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4,700 Words

This is part 4 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.

Part 4 looks at my reflections on Atheism as I found myself without my faith. In so doing, this blog will touch on the relationship between Atheism and Belief in the West and ask the question: how did Atheism in the West become the default?

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

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

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


“From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching. The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved…I thought that the Church was entirely honest in this and far less pretentious than the Manichees*, who laughed at people who took things on faith, made rash promises of scientific knowledge, and then put forward a whole system of preposterous inventions which they expected their followers to believe on trust because they could not be proved.”

-St. Augustine[1]

I’ve reached the part in my story where my faith is lost. My Christianity continues to exist but only in pretence, heartfelt but nevertheless lost. My mind is in a spin. What am I to think now? Who am I to become? A world of possibility lies before me. Do I forget religion and try to move on with my life? Do I go the whole hog and embrace Atheism? Or do I continue in greyness, sure of nothing but my uncertainty?

It was time for me to consider Atheism. I’d obviously considered the ship of Atheism many times before but that was when I was a sailor with a ship of my own, not now as I was, shipwrecked and thrashing in the water. Lost as I was, I wanted to be found, and this seemed like the obvious default. My very Folly Bridge epiphany had been “I think I’m an Atheist now” and as Part 2 describes, losing my faith had been in part due to coming to believe that the Atheistic view of the afterlife – that there was none – was indeed most likely. However, the more I thought, read, and reflected, the more I sensed that there wasn’t something entirely honest about the way Atheism as it stands in the West was being presented to me. Somewhat like Augustine with Manichaeism, though perhaps less effusively, I began to realise that if I was looking to Atheism to re-establish my certainty about the world, I was mistaken.


What do you need to believe to be an atheist? It’s a thought-provoking question for the simple fact that we’re not used to associating the word belief with atheistic schools of thought. And why should we? After all, the whole mythos surrounding contemporary atheism is that it came to replace belief. As the dawn sun of the Enlightenment cast the light rays of the scientific revolution over a world darkened by centuries of religion, science with its accompanying empiricism, as the story goes, replaced ancient dusty texts – with their talking donkeys, angelic encounters, and strange laws – as our source of knowledge. The old religious ‘certainties’ were revealed for the superstitions they were and could finally be put to bed. Humanity was finally free to realise they didn’t need to invent any God(s) for their morality, happiness, metaphysics or meaning.

The myth is eminently charming and indeed surprisingly unquestioned by contemporary sceptics given how old atheistic schools of thought actually are. Indeed, many of the theories, beliefs and values emanating from Atheists since the Enlightenment can actually be traced back millennia. In the West, Epicurus in the late 4th century BC was a Greek philosopher who was inspired by the philosophical materialism of the 5th century BC Greek thinkers, Leucippus and Democritus. He endorsed their view that the universe was made entirely of tiny atoms and void, and from this, he argued that philosophical hedonism – the avoidance of pain and the seeking of pleasure (sometimes translated as tranquillity) – was the best way to live. He was also one of the earliest philosophers we know of to raise the Problem of Evil – if the gods are good, why is there so much suffering? Though he wasn’t actually an atheist in the strictest sense – he did believe the gods existed – Epicurus believed religion was fundamentally wrong. This was twofold: firstly because events in the natural world are explained by the movement of atoms and not the intervention of gods (who do not intervene), and secondly because the fear of divine punishment leads many people to needlessly live in fear rather than happiness.[2] Thus, Epicurus was what the 17th century essayist, Thomas Fuller, would have described as a ‘practical atheist’: not someone who ‘thinks there is no God’ but someone who ‘thinks not there is a God’ (think about that one for a minute). Indeed, the reflective among us today might recognise how the influence of Epicurus continues in the fact that if either is dying in the West, it is not God but religion – the practical manifestation of God in daily life.

However, before even Epicurus, Leucippus or Democritus, as early as perhaps the 7th century BC philosophers of Carvaka – an ancient Indian school of thought also known as ‘Lokoyata’ – had said many of the same things. Like with Epicureanism, most of their early texts have been lost to history, but with the help of quotations given in the texts of the philosophical writings of their rivals, we can piece together their thoughts. For instance, the 14th century AD scholar, Madhavacarya, recounts in the Sarvadarshansamgraha (the ‘Collection of All Philosophies’) how the name ‘Lokoyata’ signified their belief that only the material world – the ‘loka’ – exists.[3] Indeed, they believed the only ‘Heaven’ that existed was in this life on this planet and was a state where a man could live as he chose, free from the control of another (conversely ‘Hell’ was to live subject to another’s control). They also held that there was no afterlife, and that sense perception was the only source of knowledge. Like with Epicureanism, the ethical focus of Carvaka was fundamentally centred on enjoying this life while it lasts; as one saying went: “While life remains, let a man live happily; nothing is beyond death.” Finally, Carvaka taught its followers to hold religion – with its beliefs in reincarnation, karma and rituals – in suspicion, as it was nothing more than a fraudulent system devised by cunning priests to ensure their livelihood.[4]

Clearly then key elements of contemporary Atheism – philosophical materialism, disbelief in any sense of afterlife, suspicion of religious practice, and tendency for its ethics to centre on achieving happiness in this life – have long been in circulation. So why the secrecy? Well, that’s not entirely fair of me; after all, according to the Humanists UK’s website, it is common for the Epicurean refrain, “I was not; I have been; I am not; I do not mind” to be spoken at humanist funerals. Clearly then, there are Atheistic Humanists today who rightly embrace their long and sophisticated tradition. Nevertheless, there appears – to me at least – to be a general reluctance amongst the areligious West to embrace its pre-Enlightenment forerunners. No doubt this in part due to the unfortunate historical circumstance that, as I pointed out earlier, many of these ancient texts have not survived in their original form to the present day. Furthermore, I suspect that the deeply embedded cultural myth of Progress that also came in the Enlightenment has made us moderns unwilling to recognise how little ‘progress’ there has actually been in our views about the world. However, ultimately, I think that this present amnesia is mostly because a phenomenon that prides itself on abolishing Belief does not like to dwell on times when its central axioms and tenets were exposed for what they really were – beliefs. For there is nothing factual regarding Atheism’s preeminent metaphysical claims that all that exists is material reality and that death is the end of ‘life’ in any real sense of the word. They are beliefs, and like all good beliefs, they have faded in and out of popularity in various guises over the centuries and millennia.

Now, please note that something can still be true without being factual. So please do not mistake my statements for disparagement; to state as fact that Atheistic premises are beliefs is neither to commend nor to disparage – it is simply to state what is. Those premises may be true; they may be false. But that material reality is all that exists can no more be a fact than that there is more to reality than the material.

Yet, I have heard and read many bright minds over the years speak of philosophical materialism (often known as ‘naturalism’) – the belief that only matter exists – as though it were fact. Always the reason for this is the same: science shows it to be so. And thus we discover how the West mistook its beliefs for facts. It is science, or rather a misunderstanding of science, that is to blame.

The Epistemological Revolution

“Perception indeed is the means of right knowledge. Since the means of right knowledge is to be non-secondary, it is difficult to ascertain an object by means of inference. There is no means of knowledge for determining the other world.”


The quote above is by Brihaspati, the legendary founder of the Carvaka school, and lays out in simple terms the school’s epistemology. Now, for those unfamiliar with the word, epistemology comes from the Greek word episteme which simply means ‘knowledge’, and epistemology is simply the philosophical study of how we know what we know. Like the vast majority of Atheistic philosophers that would come after, Brihaspati rooted his epistemology in empiricism, which simply means we can only know those things which we can perceive through our senses. Moreover, as you can also see from the quote, Brihaspati argued that inference – meaning ‘to make a conclusion based on reasoning or evidence’ – was a problematic source of knowledge. Later Carvaka thinkers explained what Brihaspati meant with the help of a parable. The story goes like this:

There once was a husband and wife. The husband was a materialist while the wife was a devout believer in the teachings of Brahman. The husband, frustrated that he could not convince his wife by argument of the falsity of her beliefs, came up with a ploy. When no one was watching, he went to the village crossroads and used his fingers to make markings in the dust mimicking the footprint of a wolf. When the marks were discovered, the local scholars agreed there must be a wolf. The husband then triumphantly told his wife to consider carefully the case of the Wolf’s Footprint.

The moral of the story is thus be wary of supposed ‘knowledge’ derived from inference. Yet, the story can be a little bit misleading. After all, it does seem perfectly reasonable for the local scholars, given their empirical knowledge that there are wolves in the area, to assume that the wolf print means there really is a wolf in the village! Indeed, Carvaka’s scepticism regarding inference was reserved solely for the supernatural, and the school was willing to accept that inferences drawn from empirical experience were valid. As one Carvaka verse reads, “Who will deny the validity of inference when one infers fire from smoke” – essentially, since at some earlier time we have observed for ourselves that fire produces smoke, when we see smoke it is reasonable to say we ‘know’ there is fire. Rather, Carvaka’s suspicion of inference was applied to those who inferred from sense-perception things which we could never hope to verify with those same senses – the supernatural. In Carvaka, to infer from the world of sense-perception something that is beyond our senses’ ability to detect is a gross error, whether that be an immortal soul, a life after death, or God(s). Indeed, the primary point of the Parable of the Wolf’s Footprint is that it is the ‘local scholars’, who represent the Brahmanical priests of Classical India, who are to blame for passing off their otherworldly inferences as truth. They convince the local people that they should let their lives be directed by a ‘truth’ which they can in fact only dubiously infer, and thus their misleading promises leave people squandering their lives on meaningless ritual and superstition when they could in fact just focus on enjoying their life here and now.

It’s a persuasive argument and has much to credit it. Why live your life as if there is a God or gods when you can never know – in an empirical sense – that they exist? Considering the tendency religions have to demand a substantial amount of commitment from their followers, it seems fair to suggest that too much is demanded for the sake of something we cannot empirically know. Indeed, as an example of this, look no further than the approximately 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide currently fasting for Ramadan. True religion demands your life and will not be undersold. Meanwhile, irreligiosity demands nothing.

However, Carvaka, along with Epicureanism, both ultimately failed to make significant headway in either of their respective regions. Though they both enjoyed historically brief periods of popularity and continued to occasionally pick up admirers and followers down the centuries, neither anywhere ever came to dominate the philosophical mainstream on a large scale, that is until comparatively recently. It is beyond the scope of this blog to look into the reasons why, but suffice it to say that for the most part the mainstream of philosophy in either region didn’t ever come to fully buy either their metaphysics – naturalism – or their epistemology – empiricism; that is, in the West at least, until the advent of ‘Science’.

‘Science’ is one of those terms that everyone thinks they know the meaning of until they really start thinking about it. However, it seems fair to say that in the general modern consciousness the primary characteristic people associate with ‘science’ or the ‘scientific method’ is that it is empirical. William Whewell, an early writer on the history of science in the 19th century, described the Scientific Revolution as “the transition from an implicit trust in the internal powers of man’s mind to a professed dependence upon external observation”.[5] Knowledge was no longer looked for primarily in abstract, conceptual argument, but was rather sought ‘out there’ through the observation of the physical world.

After the Scientific Revolution, empiricism finally claimed the epistemological heart of Western philosophy. Indeed, the scientific method became so firmly rooted in our epistemological consciousness that by the 19th century, it had completely rebranded. What we now call ‘science’ had always been known up until this point as ‘natural philosophy’. Prior to the 19th century, the word ‘science’, coming as it did from the Latin root scientia (meaning simply ‘knowledge’), had always been used as a synonym for knowledge or study. Yet, times had changed, and the Method which had uncovered so much in the natural world that was previously hidden, became equated with knowledge – scientia – in its totality. Why language and words change is a complex business, but for my part, I suspect that to label as mere ‘philosophy’ that which was shining such light on our enormous universe seemed an injustice to those who increasingly relied on science for their certainty and knowledge.

Thus, it was in this environment that the marriage between Atheism and Science took place. In the Western philosophical tradition, only the practical Atheism of Epicurean indifference to the god(s) had previously been possible. Yet now, the astonishing accumulation of discoveries from the Scientific Revolution onwards enabled us to doubt whether God was even required at all for our universe to function. Theoretical Atheism had finally become possible in the West. Indeed, the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 was the cherry on the cake as even the last great mystery of human life had been explained. The puzzle of the universe and existence was now solved and God was not needed for the equation. Thus, Religion became the primitive precursor to Science – the attempt of premodern humanity to try to explain the mysteries of the natural world. This superstition could now be discarded; Science, not God, explained the universe.

It was in this atmosphere that the notorious War of Science and Religion was born in the Western world. Yet this apparent War has always been a cover for something much deeper. Place two prodigious minds (or even two fairly average minds) in a debating chamber to discuss this question, and it will quickly be resolved that to speak of Science and Religion being at war is nonsensical, for they are not of the same category and exist on different plains. It is only dogmatic Fundamentalist Christians who try to turn their religion into a science, and likewise equally dogmatic New Atheists who try to turn their science into a religion. The rest of us accept that you can embrace both Science and Religion without losing either.

And yet even after this question is essentially resolved, the debate so often continues. But what in fact continues is not actually a debate between the compatibility of Science and Religion – this is already resolved. No, what actually emerges is the debate that was always taking place, just in disguise – the question of whether our worldviews should be grounded in Fact or Belief. Unlike Science and Religion, Fact and Belief do exist within the same plain. They are mutually exclusive and something cannot be both a Fact and a Belief. And in our modern world, Science is code for Fact – certainty, truth, knowledge – whilst Religion is code for Belief – uncertainty, debate, opinion. To have a worldview based on Science is to argue for a life based only on Facts – that the world is purely and simply explained by the matter we can perceive, observe and know. A Religious worldview on the other hand is to argue for the permissibility of Belief in our lives – that the world might be more than just the matter we see. And so the debaters continue their debate, finally discussing something of true substance.

It is a world divided between Fact and Belief that makes Atheism the default position of the Western mind. Because ultimately, as much as they try to avoid the crude, unpopular terminology, the Theist must always persuade the Atheist to take a leap of faith – to live a life of believing and not simply of just knowing. The Theist must persuade their Atheist counterpart that there really is more than just the material world they can see, taste and feel. And to this plea, the Non-Religious are well-versed in their reply – “where is your evidence?” The Theist sighs. It is a refrain they have often heard, and they know the argument is being lost. They present the case of miracles; the response is the placebo effect and scientific studies on the inconclusive effects of prayer. They try morality; they are met by the existence of the noble, admirable Irreligious. They give religious experience a go; emotional manipulation and chemicals on the brain. Finally, they try the cosmos itself; how quaint – don’t they realise the universe was long ago lost to Theism? Always the Theist must infer from the material something more than the material, and always the Atheist can reply that the material itself is sufficient. Thus, the Theist leaves the conversation, deflated and niggled by doubt; meanwhile the Atheist remains, comfortably assured of the certainty of their convictions.

However, as I have already said, the convictions and certainties of Atheism are in themselves no more certain or sure than their Theistic counterparts. For Atheism is a philosophy built on wilful blindness and that its adherents are blind is no more or less legitimate than that its rivals claim to be able to see.

The Epistemological Sleight of Hand

“Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding.”

-Andrew Ferguson [6]

For those unfamiliar with the classical magic trick, ‘Sleight of Hand’ is where a magician, by the skilful and speedy movement of her hands, convinces her audience that something has happened which has in fact not. It comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘to use dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive.’ In the case of contemporary Western Atheism, the sleight is all the more cunning for the fact that most, friend or foe alike, don’t even realise it has been done.

So what is the trick? To paraphrase the quote by the journalist Andrew Ferguson above, what is in fact a premise of science has been presented as a finding.

As we’ve seen, Carvaka and Epicureanism had always sought to base their worldviews in naturalism, and they found they could do so quite comfortably without the instruments of modern science. Humanity has not required any enlightenment to recognise that it can be argued we can be more certain about the existence of matter than of any invisible God(s). St. Augustine, writing not more than a couple centuries after Epicureanism had reached its height in the Roman West, remembers how he thought of God as a child: “as some great person who could listen to us and help us, even though we could not see you or hear you or touch you.” The child Augustine was no fool and later in the same passage he isn’t afraid to imply how belief in this invisible Being was weakened when so many of his prayers to avoid a beating went unanswered.[7]

However, historically, any such scepticism about the supernatural had always been tempered by a stronger scepticism about the limits of empirical perception. For instance, Plato, the very ‘Founder of Western Philosophy’, is most famous for his Theory of the Forms. The Forms have been debated and discussed ever since Plato first proposed them – indeed he himself debates their validity within the very Dialogues in which he proposes them. Nevertheless, a crucial element of what Plato seems to be proposing in the Theory of the Forms is that what is most true, valuable and precious in this life must be from beyond the world of the senses and inferred through reason. For sense perception is deceitful and limited, and only reason and inference will allow us to see that to which we are otherwise blind. Building on this, Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave posits that those who rely on their experiences of the world alone are like prisoners trapped in a cave. They observe the shadows of puppets cast by a fire on the wall of the cave, and they spend their lives trying to find patterns and guess which puppet will appear next. Little do they know that beyond the Cave their lies a green, good and pleasant world lit by sunlight. Yet, the prisoner who escapes the confines of the Cave and discovers this world, then returns to share the good news with his former prison-mates only to be laughed away – the Cave is all that exists; anyone can see that.[8]

As with the Parable of the Wolf’s footprint, the Allegory of the Cave is imperfect. After all, the freed prisoner in Plato’s analogy witnesses both the Cave and the World of the Forms beyond the Cave with the very same senses. There is nothing immaterial about the new world the prisoner discovers. However, the point of the analogy is not that we can perceive this immaterial world of the Forms with our senses – Plato is clear that the World of the Forms is known only through reason – but rather that there is reason to be doubtful about the totality of the ‘world’ revealed by the senses alone. For all we know, the certainty’s conveyed by our senses are nothing more than shadows on a Cave wall, and our certainty blinds us to the possibility of a richer world beyond.

In many ways then, the history of philosophy has been shaped by the bounds within which philosophers have allowed themselves to be sceptical. Philosophers have chosen to be sceptical about reason, religion, our sense perceptions, and indeed about existence in its entirety. Two philosophers of the 2nd century A.D. demonstrate well the different routes such scepticism might take. In the case of Sextus Empiricus, the problem of scepticism meant we could neither affirm nor deny any belief as true or false. On the other end of the spectrum was Tertullian for whom the problem of scepticism meant we must accept that true living is found by transcending the limits of knowledge and accepting belief in faith; and so he famously exclaimed about the death and resurrection of Christ: “It is certain, because it is impossible”.[9]

Modern Atheism is thus the latest fashion in a long history of scepticism, only now the scepticism is reserved for the immaterial alone. However, while the empirical Atheists of Epicureanism and Carvaka were required to make the case for empiricism in a world where Atoms could be hypothesised but never demonstrated, modern Atheists have had the trappings of modern science to boost their case. There has been no better time to make the case for a materialist universe than when the primary method for determining what we know and don’t know about reality relies on empiricism in order to do so.

Indeed, through the sciences, empiricism has yielded results for humanity that the Ancients could only dream of. Unfortunately, as Ferguson writes, “the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist”.[10] So we see how science has been used to disprove God and indeed anything immaterial, for how can something exist which we cannot quantify? Much like a Prospector using a metal-detector to prove that nothing other than metal exists in the ground, those who use the scientific method, designed as it is to discover through empirical observation material and mechanistic causes for reality, will only ever find those material and mechanistic causes. As Dr. Jordan Peterson remarks, if we ever come to a place where we can explain everything including consciousness and other realities that currently elude the scientific method, it will only be because our understanding of the ‘material’ will have significantly changed.[11]


“Only when a method is conscious of what it cannot explain, can it maintain a clear distinction between the knowledge it secures and the ideology it obeys.”[12]

-David Bentley Hart

These words by theologian, David Bentley Hart, highlight well the current sleight of hand so prominent in the West. Too many (though not all) contemporary Atheists have been unwilling to admit the limits of their method, and thus have been unable to see the ideology which makes them wilfully blind. Their desire to ground themselves in certainty and fact has made them blind to the fact that their certainty is a shadow in a Cave, and their facts are beliefs in disguise.

Yet, if Atheists are wilfully blind, then Theists wilfully see. We cannot escape the fact that our Western obsession with proving our religion or irreligion the most ‘rational’, the most ‘evidence-based’, and the most ‘logical’ is ultimately resting on whichever side the flipped coin of ‘dubious inference’ lands. For the Atheist asserts he is right in inferring from matter that there is nothing more, whilst the Theist asserts she is right in being sceptical about the claim that matter is all there is. Ultimately, neither of them can know, and where the coin lands has just as much to do with all that is gloriously irrational about ourselves as just what is rational. It is why no worldview remains simply philosophy. A worldview is always as much art, poetry, architecture and song as it is thought-through prose and argument. Worldviews attract more than they prove, and I for one found it quite beautiful recently hearing Atheist comedian, Ricky Gervais, paint a picture of the meaning that his Atheism gives him in the face of death (from 4min20sec). There is much that can be beautiful in Atheistic belief as well as in Theistic religion, and evangelism at its best in both Christianity and Atheism is not a point-scoring contest born out of insecurity but an invitation to a greater beauty.

So, I do not say all this because I want to argue for some free-for-all post-modernism where nothing is true. In my view at least, simply because we cannot know something does not mean there is no knowledge to be had about it. Truth remains true in the absence of certainty. I merely wish to inject some humility, honesty and understanding into the debate. Indeed, this is less a debate; more a glorious flower show. Amongst all the flora displayed for us to see and smell, there is a flower whose very beauty and essence is all-surpassing truth, but to say we know the flower we pick is the most true and beautiful is to somewhat miss the point.

Nonetheless, this spiritual quest for certainty and fact is nothing new. In fact, were it not for Western Christianity’s own ambitions for those very qualities, contemporary Western Atheism might never have been born.


*Manicheanism was 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. Seth Eislund, ‘Was Ancient Greek Philosopher Epicurus Really an Atheist?’ in, February 25, 2018. URL:

  3. - Adapted from Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha by Madhava Acharya, translated by E. B. Cowell and A. E. Gough. Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner, London, 1914.

  4. Prof. Peter Adamson, Podcast: Episode 39: Indian Naturalism – the Wolf’s Footprint in ‘The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps – Indian Philosophy’, April 2, 2017. URL:

  5. Whewell, William, Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, 1840

  6. Andrew Ferguson, ‘The Heretic’ in The Washington Examiner, March 25, 2013. URL:

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

  8. Prof. Peter Adamson, Podcast: Episode 26: Ain’t No Sunshine – The Cave Allegory of Plato’s Republic in ‘The History of Philosophy without any Gaps’, March 27, 2011. URL:

  9. Tertullian, De Carne Christi (On the Flesh of Christ), Ch. 5 Vs. 4, Translated from Latin by Evans, 1956. URL:

  10. Andrew Ferguson, ‘The Heretic’

  11. Dr. Jordan Peterson, Podcast: Episode 4: Religion, Myth, Science, Truth in ‘The Jordan Peterson Podcast’, December 30, 2016. URL:

  12. David Bentley Hart, Lupinity, Felinity and the Limits of Method in ‘Splendid Wickedness and Other Essays’, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016

4,000 Words

This is part 3 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.

Part 3 explores the paradox of emotions and feelings I went through as I saw my faith fall down around me.

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 for her proof-reading and critical feedback)

Image by Layers from Pixabay


“It is very difficult and emotionally stressful to change what you believe about something as fundamental as who Jesus is and what the Bible is. It is highly traumatic. Most people who approach scholarship of the Bible are simply not willing to do it because they don’t want to be proved wrong…When I went through this at one point in my life I finally just said, ‘I’m just going to go wherever I think the truth leads me because Augustine said that all truth is God’s truth.’ If it’s true it comes from God, and so you shouldn’t be afraid of it. It may cause emotional trouble but you shouldn’t be afraid of the truth, and I was willing to change my life if it went that way.”

-Bart Erhman, renowned Biblical scholar and former Christian (now agnostic) (1)

The day I realised I’d lost my faith was very ordinary. It was my final week at Oxford University and I was walking home from college towards my room in the south of the city. I was nearing home and crossing Folly Bridge when with gentle bluntness and terrifying matter-of-fact-ness a thought crept into my head: “I think I’m an atheist now.” It wasn’t piercing, thunderous or dramatic. It just was. And in that moment, my world changed – I had no response to it; I knew it was true.

A friend who converted to Christianity as a teenager once told me: “I don’t think Christians realise how scary it is for people when they convert to Christianity. You have to totally re-think everything you thought you knew about life.” This really struck me at the time as, having grown up in a Christian family, even if I hung out with Doubt regularly, I could never truly relate to what it is to have to completely change your worldview – that is until that day crossing Folly Bridge. More recently, listening to Bart Ehrman summarise his own de-conversion quoted at the top really resonated with me. I recognised that emotional stress and trauma. I also knew what it was to unwillingly yet nonetheless doggedly follow where the truth led, continuing to take each step despite the mixture of painful emotions as well as the equally powerful desire to numb, forget and pretend it wasn’t happening. This is that story.


Confusion and Distress

I often think that intentionality more than reason is the most ‘human’ of all our traits as a species. More than just the ability to make a choice, intentionality is that creative will to mould our lives according to a certain end. To borrow the language of the ancient philosophers, when we are at our most ‘animal’ is when we are acting without purpose – or at least a purpose beyond mere instinct and survival. At our most ‘animal’, there is no intention to our actions except what instinctually seems most appropriate. Intention meanwhile tames the wildness of nature, moulding all according to its purpose. It turns the streams into canals, the stallions into carthorses and the forests into cities. For the animal, the world around just is; for the human, the world around offers potential to become.

Now I do not mean this crude dualism between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’ to be an unfair, snobbish indictment of any apparent ‘lower’ form of life of our animal brethren. You need only look around at the news to see how humanity’s intentionality has had many unintended consequences to the detriment of our natural environment. Indeed, there is something very precious and valuable to be found in that most ‘animal’ of qualities to live and just be. Nonetheless, there is also something very precious and beautiful in intentionality. After all, it is intention that invites the outcast into deep friendship, stays the would-be predator’s knife, and leads the artist to paint. But why intentionality is so particularly human is that we are lost without purpose. Indeed, even the Stoic who conforms her life to the pattern of nature is still moulding her life very intentionally according to what she believes is truly best.

When day-to-day survival is alongside our impending mortality so guaranteed, we search for a ‘higher’ purpose in which to root the actions of our lives. Yet, we do not search too hard, for intentionality is also exhausting in large quantities. As much as we are creatures of intention, the ‘human’ is a creature of routine. We would rather not have to think too much about what we must do. Thus, our religions through the ages have always helpfully routinized our years with holy days, festivals and pilgrimages that intentionally create space for important religious activities like fellowship and prayer. Indeed, social creatures that we are, we frequently opt to delegate our intentionality to the larger group. This, I believe, is the foundation of culture; for what is culture but the unarticulated intention of a group to live life according to often equally unarticulated purposes, values and reasons? The British person cannot tell you why they are always so polite, and the Korean cannot say why they always defer to the elder – they just do. The foreigner immediately, however, notices how ‘strange’ these behaviours are, and if you wish to learn about a culture, ask a foreigner before you ask a native.

Yet, for those who find themselves a minority, rarely do you find their intentions so shrouded in unarticulated mystery. Minorities of all stripes – whether religious, ethnic, LGBTQ+ or political – will almost always have the theory and terminology to hand to explain why they are as they are. Unlike majorities who can afford to lazily rely on the facile human notion that majority equals right, minorities have a constant existential pressure to justify themselves. Why are they not like the majority? A minority must always be ready to answer to this question. They can’t rest on the weight of cultural assumption. For this reason, an anxious doubt almost always lurks at the door of the minority in a way it simply doesn’t for the majority – what if they’re wrong and all this energy spent existing as a minority is for nothing? When this anxious minority comes into contact with the assured majority then, it frequently produces variants on two themes: a stubborn, obstinate false-bravado or a timid, worried apologeticness.

However, although there is this anxiety in minorities, there is also a paradoxical rootedness, security and purpose. Unlike most in the majority, a minority knows who they are and what they’re living for. Indeed, the problem with majorities that delegate out their intentionality to a common but unarticulated culture is that they can easily lose all sense of rigour and drive; they forget why they behave as they do and what they’re living for. Yes, their lives may lack existential anxiety, but their actions can become empty and their lives can grow stale. It can very easily become a life that ‘goes through the motions’. Thus, the unarticulated life is frequently the fruitless one. It never realised why it was living.

I say all this, because I want to try and help you understand the paradox of emotions I experienced when losing my faith. On the one hand, due to this ‘existential angst of the minority’, there was a deep determination to pursue the truth in case I really had been living a lie. Simultaneously, however, there was this deep sense of rootedness and purpose that Christianity gave me which meant I was greatly unwilling to let it go. I knew who I was; I didn’t want to un-know it.

Unless you know what it is to live everyday intentionally, choosing to be and live differently from the majority of the world around you, you won’t understand just how distressing and confusing it is to lose that sense of identity. This wasn’t just something I did on a Sunday; nor was it something I practiced in the ‘private sphere’ of my home. This was my life. Although not always consciously, everything I did, thought and said was intentionally weighed by Christianity’s measures. Thinking back to my university days, to list just some of the actions influenced by my faith is not difficult. Moreover, there must have been far many smaller decisions I made that were consciously influenced by my faith and even more that were unconsciously affected. What was my life now without faith? Who was I now if not a child of God? To leave Christianity was to enter a dismal abyss of uncertainty in which I saw no light. I had always known who I was, and thus what I must do. But now I was lost in a sea of uncertainty. I was an island beset by chaos; all order and direction had left me.

And yet, my life had already been set in a specific direction. A couple of months before my ‘Folly Bridge experience’ I had made the decision to spend the next year of my life working with a charity supporting Middle Eastern refugee Christians all because of a profound spiritual experience that meant I believed this is what God wanted me to do. I knew I would spend the next year visiting churches, interacting with Christians from all walks of life, and supporting the ministry of a high-profile Christian minister. I had even turned down a high-profile secular graduate scheme in order to do it. But now with my faith in tatters, I couldn’t decide whether I was in a tragedy or ironic comedy. Just a couple of months before, embarking on this exciting, faith-moulding year with a dynamic Christian ministry had made total sense. Yet now I had to contemplate whether to try and pull-off pretending to be a Christian for a whole year or just throw in the towel. I realised that continuing as if nothing had changed in me was most likely dishonest, hypocritical and insincere. However, I also knew that if I threw in the towel that would mean people would ask me why, and I couldn’t face that. If I admitted to the world the confusion I felt inside, that would make it real in a definitive way. But I didn’t want it to be real; I was good at being “Jacob the Christian”, and I had no clue how to live as “Jacob the…atheist or something-or-other?”

So I kept it quiet and ran from my demon. Indeed, the blessing of just having graduated was that I had a summer of no expectations before I went to work for this charity. University was now over, and I could return home to a quiet home to rest, garden, and watch TV. For several weeks, I had a quiet, domestic pattern. I saw the occasional friend but for the most part I either busied myself with jobs around the house or simply sought out the numbing properties of our media age. Yet, I couldn’t keep my thoughts at bay forever. I knew I was hiding. I knew the demon of my apparent deconversion must be faced sooner or later, but it all seemed too much

Fear and Loss

What is the truth worth? It’s a big question and we often find those individuals inspiring who, in pursuit of truth, went through much self-sacrifice, even at the cost of their lives, and in so doing, achieved a greater good. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are probably not willing to pay the price. Bart Ehrman highlighted this in his quote at the beginning, and though he was specifically airing his thoughts on Christian biblical scholars, most people, Christian or not, are probably unwilling to earnestly and sincerely seek after truth when it will likely cost. So, if it is already difficult to pursue the truth for a greater good when there is a cost, is there any reason to pursue truth when there is no greater good yet the cost is still high? Does the pursuit of truth remain a worthy end in itself, regardless of cost? If it does, the end fulfilment seemed hollow to me. If my pursuit of truth led where I thought it was leading, then I saw no reward but the cost of abandonment and isolation.

With every passing day of that summer, fear of my eventual isolation from family and friends grew within me. Notice I say isolation, not rejection. The problem was not that I expected my Christian family and friends to want nothing to do with me upon discovery of my deconversion. Although I knew it would sadden them, deconversion is not an unknown phenomenon in the West, and I knew my Christian family and friends would still love me and continue to be there for me. Nonetheless, aside from the knowledge that it would sadden them, I had a deepening sense of fear and sadness because it increasingly became apparent to me how many of my relationships and joys in life were channelled through religious organisations, whether informally or formally. All the regular Christian events I attended like church, small groups, homeless outreach, Bible studies, and prayer groups provided an organised forum for honest, serious and authentic friendships that included but also extended beyond just fun and banter. I might not have to worry about active rejection, but the passive isolation of slow dissociation that would occur if I stopped attending these events hit me like a brick wall. It wasn’t that I had no good friends outside of Christianity. I had very dear friends who didn’t consider themselves Christian. But when I thought about it, even with them our friendship was facilitated through an equally organised institution – the formal higher education system. This had provided that space for serious and honest friendship to emerge alongside the fun and games. Yet, now with university behind me, it seemed that all the secular world could offer me was the lonely, surface-level world of pub and football to provide just a fraction of the interpersonal intimacy the Church had always given me without a second thought.

Moreover, there was the prospect of losing all the beauty and joy I had found in Christian worship, faith and community. Many of my happiest memories, my deepest contentments and my most precious relationships had been channelled through it. It transformed the world around me – the beggar became a brother, the bustling streets and quiet meadows were joined together as Creation, and even the greatest suffering was consoled in the arms of the Cross. Christianity had always been to me as much an aesthetic as a philosophy, a dynamic poetry as much as a codified dogma. Through it I saw the world, and it was very good.

So the fear of what there was to lose was indeed great. Writing as I do now from the perspective of having come ‘back again’, I do not seek to pretend that this fear had no impact at all on the fact that I ended up returning to Christian faith. Truly, even as the anxiety that I might be living a lie was pushing me out the door, the fear of all that I might lose was causing me to grasp with all my might at the handle.

Anger and Sadness

Human emotions, though, are conflicting and fickle things. Alongside the fear of what I might lose, there was a mixture of anger and sadness that I had to lose it at all. The exclusionary element of Christianity has often been criticised in the post-modern West. I’ve often felt this was unfair as it ignores how highly inclusive it also is—anyone “either Jew or Greek” to quote St. Paul (2) can be part of it. However, when I found myself outside the door of what I understood to be the Christian paradigm, I knew I could no longer partake in this form of life which I dearly loved. Again, like with my family and friends, there was no active rejection but rather an impending isolation. I’d become a ‘non-Christian’—the ‘them’ that was distinct from ‘us’. Indeed, I realised more and more how much the Christian language I’d used and heard growing up was one that portrayed people in very black-and-white, in-or-out terms. Yes, anyone could become a Christian, but there was no grey in-between. You were either saved or not saved, lost or found, a Christian or non-Christian. There was no space for those who wanted to keep a foot in both doors.

But this is where I was. I came to describe this grey-in-between as feeling like my mind was Atheist but my heart was Christian. After my epiphany, I could no longer admit to myself that I believed Christianity was a winning ‘bet’, but I was so invested in it emotionally, socially and psychologically that I would rather continue to back a ‘losing horse’ than go through the heartache of letting it go. I guess it was like a break-up in some ways—you know it’s over, but you don’t want to admit that it really is. So I tried to live as if there had been no ‘Folly Bridge experience’. I determined to go through the Christian motions, even if my mind didn’t buy it. Anything to avoid my fear of impending isolation. Anyway, why did there have to be such a cost to losing my faith? Couldn’t I have the community without the Christianity? The love without the faith? How could my faith betray me like this? Why, just because I was no longer ‘fully signed up’, did it have to take away everything I held dear?

No more was this mix of emotions – this anger and sadness – apparent than in my conversations with the few people I did open up to about my loss of faith. Because the other reason why I didn’t want to tell people about my loss of faith, besides the reasons I’ve already outlined, was I was afraid they would try and bring me back.

It is strange that, despite the fact that there was nothing I would have loved at the time more dearly than to have all my questions answered and find myself back in the Christian fold, there was nothing that annoyed and angered me more than the possibility that a Christian friend or family member might feel compelled to ‘bring me back’. I’d been around church long enough to know that a script existed for those who’d ‘fallen away’, and I would be damned if I was going to let someone play it on me. I didn’t want people to bring me back, I wanted people to listen. I didn’t want to be black or white; I wanted to know that I was accepted and loved as I was – this confused, grey-in-between. I wanted to be given time and space to work things out and not feel pressured to go either way.

Yet I did feel pressure. Not because of anything anyone did or intended, but rather because the articulated language of Western evangelical faith was so imbibed with this dualism of ‘us and them’. Now that I’d become a ‘stranger’ to the culture, a foreigner on the outside, it suddenly hit me how much of my Western evangelical Christian faith presented an exclusionary dualism. Even in its very inclusivity, there was an implicit otherness. Behind every invitation into the fold, there was the implication that one was outside it. Behind every call to accept Jesus into your heart, there stood an implicit assumption that Jesus was not there already.

Thus I knew my desire to live in the grey in-between was not possible. I must be in or out. Our language would not allow for anything different. I must either carry on the pretence of faith and go through the motions, and so hope to avoid losing that which I so dearly loved; or I must make known my greyness, but in so doing accept that I must take up a new mantle as ‘the other’ and so find myself placed into a box that felt equally as disingenuous and ill-fitting.

I chose to pretend. Accepting an ill-fitting box was easier than risking such loss. There was bitterness and anger in having to make this decision, but there was also relief. Pretending bought me time.


As I stated in the introduction to this series, when I say I had lost my faith, I do not mean that I discarded my Christian faith and so picked up another metaphysical belief system. Yes, I had an epiphany that I thought I was now an atheist, but once the shock of this had faded, I realised that this was more an epiphany about who I no longer was, not necessarily who I was now becoming. Indeed, even as my anger grew at the way my Christian language had pigeon-holed me into becoming an unwilling ‘other’, I was equally annoyed by the notion that my loss of faith equalled an atheistic conversion. In fact, as the weeks went on, my frustration with the whole dualistic paradigm grew. I was living between two worlds, even if neither world could conceptually accept that.

And that’s why I continued to pray. Yes, every prayer now was shadowed by a lurking thought that my words were but dust in the ether, but pray I did. As my life went into free fall and all the conceptual structures that once made it so safe, secure and certain fell down, I began praying with a brokenness which actually I had read about all my life in the Christian Scriptures. This is when I began to realise that perhaps the issue was not so much God or no God, but rather a total re-think of how I thought about and interacted with God. Perhaps it was not God who had changed, but rather the conceptual box which I had put God in. What if, rather than losing my relationship with the great I AM, I had seen shattered my conception of the rigid YOU ARE THIS?

The rest of this series is all about exploring the story of how I found my feet again after this profound season of lostness. But for now, I think it would be fitting to end this part with this excerpt of a prayer I wrote in my journal on July 6, 2017, approximately three weeks after my Folly Bridge experience.

Father God, You know I’m in an interesting time right now. I’m kind of on the cusp of becoming an ‘atheist’ and yet at the same time not, and continuing to pray to You. I’m learning a lot about things from science to theology and yet I feel like I know less. In some ways I can see that my mind has become atheist but my heart still ardently follows You. There is so much I do not know, but also much I know I must do. You have wiped away the façade of my brilliance. I have become one of the crowd. I have been brought to my knees as a beggar not knowing the certainties of the people around me, but being poor in spirit, aware that I’m not the bees knees I once thought I was. My story is being rewritten, and the plot that once seemed so clear stands now blurred and its conclusion shrouded in mystery. I do not know how my story will end, and I do not know how the next couple years will pan out… I am only certain of my uncertainty and that I do not want to leave my Jesus and I don’t think He wants to leave me. Daddy, hold me close; let this son of Yours not stray away. Bring me home to You.


1. This quote is from a recent debate between Bart Ehrman and Peter J. Williams on the Unbelievable Podcast/YouTube series – “The Story of Jesus: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?” (starting from 1hr26min)

2. Galatians 3:28

5,600 Words

This is part 2 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.

Part 2 explores the reasons why I lost my faith, but more than that, it shares my reflections on why we believe what we believe, why we change what we believe, and how our beliefs function in our lives as interpretive frameworks for our everyday experiences.

You can also read the Introduction and Part 1 to this series. I hope you enjoy Part 2.

(Credit to Ellie Vivian for her proof-reading and critical feedback)


Epiphanies are fascinating things. They act as an insight into the immense amount of activity that goes on inside us below our conscious surfaces without us realising. It is almost like our brains are doing far too much thinking—if that even is the right word for it—within our subconscious and epiphanies occur when our conscious brain finally catches up with something that really has already happened, perhaps for quite some time.

The reason I bring this up is that I realised I’d lost my faith because of such an epiphany. It struck me quietly out of the blue one day, but as soon as it hit, I realised that it was true, and perhaps had been for quite some time. In this second part of this series, I will look into what it was that was occurring below the surface, and why it was that one quiet summer day, I had an epiphany that I perhaps no longer believed in God.


Certain elements of my paradigm-shift had been going on since my friendship with Doubt began. For a long time, I had been engaging with Atheistic paradigms on an intellectual level and although I wasn’t convinced, that wasn’t because I didn’t believe there was anything convincing or of value about them. Indeed, besides my friendship with Doubt, being an avid history buff had long ago taught me that certainty was a luxury we generally don’t have. There are very few of what most people mean by the word ‘facts’—and even fewer ‘facts’ that are really meaningful. For the most part, all the things we think we ‘know’ about what is meaningful in life—relationships, society, politics, religion, people, identity—are really carefully calculated bets. Now that doesn’t mean they’re not ‘true’, but like any good bet, if they are true, we’d be kidding ourselves if we pretended we knew this with real certainty beforehand.

As a result, throughout my time at university and even beforehand, I wasn’t afraid to tell people that I was about 85% sure of Christianity on a good day and about 60% on a bad day. Atheists and Christians like to make it sound like their beliefs are all simply a matter of ‘following the evidence’ but ultimately this is all a linguistic game for Western ‘rationalistic’ ears so we can hide from the blatant reality that we all live our lives according to what are fundamentally highly-invested-in assumptions—but that’s ok. If we could be so sure about our beliefs, the dogmatic, rigid, theocratic universe proposed by the most fundamentalist of Christians might actually be true! As might the deterministic, mundane, mechanical reality proposed by the most unimaginative of Atheists! So let’s all breathe a sigh of relief.

But in the summer of 2017, my highly-invested-in assumptive world fell apart. My bet no longer seemed like a ‘winner’ and my mind went into free-fall.

In my 2nd year of university, I’d studied an International Relations module where I learned about theories in International Relations such as Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism. What struck me about these ‘paradigms’ (as they were generally known) was their illustration of how worldviews—religious or otherwise—function and behave. You see, all International Relations Theorists look at the same world, the same case studies and the same histories; yet they can draw very different conclusions about how the world operates from the same evidence. This is ultimately because their paradigm isn’t an observable fact they discover ‘out there’ in the complicated world of foreign affairs, but something they already possess and use to interpret what they encounter and make sense of why they see what they see. Interpretation is fundamentally about making sense of that which we don’t understand. Indeed, those whose job it is to put foreign languages into words we can understand are known as ‘interpreters’. Moreover, when it comes to interpreting, we care less that a translation literally captures word-for-word what is being said and care more that it perfectly captures the sense of what is being said. If the detail and the complexity of what is literally there is going to prevent us understanding this, we’d rather not get bogged down with it.

For this reason, when you present a Christian and Atheist with the same case study—say a mechanic who’s small intestine spontaneously regenerated six months after a six-tonne truck crushed their midriff – their answers will not be about ‘neutrally’ assessing the evidence. Rather their answers will reflect their need to make the evidence fit with their understanding of the world. Indeed, we can see this take place in this podcast (Hinge) where a Christian and Atheist reflect on that very miracle claim story (listen from 19min in). The Christian (Drew Sokol) has no problem believing the miracle claim of Bruce Van Natta, the mechanic. However, the Atheist (Cory Markum) says “I think the most likely explanation is that there are aspects of his story that are wrong; where, even though he is being honest, somewhere along the way some of this information has been mishandled or changed or something happened.” Now, either or neither of these propositions could be the real truth, but the important thing is that it shows how our first instinct, whatever we believe, is not to know what really happened but to make sense as best we can what has happened through our interpretative framework. If your interpretive framework gives space for miracles, you can use that; if it doesn’t, then there must be some other way to interpret the evidence before you other than “it’s a miracle!” The point being that fundamentally, once you’ve established the paradigm through which you interpret the complex barrage of daily happenings we fondly call reality, you will do whatever it takes to twist the world around you so you don’t have to change it. Because, frankly, it’s an utterly confusing, disorientating and terrifying thing to change. It’s like wiping your first language from your memory while you’re still only just beginning to learn another. No wonder ‘conversion’ experiences of any sort are generally concentrated amongst the young who are less established in their interpretative paradigms and more open to change. It’s also why it really struck me as insightful when in the podcast, ‘Religion, Myth, Science and Truth’, Dr. Peterson points out that there’s a difference between explaining and explaining away. Most of our time in life is actually spent explaining away, meaning we find a way to make the facts fit with our interpretive paradigm, rather than explaining, where we really seek to establish the truth of what has happened. We explain away because we wish to understand more than we wish to really know.

Moreover, our paradigm for interpreting reality doesn’t just affect what we understand and know—it shows us how to act. In International Relations Theory, a Realist doesn’t just understand foreign affairs through their paradigm, but their responses to international crises are fundamentally shaped by their interpretative beliefs. For instance, when a theorist in International Relations sees a rival nation performing naval exercises close to disputed island territories, their response to that action—be that to ignore it, protest at the UN, or perform naval exercises of their own near the territory—will be influenced greatly by how their paradigm makes them view their rival nation: whether they are reasonable, benign, aggressive, unpredictable or dangerous. Similarly, when a Christian looks upon another human and sees an image-bearer of God, they are interpreting reality via their paradigm. However, that interpretation now demands a response; if they are made in the image of God, how should that affect how I treat them?

Paradigms are thus existentially necessary. Without them, we cannot make sense of the world around us and we have no idea how we are supposed to behave. Some of us are more conscious of how it is we understand and interpret the world and therefore why we act the way we do, but the point is everyone has a paradigm because we really need an interpretive framework. Reality is just too complex and anxiety-inducing without one.

So, this being the case, why on earth would we ever want to change our paradigms? Well, the short answer is, I don’t think anyone ever really wants to change their paradigm, but the fact is that people do. And the reason we do (albeit rarely) change our paradigms is that for all our explaining away, we are nonetheless concerned with truth because we really want to live as best as possible within the world. The truer our paradigm, the more likely we are to live our lives in a way that really is good and best. Furthermore, the less likely we are to fall apart when the inevitable hardships of life come upon us. Truth does matter to us, and insincere living, by which I mean pretending to live according to a paradigm you don’t believe in, can be quite soul-destroying.

As a result, having reflected a lot on what brought me to my own paradigm shift, I have identified three ‘facets’ of my Christian paradigm that had to be dismantled for my own paradigm shift to happen. The dismantling of each particular facet was I think a necessary but insufficient cause in leading me to change my paradigm. However, once all three facets had been sufficiently dismantled, my paradigm shift became almost inevitable whether I wanted it or not. These three facets are of course based on my own reflection, but, if I’m not much mistaken, I think that in their general form they can be regarded to be essential elements to most people’s paradigms (religious or otherwise). Indeed, I think that undermining all three of these paradigm facets in anyone will almost always cause some sort of paradigm collapse or shift within them (though ‘paradigm collapse’ founds far too much like something out of Star Trek…).

Thus without further ado, the three general facets that I believe are important to any paradigm are:

1. Your paradigm must present a true picture of reality

2. The source(s) where your paradigm looks for value must be valid and trustworthy.

3. Your paradigm should enable you to live the most worthwhile, good and flourishing life.


Below I will look at each of these in detail, and outline how, in regards to my own particular Christian paradigm, things came undone. Whether you’re a Christian or not, doubting or not, I hope that sharing this will help you think through your own paradigm experiences.

1. My Christian interpretation of reality no longer seemed to be the most true

This first facet—whether the picture painted by a paradigm is really true—is the world of ‘reason’ and ‘intellectual arguments’. This is where people debate and argue about whose picture of the world has the most ‘evidence’ and much intellectual blood, sweat and tears are shed. In most people’s minds, this is where the main battleground for people’s hearts and minds really takes place. However, simply causing significant doubt about the supposed truth of a belief is not enough to cause someone to change their paradigm. Generally, our intellectual arguments are less cold, calculated rationalist judgments and more sleights of hand for what are essentially deeply rooted hopes; merely losing an argument will not make us stop believing. Indeed, when most people have any sort of ‘conversion’ experience, we often assume it to be because of some ‘intellectual’ change. They must have come across some new, fool-proof argument that blew their previous beliefs out of the water. In reality, we all know really this isn’t entirely true. Centuries of Western philosophy and political theory have tried to ingrain the idea that as humans we are fundamentally rationalist individuals. Now obviously this bears some truth—we can after all think and make reasoned arguments. But reason is not what primarily drives us. Our reason rests on a bed of instincts, values and beliefs. Most intellectual arguments, because they fail to engage with these sides of ourselves that are more ‘irrational’ and arbitrary, fail then to make deep inroads in causing us to change our fundamental beliefs.

I say all this because I want to explain why the ‘intellectual’ side to my paradigm shift was important but not necessary for causing me to change my beliefs. As Part 1 of my blog made clear, engaging with intellectual arguments for and against the Christian faith was nothing new to me. I’d had significant doubts and questions about the validity of Christian propositions before and got through them. Indeed, for all my doubts about Christianity, I also had plenty of doubts and objections about the validity of other worldviews, Atheism and Islam being the two I thought about most. So, in the months leading up to my paradigm shift, I had no major reason to doubt it wouldn’t be the same this time round. Indeed, even when you do come against a strong argument against your beliefs, there are several perfectly valid ways to get round it without accepting defeat: you can simply admit your ignorance and wait (or hope) for someone cleverer than you to come and put your intellectual opponent in their place, or you can simply accept that you can’t answer the objection and be ok with living in that uncertainty.

Nevertheless, despite what I’ve said to downplay the role of intellectual arguments in our paradigms, it must be said that they are still important. In my case, the primary ‘intellectual reason’ behind my paradigm shift was that nine months before, I came to the conclusion that the most plausible truth regarding the after-life was that there was none. I had been at a weekly discussion group for asking big questions when somehow or other we got talking about the afterlife. My atheist friend who invited me along to the group proceeded to present his argument for why there was simply a zero possibility of life after death. I listened to his argument, added critiques at various points and questioned certain of his statements. But unlike many of our conversations on other topics where I could comfortably dislodge his argument and put forward what I believed to be a more convincing one of my own, I came to the end of that discussion and had to admit, “I can’t think of an argument stronger than the one you’ve just given.” Being honest with myself was very important because how could I discuss these big questions with others if I wasn’t prepared to let what they had to say impact me too. However, it now left me in a very precarious place—how can I be a Christian if I think the most likely truth is that there is no life after death? Moreover, if there is no afterlife, doesn’t that therefore mean that any sense of spiritual transcendence is also false?

There were also other ‘intellectual’ reasons that played a role in my paradigm shift: my reflection that perhaps, since time and matter are inextricably linked, it actually didn’t make sense to think of God as a necessary ‘final cause’ of the universe since matter by its very connection with time was thus ‘eternal’; or 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. However, ultimately it was the disbelief in life after death that I found the hardest to intellectually dislodge.

Suffice it to say though, these intellectual doubts were not enough. I still had much in my intellectual armoury that suggested the truth of the Christian paradigm and so the months went by and I remained a Christian. However, as doubts regarding other facets of my paradigm emerged and grew, little did I know but my Christian paradigm was living on borrowed time.

2. Putting my trust in the Bible as my source of value seemed misplaced and misguided.

The second undercurrent in my paradigm shift was my increasing doubt about whether the Bible was a credible source to look to uniquely for value, truth and ultimate meaning. Growing up within an Evangelical Protestant Christian context, believing the Bible was the Word of God and uniquely significant as Scripture was important. Indeed, for those who’ve read Part 1, you’ll remember how in my early teenage years I understood the Bible in very literal, fundamentalist terms: its account of a six-day Creation and a worldwide flood were to be taken as factual accounts. In many ways then, much of my later teenage and early adult years involved a process of learning, accepting and becoming more comfortable with the more ambiguous nature of Biblical texts. Yes, there was an overarching theme of God’s love and redemption for humanity, but that didn’t necessarily mean the Book of Judges was as “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16b) as the Epistle to the Philippians. I also increasingly accepted that many doctrines and creedal statements common to nearly all Churches like ‘Original Sin’, the ‘Deity of Jesus’, and ‘the Trinity’ among others are not so much found in the Biblical texts as understood in light of them. It’s a subtle distinction in how you read the Bible but makes a big difference. The former stamps the interpretations of future thinkers on the writings of the past and so allows readers to have a greater sense of certainty about what those past texts are saying. The latter meanwhile acknowledges how later theological interpretations came after the past writings, meaning there is space for uncertainty about whether those interpretations understand the text in the way the original authors meant for them to be read. Now, don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean there isn’t very valid evidence within the Bible for arguing for of any of these doctrines and creedal statements, but I couldn’t pretend the Bible pointed to them as absolute, straightforward truths before later Christians came to those conclusions.

This last sentence then starts to reach the nub of what happened within me: I began to doubt whether it made sense for me to speak of anything emanating from the Bible as absolute truth. If these texts were the ‘Word of God’, then I could understand these authors as imparting absolute truths and values in a way that I simply couldn’t when reading Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or Tolkien. However, if these texts were just as human as anything else I read, why should I be so exclusive with where I looked for truth, meaning and value? Believing the Biblical texts were somehow unique and different was all I had keeping me within the orthodox fold. But one by one, the pillars holding up my understanding of Biblical ‘uniqueness’ tumbled.

Firstly, there was my doubt about how unique the messianic claims of Jesus actually were and, tied into this, was a second question about whether the Biblical authors were simply wrong about some of their biggest claims. At university, I studied a number of ‘millenarian movements’ which are movements with a great expectation that something monumental is about to happen—for good or bad—that will transform human existence and bring an end to human history as we know it. These have generally taken a religious form with someone claiming to be the promised Messiah (Judaism), Mahdi (Islam) or Maitreya (Buddhism/Chinese religions) who will change the world. Few would disagree that Christianity is the result of a ‘successful’ claim to Messiahship from Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth within his Jewish context. The opening two chapters of Matthew make it clear that the author is very keen to convince his readers of this messianic claim. He takes pains to emphasise why Jesus of Nazareth is actually born in Bethlehem, the promised birthplace of the Messiah; is descended from the line of David and Abraham at exact gaps of 14 generations each (a reference to a messianic prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27); and was foreshadowed at his birth by heavenly events involving a star over his birthplace. Now, there’s no way of proving or disproving these claims, but they seem far too much like artistic license (I mean, how could you possibly know that a star had “stopped over where the child was”?) to believe the author of Matthew was giving a fully ‘factual’ account. This begged the question in me: to what extent was Jesus actually unique and how much of his uniqueness is the result of how his followers portrayed him?

Relating to this and the second question around whether Biblical authors could just be wrong, the Matthew author also makes it very clear in chapter 24 that there was a millenarian and apocalyptic element to his understanding of Jesus’s teachings, life, death and resurrection. Christians have generally understood these verses as pointing to a future apocalypse that has yet to come. However, there’s evidence to suggest that the author was of the view that this apocalyptic return would be much more imminent. Indeed, C.S. Lewis once said that Matthew 24:33 is the ‘most embarrassing’(1) verse in the Bible because the author records Jesus as saying: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” It must be pointed out that the same author throws in ambiguity a few verses later when he records Jesus then as saying, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son [i.e. Jesus], but only the Father.” Nevertheless, the fact remains that I began to wonder: if it’s true some Biblical authors really did believe Jesus’s Second Coming was imminent, could I think them wrong and still consider what they wrote as Scripture?

Thirdly and finally, there was the realisation that the Bible’s theology not only evolved but actively disagreed with itself in places. I’d long ago accepted that theological ideas did evolve over the course of Biblical history. For instance, ideas like monotheism were not held by early Biblical characters like Moses, who instead seem to have believed in other gods besides just their own. In Moses’s case, this is most famously shown in the command in Exodus 20:2 that “you shall have no other gods before me.” This hadn’t bothered me significantly because I was happy to accept Biblical characters simply reflected the mainstream views of the people around them. However, one day around Easter 2017, while reading a book about violence and God in the Bible as it happens, I suddenly noticed that the Bible’s theology is not just evolving over time, but later writers outright disagreed with earlier ones and tried to ‘correct’ the incorrect assertions of the past. Most obviously, II Samuel 24 and I Chronicles 21 both give the account of David sinning by ordering a census to be taken of Israel’s fighting troops (the sin being he doesn’t trust the Lord to fight for Israel but is implying his trust is in his army’s numbers). II Samuel 24:1 is the earlier account by a few hundred years and reads: “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’” The later I Chronicles 21:1, however, reads: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” How ‘Satan’ arose as a theological concept within Israelite theology is a conversation for another day, but the point is that the later author of I Chronicles is explicitly re-writing his nation’s history to ‘fix’ the morally dubious notion that God incited David to perform an action so he could then punish him for it. Clearly, the Israelite’s theology of God, morality and evil had evolved between the time both texts were written; by I Chronicles 21, ‘God’ had become ‘Satan’. However, for me, this was the last straw in the notion that the Bible was this ‘objective’ account of God’s relationship with the world. If the Bible itself not only changed within itself but actually actively disagreed with itself, then it all just seemed far too human.

Other reasons why I lost my notion that the Bible was somehow exceptional and set apart from all other literature as ‘God’s Word’ included also my research into where Jewish mythology interacts with, borrows from, and relates to the mythologies of the surrounding peoples of its day. Moreover, I increasingly saw the human exceptionalism found in the Bible (most notably the opening chapters of Genesis) as further evidence that this was a very human and not necessarily God-ordained text; after all, removing my own human bias from the equation, why should God care more for humanity than for all the myriad of other species he created?

If it hadn’t been for the fact that exactly as I was going through this period, I began reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (which I will come to in a later edition of this series), I might have lost my faith then and there. The Bible was just all too human. Yes, it could offer me wisdom for my daily life and problems, but I could no longer hold it above any other human work.

3. The actions my Christian paradigm led me to perform no longer seemed the best, or indeed the most wise, right, worthwhile and good.

The final trigger that caused my paradigm shift was I began to doubt whether the actions inspired by my Christian paradigm were really what would result in a fruitful, flourishing life for myself and those around me. This doubt took two forms: firstly, the secular progressive narrative on sex and relationships seemed more helpful and realistic than the Christian one, and secondly, I began to question whether the way I was living my life was in fact blessing the lives of those around me.

As well as needing some level of confidence that our paradigm is actually true, we need to be convinced that the actions it leads us to perform in the world are also good and valuable. Now what we believe to be ‘good’ and ‘valuable’ actions will in turn be shaped by our paradigm. However, when we don’t live in a bubble, we’re often sufficiently exposed to other paradigms, each with their own claims about how we should act in the world, to have a decent understanding of other value systems and ways of behaving. This in turn is why so many of us arguably live life in quite a ‘confused’ way that’s hard to articulate—we live according to many paradigms.

From a Western, British Christian’s perspective, one key way in which this ‘confusion’ and living out of multiple paradigms is expressed is in contemporary Western Christianity’s response to sex and relationships. The Christian faith in the contemporary West has struggled adjusting to a world and culture where the pursuit of individual pleasure and fulfilment has become such a primary existential purpose. No more so is this obvious than when it comes to romantic relationships and sex. The Church is accused of having a negative, repressive attitude towards sex, and although I think there are some grounds for this, I think much of this is misunderstood. The contemporary West is rooted in a spirituality that preaches fulfilment and redemption through the expression of each person’s sacred individuality which it is also hoped will result in happiness. And sex, something so intimately bound with both individual identity and pleasure, has thus become a crucial cultural sphere of the modern West. Historically, however, Christianity in the West has been rooted in a spirituality that preaches the sacredness of each individual but not because of an ‘individuality’ that is sacred, but because we bear the image of God who is Sacred. As sacred individuals, we should reflect the God whose image we bear. Our fulfilment and redemption is thus found in becoming more like Christ, who is God Incarnate, and this means turning away from those elements of ourselves that don’t reflect Christ (what is meant by ‘sin’). Every aspect of our lives then, including our relationships, are meant to serve this purpose. In terms of marriage then, the Church of England’s wedding liturgy makes this purpose clear: “Marriage is a gift of God in creation…given that...they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.”(2) Although then in our culture it can thus seem to be coming from a place of Big Brother prudery and repression, the reservation of “the delight and tenderness of sexual union”(3) within marriage is ultimately due to a holistic vision of seeing our sexuality, like everything else about us, as submitted to our purpose to reflect Christ.

I say all this because ultimately I believe this is how we get into the tricky waters of modern Christian dating where on the one hand modern Christians feel pulled toward the historical call to wait for sex until its perfect ‘Christ-like’ fulfilment in marriage, but they also feel pulled toward contemporary progressive individualism which says the expression of our sexuality is a key element of understanding our sacred individuality and our pursuit of happiness. This inherent contradiction in what are both in some senses ‘spiritual’ worldviews is ultimately why I think the conversation on sex and sexuality is so controversial in the church; we are living between two paradigms and as hard as we try, the two can’t be married easily together (pun somewhat intended).

So, as a contemporary British Christian currently in the sixth year of dating my now-fiancé, I have felt the pull of both paradigms very keenly. However, for the Christian paradigm within me, it has been a losing battle. Undoubtedly this is in large part because the Christian paradigm on sex was formulated in a time when the modern notion of ‘dating’ was unheard of. There was no expectation that you might be spending years intimately attached to someone romantically long before you ever got around to marrying them. But that is the way things are now in the contemporary West, and the longer I dated the more it seemed that maybe my Christian paradigm was unnecessarily restrictive. The point being that although when going back through my journal, I make no reference to this paradigmatic conflict over sex at the time of my paradigm shift, in many of the journal entries preceding it, I dwell on this conflict and my confusion over how I’m supposed to act. I still might have rolled my eyes at the common secular refrain that religion, and Christianity in particular, is an unnecessarily repressive, puritanical force and that its adherents need ‘liberating’ from their repressive sexual ethic. However, there’s no doubt that I had to admit this refrain provided an explanation for my very conflicted feelings on the subject. Perhaps my Christian paradigm was really preventing me from living life to its truest and most fulfilling potential?

Secondly, while the paradigmatic conflict over sex arguably had an important subconscious role in my paradigm shift, what definitely had a very conscious role in it was the realisation that my attempt to live out my Christian paradigm with as much integrity as I could had led me to deeply and unintentionally hurt some people very close to me. This realisation happened the very week my paradigm shift occurred, and though I can’t quite remember which realisation came first, the fact is whether it preceded or succeeded my paradigm shift, it certainly cemented it.

I had a strong faith-inspired conviction that I should live to bless those around me, and generally I found that my faith pushed and enabled me to do so. I’m not going to proceed to write a list of thingsI did, but the fact is, knowing how my faith had inspired me to do a lot of what I thought was good in the world around me, I chuckled to myself whenever I read or heard someone parroting the common secular refrain that religion is an oppressive force for evil in the world. That is, of course, until I came to the shocking realisation that for some close to me, my attempt to live faithfully by my paradigm had really hurt them. Suddenly, my life for the last few years was brought into question: who else had I unintentionally hurt? Had I really done anything that was good in my time at university? I felt betrayed.

With hindsight, I realise the shock of the experience caused my mind to greatly overreact, but the fact is that at the time, the event sent my mind into a spiral of doubt, confusion and anger. Wasn’t living out my faith supposed to make the world a better place?! Wasn’t it supposed to enrich the lives of those around me?! How had something intended for good inadvertently caused such harm, and how had it made me so blind as not to notice that’s what I was doing?! I no longer knew who I was, what I wanted to be, or who I wanted to become. The positive faith-based story I’d constructed about myself suddenly seemed totally false.


My paradigm shift was thus not the result of some unexpectedly impressive argument. Rather it was the result of a slow, steady chipping away. My trust in my friendship with Doubt meant I hadn’t seen it coming. Nevertheless, for all our friendship, Doubt was about to pull the rug from under me. Once the final facet of my Christian paradigm had crumbled beneath me, it was only a matter of time before my epiphany came—the paradigm through which I viewed the world was gone and I was utterly lost.


1. C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 1952, pg. 98


3. Ibid

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