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This is part 9 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.

Part 9 looks at the rich history of Christian tradition and practice, and how this led me to to view Christianity afresh.

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 Kwek for their proofreading and critical feedback.

3,500 Words

‘The Last Supper’ from the Life of Christ by Giulio Aleni (1637), an early Jesuit missionary for the Church in China.[1]


“Abba Poemen said that Abba John said that the saints are like a group of trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but it is the same Spirit that works in all of them.”

-Sayings XLIII of Abba John the Dwarf [2]

More than perhaps most people, I have spent my life aware of the role that culture plays in my own and others’ lives. My childhood was divided between a secularist, post-Christian, liberal and western society in Britain and an atheistic, communist, (neo-)Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist society in China. I have had the fortune to attend Christian churches in a myriad of contexts from a variety of traditions. I have attended Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious services and visited many Buddhist temples. I have received hospitality from wealthy expats, penniless street homeless, warm suburbanites and welcoming rural peasants. In short, I have experienced numerous ethnic, religious and socio-economic cultures first-hand.

Yet, despite all this, I am not in the most literal sense a ‘global citizen’. I no doubt contain numerous quirks which give away my eclectic upbringing and life, but my body is planted just like everyone else’s. I am culturally British, Western in my intuitions, low church Protestant[3] in my religiosity and middle class (dare I say ‘posh’) in my preferences. My mind might understand a wide variety of cultures, religions and ways of life, but I still only walk in one pair of shoes. I always err on the side of excessive politeness. I value my personal independence and autonomy and instinctively believe in the equality of all people. The informal strum of a guitar will always stir my soul to worship more than the most beautiful church organ. And English tea and a fine glass of port will forever remain my two drinks of choice.

Why does this matter? Where am I going with this?

The cultural undercurrents we swim within are rarely noticed by us, but they certainly help guide where we end up. When I lost my faith, my intuition was that this was the result of an individual journey. Through my own reading, thinking and everyday experience, I had encountered problems with my faith which all of a sudden had become insurmountable. That other people continued to be Christians was most likely a result of their continuing ignorance or indeed wilful blindness. Of course, this assumption was implicitly quite flattering – I was one of the enlightened ones – but I also didn’t want it to be true. I still hoped that out there somewhere was someone who knew something that I did not that might salvage my faith. But I wasn’t hopeful of finding any such person; after all, if they existed, you’d have thought they’d have come and turned back the tide of secularisation by now. After all, it’s no secret that religion has been in decline in the West.

Or is it? The story of religious decline is often framed as a ‘Western’ phenomenon. But when you actually delve into the census figures, you discover it is much more specific, being confined almost exclusively to just White and Christian groups in the West. In the UK, the two largest Christian ethnic groups are White and Black British. Although White British outnumber Black British by a large margin, it is worth noting that while Christianity among White British declined by 16 percentage points between 2001 and 2011 (76% to 60% of White British identifying as Christian), Christian decline amongst Black British was just two percentage points (71% to 69%). In the same period, while irreligion increased among White British from 15% to 27%, among Black British the increase was much more moderate from 7.5% to 10.5%.[4] Meanwhile, like with Black British Christians, significant religious decline is simply not evident amongst British Muslim, Jewish or Hindu groups. The picture is similar in America where ‘religious’ decline over the last two decades is again almost exclusively white Christian decline. Non-white Christians and other non-Christian religious groups have remained largely stable over the same time period.

It turns out that losing Christian faith as a White British Christian (like myself) is rather unoriginal. And this raises an important point. What I had perceived to be my own individual journey was actually intertwined with a much more specific cultural shift among primarily White Westerners shedding or (perhaps more accurately) moving on from the Christian heritage that has dominated a largely White Western Europe for centuries.

However, it wasn’t until after I’d returned to Christian faith that I began to realise much of the above. Despite growing up across cultures, I was surprisingly blind to the cultural elements of both my particular evangelical Christian faith and my deconversion experience. Like most Westerners, I had fallen into the habit of assuming that the popularity of my Western (and Western Christian) beliefs was evidence that they alone transcended cultural boundaries and were universal rather than parochial. But it was actually when I began to recognise the inescapable link between the ideas we hold and the places, cultures and status we occupy that I began to see Christianity in a new light. Through the discovery of much wider Christian cultures and traditions, instead of finding someone with the answers I was craving for, these new perspectives helped me begin to re-think the questions I was asking and the assumptions I was making.


When people asked me what religion I was growing up, I would respond simply with “Christian”. Inevitably would then come the follow-up: “yeah, but what kind of Christian?”.

I disliked this second question. People just didn’t get it. I didn’t need to be one ‘kind’ of Christian – I was just a Christian! I mean, if people really forced the question, I would say I was a ‘Protestant’. But I didn’t like using this label. Yes, all the churches I had ever been a member of were Protestant. Yes, 95% of theological books I’d ever read had been written by Protestants (and 90% of these books by Evangelical Protestants). And yes, why Mary was such a big deal in Catholic and Orthodox Churches thoroughly confused me. But hey, I liked the Pope! And anyway, all those differences in services, religious holidays, liturgies, music styles, architectures, not to mention the different theologies regarding priesthood, salvation, the church, Mary etc. – that was just cultural glossing. What mattered was that we all believed Jesus was the Son of God, saved us from our sins, and was coming again. Why put us in all these unnecessarily divisive boxes when we were all essentially the same?

So it was no surprise at university that I joined the Christian Union. This was a place for all Christians to meet, have fellowship, and also invite our fellow students to consider the Christian message for themselves. I became my college’s Christian Union rep and I was eager to involve all Christians in college. I had become aware that there were other Christians in my college who’d never come to Christian Union. These Christians were mostly (though not always) of the High Church variety, and I wondered why they didn’t seem to want to get involved. We were all Christians after all? Yes, most (if not all) the Christians in Christian Union were from 'Low Church', Protestant backgrounds, but why should that matter! We were all the same, weren’t we?

That’s when I met Elizabeth. She was from a Russian Orthodox background. And she wanted to come to the central Christian Union meeting one week. I had a fascinating conversation with her about Russian Orthodoxy on the way to the meeting and we took our places when we arrived. Perfect, I thought. This is exactly what Christian Union is about! Christians from all backgrounds coming together! But when the meeting began, it suddenly struck me how what I was witnessing was not so much universal Christianity but a Christianity that was highly cultural. The ‘Christianity’ of the Christian Union contained no liturgy, involved no formal priesthood, involved worship music played on modern instruments with emotive and informal lyrics, made little to no reference to the role of the Church in the Kingdom of God, emphasised our identity as individuals in the Christian story, and explained that conversion to a Christian life came about through an intellectual decision, not a life of embodied sacramental practice and ritual. Essentially, I realised that the ‘Christianity’ of the Christian Union was exactly what I’d grown up my whole life practicing, but it was definitely not the Christianity my friend Elizabeth had grown up with.

During my childhood in China, I had always attended large ‘multi-denominational’ international churches that only foreigners were allowed to attend. Numerous nationalities were represented in these churches, and every Sunday we would come together to worship the same God. This for me was evidence of the universality of my Christian faith – people of every tribe and tongue really did worship Jesus. Yet, reflecting back, though many nations were indeed represented in these international churches, each church was nonetheless pretty similar. Their theology was always Evangelical, Protestant and ‘Low Church’. Their music was always lively and modern. Taking communion always felt like an after-thought once a month. Sermons tended to implicitly assume life transformation came about by hearing new ideas and thinking the right things. The speakers and congregation never wore church robes. Finally, despite the diversity of nationalities and languages spoken, services were always in English and the cultural influence was undoubtedly Western. The books that were recommended, the songs we sung – these were usually written by Westerners. The more I thought and reflected on it, the more I realised that the Christianity I grew up with was in fact another ‘kind’ of Christianity among many. It’s just that this kind of Christianity called itself… ‘Christianity’.

Several months after taking Elizabeth to Christian Union, my Christianity was in tatters. Yet, what ‘Christianity’ was it I had actually lost?


“For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and this was true into the fourteenth century. Christianity became predominantly European not because this continent had any obvious affinity for that faith, but by default: Europe was the continent where it was not destroyed. Matters could easily have developed very differently.”

The traditional telling of Christian history goes something like this. After a couple centuries of intermittent persecution, the Roman Empire under Constantine converted to Christianity. From this point on, Christianity became the majority religion in the Roman Empire and, after the Western Empire’s collapse, continued to spread across Europe. The rise of Islam, however, in the 7th century quickly put an end to the Christian presence in North Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, it wasn’t until post-1500, as European explorers first began to discover and then eventually colonise and conquer large parts of the Americas, Africa and Asia that Christianity finally became a truly ‘global’ religion.

It’s a telling of Christian history believed by many – including most Western Christians. Undoubtedly this is in part because Europe’s two most prominent Christianities – Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – indeed didn’t begin to expand significantly beyond Europe’s borders until post-1500. It comes as quite a surprise then for many to discover that Christianity was a global phenomenon pretty much from the get-go.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries already, we have evidence of Christianity in places like India, Persia, and Ethiopia. Christianity became the official religion of the Kingdom of Aksum (modern day Ethiopia/Eritrea) and Kingdom of Kartli (modern day Georgia/Armenia) decades before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion in 380AD. In 591AD, Byzantine officials were surprised when Turkish envoys from present-day Kyrgyzstan arrived with crosses tattooed on their foreheads; the envoys replied that their mothers, on the advice of local Christians, had tattooed them when plague had spread through their community as children.[6] Just 40 years after St. Augustine was sent by Rome to begin evangelising my home British Isles, Mar Alopen was sent from Seleucia-Ctesiphon, home of the Church of the East in modern-day Iraq, to the capital of Tang Dynasty China in 635AD to begin his own evangelisation efforts there. From 780-822AD, the head of the Church of the East, Patriarch Timothy I, oversaw bishops from Jerusalem to China and from Sri Lanka to Central Asia – we even have records of him appointing a new bishop in Tibet.[7] In 1000 A.D., roughly the halfway point in Christianity’s history, estimates suggest that just under half the world’s Christian population lived in Asia and Africa, most of whom had been Christians for numerous generations unlike many of the relatively recent converts to Christianity in northern Europe.[8] In the late 1280s, the Mongol envoy and Turkic Chinese Christian monk, Rabban Bar Sauma, travelled to Catholic Europe causing a sensation and even gave the Eucharist to the King of England.[9] Clearly, Christianity existed and sometimes even thrived outside of Europe long before European missionaries arrived.

Early 16th century Ethiopian Orthodox Icon[10]

But by the time European missionaries did begin arriving in larger numbers from the 16th century, they did for the most part encounter lands empty of any explicit Christian presence. To cut a long, complex story short, essentially from the 13th century onwards a series of cumulative blows including violence, invasion, persecution, dislocation and resulting isolation meant most of the churches of Asia and Africa either were destroyed or slowly faded into the surrounding milieu of whatever religious majority surrounded them. Only in Ethiopia, Egypt, southern India and parts of the Middle East did Christianity manage to maintain some sort of official institutional presence. Fast forward to today, and what is left of Patriarch Timothy’s Church of the East is a splinter of churches presiding over a mostly refugee congregation dotted in small pockets in the USA, Canada, Australia and Iraq. Religions die as well as spread.

Palm Sunday Mural from the Nestorian Christian Temple at Qocho in modern-day Xinjiang, China composed in the 7-9th century A.D. [11]

Why does this history matter? In many of these same lands where Christianity disappeared, new forms of Christianity, often West European in origin, have taken root. Large Christian populations can be found across East Asia, most notably in the Philippines, South Korea, China and India. The Americas are thoroughly Christianised, while Christianity has spread throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa. But except in the case of the Americas, the Christianities most frequently found in these places today were not the first to arrive there.

Cross dating from 10th century at St. Mary's Knanaya Valiyapally, Kaduthuruthy in southern India[12]

And this is why the histories of the dead and forgotten Churches matter. They remind us that there has never been just one ‘Christianity’. Most Christianities tend to downplay the existence and validity of other Christian traditions for both good and bad reasons. In practice, what this means is that most Christians are familiar with only a small portion of their very large, diverse religious tradition. Evangelical Protestants of my tradition are rarely familiar with either high church Protestantism or Roman Catholicism, and I imagine it goes the other way too. Yet, move outside the Western world to the Christian worlds of Eastern Orthodoxy, Ethiopian Orthodoxy and more besides and the ignorance increases tenfold. Of course, there is much theological merit to be found in the West European-inspired Christianities that have come to dominate much of the Christian world. Yet, they did not reach such a place of prominence simply through theological merit but in large part for reasons of historical contingency. Europe was the continent where Christianity wasn’t isolated, suffocated or killed.

St Mary Church, Urmia, Iran, the construction of which dates to the pre-Islamic era. Before WWI, there was a plaque in the church dated to 642 AD commemorating a visiting Chinese princess who helped pay for the church’s reconstruction.[13]

What this means is that there is a treasure trove of Christian thought, tradition and theology out there to be explored![14] Believe it or not, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, C.S Lewis, Tim Keller and Pope Francis do not have a monopoly on what Christianity means in its totality. And since Christianity is a tree with many branches, what might be an intellectual problem for one branch is not necessarily one for all the others.[15]


“It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Culture is a product of history, not an invention of the will.”

-James Davidson Hunter[16]

“In science, people were learning that they had to be ready to scrap the past and start again from first principles in order to find the truth. Religion, however, like art often consists of a dialogue with the past in order to find a perspective from which to view the present. Tradition provides a jumping-off point which enables men and women to engage with the perennial questions about the ultimate meaning of life.”

-Karen Armstrong[17]

Essentially, in the months following my atheistic epiphany, I realised more and more that what I had thought for so long as ‘Christianity’ in its entirety was the Christianity of a certain time and place. My tradition of non-denominational, evangelical, English-speaking Christianity was not necessarily the most authentic, truest, nor best form of Christianity out there. It was one among many ‘Christianities’, each formed by the place, culture and history of what has gone before. I was learning to shift my perspective.

I began to notice how the scientific progress of the last two centuries has led my culture to value certainty and to conflate truth with the literal. Any surprise then that many Christianities of my culture prefer to see the Bible as true only as long as it is literal and downplay tensions and contradictions within Scripture. Similarly, I had long been dissatisfied with the gospel message of my tradition. Its view of grace as a loophole to a legalistic dilemma, its preoccupation with people praying the sinner’s prayer rather than living lives of faithful discipleship, and its black-and-white, instrumentalist approach to evangelism were all things I felt lacking in substance and integrity. To then discover the ‘theosis tradition of salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy was an immense relief. Re-framing salvation as a process of transformation into the likeness of Christ makes the Christian journey both more relevant to the here and now and also something more substantive, merely beginning (not completing) at the point of conversion.

Having grown up across cultures, coming to a place where I could acknowledge rather than hide from the cultural bedrock of my beliefs, including my faith, has been rather freeing. While before I would equate anything ‘cultural’ with arbitrary opinion, now I’ve come to see that I am far less an individual with ideas than I first thought. My loss of faith ultimately mirrored a trend within my culture, and my return has largely come about by learning to view my Christian faith afresh through new cultural lenses. Now I see my Christian faith as an embodied pattern of Christian hope, faithfulness and love more than an intellectual assent to a set of beliefs; as something expressed more through my network of relationships than through my individual prowess; as a rich tapestry of tradition through which I find life, beauty and, by the grace of God, perhaps even salvation.

References & Notes

[2] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Apophthegmata Patrum: The Alphabetic Collection: 59, Translated by Sister Benedicta Ward, Liturgical Press, 1975.

[3] 'Low Church' and 'High Church' were two terms that developed within Anglican Christianity. Low Churches hold informal and 'modern' church services and tend to be livelier. They come out of the radical Protestant influence on Anglicanism. High Church services are much more traditional and formal. They maintain older Catholic influences. Low Churches do not prescribe an order of service, set no liturgical pattern, and do not use developed rituals and ceremonies. Clergy also do not wear church robes. High Church services meanwhile emphasise the priestly, liturgical, ceremonial, and ritualistic aspects of historic Christian practice. Read more here.

[4] Nomis, 2001 Census Data , ST104 - Ethnic group by religion, Opened: April 2022. URL: & Nomis, 2011 Census Data, DC2201EW - Ethnic Group by Religion, Opened: April 2022. URL:

[6] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 62

[7] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 11

[8] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 70

[9] Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, pg. 95



[14] A few I’d recommend for starters would be Gregory of Nyssa, Sadhu Sundar Singh, the Desert Fathers,

[15] Unfortunately, many of the great writings of the Church of the East are lost and those that remain are not always translated into English or easily available. However, what is available in abundance are writings from the orthodox traditions of Eastern Europe and the Near East, particularly some great theologians of the first few centuries of Christianity like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Isaac the Syrian/of Nineveh.

[17] Armstrong, Karen, A History of God, Vintage Publishing, 1999, pg. 359

This is part 8 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.

Part 8 looks at the turning point in the rediscovery of my faith. Following on from the discussion in Part 7 about the conflict between my Christianity and my Western Individuality Seeker ethic, Part 8 looks at the connection between ideas and place and how this impacted my return to Christian religion.

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 for her proofreading and critical feedback.

3,500 words

Image by StockSnap on Pixabay.


What is your ‘calling’? It’s a term familiar to Christians of my tradition. It’s a question fundamentally rooted in the idea of purpose. What is God ‘calling’ me to do with my life? Why has He put me on this Earth? While a secular Westerner may search for their purpose ‘within themselves’, the Christian Westerner searches for their purpose both within and outside themselves. Within because they have certain gifts, talents and capabilities placed by their Creator indicating why they’ve been created, but also outside themselves because ultimately the Christian wants to do what God is asking her to do.

I too used to ask myself that question. In my most profound teenage spiritual encounter, I was praying when this thought, seemingly from nowhere, gently but unmistakeably filled my consciousness – “Would you be willing to give up your ambitions around university for me?” Was this God? Insecure as I was about pretty much everything other than my intelligence as a teenager, the idea of giving up the one thing that would ‘confirm’ my intelligence – and thus my status – in the eyes of those around me shook me to my core. However, after a day’s internal wrestling, I accepted this thought was from God, and I trusted Him, so I gave Him my ambition. The next few years were spent trying to work out what God might be calling me to do instead. Did he want me to go to a Bible College? Perhaps like the 17th century Moravian Christians, I should sell myself into modern day slavery and minister to those suffering most? Eventually, however, like Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his beloved son, God gave me back my sacrifice at the last minute. I got my university application in just before the deadline.

I enjoyed University and I really saw myself grow during my time there. But towards the end, it became apparent that I would once more start having to think about what came next! Again, the low-level anxiety began to creep in. What was God calling me to do? I prayed. I attended Christian seminars on ‘discovering your calling’, but still nothing. Eventually, I got myself accepted on a prestigious graduate scheme. This involved ‘helping people’ so I figured that in the absence of anything clear from God, He was probably happy with this.

That’s when it happened again. A visiting speaker came to my College’s Chapel. He worked with persecuted Christians in the Middle East. I was interested in the topic, but nothing more than that. Then suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere during a Q&A at the end of the service, a thought like the one when I was a teenager impressed itself upon me: “You should work for him.” Was that you God? Three weeks later, I had turned down the prestigious graduate scheme and accepted the job it seemed God had called me to.

Now I’d found my calling, I was going to start living my best life, wasn’t I?


“The West, over the duration of its global hegemony, had become skilled in the art of repackaging Christian concepts for non-Christian audiences. A doctrine such as that of human rights was far likelier to be signed up to if its origins among the canon lawyers of medieval Europe could be kept concealed.”

We like to think that ideas resemble machines. Machines are constructed things which are easily transported from place to place. As long as you have the right materials and components, a machine in location A can be exported to location B without any obvious impact on the machine. But ideas are not like machines. The pastor and sociologist, Oleg Djik, coins the term ‘plural-spatial theology’ to highlight this.[1] Plural-spatial theology recognises that we are ‘embodied minds’: babies who first and foremost taste, touch, smell, hear and move before we eventually think, analyse and reason. Our spaces, cultures, families, nations, religion, and homes all play a part in shaping our perceptions, structuring our movements and directing our thoughts.

Like the minds then from which they emanate, ideas cannot be disembodied. They are intricately linked to the people and places where they develop. As such, ideas are much more like plants than machines. They must be planted, cultivated and grown. But what thrives in one climate may die in another. Still others might only begin to thrive if interventions are made through irrigation channels and greenhouses to replicate the plant’s necessary conditions. Finally, some plants will only begin to thrive in foreign soils when they become new sub-species, taking on fresh adaptations to their new conditions, yet no longer being quite the same as before.

Christianity – like Islam, Buddhism, Communism, Democracy…the list goes on – is a tree that has been planted in many lands. It has thus taken many shapes and forms over the millennia. This is obvious to anyone who compares an Anglican church in London with a megachurch in Seoul, a Catholic church in Sao Paulo, a house church in rural China, and an Ethiopian Orthodox church in Addis Ababa. The problem is that the global reach of ideas is not necessarily evidence of their universality.

One helpful illustrator of this is the Japanese author, Endo Sushake. Himself a Japanese Catholic, Sushake’s writing frequently explores the tension he feels between his Japanese identity and his Western-inspired Roman Catholic religion. In his book, Silence, a sombre tale of the horrific persecution of Roman Catholic Christians in 17th century Japan, Sushake’s protagonist, Fr. Rodriquez, a Jesuit missionary to Japan, is brought by the authorities to the apostate priest, Fr. Ferreira. Ferreira tries to convince Rodriquez of the futility of his missionary endeavours and tells him,

“This country is a swamp…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…Even in the glorious missionary period you mentioned the Japanese did not believe in the Christian God but their own distortion.”

Frerreira points out to Rodriquez that the Latin word ‘Deus’, meaning ‘God’, was translated by the early Japanese converts as ‘Dainichi’, meaning ‘The Great Sun’. Japan is known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ because its indigenous religion, Shintoism, upholds the Sun-goddess, Amatersasu, as its most eminent deity from whom all Emperors are descended. In such a world, is it any wonder that the ‘Deus’ sapling of Latin Catholic Christian monotheism evolved into a much more Japanese and Shinto ‘Dainichi’?

Frerreira continues:

“In the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to the Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine…No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider's web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider's web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton.”

Now Rodriquez rightly contests the extent to which this mistranslation meant the Japanese converts were not in fact Christians. But Frerreira’s – and Shusake’s – point is an important one. Can ideas, let alone an entire religion, ever undergo translation unchanged? If not, what can we say is the fundamental essence of religion? Because if its essence be ideas alone, then what do we do about the fact that our ideas are not easily separated from the places we dwell?

Westerners more than any others in the world today struggle to grasp this limitation with ideas. This undoubtedly must be partly because while most parochial cultures remain quaint, the geopolitical dynamics of the last two centuries means the West has been lucky enough to spread its parochial, often English-speaking culture and ideas throughout most of the world. In so doing, it has become the gold-standard by which a people mark themselves as ‘modern’, ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’.

Everywhere Western institutions and ideas are constantly framed as universals. Our ‘World Wars’ are so primarily because they involved the entirety of the West. When the rest of the world was involved, it was usually due to their Western colonial ties. While the globally powerful Chinese Communist Party has no qualms with branding its form of communism as ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, rarely will a Westerner think of democracy as ‘Vote-Based Government with Western Characteristics’. This despite repeated failures of democracy in its ‘purest’ (i.e. Western) form to fully establish itself in most corners of the non-Western world. While Hollywood’s Oscar awards are expected to represent global diversity, neither Bollywood nor Nollywood have the same expectations. American-style shopping malls as opposed to Chinese wet markets or Arab souks are the gold-standard for modern marketplaces the world over. As an English-speaking Westerner, global international culture is much more comfortable for me than it is for those not lucky enough to find that their parochial culture has colonised the world.

It should come as no surprise then that my Western Christian tradition mirrors the wider West in many ways. And not just because it too has a habit of framing its parochial brand of Christianity as universal. It is relatively easy to point out the similarities between progressive forms of my tradition and wider Western culture. But even more conservative and traditional forms of my tradition, though they frequently like to portray themselves as ‘counter-cultural’ and wear this as a badge of authenticity, are counter-cultural more in theory than in practice. For instance, in the ongoing cultural debate around the fluidity of gender identities, counter-cultural Christians affirm traditional understandings of gender whilst failing to appreciate that their insistence on religion being a matter of personal choice with no tie to community or heritage in turn makes it possible to consider what else is a matter of personal choice alone.

In the arena of sexuality, ‘counter-cultural’ Christianities uphold traditional understandings of Christian marriage and prohibitions against pre-marital sex, while nonetheless embracing Western dating rituals which place the individual and romance at the centre of courtship. It is a ritual, like so many others in the West, which minimises responsibility while maximising the potential for pleasure and excitement. The goal of relationships within this context is not the procreation of children, who embody self-sacrifice and loss of freedom, but individual and romantic fulfilment. With marriage understood in this way, is it so unreasonable to extend the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples who, until recently, would not be able to bear children naturally? When ideologies believed and rituals practiced fail to intersect, confusion, uncertainty and frustration are a natural consequence.

Institutionally too, its most successful churches mirror its most successful corporations. Examples of ‘Starbucks Christianity’ are prevalent in my tradition. They are hip and modern ‘brands’ where individuality is encouraged through informal dress codes and the Christian spiritual journey is focussed on your individual choice to follow Jesus. ‘Free grace’ salvation – again an indigenously Western concept in its modern form – minimises the responsibility of believers to live lives of dedicated sacrificial devotion to their crucified Messiah, while enabling them to nonetheless reap the benefits of his saving work. Church can easily begin to function as a pleasant euphoric distraction from everyday life where you get your ‘hit’ for the week and learn some useful self-help tips before returning to the drudgery of life.

Now, I do not say all the above because I think these are examples of how my Christian evangelical tradition is somehow ‘corrupt’. I merely wish to state the obvious. The Church of the West is…well, Western. It is foolish to think that religion can be so easily separated from culture and vice versa. Of course, the relationship between religion and culture goes both ways. Many of the West’s most distinctive cultural features – its emphasis on equality, the primacy of individual choice, its suspicion of arbitrary authority, and its progressive metaphysics which sees human history as inexorably proceeding to a shining utopia – are fundamentally linked to its indigenous low church Protestant Christianity. Secularism itself is at its heart a fundamentally Western Christian concept born in significant part within the specific European context of the post-Reformation Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century. The Non-Religious cannot easily shed their place’s religion in much the same way that the Religious cannot loosen easily from their place’s culture. Only in recognising the contingent and embodied nature of our ideas do we firstly learn humility and secondly appreciate the importance of living out faith through ritual, culture and habit as opposed to simply believed ideas.

It was only when I’d lost my faith that I found it again precisely because I had no choice but to live it out.


To return to our story, three months after my atheistic epiphany, I turned up to start the new job that God had so clearly called me too. Of course, now whether there was such a ‘God’ who could call me to anything was very much in doubt. But I had turned up nonetheless because what else was I supposed to do. But hey, I was excited, despite my internal turmoil. The next year promised new, unique experiences. God might not exist, but the promise of an exciting, ego-boosting life still remained.

This excitement burst soon after arriving. Firstly, there was the bruised ego. Within minutes of arriving, it became apparent that I’d misunderstood that this ‘job’ was in fact an internship. An hour later, as a recent graduate of the world’s most highly ranked global university that year, I’d been given my first task: cleaning, sorting and inventorising the charity garage. The second job wasn’t much better: dusting the office. My first day, I sat blankly at an empty desk, made cups of tea, and typed a couple letters. Not riveting stuff. Secondly, there was the disappointment. Part of the undoubted appeal of the job had been the prospect of global travel. Yet within a couple days of arriving I was told it would be at least several months before I would be going on any trips despite several being scheduled during those first months. While my colleagues were away, I was told that my job would be to stay behind and manage the office, keep it clean, answer the phone when it rang, and respond to enquiries – that is, if they arose in the first place. This tied into the final issue. I was bored and lonely. My girlfriend and family were all a long plane or train ride away. We were based in the countryside, and I didn’t drive and had no friends living nearby. Due to caring responsibilities that came with the role, I also couldn’t go out in the evenings to socialise in the local area. I had one day off a week, but due to the remote location, travelling to see anyone took time. All I could think about during that first week was that the future looked very dull indeed. I’d applied to this internship because ‘God’ had called me to it. But 6 months and an atheistic epiphany later, I was wondering if I’d just thrown my life away because of some mental deception played by my subconscious mind.

Now, fast forward to the present, and I realise that a lot of what I was experiencing that first week was somewhat part and parcel of beginning any new starter role. When you arrive in a job, your new employers are often trying to get a feel for you and your capabilities, and they don’t always know what work to give you. More importantly than that, they are still learning to work out what level of responsibility they can trust you with. But that is now, and this was then. It’s not that I couldn’t see in that first week my usefulness for colleagues. The garage needed inventorising; the office needed cleaning; my caring duties were appreciated. But in such a bargain, I felt like I had very much drawn the short straw. Anger, envy and despair began to well up within me. Life was not supposed to turn out like this. This is not what attending Oxford University was supposed to lead to.

Yet, it was at this moment – where everything inside me was angry, upset and disappointed – when the thought came to me.

Who says the reason God called me here has anything to do with me?

Unlike the time I was a teenager pondering university or in my college chapel considering this work, this thought did not seem to come from God. If anything, it was an epiphany much like the one that had led me to the fringes of atheism. But nonetheless, it punctured the depths of my soul. Why did I assume that my life and God’s role in it was ultimately about me? Was God’s calling ultimately about me living my best life, doing great things and becoming a famous figure? What if God had indeed called me here despite there being no obvious career development pathways or opportunities for me to shine on the public stage? What if all there was in my calling was a charity that needed an intern, a family who needed a carer, and a garage that needed inventorising – nothing more? This thought made sense on such an existentially satisfying level that though my feelings of frustration and disappointment didn’t just go, they no longer held mastery over me. Something else had won the war inside my soul – who says my life is about me?

It might sound strange, but the more I reflect on this moment, the more I think this marked the return of my Christian faith. My brain still thought the existence of God to be the unlikelier of two possibilities and it would be at least another year before I felt I could call myself a Christian again with any real sense of integrity. But it was here, when life was not going my way, that the Christian – not the Western – part of my soul was once more awakened. The part wishing to model the Christ,

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.”[2]

The culture I had imbibed since moving back to the UK six years earlier was one infused by the West’s Individuality-Seeker ethic. Like many other Westerners, my own atheistic epiphany was foreshadowed by the internal conflict between my Christianity and this ethic. A year before the epiphany, I wrote in my journal, “The idea of doing something purely because God says so has lost convincing power over me. Wanting to obey God or even grant God any space in my life that takes away from my own autonomy has increasingly been a no-go area.” Submission – the act of placing your individuality aside in the embrace of another’s will – now came as unnaturally to me as it did to any other Westerner.

It was this individuality-seeking ethic which taught me to find life in new experiences, maximising my opportunities, seeking out excitement, minimising my responsibilities, and rebelling against anything that might seek to dampen my unique, individual authenticity. There’s no doubting that the convincing power of my individuality ethic grew over my time at university. Here, I lived at the heights of worldly privilege. University is a place that makes it easy to live a life centred around individuality. You are an unknown entity when you arrive with no past to your peers and therefore no expectations. You can make yourself whoever you want to be. If you want sporting glory, intellectual stimulation, sexual conquest, or popularity, you have an institution willing to spend millions to facilitate all these things for you. You have all the benefits of adulthood – the independence and the freedom – without most of the responsibilities. Aside from essay deadlines, it is an environment where little submission is required.

Perhaps if my loss of faith had happened at the start of university or even the middle, it might have lasted longer or even been permanent. But it happened at the end, not the beginning. Instead of finding myself in an individuality-enabling institution, I found myself in the opposite. My freedom was limited. My opportunity for excitement was practically zilch. And my need to submit was self-evident. Of course, I could have left, and perhaps I would have been within my rights to do so. But I stayed. And when I looked to my individuality-seeker ethic, all this brought was anxiety about my future, envy of my friends, and frustration at my colleagues. Only in looking upon the faith I had lost, the faith reminding me that “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it,”[3] did I find a modicum of peace, the strength to persevere, and the trust that it would all be ok.

My faith would have to be lived if it was to be believed again.

-The End-

Notes & References [1] Djik, Oleg, 2020, Church, Immigration and Pluralism, pg. 276, (unpublished manuscript) [2] Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV Translation) [3] Matthew 10:39 (NIV)

This is part 7 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.

Part 7 explores my reflection on the problems caused by thinking about religion as 'belief'. Through this, I came to realise that religion is not only a lot more unconscious than I previously appreciated, but also applies more than I realised to societies marked by irreligion. Discovering this helped me to realise that I wasn't losing my religion so much as finding another.

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 for her proofreading and critical feedback.

4,100 Words

Image by Ri_Ya on Pixabay.


Following many years living as a devout and sincere Christian, in June 2017 I had an atheistic epiphany leading to a profound, anguished ‘loss of faith’. Yet, though I seriously contemplated atheism for several months, what I instead fell into was an intellectually agnostic but pragmatically Christian Deism. The transcendent Prime Mover I believed in still wore Christian garb, but ‘God’ had become a spiritual reality so deep It was largely meaningless. There was lots of thinking about God but only a very meagre desire to listen and abide with Him. My atheistic epiphany had left my God a husk of His former self. He may still have been present, but it was a hollow presence, lacking in life and animation. If Shakespeare is right that all the world’s a stage, then God had left it some while back. The play had gone on without Him.

Yet, although I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I sensed that there was something unseen going on in all this. Was I merely losing my religion? Or was I simultaneously finding another? Had God left the stage, or had He been pushed out?


What is a religion? My instinctive response to this question for most of my life has been that it has something to do with belief. After all, religious questions always seem to begin with ‘do you believe in…?’ Much like I’ve already touched on, religious worldviews are framed in our language as belief-based, while non-religious worldviews are instead framed as fact- or scientific- based. The religious and non-religious alike (usually) accept the same facts, and so the main difference between them is the willingness of the religious to make an extra step to frame their life around an Entity that can only be believed and never proved (or disproved). The religious are willing to believe there is some sort of significant Ultimate Spiritual Reality that meaningfully exists and relates with the material world in the absence of hard and fast empirical proof of this Entity; the non-religious are not.

Since religiosity in the West must take this extra step of belief, it is the religious who must persuade the non-religious it is a step worth taking. It takes no great imagination on the part of a religious Westerner to understand where the non-religious are coming from. Even if they might think it an unattractive or meaningless way to live, they can usually see quite easily how the non-religious got there. When the tables are turned though, the non-religious either (if they have no religious background) find it difficult to understand how you come to make that extra step of belief – even when such a step seems attractive – or (if they have a religious background) they find religion a skin that is easily shed. The 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey found that non-religious affiliation in the UK grows primarily because of generational differences. While 94% of non-religious parents successfully transmit their irreligion to their children, Christian parents in the UK are only between 30-55% successful (depending on their denomination) in transmitting their Christianity to their children. This figure drops again in all cases by about half when only one of the parents is Christian.[1] Clearly, it is easier for the religious to stop believing and become non-religious in our society than it is for the non-religious to begin believing.

Do you believe in…?

So how has religion – or more specifically, Christianity[2] – lost so much ground in the West? How has it become so…unnecessary? The answer to this question I think lies in our very understanding of religion in the first place – that it is fundamentally about belief.

If all religious questions generally begin with ‘Do you believe in…?’ then the most common and perhaps most fundamental religious question in my Western English-speaking world is “Do you believe in God?” But this betrays several oddities:

1. Firstly, why do we assume that ‘God’ is the primary religious subject? Though this is the case with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is not the case in other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism.

2. Secondly, people who don’t believe in God might still answer ‘yes’ to a question like ‘are you spiritual?’ Given that the religious and non-religious may agree they have a spiritual nature, the next oddity is how and when did spirituality become divorced from religion?

3. Thirdly, it is odd because there is an obvious sense in which the main religious activity is not belief but ‘doing’. A religious person prays, gives alms, attends synagogue, recites Scripture, fasts, offers sacrifices, speaks vows, feeds the hungry, and more besides. So why do our questions assume that religion is underlined more by belief than doing?

4. Finally, and most subtly, if you are anything like me, you’ve probably assumed the question is directed at a single individual. But why should it? After all, can’t the same question be directed as much at a group of people as at a single individual? Religion is mostly a communal activity and most of the religious acts I previously listed are performed in groups. Why does it not occur to us then that people might therefore believe in groups as much as they perform religious rituals in groups?

The reason for all the above to me is quite clear. All talk of ‘religion’ in the West is understood in light of Western Christian Protestantism. While we portray ‘religion’ as a universal, global category, we are in fact fitting the world into a thoroughly Western Christian Protestant approach to religious life.

Re-Learning Religion

We frequently do not appreciate how much our language affects our view of the world. This is plain to me on quite a personal level. I spent nearly all my childhood in China. Every day I was interacting with Chinese people and surrounded by Chinese culture. I enjoy Chinese history, Chinese food and Chinese music. And yet, if you meet me in person, you will not think me the slightest bit Chinese. The main reason for this is simple – I do not speak Mandarin fluently and have never been immersed in Mandarin-speaking culture. When I spoke to my Chinese friends, I almost always spoke to them in English. When I ate Chinese food, I usually called it by its English name. When I read about Chinese history, I read it in English. When I watched TV, I watched Hollywood and BBC productions. When I read books, I read the classics and the not-so-classics of Western literature. When I did watch Chinese TV, it was always with English subtitles. I understood and appreciated Chinese culture and attitudes, but only like a scholar understands and appreciates their subject – at a distance. My everyday life in China was always enmeshed in English-speaking, not Mandarin-speaking, culture. Therefore, my many unconscious ticks, thought processes, and ways of appreciating the world are thoroughly English-speaking and Western, not Chinese.

It was only after my atheist epiphany that I began to recognise and understand this. I returned to the UK for high school and university, and throughout this period I was puzzled by how I had slipped relatively easily back into British society despite a lifetime up to that point largely outside of it. Then when I travelled to the Middle East on a couple occasions in 2018, I realised again just how culturally British I was and how a lifetime living as a foreigner in China didn’t mean I could simply slip comfortably into living as a foreigner in the Middle East. It was at this time that I was put in touch with a close friend of my parents. He was a Westerner who lived in China, but unlike me, he spoke fluent Chinese and had married into a mainland Chinese family. He’s written a great deal about his reflections and observations on mainland Chinese culture[3] and reading these was a revelation to me. Although I had witnessed much of what he said before, it was the first-time that I’d heard it all articulated in English. In particular, his writing articulated what was always in some sense obvious to me but never put into words – that Chinese think about religion (and Christianity) very differently from Westerners.

When Western-influenced English-speakers talk of ‘religion’, they are not speaking about it neutrally. Why do we assume ‘God’ is the primary religious subject, divorce religion from spirituality, think religion is primarily about belief, and assume religion is an individual pursuit? Because the reference point for all talk of ‘religion’ in the English language is the religion with the largest following historically in the English-speaking world – Christian Protestantism. Protestantism is not just the only religion that makes all the assumptions I have outlined, it is also the only form of Christianity that makes all these same assumptions too.[4] Assuming that religion in its totality is about belief is to misunderstand (to varying degrees) pretty much every religious tradition outside of Christian Protestantism.

Now of course all religions have beliefs, but when we make religion about belief, we naturally then start associating religion with the mind – the part of ourselves that thinks. But while belief is natural to all people, the ability to coherently think about it and articulate it is not. This is because we so often fail to appreciate the extent to which we are ‘embodied minds’.[5] Our minds do not exist in a vacuum. They belong to a body and spend most of their time seeing, listening, touching, feeling, moving, breathing and speaking – not thinking. Our minds also belong to this body, in this specific place, within this certain culture, and at this unique point in history. Most of us probably have few conscious memories before the age of around 6, and yet our experiences in these years will greatly shape us for the rest of our lives. We are constantly being shaped by our environments and the culture our embodied minds find themselves in.

What this means is that we believe and act out our beliefs long before we become conscious of why or what we believe (if we ever do). Take this very blog series! Everything I’m writing is an exercise in understanding my experiences after they’ve already happened. Our mind is much like a historian: our conscious thoughts explain the past much more frequently than they shape the future. Our religion then already encompasses us before we have learned to speak about its beliefs. It is shaped by the culture, biology, history, family and experiences our ‘embodied minds’ are born into. I went to church, was baptised, sang hymns and prayed to God long before I knew much about the beliefs that went along with these activities. Being able to consciously articulate our beliefs is then very often secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) to the primary religious focus: relating to that which is holy, sacred and worthy of reverence.[6] And our relationship with the Holy began before we ever knew what to say about it.

Though it is no easy thing to define the ‘Holy’, I think I can locate it. At its simplest, the Holy seems to me to be where our metaphysics and our ethics meet, where what is most fundamental about reality meets with how we ought to live. The two are inseparable. What is most fundamental about the world must be defined by what has the greatest bearing on how we should live, and how we should live cannot be answered without knowing what is most fundamental. For instance, in Taoism, Tao is fundamental to the cosmos, and Taoist ethics are all about achieving harmony with Tao in daily life. However, remove the belief in Tao as fundamental, and certain of the ethics – like not intervening in life’s events even when you have the ability to make a difference – will no longer make sense (at least to Western readers). Meanwhile those ethics that continue to make sense will only do so because they work within whatever new sense of the fundamental you now possess. Though ethics often overlap across religious traditions, it is a mistake to think this makes all religions ultimately the same. Ethics depend on the Fundamental, and the Fundamental frequently differs.

A Religious, Not Irreligious, West

If religion goes much deeper that what we consciously believe, and if religion centres on how we relate to the Holy, then what does this mean for religion in the West? I have watched several debates between Christians and Atheists where at some point the Christian tries to get the Atheist to admit that atheism is a belief. The Atheist almost always vehemently denies this, quite rightly emphasising that all their atheism indicates is the absence of belief in a God. In one such mini debate between Ricky Gervais (atheist) and Stephen Colbert (Catholic Christian), Stephen tries to do this, and Ricky replies, “Atheism is only rejecting the claim that there is a God. Atheism isn’t a belief system…This is atheism in a nutshell. You say, ‘There’s a God.’ I say, ‘Can you prove that?’ You say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe you then.’”

And Ricky is absolutely right – technically speaking. To pit Christianity and Atheism against each other is to pit two different categories. Christianity is a religion that tells us both what the Holy is and how we can relate to the Holy. Atheism merely rules out any God or gods as being the Holy, and nothing more.

But there is a sense in which Stephen is also right. Later in the debate, Ricky says:

“If we take something like any fiction and any holy book…and destroyed it, in 1,000 years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1000 years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would yield the same result…I don’t need faith in science.”

Its beautifully put. But unfortunately, though science – and the naturalistic universe it perhaps suggests – might be the bedrock of Ricky’s atheism, it tells us nothing about what gives Ricky meaning. And it is clear that the ‘irreligious’ West attaches meaning to a great deal many things beyond science’s reach – racial equality; individual, bodily and sexual autonomy; human rights; the abolition of suffering; and the progress of humanity to name a few. And just like any ‘fiction or holy book’, if you were to wipe Western civilisation off the face of the Earth, in 1,000 years’ time there is little chance future humans would have these same values.

Atheism then might be value-neutral, but atheists in the West are not. In Becoming Atheist, an oral history of modern unbelief, author Callum Brown interviews eighty-five adult atheists across eighteen countries. Across all interviewees he uncovers a common ethical code. First is the Golden Rule to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Secondly, he finds a set of principles about the fundamental importance of human equality and bodily and sexual autonomy. He categorises these beliefs as ‘Humanism’ and though few of the interviewees initially described their ethical code that way, they happily embraced the term when offered it.

The point, as Brown observes, is that:

“Without exception…they were ‘humanists’ before they discovered the term. Humanism was neither a philosophy nor an ideology that they had learned or read about and then adopted. There was no act of conversion, no training or induction... A humanist condition precedes being a self-conscious humanist.”[7]

Prof Alec Ryrie, commenting on Brown’s eighty-five humanists, notes:

“Those of them who had grown up in religious settings had embraced this ethic before they’d broken with their religion. And when the breaking point did come it was often either because of a conflict between their religious and humanist ethics, or because their humanist ethics made their religion seem redundant. The implication is that, in the West since the mid-twentieth century, growing numbers of once-religious people have adopted an ethic which was independent of their religion, and which was in some tension with it: so they either drifted away from or consciously rejected their religion.”[8]

This cuts to the heart of the matter. If, as Christianity has declined in the West, Brown’s ‘humanism’ has been the broad uniting ethic and belief system that has taken its place, then it has done so without anyone ever choosing it. Embodied minds born in the West found a culture and an environment that meant they believed in this ethic long before they ever became conscious that they did. Beliefs that are common and never chosen easily disguise themselves as self-evident facts of life. Perhaps this is why Brown suggests further research may show that “reason alone may construct humanism” as if the creation of humanist values were like Ricky’s scientific experiment whose results could be repeated in a lab. Instead, as Prof. Alec Ryrie observes, “the fact that those ethical values appear intuitively obvious to Callum Brown, as indeed they do to me, is not an answer. It is in fact the problem.”[9]

So where does this humanist ethic come from? Well, God or gods may not be holy to most Westerners, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing Holy in an atheist culture. Though I need to give this further thought, if the Holy is located where metaphysics meets ethics, then my gut sense is that in the West it is Individuality which is Holy. In a world without God or gods; where nothing beyond the material interacts meaningfully with the world; where death is the end of being; and where our very lives are the result of miniscule, incredible chance; in such a world where there is no purpose beyond or outside ourselves, then what is most Fundamental is the purpose that we ourselves make. But how do we know what purpose to make?

This is where Individuality comes in. Individuality is Fundamental, the essence of who we are at our deepest level. And who we are determines what we want. So naturally our passions and desires flow from this source. To find our Individuality then, we must discover our passions and desires. But we can only discover these if we are at liberty to do so. Our passions and desires require a river to flow through, and this ‘river’ is carved out by our freely made choices. Only when we make free choices are we reliably acting from Individuality, this place of who we truly are. When we are not free to make our own choices, we become cut off from our true self. Our spiritual quest then is to keep our river flowing, to maintain our freedom of choice and prevent anything outside of ourselves restricting us. Like when you mix corn starch with water, our Individuality has its greatest substance when it is in motion through our free expression. When it becomes static and its river becomes dammed, our Individuality dribbles into nothingness. Only by unashamedly living out our passions and desires do we fulfil who we truly are.

Individuality’s spiritual drive was quite simply expressed in a fitness podcast I recently overheard my wife listening to. The podcast host was sharing about how a near-fatal car accident had led her to make fitness – and helping others become fit – the purpose of her life. Towards the end, she said:

Because I loved fitness so much and I was following my passion that passion ended up saving my life… You have to go out and live. It’s not about being afraid. You shouldn’t be afraid about getting into a car accident…You should be afraid about not following your passions and not finding out what your purpose is on this planet because there’s nothing to be gained by that…You’re going to end up being in the best possible position for your life if you chase what you’re passionate about and if you live your life to the fullest and you’re out there doing it, and you’re doing it the best that you can.”[10]

If you live in the West, I’m sure you will have heard someone say something similar before now. And when you look, the reverence of Individuality is all around us. In the past, the politics of Medieval Christendom affirmed God as the basis of all political authority through rituals like church coronation ceremonies. So today, political authority is also legitimised through rituals, though now it is done through regular elections which act as real but mostly symbolic expressions of Individuality.

In our economies, advertisements daily preach Individuality’s fulfilment through our consumerist choice. The marketplace always ensures we have a range of option on offer, and online shopping and door-to-door deliveries means our choices bear minimal sacrifice. Commercial services which do not come with ‘free trials’ or allow you to ‘cancel at any time’ require too much of us and do not last long.

In romantic culture, our movies and songs celebrate and mythologise the beginning ‘sparks’ where passionate fulfilment of desire reaches its peak. Meanwhile, marriage-rates continue to decline as people become wary of formally and ritually limiting their Individuality.

Demographically, the young and fertile increasingly put off or don’t want to have children for fear it will constrict their lives at their point of greatest freedom. Meanwhile, the elderly live in fear of becoming a ‘burden’ on the freedom of the young. Increasingly, their care shifts from the responsibility of family, whose sacrifice is considered a ‘burden’ as it comes from obligation, to the responsibility of paid workers, whose sacrifice is at least compensated by the earning of money which expands their consumerist choice.

We talk of ‘technological progress’, but progressing where? If anywhere, it seems mostly to be towards the fulfilment of ever more and newer desires and the removal of what restrictions and inconveniences remain for the Individual in daily life.

Finally, in the area of ethics, Individuality does not have to mean we become self-absorbed and selfish. It can (and has) become a powerful, altruistic moral force. Whether we fight for gay marriage, stand up against racial injustice, promote trans rights, lobby for pro-choice legislation, argue for drug legalisation, make the case for euthanasia, campaign to welcome refugees, proclaim open borders, or tear down barriers women face in the workplace, we are on a spiritual mission to expand everyone’s capacity to freely choose. Mission complete, we will have ‘liberated’ the Individuality of all those who remain oppressed by forces outside themselves. Salvation requires we must all be free to attain the Holy and realise our true selves.

There are many other observations that could be made about all this. The point for me that the West is not losing religion, it has found another. This religion has a metaphysics. It has an ethic. And as such, it has a sense of the Holy. Whether Individuality as I have put it best describes what is Holy in the West is by all means up for debate. What though is beyond doubt to me is that the Holy lives on in the secular, irreligious West. Western society might be divided between those who live as though there is a God and those who do not, but both God-fearers and Individuality-seekers are inspired by a sense of the Holy, a sense which consciously or not fills them with purpose.

Concluding Remarks

Using terms like ‘reverence’ and ‘holy’ to describe Western Humanism may perhaps seem unfair. After all, these are not necessarily words that a Humanist, with their often-anti-religious convictions, would like to associate with their worldview. But I hope that rather than pigeon-holing atheistic humanism into ‘religion’, I have instead helped us unlearn and so re-imagine religion in a way that Christians as well as Humanists in the West can sympathise and agree. And of course, the picture in the West is much more complicated than a world easily divided into God-fearers and Individuality-seekers.

Like all other Westerners, the Humanistic ethic and reverence for Individuality is embedded deep within me. Growing up, I was always a God-fearer and an Individuality-Seeker. Much like Prof. Ryrie describes, part of my loss of faith was the conflict between both these parts of my being. A sense that obedience and allegiance to God – of Whom I could no longer be certain – was keeping me from living my life to its truest and most fulfilling potential. Yet, I couldn’t escape the feeling that deciding to live my life to its fullest wasn’t quite natural. A childhood in China might not have made me Chinese, but it made me enough of a foreigner in my own culture to arouse my suspicions. The path I was being led down was not value-neutral, and if I was to keep walking towards Individuality, I wanted to do so with my eyes open.

--The End--

Notes & References

[1] Curtice, John et al., British Social Attitudes 36, The National Centre for Social Research, pg. 21-22 (Available at:

[2] Non-Christian faiths in the UK do not see the same trends. 93% of those brought up as a Muslim still identify as a Muslim – only 1 percentage point less than the non-religious. Indeed, only 1 in 10 of those brought up in a non-Christian faith in the UK will no longer identify with that faith into adulthood. Given that Christianity is the only large indigenous faith and main historical religion, this suggests the trends affecting Christians may be primarily historic-cultural in nature as religions that have primarily come in due to immigration over the last 100 years aren’t affected in the same way.

[3] Boyd, Will, China Mirror: Seeing the Chinese as They See Themselves, © August 2019, William Joseph Boyd, II. (Available at:

[4] 1. All Abrahamic religions, Christianity included, base their religious thought around the subject of God; Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists (and atheists) do not. 2. Christian Protestants traditionally place greater importance on adhering to established dogma or articles of faith than they do on religious experience and spirituality. Thus spirituality (or an experience of the divine), though a part of Protestant practice, is not necessary for salvation. 3. Christian Protestants also believe that salvation is primarily attained through faith, and in practice this is expressed through believing in the articles of Protestant faith in the absence of certain proof. What you do matters far less then than what you believe (differentiating it from other Christianities and most other religions). 4. Finally, Christian Protestants make the individual the primary subject of salvation. Salvation is not mediated through any communal body like the Church. Only an individual can determine their own salvation. On top of this, an individual can only be saved when they exercise their free choice to become saved. It is not enough to be born in the faith. Each Protestant must enter the ‘veil of ignorance’ and then choose to believe and be saved.

[5] Dik, Oleg, 2020, Church, Immigration and Pluralism, pg. 11, (unpublished manuscript)

[6] Britannica, ‘Religion’, Available at:

[7] Brown, Callum, Becoming Atheist, as quoted in Prof Alec Ryrie’s lecture, ‘Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God’ a Lecture series by Gresham College. Available at:

[8] Prof Alec Ryrie’s lecture, ‘Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God’ a Lecture series by Gresham College. Available at:

[9] Brown, Callum, Becoming Atheist,

[10] Street Parking Podcast, ‘My Fitness Saved my Life | More Than Nothing’, 19-22min, Available at:

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