent mixture of suspicion and disillusionment. It wasn’t long before my trust in God was broken.

Of course, the key issue I was wrestling with on both fronts was one of submission: my readiness to recognise and follow a greater Will. Like most traditional religions, submission lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. As Lewis observed, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problems had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue.”[26] Yet, rationalisation has fundamentally changed the human psyche and the religions and (ir)religions birthed in its wake. While Weber notes that in the past, we were “ruled by mysterious, unpredictable forces…[now] we can in principle control everything by means of calculation.”[27] Lewis likewise noted that unlike the wisdom of earlier ages, for the modern scientific age “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”[28]

While before we were Reality’s subjects, living in a posture of deference, uncertainty, surrender and subjection before the Ultimate, today Nature itself is our subject, as we approach it with a new-found control, mastery and confidence. This is what makes modernity fundamentally different from all other previous ages. Never before have we had a greater sense of our own power, a sense that we can in fact be the one controlling rather than the one controlled. The irony that for the most part we have replaced our subjection to Nature with a new subjection to artificial systems equally complex and beyond most people’s control is irrelevant. Never have we been more willing to reject acceptance, to refrain from contentment. Never before have we been in more of a position to play God.

It should be no surprise then that these techniques of control lay the groundwork for our rebellion against God. Not only do they give us the power to ‘play God’ and mould Reality to our desires, but they also actively sideline all that is numinous and unquantifiable which we previously held in deference. Even if God cannot be disproved, He’s certainly surplus to requirements. Modern humanity cannot dismiss the ‘unseen realms’ of supernovas and microbes, but we can ignore the unseen Almighty. Jesus might have calmed the wind and waves, but these days we prefer to trust in supercomputer-generated weather forecasts and precisely engineered storm defences. Ultimately, why follow God, a code of honour, or any other authority when you can’t be certain they even exist? Why submit when you could be the one giving orders?

And crucially, there is only one authority which can pass unharmed through rationalisation’s quest to reduce Reality to the objective. Lewis and Weber both saw it coming:

Lewis: “What never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivism…When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”[29]

Weber: “[To meet the] challenges of the day…each person [must] find and obey the daemon [spirit] that holds the threads of his life.”[30]

The human will – the reality-orientating principle of our age – is the one source of authority which can survive the objectification of the world intact. Though unproven by science, it requires scepticism in the extreme to deny the reality of our own consciousness. It might be as ‘un-rational’ as any other basis of meaning, but ‘I’ is the one subject which remains unscathed in our world of objects, the one hope left for a people set adrift in an inanimate, indifferent universe. Only by submitting to the truth emanating from the ‘daemon’ within can there be any promise of imbuing our lives with purpose and fulfilment once more.

And don’t be fooled, the cost of this obedience can be high indeed, particularly when our individuality is tightly wrapped up in the lives of others. Whether it is TV presenters coming out as gay after 27 years of heterosexual marriage or spouses transitioning years and even decades into a relationship, the duty to be ‘true to yourself’ and obey Weber’s ‘daemon’ within can carry a significant cost. But as with all obedience to authority, those who follow are marked by the conviction that whatever the sacrifice, it will be for the best.

Of course, the subjective authority of our own will certainly has a limited jurisdiction. The age of ‘true for me’ accepts that our own sense of truth and authority cannot infringe upon others without in turn discounting their own subjective will. And so we come full circle, for the only way any individual can hope to claim a higher authority over others is through the application of an ‘objective consciousness’.[31] Only through transcending the subjective realm by the voice of objective reason can any of us expect to bridge the gap between our separated human wills. Without recourse to objectivity, our loose confederation of individual wills quickly breaks down into anarchy.

And herein lies the root of our ‘post-truth’ world, as evident in politics as it is in religion. Mistaking objectivity for truth, we have failed to recognise that it is our authorities, not our truths, people no longer respect. Reasons must after all be ‘reasonable’ and can only persuade when we agree they are persuasive. But this can only happen when fundamental assumptions are shared. And we now live in an age marked by the dissolution of authority: a multiplicity of news channels, a diversity of influencers, and countless sacred texts. Without the trust borne of a shared foundation, there can be no reasoning, only shouting. Frustrated by reason’s inability to unite us, we are soon tempted to use our words to compel rather than persuade.

Rebellion is thus the defining spirit of modernity, and it’s first victim was God. Stifled by the dogmas of Christendom and marvelling at the power presented by the new science they could claim for themselves, modernity gave birth first to individuals, then communities, and eventually generations who first stridently, then excitedly, and now quite passively proclaim the impotence and irrelevance of God. Indeed, whether God is the opiate of the masses or on trial for the problem of evil, it is very often God’s trustworthiness and authority, not the rationality of His existence, that is most significant to his detractors. As any failed state will tell you, a God who lacks authority might as well not exist.

But the rebellion hasn’t stopped with God. Onwards it has marched deconstructing capitalism, geopolitical systems, family hierarchies, gender roles, race relations, culture and biology. Whether through the scalpel of merciless objectivity or the muddying waters of arbitrary subjectivism, rationalisation has ensured that the means for rebellion, for the dismantling of authority, are at anyone’s disposal. And once we begin to doubt an authority’s good faith, suspecting it to be faithless and oppressive, we are soon ready to raise the flag of rebellion once more - a host of individual wills refusing to be compelled by a ‘higher authority’ they no longer trust nor accept.

-The End-

Notes & References

[3] The 19th century German philosopher, Philipp Mainlander, whose writings influenced Nietzsche, had himself used the phrase, and it had long-standing usage in German, though initially in a devotional context having first been used in a 17th century Lutheran hymn about the atonement and death of Christ. 

[4] Of course, there were two famously anti-Christian regimes in Europe before the 1960s – the Fascists of Germany and Italy (although there is nuance here as certain Christian groups and institutions were co-opted by the regime to greater and lesser extents) and the Communists of the USSR. However, the rise of atheism and irreligion in these societies was largely the result of force and outright persecution – with religious belief increasing (or perhaps more accurately, rising again to the surface) once these regimes collapsed. The modern liberal West uniquely however, has never violently persecuted Christian groups, and yet irreligion organically arose in a large way in the post-WWII era onwards. 

[5] Max Weber, Science as a Vocation, 1917. pg. 16

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1943. pg. 70

[7] Weber, Science as Vocation, pg. 30

[8] Mary Harrington, The Failure of Lockdown Localism: How Egg Politics Scrambled Britain in Unherd, 10 May 2023. URL: The failure of lockdown localism - UnHerd 

[9] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 69

[10] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 71

[11] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 72

[12] Weber, Science as a Vocation, pg. 16 & 18

[13] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 59

[14] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism, pg. 123. URL: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (

[15] Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, 1949. pg. 57

[16] Weber, Science as a Vocation, pg. 28-29

[17] N.S. Lyons, A Prophecy of Evil: Tolkien, Lewis & Technocratic Nihilism, 2022

[18] Weber, Science as a Vocation, pg. 27

[19] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 70

[20] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, 2003. pg. XI

[21] In Christianity, Triune God is the reality-orientating principle because from Him flows the basis for Christian metaphysics (He is the Creator, the Ground of All Being) and the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Chris, is most specifically the focal point of Christian ethics (we ought to live as bearers of the image of God in Christ Jesus).

[22] John Gray, The Seven Types of Atheism, 2018

[23] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, pg. 76

[24] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 76-77

[25] John Moriarty, Nostos: An Autobiography, 2001

[26] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 76-77

[27] Weber, Science as a Vocation, pg. 12-13

[28] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 76-77

[29] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pg. 65

[30] Weber, Science as a Vocation, pg. 31

[31] Term used by Theodore Roszak in Making of a Counter-Culture, 1968 

TW: References to abortion and loss of children

This is part 10 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.

Part 10 reflects on the religious nature of storytelling, particularly the way in which stories have a compelling power to shape the way we think, behave and see the world. I reflect on the different stories told by Christianity and Western Irreligion, particularly in regards to suffering.

You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.

Thank you again to Eleanor Vivian and Miki Vivian for their proofreading and critical feedback.

3,600 Words

Image by Tumisu on Pixabay


TW: References to abortion and loss of children

“The atheist types, the rationalist types, there’s something they miss, and what they miss is that fiction isn’t false. It’s not a lie, right. It’s not literal, but it’s not a lie. And great fiction is true, but it never happened. So how can it be true? And the answer to that is something like, well there are patterns in things, deep recurring patterns…And great fiction describes the shape of that pattern. And the greater fiction becomes the more it is religious in nature…When we say something is profound, what we mean is that it's moving and that its capable of having a broad influence on the way we think and see and act…And a story that can change your life has a power that is best described as religious.”

-Prof. Jordan Peterson[1]

Though I am familiar with all the non-Christian ‘world religions’, I have almost never been tempted to convert to any. With one exception. There was an evening nearly a decade ago now when aged 17, I wondered if I should convert to Islam. Though intellectual ideas and arguments had some role in it, more than anything else, here was a brief window where I thought perhaps Islam was telling a story I wanted.

You see, throughout my teenage years, I desired a life of complete surrender to God. My favourite worship song had the chorus:

“Where you go, I’ll go. Where you stay, I’ll stay. When You move, I’ll move. I will follow. Who You love, I'll love. How You serve I'll serve. If this life I lose, I will follow You.”[2]

And for a few, brief, mesmerising minutes, as I reflected on the profound divine beauty of Islam as the path of submission to Almighty God, I wondered if maybe this was for me. Yet, the moment passed, and never since has the story told by Islam nor any other world religion converged so clearly with the arc of my own life.

Western Irreligion on the other hand (as this blog series testifies), this has always been a greater temptation. I’ve often wondered why this was the case. After all, surely a ‘religious’ person like myself would be more likely to seek out another ‘religion’ than leave religion altogether. However, losing my faith five years ago and the slow journey of finding it again has made me realise that I’ve been thinking about religion all wrong. As Jordan Peterson says, “a story that can change your life has a power that is best described as religious.”

Stories more than anything else join our metaphysics and our ethics together, connecting what the world is like with how we should live in it. A story – through its setting, protagonist, antagonist, plot and climax – acts as a sinew between the interpretative world we inhabit and the imaginative world we wish to realise. They provide frameworks and points of reference showing us how to live with purpose, nobility and courage in the world.

And though Western Irreligion, for the most part, formally lacks scriptures, priests, churches or liturgies, it is very good at telling stories. Nowhere is this more evident than in the medium of film.

In the film musical, The Greatest Showman (2017), you can’t help but feel uplifted as the circus troupe sing ‘This Is Me’, a song of defiance affirming that though others might think them ‘freaks’, they’re not going to change who they really are to fit in with the crowd. In Captain Marvel (2019), Carol is taught by the ‘Supreme Intelligence’ to master herself and her emotions in order to become powerful. Eventually, realising she’s been lied to about her past and fighting on the wrong side of the war, she defeats the Supreme Intelligence, rejecting its paternalistic authoritarianism and affirming her humanity, saying: “I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back. But what happens…when I’m finally set free?” Finally, in Brave (2012), the relationship between the mother queen and her daughter princess is torn apart by the mother’s suffocating expectations on her decidedly unfeminine daughter. After their final reconciliation, the princess Merida closes the film by saying: “There are those who say fate is something beyond our command, that destiny is not our own. But I know better. Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it.”

Be true to yourself, don’t let other people tell you how to be, take charge of your own destiny – the motifs of these stories are just a handful of examples from a very large pool. And they make one thing clear: religious stories – stories that are capable of changing the way we see, think and act – are everywhere in the Irreligious West when you take the time to look.

They’re compelling as well. When I found myself on the verge of an atheist conversion, it was not really argument or philosophy that brought me there. Rather a story that had been living within me for some time finally broke to the surface. The story of a life lived for sacred individuality, free from the constraints and harm of religious dictate, where death is the end of all things and life the infinitesimally small chance that lit the spark to live this wonderful gift of life to the full.

And given Western Irreligion’s close ties to Western Protestant Christianity, it should be little surprise I found its story so compelling as a White Western Christian. Most of the world’s mainstream religions had a predecessor they built upon. Christianity built upon Judaism and both were likewise built upon by Islam. Buddhism too began as an evolution of the Vedantic Hinduism of its roots. In similar fashion, Western Irreligion took Europe’s indigenous Protestantism and took it to the next level.

Western Irreligion embraced Protestantism’s values of kindness, equality, love and pacifism. It took its suspicion of human authority and totalitarian power (which Protestants had always applied to the Catholic Church and its priests) and instead applied it to God, religion, and kings. If Protestants told you that you couldn’t trust any priest to mediate your relationship with God, then Western humanists took God out of the picture entirely and told you the only person you should trust and listen to is yourself. Lastly, it took Protestantism’s (indeed Christianity’s) universalising instincts and saw no reason why its Western, Irreligious project should not also be taken to the whole world.

No one better sums up the ‘post-Christian’ nature of Western culture than historian, Tom Holland. In one particular passage in his book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, he points out:

“Communist dictators may have been no less murderous than fascist ones; but they – because communism was the expression of a concern for the oppressed masses – rarely seem as diabolical to people today. The measure of how Christian we as a society remain is that mass murder precipitated by racism tends to be seen as vastly more abhorrent than mass murder precipitated by an ambition to usher in a classless paradise.”[3]

Everywhere you look in the Irreligious West, you find its ‘post-Christian’ heart beating with fervour. In my own UK-context, there is: free provision of healing care for all; intolerance against violence; wrath and judgement upon those perceived to promote inequality through racism, sexism and the like; a willingness to engage in unpleasant, unsettling cultural self-reflection, repentance and confession; a love towards our neighbour demonstrated by frequent charitable giving; and a culture that looks down on the proud and boastful and exalts the humble and meek. Only a foolishness born of tribalism could make you blind to the British West’s drive to manifest, however imperfectly, the Kingdom of Heaven.

It's these similarities that mean many often find it hard to tell if a different story is being told at all. Western Irreligion’s Western Christian roots are such that it’s become the cool version of the Western Christian ethic everyone in the West already believed anyway. Be kind, love others, don’t judge, fight injustice – just with the possibility of pre-marital sex, gay sex, drugs and various other pleasures that make life fun. And at university and since, as a person privileged with health, wealth, intelligence, reasonably good looks, a useful passport, and youth (at least for now), I’ve more than once wondered why I was living a story that pushed me to do the hard things in life without letting me have any of the fun.

But after wrestling with the clear links between my Western Christianity and Western Irreligion, I have learned not to mistake their similarity for interchangeability. Quite simply, they are telling different stories. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than when it comes to suffering.


“Good must be done for its own sake, even if it means opposing what religion calls ‘God’. It must be done even if we believe that the universe is indifferent to our struggles and uninterested in our values. It must be done even if we decide there is no solution to…the problem of suffering, because there is no god to solve it. There may be no solution, but there can be a response. We can choose to bind up wounds, not inflict them. We can choose to withstand the afflicters, whatever the cost.”

-Richard Holloway[4]

The problem of suffering (or the problem of evil) has always been a major point of criticism for Christianity in the West: How can a good God permit suffering? Of course, there was a time in the Hebrew tradition where it was perfectly permissible for God to cause suffering. My favourite chapter in the Bible, Lamentations 3, reads: “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?”[5] But as the Hebrew tradition evolved and as part of it branched off and became Christianity, the association of evil with the Almighty became intolerable. God was wholly and only good. But this left an obvious problem. Why then suffering?

Yet, suffering isn’t only a problem for Christians. After all, suffering comes to us all, and it is therefore just as much a problem for those living Western Irreligious lives. However, in this case, there is a clearer explanation for ‘why then suffering?’. As Richard Holloway puts it: we live in a universe ‘indifferent to our struggles and uninterested in our values…There is no god to solve it’. But though this provides an explanation, it says nothing about how we are to respond when suffering does come knocking.

And far more than a solution, we need a response to the hammer-blow of suffering, this most unwelcome of guests. Perhaps suffering is a result of petty squabbling amongst the gods, bad karma, an indifferent universe, or human rebellion against God. It’s all theoretical when you’re flailing within suffering’s grip. And when the moment comes, it’s not an explanation you crave but a response. Because at the end of the day, it is meaningless suffering, not suffering alone, that we fear most. Suffering that isn’t just unexplained, but against which there is no hope, nothing we can do, no reason to continue the story.

And it is here that the difference between the Christian and Western Irreligious stories can be seen most keenly. I’ve never been impressed by most Christian attempts to explain suffering, but this is mostly because I’ve always recognised that the story it tells is most truly profound in the face of suffering, not in explaining suffering away. The Hebrew and later Christian traditions never shy away from the pain and bitterness of life.

With brutal honesty, we can read the Lamenter say:

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath. He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship. He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.”[6]

And yet, at the same time, with remarkable sincerity, the same Lamenter can say:

“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”[7]

Many centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth, walking in the footsteps of this tradition, knelt in anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. Knowing his crucifixion laid before him, he prayed, “Father, if you’re willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”[8] A few hours later, His Father proving unwilling to take away this cup, Jesus hangs upon a cross. He does not consider it blasphemy to quote a centuries-old Scripture and cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.[9] The Christian story at its most profound then recognises not just the pain of suffering, but the pain of a God who seems unwilling to take it away.

But pain doesn’t have to breed despair when hope remains. And the one thing the Christian story never loses – despite the setbacks, the trials, and the tragedies – is hope. As the Apostle Paul proclaimed, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”[10] Even in death, there is resurrection. As the Lamenter says, ‘therefore I have hope.’

In Western Irreligion, the story is different. And the parameters of the story are this: we are autonomous, purpose-making individuals in an otherwise purposeless universe. If the universe has no meaning outside of ourselves, then it is within that we must look to find purpose. We will therefore find our most flourishing, abundant, happiest life through maximising our capacity to self-determine our lives. And the primary blocker to our happiness is unchosen harm and suffering. Western Irreligion’s response then to suffering is simple – it must be eradicated.

It is not that Western Irreligion is intolerant of suffering in any form. After all, there are all sorts of situations in which we might choose to undergo forms of suffering, such as for the sake of fitness, an academic or professional qualification, an adventure, or a loving relationship. But who would choose cancer, the death of a child or the pain of chronic illness? Where possible, we must keep suffering, as everything else, as a freely made choice.

Of course, a world without suffering is a story arc Western Irreligion inherits from Christianity. The story the Bible tells ends with Heaven coming down to Earth, where God “will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”[11] The key difference is within the Christian tradition, the ultimate responsibility and power to bring about this ‘new order’ is trusted to God. Not so in Western Irreligion. This is the story after all where your fate rests in your hands alone.

And so the West works tirelessly and faithfully to build a world where our children after us need not experience the sufferings and misfortunes we faced before. Disease, violence, natural disasters – all these evils are fought against with zealous frenzy.

Yet though the quest to overcome suffering is both noble and truly marvellous, it still doesn’t give us a response for when suffering does come. When youth turns to old age; when tragedy strikes; when the pain comes and all that was good in this world is crushed and turned to dust; when death comes knocking – as indeed it must – what happens then? Hope does remains for the Irreligious West whilst suffering can be overcome, defeated, conquered. When we can turn our sufferings into a drive to end poverty, hunger, and violence. Indeed, the most thoughtful, inspiring Irreligious people I know are all driven by this hope. This unshakeable belief that we will progress one day to that promised land where there will be no more suffering or shedding of tears. The tenacity and ambition of this religious drive is more than mere utopianism. For instance, this drive has led to very credible technological and scientific projects to reverse ageing with the hope that one day we might even be able to conquer death itself.

But what about when there can be no victory? Can your best life still be found? Can the stimulation of a screen, a new overseas holiday or that new promotion make up for the loss of a child, the failure of a life’s-work or the betrayal of a partner? If there cannot be victory, if we are not progressing anywhere, is there anything left but escape?

Nowhere is this more apparent to me than when it comes to the lives of prenatally-diagnosed foetuses with Down Syndrome. Across the Western world, the ability to diagnose disabilities like Down Syndrome prenatally has led to an upsurge in abortion rates. Roughly 90% of all prenatally diagnosed Down Syndrome pregnancies in the UK are now terminated and similar trends are seen across Western Europe. Moreover, while the majority of abortions on the grounds of disability do occur before the 24-week legal limit for other abortions,[12] the UK makes an exception for disabled pregnancies, allowing them to be aborted right up to birth (an exception it is not alone in). A recent challenge of this law on the grounds of disability discrimination was only last month rejected by the Court of Appeal,[13] despite the court recognising those with disabilities might infer the ruling regards their lives as possessing lesser value.

Sociological trends and laws like the above have always confused me. Given we live in a society morally repulsed by stories of Nazi eugenicists and which champions the rights of disabled people to an astonishing degree post-birth,[14] how do we seem so comfortable with what is clearly discrimination pre-birth? And not just a discrimination that effects your opportunities in life, but your opportunity to live a life at all.

But this contradiction resolves itself when you recognise the story the West is telling and how it relates to suffering. If Christianity holds human life as sacred, most acutely seen in the Roman Catholic ban on contraception, then Western Irreligion holds human autonomy as sacred. Indeed, the reason most Western countries set the legal limit for abortion at 24 weeks is because this is when the foetus is considered able to survive independently of the mother’s womb. The sanctity of life may appear primary in many moral spheres, but it comes second to our autonomy both before this ‘point of viability’ in the womb but also at the end of life when terminal illness and/or irreversible unchosen suffering makes the final expression of our autonomy – the choice of our death – the greatest moral good we can offer.[15]

And to bring this back to Down’s Syndrome pregnancies, all pregnancies represent a loss of autonomy and a restriction on your ability, particularly as a mother, to live your life as you choose. And for disabled pregnancies, the cost of this choice becomes even higher. Once born, it is the duty of the Western Irreligious ethic to champion and uplift the disabled – to allow them to determine their fate. But until birth, if a mother doesn’t believe she can give her pregnancy a flourishing and at least semi-independent life, then terminating the pregnancy is justified.

Following the UK court’s rejection of the down syndrome pre-birth discrimination case, disability campaigner, Frances Ryan, tweeted: “If you want to talk about the inequality of raising a disabled child, campaign for higher benefits, better childcare, and accessible housing. Forcing a woman to give birth against her will is not any form of disability rights.” The moral imperative of Western Irreligion towards disabled pregnancies is clear: we must absolutely make it easier for the living to choose to carry a disabled pregnancy to full-term. But crucially, we must not force this choice on anyone. If the road ahead leads to suffering, then it is our moral duty to give people a way out.

For all their similarities then, the story that began with an itinerant and later-executed Rabbi in first century Palestine is not the same as the story told by Western Irreligion. Early 20th century sociologist, Max Weber, once suggested we can reinterpret salvation as “facts without which the meaningful conduct of life is not possible.”[16] If so, then suffering is a most inconvenient fact for Western Irreligion. Against a purposeless, indifferent universe, you can yell in defiance and refuse to back down. But while we await Suffering’s full and final defeat, what spiritual wellsprings do we possess to bear Evil, Pain and Death when they knock uninvited? Why proceed with a pregnancy when all we can see is difficulty, limitation and constraint? Once hope departs, all that’s left is escape.

But there is another story. A story of defeat as well as victory, of death as well as life. A story which means when the suffering comes, we might yet find the reserves of grace and trust to say not my will but yours be done. And in so doing, just maybe, we might find there is life to be found, even in the valley of the shadow of death.

-The End-

[2] Song by Chris Tomlin: “I Will Follow”

[5] Lamentations 3:38

[6] Lamentations 3:1-6 (NIV)

[7] Lamentations 3: 19-23 (NIV)

[8] Luke 22:42 (NIV)

[9] Psalm 22 (NIV)

[10] II Corinthians 4:8-10

[11] Revelation 21:4

[12] Only 8.1% of the 3,370 abortions in the UK approved in 2021 under ‘ground E’ (which states that “there is substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped”) took place after 24-weeks.

[13] The case was Crowter and Others v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care [2022]. It was rejected on the basis that the law doesn’t discriminate against the living disabled and that the current law cannot be written off merely on the grounds that it might imply that the lives of the disabled are of lesser value. You can read the ruling here:

[14] In 2017/18, councils in England spent £5.5bn on services supporting 131,415 working-age adults with learning disabilities. This equates to £41,852 per person on average – higher than the UK median salary in 2018 of £29,559. See stats here:

[15] Unlike abortion, euthanasia is not legal in the UK at the time of writing. It is however legal in an increasing number of Western countries, and there are campaigns to legalise it in the UK.

Listening to the Queen’s 70th Jubilee Service of Thanksgiving, I was inspired to write this after considering what sermon I would have given had I been addressing the congregation (and the world) at that service.

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay


Several years ago, I found myself in Bethlehem. I was an intern with a charity supporting refugees in the Middle East, and myself and my boss were visiting our charity’s regional projects and contact networks. I was having a bad day. I’d made my boss and I late for an engagement we were attending and then forgotten something important. I don’t really remember why else it had been such a rubbish day but suffice it to say it was one of those days where everything I did felt inadequate. All that remained of this mediocre day was dinner with a group staying at our hotel. I determined to get through it as quickly as possible and then slope off to my room.

We arrived at dinner (late), and I saw that all but one space had been taken. This was perfect. I took my boss to the final remaining space and prepared to slyly exit the scene. Filled as I was with melancholic inadequacy, the last thing I wanted was to make small talk with the polite middle-class society assembled. All I desired was the peace and isolation of my hotel room with the chance to emotionally switch off in front of the TV. Then, just as I made my move to leave, my heart sank as my Israeli colleague called out, “Here, have my seat.” “Oh no, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. You stay here and enjoy yourself.” But he insisted. Bother. So I sat down.

Next to me was sat an elderly monk, dressed in his Franciscan habit. For some reason, sitting next to this monk heightened the negativity within me. Perhaps, having considered both fancifully and seriously becoming a monk myself as a teenager, just being next to him pricked further at my own sense of insecurity and inadequacy. But regardless, I proceeded to just put my head down, focus on my plate of food, and eat my meal as quickly as possible. That’s when I felt his hand on my shoulder.

What took place next was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It's hard to put into words the transformation that took place next. What words I find seem hopelessly impotent to convey the depth of what occurred, while also at once seem a gross magnification of what was in many respects such an ordinary encounter. All I know is that with a hand on his shoulder and some kind words (which I’d forgotten as soon as he said them), this monk took me from a place of abject anonymity to feeling like the most special person in the room. I can’t say whether the impact of this encounter had more to do with the kindness, love and cheer that emanated from this man’s presence or was simply a reflection of how low I’d been feeling. What I do know is that I no longer wanted to leave the room. I no longer felt inadequate.

This weekend, we are celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – 70 years on the throne! Yesterday, I watched the Service of Thanksgiving for the Queen. Like many, I have a great love and admiration for the Queen, and I found the service very moving. But sometimes, I myself am struck by the strength of my emotional reaction to such things. After all, this woman only possesses her status via an accident of birth. Why then does she give rise to this deep desire within me to express my gratitude, awe and respect? Why do such expressions seem sincere and right, not sycophantic and ridiculous?

I think stories like the one with myself and the monk in Bethlehem give us a clue as to why. During the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, world-famous singer, Elaine Paige, shared a small anecdote from her life of meeting the Queen.

“One memory that comes to mind was when I was asked to sing at Windsor Castle. Sadly, it was in 2002 and the Queen Mother had died and obviously the concert was cancelled. Then, two or three weeks later, I met the Queen at the Royal Academy of Arts, and I was astonished that she came to me and apologised to me that the concert had been [cancelled]... She reassured me that it would be reinstated, and I was just blown away by that. I thought, here is a woman that was probably grieving, obviously, for the loss of her mother, and, as you said, her thoughts were not about herself, they were about others. Eventually I did manage to make the performance at Windsor Castle. Of course, she came out of the doors first… and [she] walked towards me with her arms outstretched, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Elaine, at last!' And I just think she is the most brilliant woman.”

“Honour one another above yourselves.” So reads Romans 12:10b, one of my favourite verses. It is too easy to read these lines quickly before moving onto the rest of the passage. But more than perhaps any other moral command found in the Christian Scriptures, I think this is the most profound. Except perhaps when we are truly enamoured by someone or something, our instinct is rarely to give honour, but very much to receive it. We want to be thanked, to be listened to, to be praised. But how often do we take intentional steps to give other’s thanks, to listen to others well and to give others praise? Not only that, but each of us shares pain and trauma from times when we have been dishonoured and humiliated. Bullying in school, someone not respecting our time, insults behind our back, rejection from someone we admired or loved – we feel these things acutely.

There’s a reason why in Jane Austen’s classic, Emma, (spoiler alert) when young Harriet talks about the man who ‘saved me’, she is not referring (as her friend, Emma, assumes) to the dashing Frank Churchill who rescued her from the physical danger of her gypsy muggers. Instead, she is referring to the noble Mr. Knightley who, despite his own dislike of dancing, saved her from humiliation by asking her to dance when she had been shunned by all the other men, worried as they were about affiliating with this woman of low-birth.

The Queen possesses great privilege and honour. It would be easy – as indeed many monarchs of the past demonstrate – to let this privilege and honour become all-consuming. Instead, what we see time and again is a person who uses her position of honour to bless others with the same. As former Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, mentioned elsewhere in the BBC’s coverage, “When she’s talking to you, she’s not looking around to see ‘What’s more attractive here’. She pays 100% attention to you.” The egotistical use their honour to generate greater glory for themselves; the loving use their honour to make others feel just as special.

In an age of celebrity, in a time where it is perhaps easier than ever to become self-obsessed, it is good, indeed right, to celebrate this remarkable woman who for seventy years has truly served her country and Commonwealth. Her privilege has not been a platform for her own personal glorification – we have no Instagram or twitter account to follow her latest personal trends – but instead a platform to honour, praise and uplift others.

Perhaps it is easy to consider others more worthy of honour than yourself when it is obvious your position owes itself to the accident of birth. Then again, maybe if we were more willing to admit how much our own achievements and successes owed less to our own deservingness and much more to the grace of God and others, we too might be quicker to consider others more worthy of honour than ourselves.

-The End-

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