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5,900 words

This is part 6 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 6 explores the spirituality of my childhood and early adult years. It looks at some of its key characteristics, and why these gradually became undermined, leading to my loss of faith. It then re-joins my story a few months after my atheistic epiphany, exploring the new spirituality I attempted to cultivate.

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 critical feedback and proofreading support.

Image by Bertsz on Pixabay


“Concepts like God may or may not be true; but what do you do when a concept takes on flesh? This is why I find my spirituality in the Christian narrative rather than that of any other religion. To me, God-made-flesh provides the best explanation for why there would be a God whose voice I have heard, whose actions I have seen, and of whose transformative power my life is a testament. There you have it. As crazy, dumfounding, and odd as it might sound, I believe I have a personal relationship with God, one where I have heard Him speak to me and I speak to Him.”

-Excerpt from my testimony written for the 2016 Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union ‘Everything in Colour’ Mission Week website, approximately a year and half before my Folly Bridge atheist epiphany.

After much reflection while writing this next part of my series, it has come to my attention that I have given insufficient attention to an important part of my story thus far. In Part 2 of this series, Paradigm Shift, I briefly stated that one other but less important reason for my loss of faith was “my increasing uncertainty regarding whether all the ‘God-moments’ in my life were ‘real’ or simply nice coincidences I picked out of my life to convince myself of a story-line of God working in me.” My recent reflection is that this understates the significance of this uncertainty around ‘God experiences’ in my loss of faith, and as such, I think it worth looking at in greater detail.


Some of you might have already worked this out from previous blogs in this series, but I grew up largely within the Evangelical Christian tradition. For those unfamiliar with it, Evangelicalism is a broad tradition spanning many groups and countries, so I will not attempt to explain it all to you here. Indeed, it has many nuances and a diversity of branches within it. But my particular branch was Charismatic Evangelicalism, a branch that places particular emphasis on religious experience.

For the rest of this blog, I will refer to Charismatic Evangelicalism as ‘the tradition’ or indeed ‘my tradition’. My reasons are twofold. Firstly, because Evangelicalism has an incorrect tendency to think of itself as ‘Christianity’ in its totality, rather than a tradition within it. Secondly, because, due to the influence American politics has on the English-speaking world, in recent years the term ‘Evangelical’ has picked up a lot of negative press in mainstream Western media. So to reduce the possibility of any readers from outside Evangelicalism making subconscious judgements about it and its members, I will stick from now on to simply calling it by what it is – a (religious) tradition.

Now with this aside, we can now move on with the rest of the blog!


I think there are two words which are very telling about the tradition I grew up in. The two words are testimony and relationship. Your testimony in effect is the story of how you became a Christian. It comes out of verses like Acts 1:8[1] and I Peter 3:15[2] that encourage Christians to be a ‘witness’ to others of their faith. Given that the only other time I hear the word ‘testimony’ used is in the context of a witness before a court of law, I suspect this is how the word came to prominence in the tradition’s lingo. But like any witness, a Christian who gives their ‘testimony’ is on trial. In my own Western context, you are on trial before a largely unbelieving secular world,[3] and you are bearing witness to the fact that there is a God who doesn’t just exist, but Who is also an active presence in the lives of His followers. As with any witness, your testimony is open to questioning, and no doubt there will be inconsistencies and irregularities in your story. Yet, it is hoped that in bearing witness to the invisible God in your life, you can persuade the secular jury that maybe there is more to life than just what we can see.

For Christians of my tradition, religious experience is thus essential. For unless you have an experiential encounter with God, what are you a witness to that your secular brethren have not also seen? There is no new ‘evidence’ to bring before the jury to sway their judgement. And it is this fact which breeds an interesting paradox of both insecurity and fervency in these Christians’ lives, something I’ve experienced first-hand.

You see, genuine religious experience isn’t really the sort of thing that can be summoned on command. Inevitably then, there will be people in the congregation who, despite faithfully praying and reading their Bibles all their lives, may never have had such an experience or at least haven’t had one for some time. Given how they are constantly being told that God wants to ‘meet with them’, it isn’t hard to see how over time, this can breed insecurity. Have they not had an experience because of a lack of faith, holiness or heartfelt devotion?

Moreover, most people are wise enough to recognise that it isn’t very hard to generate the appearance of a religious experience. With the right music, lighting, atmosphere and words, our emotions can be manipulated into all kinds of psychological states. Given then that the tradition’s worship services tend to be quite emotive with varying degrees of mood lighting, compelling music and convicting words, how much can you actually trust your experiences of God in a worship setting? For myself, I have many memories of being in worship services where I began to ‘feel something’, only to then be unsure how to respond as I wondered whether this was actually ‘God’ or just the well-harmonised chords of the worship band. Now, religious experiences by no means only happen in the context of a worship service – none of my most significant religious experiences have ever occurred in this setting. Yet, given this is the weekly (sometimes bi-weekly) context in which you come before God, you might begin to wonder how much of your faith rests on hype.

This insecurity dilemma is particularly prominent amongst the non-converted Christians. Those who, like me, were raised in the faith. These people find themselves in a tricky situation since they have never required a dramatic encounter with God in order to discover Him. He was always just there in the pews on Sunday. Since it is a brutal fact of sociology that they have never NOT seen God, their witness before the secular jury is hardly likely to be considered helpful or credible. Their testimony is biased and can’t be trusted. After all, they would say there was a God. For sociological Christians like me then, your faith can very often feel second-rate. It is boring, predictable and unimpressive. Your testimony is just not exciting or convincing.

Fortunately for the non-converted Christians, there is a way out. This brings us to our second significant word – “relationship”. This is the conviction that the life of faith is not one of adherence to a set of religious practices or beliefs but is rather a dynamic relationship with God. Faith isn’t a stale, duty-bound religious observance. Quite the opposite. Faith means interacting daily with the very Creator of the universe! It involves speaking, listening, blessing and being blessed in return. It is a divine romance, and though as in all relationships there might be low points, together you walk hand-in-hand with God through the many and varied adventures of life. “Relationship not religion” is the slogan of this tradition, and this is how Christians like me escape their dilemma. Their faith-story becomes one of proving that they are not a ‘cultural Christian’ born of sociology and habit. Rather, as with the converted, they too are those who have discovered and entered into a relationship with the exciting, dynamic God of the universe. It is for this reason that whenever I used to tell my testimony as a teenager, it never began with my birth to Christian parents. Rather it began when aged eleven, I made the conscious decision at a Christian boys camp to be an ‘everyday Christian’ rather than a ‘Sunday Christian’. My testimony began when I turned away from ritualistic, Sunday church-going Christianity and instead embraced a relationship with God that encompassed all of my life.

This is why alongside the potential for insecurity, this Christian tradition encourages fervency on a level largely unseen in most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise. When there is a deep religious desire to experience God beyond repeated rituals and so transform the mundane every day into a daily adventure full of dynamic divine possibility, it isn’t surprising that followers often appear unusually ‘enthusiastic’ to outside observers. Like many others, I devoted significant amounts of my time to religious practices. But outside of these practices, I also would actively put myself in uncomfortable situations so my reliance on God would no longer just be theoretical. One way this manifested in my life as an introverted, self-conscious teenager was when I felt God tell me to set myself a rule to start a conversation with whichever stranger I happened to sit next to on the public bus. After all, how could God use me to bless others if I wasn’t even willing to make the space for God to use me? The rule terrified me, but I trusted God that He’d see me ok through it all. And He did. I even made one of my best friends in high school because of this rule! All that to say, my tradition taught me that real faith requires a willingness to leap. Given this, it isn’t hard to see why the tradition is an active, fervent one, always encouraging its members to take leaps of faith to see God move in their own and other people’s lives.

At the start of this blog, I quoted a testimony I wrote myself halfway through university that makes this point about ‘testimony’ and ‘relationship’ clear. I had no shortage of God experiences to call on from my early teenage years onwards to validate my faith and attest to this divine relationship down the years. My loss of faith then was not because of a lack of meaningful encounters with the Divine. Rather, it was because I began to wonder whether they meant anything at all.


A couple months before I wrote that testimony, an Atheist friend challenged me on the notion that my Christian religious experience alone was enough to base my life on Christianity. After all he said, religious experience is common to all religions and so the fact that I had ‘Christian’ experiences didn’t prove that my religion was any truer than any others. I countered by pointing out that, although the religious content of divine encounters frequently differs, that they are common to all people in all times and spaces strongly suggests there is a Divine Reality they are pointing to. I can’t remember where the conversation went after this, but that night, I went home and I wrote out my thoughts. As I wrote, it struck me that even if my ‘God experiences’ could prove ‘God’, they couldn’t prove my Christian faith. In a weird twist, the conversation with my Atheist friend strengthened my belief in God but undermined my religion. My experiences might point to the existence of God (or some ‘deep spiritual reality’), but what could I actually say definitively about this God based on my experiences? After all, if I had been born a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu, wouldn’t I have just framed the same experiences within the language and conceptual frameworks of that faith?[4] Considering the variety of religious experiences and the equally diverse array of philosophies and belief systems they have inspired, what could any of it actually say about God? Was God or – more crucially for my Christian faith – Jesus really seeking a relationship with me and the rest of humanity or was I deluding myself?

This was an unsettling thought. It also occurred around the same time I read God is Not Great by the late Christopher Hitchens. This had been leant me by another Atheist friend, and though for the most part the book was the relatively usual and familiar Atheist polemic against religious belief, there was one point he made which I hadn’t considered before. He accused the religious mind of solipsism. I hadn’t come across the word before, so I looked it up. In philosophy, solipsism is the belief that only the self exists (or can be proved to exist). In everyday speech then, to be ‘solipsistic’ is to be extremely preoccupied with and indulgent of your own feelings, desires and experiences. Essentially then, Hitchens argued that the religious person saw God acting in their lives because they wanted to see God acting in their lives. A more familiar way of expressing this would be the idea of confirmation bias. We notice and remember those experiences and events that ‘confirm’ our already held convictions and ignore those that don’t. From this argument then, religious experience is primarily the result of an overactive imagination, one that is quick to notice patterns and coincidences and obsessed with finding some sort of meaningful pattern in what is in actual fact just a random series of events. In the words of the Atheist psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, “We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures who have had the misfortune of being thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning.”[5]

Unsettled though I was by these challenges, I determined to face them head on. I would do all in my power to discover whether my ‘God experiences’ were simply delusional. Was there something going on beyond just a random series of events which I attributed a story and a meaning to? Even if there was, did my tradition provide the best explanation for what was really going on?

One of the first things I did was to put my ability to ‘hear God’ to the test. The main way I generally heard God was by opening a book (often but not always a Bible) and randomly pointing at a point on a page. Often the words I randomly pointed to spoke directly to the question, situation or difficulty I faced at the time. However, I knew that there had been plenty of times the words I’d pointed to weren’t meaningful to me in the slightest. What I didn’t know was how frequently they were meaningful compared to when they weren’t. So I determined to ‘scientifically’ calculate the ratio of how many times this practice generated a ‘positive result’ (i.e. the words spoke clearly to me) and how many times it generated a ‘negative result’ (i.e. the words didn’t speak to me). To limit any tendency I might have to make the words ‘fit’ my situation, anything which didn’t immediately seem to speak to my situation but also didn’t seem to be simply meaningless would be marked as ‘ambiguous’. In this way, I hoped to figure out if it was more likely that God was genuinely speaking to me through this or whether I was just repeating an exercise of random chance until the laws of probability meant I finally got an answer that fitted.

To give you an example of what a clear positive result looked like, I once was praying about whether or not to run an event at my college when I received this sense that God wanted to speak to me. Without looking, I took a random book, opened it and pointed my finger. It rested directly on the phrase “You shall not”. I was at once excited to have received such a clear answer but also annoyed because I had thought the event was a great idea! I prayed again asking why, pointed randomly to another page, and found my finger resting on a quote from I Corinthians 1:27 (it happened to be a book by C.S. Lewis) which stated: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” I was put in my place, and I dropped my plans to run the event.

This experiment was hardly fool proof nor without its flaws. Nevertheless, over the next 9-12 months, I did this on 17 occasions, and 29% of the time, the passage that I pointed to yielded a clear positive result like in the above story. Moreover, this ratio rose to 41% if I also included those results I marked as ‘ambiguous positives’. Given the steps I had taken to remove the possibility of ‘false positives’ from my results, I was genuinely surprised that nearly 1 in 3 results came back as clear positives. I might be a pattern-seeking creature, but these results seemed too promising for me to concede that’s all it was.

Other experiences also suggested to me that Hitchen’s critique was a bit too reductionist. While on a family holiday in Scotland, I was without a notebook to write my prayers during my daily morning devotional time (I found writing my prayers helped keep me awake in the early mornings!). I had finished my previous notebook just before the holiday, and I had decided to wait until after the holiday to buy a new one. In truth, aside from laziness, this was also because I wanted a bit of a break from God due to all this internal wrestling about whether I could actually ‘experience’ God. Anyway, while on holiday my dad signed us up to a ceilidh (a Scottish country dance). This was a merry affair attended by roughly seventy people or so. As part of the evening’s entertainment, there was a raffle and my mum bought each member of the family some tickets. Now, call me solipsistic, but I NEVER win anything at raffles. Yet, when it came to draw the raffle prizes, they announced the first prize was a small white notebook – exactly the same size and sort of notebook I would buy for my prayers. At that moment, I had this profoundly strong sensation followed by a penetrating thought in my head which said, “Your ticket is going to win this prize.” The shock of the sensation sent me into a weird haze as I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. Half-a-minute later, they had pulled the winning ticket, and sure enough, it was mine, but I wasn’t surprised in the slightest. This experience was profound because at a time in my life where I was confused about God, here He was reminding me that He was still there and wanted that relationship with me.

And yet…though there were experiences like these that were meaningful, there were others too which were just confusing and odd. I was part of a homeless outreach group at university, and one Friday night we met three homeless guys. We were having an amicable conversation when the topic turned to religion. One guy in particular, let’s call him ‘Jack’, started getting very heated as he started exclaiming “religion is the cause of all wars!” and the like. Seeing the conversation was taking a bad turn, I tried to change the subject, but a mini debate ensued. Suddenly I felt a very strong prompting which I felt came from God that I should pray for Jack. So I just said to him, “tell you what, let’s do a bet, and I’ll pray for you and we’ll see what happens and whether God meets with you?” I then asked him if there was anything he wanted me to pray for, and he said jokingly, “Pray that I’ll have a can of beer!” Not quite knowing what else to do, I prayed for him to get a can of beer among other things and asked him if he felt anything. He replied, “No.” So I prayed for him again, and again said he felt nothing. Yet this time he was quieter and more subdued than before. Suddenly, he just got up and walked off. I felt mortified and assumed I must have offended him, but my group carried on chatting to his mates. About a couple minutes passed, when suddenly a hand grabbed my shoulder! I mildly freaked thinking I was about to be attacked by Jack! To my shock, he then enthusiastically shouted, “It worked!” and in his hand, there was a can of beer. He then hurriedly explained that the guy in the shop had given it to him for free on credit, and that “He never does that!”

In a way, this experience with Jack was really cool. This was the sort of dramatic answer to prayer you felt like only happened in books by other people in other places. Although not exactly someone coming back from the dead, I’d never seen such an immediate response to prayer in an everyday setting. However, then again, with my homeless outreach team leader hat on, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted that my first immediate answer to prayer was for alcohol for a man on the streets…Moreover, what had this dramatic ‘answer to prayer’ actually achieved? Jack was still on the streets, and as far I know, getting a beer can on credit was the closest he ever got to God as a result of my prayer. I never met him again after that day, so I don’t know what’s happened with his life since. The cynic in me though suspects that our meeting made little difference to his life for good or ill.

And this is where the problem lay. All these experiences gave me that short-term sense that I was in this ‘relationship’ with God that resulted in unexpected and marvellous things happening in real time before my eyes. However, I couldn’t help but feel this quest for experience was increasingly missing the mark. What did Jack’s ‘God experience’ actually achieve? In a similar vein, the prayer book I ‘received from God’ was all very well and useful, but that’s all it ended up being. It didn’t prevent me finding myself in an even more confusing place with God a year later and losing my faith, even if only for a while. Similarly, when I prayed about running the event at my college, I got a clear no from God – yay, cool story! – but that term came and went and I ended up running nothing. Why had God said no? Well, I couldn’t tell you.

It wasn’t that I had become convinced of Hitchen’s solipsism argument. Important though the argument is for preventing people spiritualising everything that happens to them, I didn’t feel I could reduce all my experiences – nor all religious experience in general – to simply an unhealthily self-centric imagination. That was to throw the baby out with the bathwater. As such, my belief in spirituality had not been shaken. Yet, my belief that I could work out what any of it actually meant had cracked. Why did God grant prayers for cans of beer, but not answer prayers to lift my friend’s depression? It was also around this time that my belief in the Bible’s particular ‘exceptionality’ began to diminish. With my testimony in confusion, the Bible’s exceptionality was the only other pillar I had on which to ground the Christian substance behind my spirituality. With both these now crumbling, it seemed to me that God might exist but increasingly there was little I could actually say or know about Him.

My tradition emphasised the ‘spiritual’ solution to life’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, it is hardly one of those more extreme Christian fringe movements that rejects any solution to life’s problems considered ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’. I was never told I couldn’t see a doctor if I was sick or raise funds by doing a charity bake sale. Yet, I think subconsciously it is fair to say there was always this sense that “wouldn’t it be so much cooler if God solved this rather than the world!” As much as my tradition appreciates the gifts of modernity, only ‘God solutions’ like prayer or miracles give us ammunition which we can use to validate our Christian beliefs to our secular contemporaries. Yet, this spiritualising of life into ‘God moments’ and ‘everything else’ was increasingly dissatisfactory to me. Surely God was big enough to encompass the entirety of life, mundane and dramatic?

A couple months before my Folly Bridge Atheist epiphany, if I was honest with myself, except for ‘God’ Itself, everything metaphysical about Christianity was firmly in doubt. Increasingly unable to cling onto doctrinal certainties, I fastened my grip on ethical certainties instead. At the start of 2017, I was inspired by a phrase, “Simple Love, Simple Faith.” I decided this was to be my mantra for the rest of my time at university because after so long internally questioning my religion, I wanted to stop overthinking and instead focus on living it out in my life. After all, that was what it all was ultimately about. I wanted to help others and be kind to those around me without thinking too hard about whether I was being patronising, self-righteous or inconsistent. I wanted to pray for others and be willing to take risks for God without considering the philosophical inconsistencies of an interventionist God or worry that I was being solipsistic. As the months went by though, while I could usually manage to do the first, I found the simple faith more and more impossible. I knew things were bad when near the end of the university year, as a student leader in my church, a fellow student came up for prayer. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know how to pray. I just couldn’t make sense of what I was actually doing by ‘praying’. The words stuck in my throat for what felt like an age. Finally, I managed to regurgitate some prayerful sounding words and hoped I’d come across appropriately sincere. The path for my loss of faith was laid.


“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

-St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 A.D.)

“The tension between…the content of our traditions about God and the silence of our final incomprehension, is not something to be overcome but to be lived with, for it frees us from the conceit that we can, in the end, grasp the ultimate in a thought or a word.”

-James Byrne [6]

Several months and an atheistic epiphany later, I began to slowly trudge down a new type of spirituality. The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible has long held a special place in my heart. During one of my most profound and foundational God experiences aged fourteen, it was reading Ecclesiastes that helped me to give up my ambition to live my life how I thought best. Instead, I determined to give it to God and trust him instead with my future. Reading the first line of the book, it is perhaps unsurprising it had this affect. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” or “Vanity of vanities!” is a common English translation of its opening – not the sort of words that fill one with determined worldly ambition! The actual Hebrew word being translated though is in fact הֶבֶל (hebel) which literally means “breath” or “vapour”. Rather than necessarily being an indication of ‘meaninglessness’ then, the Canadian Old Testament theologian, R.B.Y Scott, argued that the word הֶבֶל (hebel) rather connotes something that is at once visible and recognizable but simultaneously unsubstantial, momentary and profitless.[7] This theme recurs elsewhere in the Bible including in the Book of James, another personal favourite book of mine. What is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”[8] As a reflection on human life then, הֶבֶל (hebel) for me holds together an important paradox. Like the air we breathe, life should never be taken for granted. Yet, life is also to be held lightly without undue pretensions of inappropriate significance.

Some people find Ecclesiastes view of life depressing. I, however, have always found it rather heartening. No more so had this been the case than now when the story I’d always believed about my relationship with God no longer made sense to me. Ecclesiastes does not shy away from the ways in which life does not always play to our religious understandings. “There is something else meaningless [ הֶבֶל (hebel)] that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.”[9] My religious paradigm may have matured a bit from the expectation that ‘good things will happen to good people’, but I had my own unmet expectations about how faith and God was supposed to work. Indeed, the expectations of my childhood tradition had ended up taking me to a wilderness, a place where God and the meaning behind it all might exist but only in the Shadows, as a Whisper. In this land of Shadows, only the spirituality of Ecclesiastes – a spirituality that accepted the inconsistencies and paradoxes of faith and life – gave me a foothold to rest, however precariously.

It was in this place that I first discovered the quote by St. Gregory of Nyssa. It moved me greatly and gave me hope. After all, the rug of my conceptual frameworks about God had most certainly been pulled from under me. But Gregory highlighted the danger of concepts, the danger that we might begin to mistake our ideas about God for the incomprehensible wonder of God Himself. To avoid this danger, St. Gregory taught the way of silence (the ‘apophatic way’ as it is known in theology). It is in abiding with and silently beholding the Deity that we begin to perceive His wonder.

However, the teachers of the apophatic way like Gregory, never intended it to be the only path trod. Gregory’s brother and fellow teacher of the apophatic way, St. Basil of Caesarea, said about God, “I do know that He exists, but what His substance is I consider beyond understanding. How then am I saved? Through faith. And it is faith enough to know that God is, not what He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”[10] They recognised that the path of silence must be guided by the voice of faith. To use an analogy given by Basil himself, it is a true paradox to say that we at once know and do not know ourselves. So it is with God. The content of our traditions thus need not be thrown away simply because it does not enable us to say we know what God is. Uncertainty must and can be held alongside certainty. Though this causes tension, it is a tension to be embraced rather than overcome.

Unfortunately, I had lost trust in my tradition and was not sure it had anything to say to me at all. But I soon found out that when you try to tread the apophatic path without a guide, it soon becomes unclear whether there is any road at all. Ecclesiastes aside, my religion was lost and confused and my lights had all been put out. Thus, although I knew the path was a good one, I soon found myself aimless on the road. For instance, this hunger for the God of wonder led me to begin to fast weekly for a period and set aside large chunks of time in which to silently contemplate God. But if silence alone wasn’t a hard enough spiritual discipline to begin with (one dreadfully unsuited to the immediacy of modern life), I also found that I had simultaneously stopped caring if I got anywhere with God let alone ‘met’ with Him. After all, emotive encounters, profound words, prophetic pictures – these had defined my previous spirituality. But this was the spirituality that had let me down. It had proven unreliable and I was wary to open up the door to it once more.

If I was honest with myself, I lacked the tenacity and the care to really engage with this new spirituality of silence. Yet, in lacking this, I began to realise there were certain benefits to making a pretence of it. After all, it had few demands. Indeed, Ecclesiastes frequently commends the simple enjoyment of life, for “there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”[11] After a lifetime of being encouraged by my faith tradition to take risks, there was no longer a voice telling me to do anything. I did not have to make myself uncomfortable if I did not really wish to (and let’s face it, we rarely wish to). Even more than this, if I chose to neglect this God of silence, He wasn’t going to tell me off for it. This God of silence was there for me when I needed Him; but He could be just as easily be cast aside when I didn’t – and I found myself increasingly doing so.


When I first decided to write this ‘There and Back Again’ series, I thought this chapter would mark the return journey – the start of my coming back from ‘There’. After all, Part 2 was all about my epiphany that, after a lifetime of Christian faith, I might be an Atheist – a pretty obvious ‘There’ you’d think. Since Parts 4 and 5 were all about why I didn’t actually become an Atheist, it seems relatively self-evident that my ‘return journey’ must have been beginning. Yet, after writing and re-writing this chapter several times, I now realise that this is the episode that truly defines the ‘There’ I got to.

The fact is, I never found myself fully immersed in the waters of Atheism even if I did paddle in the shallows for several months. Although a close call, I did not lose my belief in God. What I did lose, however, was my trust in my religion, or to be more specific, I lost my sense that Christianity – with its Scriptures, rituals and beliefs – was ‘true’ anymore so than any other belief system out there. There might be meaning to be had about God and the universe, but I was certainly in no position to grasp it.

In practice then, it was the embrace of Agnostic Deism that marked the ‘There’ of my journey. I was once more secure in the understanding that there was a ‘God’ out there, but unsure really what exactly to think or feel about said Deity. The only thing left with tangible meaning was the good that I did myself. Indeed, though I would never have thought this at the time, in many ways I had become a true child of the Secular Age. The morality and deep yearning for a transformed world that my tradition had given me clung on within, but the metaphysical aspects of Christianity – the dogma and the religion – well perhaps that wasn’t actually needed? If God was silent, perhaps it was best just to get on with the job of living well? In many ways then, my ideal religion was not too different from that of the great religious critic, Voltaire (1694-1778). After all, “Would it not be that which taught much morality and very little dogma? That which tended to make men just without making them absurd…Which taught only the worship of one god, justice, tolerance and humanity?”[12]

Not unlike many today in the West I think, ‘God’ had become an anchor for my Uncertainty. A word to be used to convey the spiritual depth of life which I knew to be around me but about which I really had very little to say. A Depth to which I could cling, maybe occasionally even pray to, but always a Shadow, a Whisper. This was a God to which I owed no allegiance and certainly no obedience which might override my own personal judgement. Discovering the God of silence was in many ways a salvation, particularly for a soul like mine, hurt, confused and scared as I was. But it also became an excuse. For if God is silent, then why must I listen?

Notes and References

1. Acts 1:8 (NIV) “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

2. I Peter 3:15b (NIV): “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

3. Evangelicalism has just as many members outside the Western context as within it, but since this series focusses on my personal story, we will focus on the Western context it took place within.

4. The psychology of religious experience is complicated, and there are certainly instances of people of one religious tradition or none having a religious experience of a different religious tradition. Nabeel Qureshi (late author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus) and Sadhu Sundar Singh are examples of a Muslim and Sikh respectively who both had Christian religious experiences leading to their conversion to Christianity (though both had exposure to Christianity before these experiences). Though these two examples are ones with which I am particularly familiar, there are a diverse array of other examples, including of Christians having religious experiences of other faiths and converting to that faith as a result. However, although religious experience is much more complex than just people having experiences of their own traditions, this complexity in many ways only makes it harder to make an argument from religious experience in favour of any one religion or tradition.

5. Irvin D. Yalom, The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, Harper Perennial, 2003 (first published December 24th 2001). Quote URL: click here

6. James Byrne, God: Thoughts in an Age of Uncertainty, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2006, pg. 60

7. Scott, R.B.Y. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Anchor Bible vol. 18., 2nd edn., Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY. 1965

8. James 4:14 (NIV)

9. Ecclesiastes 8:14 (NIV)

10. Basil of Caesarea, Epistulae; Saint Basile, Lettres, ed. Y. Courtonne, vols. 1–3, Paris 1957–1966; Saint Basil, The Letters, ed. R.J. Deferrari, vols. 1–4, London, New York 1926–1934.

In Tomasz Stępień and Karolina Kochańczyk-Bonińska, Unknown God, Known in His Activities: Incomprehensibility of God during the Trinitarian Controversy of the 4th Century, Series: ‘European Studies in Theology, Philosophy and History of Religions’, Peter Lang, Berlin, 2018 pg. 200. URL:

11. Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NIV)

12. Voltaire as quoted in Karen Armstrong, The History of God, Vintage Publishing, 1999, pg. 364

1,300 Words


There are many who assume that History is the same as the Past. It is an honest mistake, after all History is certainly about the Past. But History is primarily our memory of the Past. While all peoples, events and happenings are noted by the Past, History, like all who reminisce, likes to play favourites. Not only is His memory not always consistent and coherent, but He has a tendency to pick and choose between what He does remember. Ultimately, He only mentions you if He thinks you’re relevant to what He wants to say and feel (and yes, History has for the most part been a He). Thus, it should come as no surprise that the recently revived debate on statues has very little to do with the Past but everything to do with History. After all, statues too play favourites and lock memories of the Past in the Present

As such, you can certainly see the point made by the anti-statue movements of today. I was studying at Oxford when Rhodes Must Fall began and swept the city. Though much about the debate was controversial, intransigent and the fascination of endless newspaper columns, what was never in doubt was that Sir Cecil Rhodes was a deplorable man who nonetheless adorned the façade of Oriel College. How could such a thing be? Well, the people he was deplorable to were thousands of miles away but the people he threw money at were much nearer and much more privileged. So he got a statue – History would remember his generosity and benefaction; his villainy and savagery would be kept in the Past.

Step in the Present.

Rhodes Must Fall has never been about rewriting the Past, merely remembering it differently. Likewise the numerous Confederate statues and flags being taken down across the USA currently will not change anything about the Civil War and slavery of the Past, but their removal will send a message to the Present – those who are racist will no longer be favourites. And so yesterday it was announced that Rhodes is indeed coming down. In terms of what this will do to combat racist attitudes in the UK, USA and elsewhere, I imagine it will do very little. If anything, it will probably strengthen the sense of victimisation and unfairness felt by the ‘anti-political correctness’ mob much like the statue’s presence strengthened the sense of victimisation and unfairness of the 'progressive lobby'. But in terms of what it will do to boost the morale of this 'progressive lobby' in the UK…this could be their Bastille moment.

Because they serve as the people’s memory, History and statues have never been apolitical. Memory always serves a function – to find something that was lost, to remind you of an important lesson, to rekindle an old friendship, to stir up ill-feeling towards an old enemy. Conservatives glorify the past because if the past is so glorious, why do we need to change? Just so Progressives wish ever to demonise the past as nothing shouts change more than the need for repentance. To change the people’s memory is to change the people’s politics, and THIS is why Rhodes Must Fall – indeed, why all progressive social justice movements – cause controversy. Changing how we remember the Past does nothing to change the Past but everything to change the Present.

So how should we remember?

Many who know me well will know how much I love history. Those who know me well will also know that when debates on history arise, I am often the first to throw a spanner in the works. Whatever historical tale you wish to tell – whether one of glory or tragedy – I will always seek to find the exception to your story. More than one person has said to me how they find this ‘Devil’s Advocating’ a tiresome exercise, one designed merely to annoy and show off the breadth of my historical knowledge. Perhaps there is some truth in that. Yet, I know that deep down it is because after spending a lifetime poring over history books, the main thing I have learned from the Past is neither bitterness nor conceit but empathy.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, to recognise that were you to look at life from another’s perspective, you might find yourself more like them than you care to think. Distance makes it easier both to despise and to idolise, and it is not without wisdom the old anonymous proverb says, “my enemy is the person whose story I have not heard.” When I read about slavery, why should I assume I would have been Abraham Lincoln rather than Jefferson Davis? Why do I assume I would be Olaudah Equiano rather than Jacobus Capitein?[1] Our lives are lived as social creatures, and we are easily swayed by the opinions of those around us. If History teaches us anything, it is that that could have been us. That is not an excuse for the villainies of history, and, if anything, it should serve as a wake-up call to our own moral integrity. For instance, if I give generously to charity but give no thought to where I invest my capital beyond where it will make a good turnover, am I very different to Edward Colston whose statue was so recently thrown in a river? Empathy does not mean I should leave the world as it is, but it also means we should not be so quick to judge our fellow humanity. Perhaps the Apostle Paul was onto something when he said: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[2] Or to put it another way in a paraphrase of Dostoevsky: people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.[3] And we could have been those people.

My way of telling history is as disingenuous about the Past as any other because the Past is no more always grey than it is always black and white. But History was never about the Past, and by emphasising the Past’s greyness, perhaps my History might encourage a little more empathy and a little less Conservative dismissiveness and Progressive anger. In a world where our politics is more polarised than it has been in at least my living memory, I don’t consider that a bad thing.

So to bring it back to statues. As a young boy, I remember reading avidly about the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and like any horror movie, the worse it got the more I read. But one day, I read a story of hope for a change: I read about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Slave Revolt. I read in awe as this former slave navigated the complicated political and military waters of the Revolt, eventually winning freedom for the slaves (while simultaneously fighting off the French, Spanish and British) and attempting to build a society where all three ‘colours’ – Blacks, Mulattos and Whites – could live together. Toussaint was not a saint, and there is much about his life that is problematic. But if we are to have statues, then I’d like to see more of people like him.


[1] Abraham Lincoln was the American and Union President who won the Civil War and emancipated all slaves in America.

Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederacy in the Civil War and fought to maintain slavery.

Olaudah Equiano was an 18th century African man and former slave who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. He’s considered one of the most significant people in the British abolition movement.

Jacobus Capitein was an 18th century African man and former slave. He was one of the first Africans to attend a European university and is remembered for writing a thesis in defence of slavery.

[2] Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV)

[3] The actual quote is: “It was not you who ate the idea, but the idea that ate you (Dostoyevsky, Pevear and Volokhonsky, 1995)

2,600 Words

This is part 5 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series is intended to tell you my story from the last few years of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in same way as before.

The previous blog in this series (Part 4) ended by stating that if it hadn’t been for Western Christianity’s spiritual quest for certainty and fact, then Atheism might never have been born. Part 5 is all about exploring this close relationship between modern Western Atheism and Western Christianity.

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.

(Credit to Eleanor Vivian and Miki Kwek for their proof-reading and critical feedback)


“The more I thought about the material world and the whole of nature, as far as we can be aware of it through our bodily senses, and the more I took stock of the various theories, the more I began to think that the opinions of the majority of the philosophers were most likely to be true. So, treating everything as a matter of doubt, as the Academics are generally supposed to do, and hovering between one doctrine and another, I made up my mind at least to leave the Manichees*.”

-St. Augustine[1]

History has always been a great passion of mine, though it is I think a subject that is very much misunderstood. Unlike what most people think, although history is rooted in the past, the past is not its chief object of study. If it was, we would be frequently disappointed. It is a sad fact of history that there are countless civilisations, peoples and events which we will never hear about or learn anything from. They have returned to dust, and no one thought to leave anything behind. Moreover, even for the myriad of civilisations, peoples and events that we do know about, often what we claim to know is based on educated guesswork, attempts to put together jigsaws with missing pieces, and trust in the laws of probability. Even recent events are shadowed in doubt and possibility – why else are the events of 1948 in Israel and Palestine so hotly debated to this day? Though history can tell us about the past, its memory is often hazy. The point I’m essentially making is that that though we can certainly learn about the past through history, we can’t know as much about the past as we might like.

So how are we to understand history? That, perhaps, is a topic saved in its fullness for a future blog, but I will give you an early spoiler. One of most important ways to understand history is that it exists to tells us who we are. History is very often an exercise in identity-creation, laying the roots of the identities we occupy in the present. By showing where we came from, history helps us to come to terms with who we are now and even to some extent where we are going. Legend and myth bear similar identity-shaping functions, and so it is no surprise that it is often tricky to separate history from the two. Essentially, in a significant way history is the art of telling the relevant past – those bits of the past that interplay with who we are in the present.

In terms of this series then, there is one event of the relevant past whose story is worth telling. Through this event, we catch a glimpse of how two identities emerged at once so different but so similar. We see how the West found itself with a Christian Theism that in many ways became a very ‘Christian’ Atheism. Both identities shared the same foundation, they just chose to walk different paths. The story is ultimately one of how the West came to value certainty over belief, and unless we know it, we won’t get the chance to decide whether it is something with which we truly agree.


“For modern Western atheism is chiefly a Christian heresy and could not have arisen in a non-Christian setting.”[2]

-David Bentley-Hart

The Heresy that Destroyed Christendom

That Western Christianity created modern Atheism shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise. After all, it is only in the West that Atheism is truly organic and indigenous in substance. Indeed, other Atheisms exist most famously in the Communist and post-Communist Atheisms of China and the former Soviet bloc. However, there is a difference in that in both cases their Atheism’s were at least in part imported from Karl Marx’s Western world and in both the relaxation of totalitarian control over religion has revealed a remarkable religious resurgence. However, no such resurgence is expected in the West. The difference? Only the West had the Protestant Reformation.[3]

The legacy of the Protestant Reformation is far too complex to be summarised in one simple blog post, but for my purposes here, suffice it to say that alongside forming the foundations for transformational belief in many people, it also laid the foundations for transformational unbelief. Truly, the Protestant Reformers were the first deconstructionists and they were merciless. For much of the previous 1,000 years, the Roman Church had held sway over the hearts and minds of the people of European Christendom. However, as the Reformation broke across Western and Central Europe, nothing in this long-standing tradition was secure. Long-standing Christian practices like pilgrimage, the sacraments and purgatory were ridiculed as ‘superstitious’. The Church and the religion it promoted was lambasted as corrupt, evil, manipulative and deceitful. Finally, the eternal Church was stripped of its perceived ‘illegitimate’ authority; authority was instead given to the individual, for it was up to each, without the mediation of any Church, to work out their salvation as they interpreted it from the Bible.

The intellectual conflicts of the Reformation are characterised by Prof. Alec Ryrie as a ‘Battle for Credulity’.[4] The Protestants labelled the Catholics as ‘credulous’ – willing to believe in anything including superstition. The Catholics responded in turn by labelling the Protestants as ‘incredulous’ – being stubbornly unwilling to believe and accept the limits of their reason. Prof. Ryrie points out that nothing demonstrates this more than the debate over the doctrine of transubstantiation. This Catholic doctrine states that during the Eucharistic Mass, the bread and wine offered to the faithful becomes the literal essence of the body and blood of Jesus. Moreover, the whole point of the doctrine is that there is no empirical change in the bread and wine; the change in essence must be accepted in faith for it is beyond reason. Like many today, the idea that you should believe this purely on faith in the face of reason and empirical evidence was deemed laughable by the first Protestants. This didn’t mean Catholics didn’t have sophisticated philosophical arguments that called on reason in defence of the doctrine, but rarely did Protestants feel a need to respond philosophically in kind. The doctrine was so laughable that it deserved nothing more than derision in their minds, and why waste brain cells when one impious joke about how Christ must feel every time his faithful go to the toilet says all that is required? In the face of this derision and incredulity, despairing Catholics, frustrated by their opponents incredulity, prophesied that “once you have put into their [the common people’s] hands the foolhardiness of despising and criticising opinions…they soon cast all the rest of their beliefs into similar uncertainty.”[5]

Unfortunately for Protestants, within two hundred years they discovered that the prophecy was true. For all their smug derision of Catholic credulity, it didn’t take long for people to identify Protestantism’s own credulousness. If Protestants refused to accept the authority of the Roman Church, why then did they so readily accept the Bible as the inspired word of God? If the Bible was all that was required for authority, why then had so many Protestant churches arisen, each stating their interpretation of Scripture as true? Weren’t Protestants then just as ‘superstitious’ and irrational as their Catholic rivals? So the West began to realise that the same arguments spoken in great piety by Protestants against the Roman Church could also be spoken with great impiety against God Himself. Just a century after the Reformation, English philosopher, Henry More, bemoaned that in this environment “the Tempter would take advantage where he may, to carry men captive out of one dark prison into another, out of Superstition into Atheism itself…Being emboldened by the tottering and falling of what they took for Religion before, they will gladly…conclude that there is as well no God as no Religion.”[6]

A ‘Rational’ Religion

“Instead of seeing the idea of God as a symbol of a reality that had no existence in the usual sense of the word and which could only be discovered by the imaginative disciplines of prayer and contemplation, it was increasingly assumed that God was simply a fact of life like any other.”

-Karen Armstrong[7]

So it was in the 17th century as both Catholic and Protestant credulity was being made plain that a lifeline seemed to be thrown from the exciting new discoveries of the Scientific Revolution. Desperate to prove that their faith was not as superstitious, irrational and faith-based as their rival, West European Protestants and Catholics turned to reason and science to prove theirs as the ‘natural’ religion.

Likewise, many Christians today, desperate to gain credibility for the faith in the face of the secularist onslaught, are eager to point out that many of the first scientists and Enlightenment thinkers were Christians. Indeed, this is true. However, it should be noted that for many of these men, their intellectual pursuits were inextricably linked to their desire to vindicate Christianity as a ‘rational’ religion. Two Christians integral to the Scientific Revolution, a Catholic and a Protestant, demonstrate this well.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was wracked by philosophical scepticism in his early life, and so made it his life’s philosophical mission to determine what he could truly know. His hugely influential scientific and philosophical work Discourse on the Method was written to propose his method for true epistemology. In the book, he embraces radical scepticism and proposes a new method for thought based on mathematical and geometric reductionism by which he can therefore determine universal truths. Moreover, as a devout Catholic writing a book rejecting anything that can be doubted and emphasising a method for determining universal truth, it is no surprise that the fourth part of the book is given over to showing through his method that the existence of God can be proved. Descartes’s religion was one that could be proved; he was not satisfied with belief.

Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) meanwhile was also a devout Christian, though this time a Protestant, and like Descartes, he was keen to rid Christianity of mystery and superstition. While most famous for his scientific writings, Newton was also a theologian and in The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, he argued that the original true religion of ‘loving God and our neighbour’ had been founded by Noah, not Moses. This religion was free of superstition and advocated rational worship of the one God. In this rational, pure religion, Jesus was a prophet along with others like the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, but like the others he was not himself God. For if it is a nonsense to claim that bread and wine can be simultaneously Jesus’s literal body and blood, then so it is also a nonsense to claim that anyone could be both fully God and fully man at once. In a similar way, the God of this pure religion could not be a Trinity – another irrational doctrine lacking in logical rigour. Meanwhile, regarding his ground-breaking scientific works, Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion and universal gravitation showed for him the foresight and handiwork of the masterful Creator of the Universe. It made sense that rationality being the guiding light of humanity should be the handiwork of a God who was Himself Rational.

The lives of both men show how, in the aftermath of the Reformation, both Protestants and Catholics were keen to vindicate their religion as rational and factual. Unfortunately, this trajectory would prove problematic for Christian faith in the West. Although future generations were greatly influenced by the scepticism and quest for certainty outlined in Descartes’s Discourses on the Method, they were less than convinced by the Theistic arguments he presented. Indeed, it could be argued that Descartes’s ultimate legacy was in shifting Western philosophical debate from the question of “what is true?” to the question “of what can I be certain?”. This shift would prove disastrous for immaterial faiths in the coming centuries defined by empiricism. Meanwhile, in making a mechanical understanding of the doctrine of Creation crucial to the conception of God, Newton had unintentionally made it possible to have a worldview without God. For if God is just an extension of the natural, physical order – ‘fact like any other’[8] to kickstart the Universe Machine – then ‘God’ becomes just one potential solution to an equation amongst others. As the 18th century philosopher, Denis Diderot, exclaimed, “Whether God exists or does not exist, He has come to rank among the most sublime and useless truths.”

The post-Reformation baggage of Western Christianity was that it’s theologians and believers became gripped by both a desire to prove that God ‘existed’ like all other things in the physical universe and a fear that they would be charged with superstition. Neither this desire nor fear has yet to leave Western Christianity. It is witnessed every time Christians seek to pass the Bible off as a scientific textbook, describe the Gospels as ‘eyewitness’ accounts which can be trusted beyond any doubt, and present their belief in God as purely the result of reasoned argument and logical deduction. If Atheism seeks to pass off its beliefs as factual certainties, it is only because they are newly arrived players to a game Western Christendom began. The unfortunate thing being that though Christendom made the rules, the Atheists discovered they could play it better.


This game is something I realised I didn’t want to play. In Part 2, I wrote how the false certainties of my Christian belief – that the Bible was unquestionably the inspired Word of God, that the afterlife was assured, and that the Christian life would be the best way for me to live – had been exposed; in Part 4, I wrote how the false certainties of my temporary Atheist unbelief – that all that exists is matter and that there is no afterlife – had also been unmasked. I now realised that both required belief but neither could provide easy answers. So rather than choose to play the game and pick a side, I decided it was better to leave the game altogether. If there was truth to be discovered, it would require a step into uncertainty, and a willingness on my part to forgo self-assurance. A pragmatic Agnosticism if you will much like that described by St. Augustine at the start.

Nevertheless, I did find myself ever so slowly beginning to be drawn back towards faith or at least a vague, quiet assertion that there likely was something more than the material. Partly this was emotional. Having been a minority, renegade religious person within a secularist ocean – in both China and the UK – for all my life meant that to continue drawing to Atheism was in some way to admit defeat. It meant accepting that the majority had been right all along; and my British underdog stubbornness would not allow that without more of a fight. Moreover, there was still the fear of fully losing the faith that had defined my life up to that point, and Agnosticism seemed a less sharp break. However, it was also because if Western Christianity had unconsciously walked into seeking to prove itself as a factual certainty, at least it hadn’t been born from that. Unfortunately, Western Atheism, being born as it was in the Age of Science, lacked an ‘atheology’ of uncertainty. There were no Atheistic dark nights of the soul I could relate to or draw on to help me through my greyness. To find this, I realised I would need to look beyond the particular Western Protestant Christian tradition I grew up with as well as the Atheism it had set itself apart from. I would need to learn ‘God’ afresh, as That Which I Could Not Know.


*Manichees were followers of Manicheanism, a gnostic religion that once spanned from Rome to China. You can learn more about it here:


  1. St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, circa, 397 A.D., Translated from Latin by R.S. Pine-Coffin, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961

  2. David Bentley Hart, No Enduring City in ‘Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016

  3. Alec Ryrie, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, London: William Collins, 2019

  4. Prof. Alec Ryrie, Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics in ‘The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018. URL:

  5. Michel de Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond circa. 1580 in ‘Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics – The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018

  6. Henry More, An Antidote Against Atheism, circa. 1653, in ‘Lecture 2: How the Reformation Trained Us to be Sceptics – The Origins of Atheism, a Gresham College Lecture Series’, 2018

  7. Karen Armstrong, The History of God, Vintage Publishing, 1999

  8. Ibid.

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