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Part 10: The Stories We Live

TW: References to abortion and loss of children


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


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


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

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

3,600 Words


Image by Tumisu on Pixabay

 

TW: References to abortion and loss of children


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


-Prof. Jordan Peterson[1]


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


-Richard Holloway[4]


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


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


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


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


With brutal honesty, we can read the Lamenter say:


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


-The End-

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

[5] Lamentations 3:38

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

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

[8] Luke 22:42 (NIV)

[9] Psalm 22 (NIV)

[10] II Corinthians 4:8-10

[11] Revelation 21:4

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

[13] The case was Crowter and Others v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care [2022]. It was rejected on the basis that the law doesn’t discriminate against the living disabled and that the current law cannot be written off merely on the grounds that it might imply that the lives of the disabled are of lesser value. You can read the ruling here: https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Crowter-v-SSHSC-summary.pdf

[14] In 2017/18, councils in England spent £5.5bn on services supporting 131,415 working-age adults with learning disabilities. This equates to £41,852 per person on average – higher than the UK median salary in 2018 of £29,559. See stats here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/people-with-learning-disabilities-in-england/chapter-5-adult-social-care

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

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