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Britain’s hidden religion

In last week’s NS a host of distinguished writers debated what place God should have in our society.

A little while ago I telephoned Professor Antony Flew at his home in Reading. The philosopher once described as “the world’s most famous atheist” was having his lunch. Could I call back later? When I did, however, the great man was not exactly forthcoming. “Professor Flew,” I began, “I wonder if you would be willing to be interviewed for the New Statesman?” “I am old and decrepit,” replied the prof, “but my mind is still sharp. So my answer is no.” Click, brrrr.

The reason for Flew’s refusal, and his brevity, was not some curious dislike for the NS. The answer lies in the designation above. He may once have been described as “the world’s most famous atheist”, but no more. Flew caused a stir – made news around the world, in fact – in 2004, when it was reported that he now believed in God. There had already been rumours of his “conversion” three years previously, which he denied with a response titled: “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m still an atheist!” This time they were confirmed.

New scientific discoveries persuaded him, he said, “that intelligence must have been involved” in producing life. He later backtracked on the reasons for his change of heart, saying he had been misled by the evidence he’d been presented with, a statement that ­attracted some derision in humanist and philosophical circles. Which is why, I suspect, that at the age of 86, Flew doesn’t want to go into all this in depth again.

He does, however, still believe in God – or, in his case, god. For Flew had become not a Christian, but a deist, a distinction the British Humanist Association correctly noted on its website, where it continued for a while to list him as a “distinguished supporter” with the regretful rider: “Professor Flew has recently become a deist. Nevertheless, we would like to thank him for his many years of support.”

Flew was no more sympathetic to the revealed religions of the Book, with their “monstrous Oriental despots” of gods, as he called them, than before. He had simply come to the conclusion that, at the very least, there was probably some kind of “first cause”; and that this, rather than an interventionist deity presiding over an afterlife, was what he meant by “god”.

Most people have probably never heard of the term deism, or, if they had, would fail to distinguish it from theism. The confusion would be understandable given that the two terms’ derivations differ merely in that deist comes from the Latin deus and theist from the Greek theos, and that both mean “god”. The two are very different, however.

Deists believe in a god who created but does not intervene in the universe. That god, however, does not have to be anything more than an entity that set creation in motion. It does not give you the anthropomorphised deity to whom many believers pray, nor any of the trappings and beliefs that we associate with religion.

Theism, on the other hand, implies belief in the God of the Abrahamic religions, who remains present to and active within the world at the same time as transcendent over it.

But, from the Enlightenment onwards, the influence of deism has been vast. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, including Thomas Jef­ferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists, as were the philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire and the English radical pamphleteer Tom Paine. The precise nature of Flew’s deism is a matter of considerable controversy. Some allege that the philosopher has been taken advantage of, and that his 2007 book There Is a God was mainly the work of his American co-author, Roy Varghese, although Flew vigorously denies this. Nevertheless, many felt that the book lacked the coherence and style of his earlier works, such as God and Philosophy and his essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, and did not show the brilliance of a mind known to generations of undergraduates. A New York Times reviewer summed up the mood of the new book’s detractors: “I doubt thoughtful believers will welcome this volume. Far from strengthening the case for the existence of God, it rather weakens the case for the existence of Antony Flew.”

The deism of the Founding Fathers, however, was significantly stronger than that which can be ascribed to Flew with con­fidence. Theirs was that of a natural religion, one that was not revealed to Middle Eastern prophets but could be arrived at by reason. The laws of nature must have been designed, goes the argument, hence there must be a designer, and the concept of natural rights (which so permeates the United States constitution) is embodied in his creation.

Any belief in scriptural authenticity or an ­afterlife is not entailed, although many of these deists were close enough to religion for it to be queried today whether they were, in fact, not deists but rationalist theists. Benjamin Franklin was typical of those who took this approach. “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” he wrote to the president of Yale University in 1790, “I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

If Franklin’s words strike a chord with many, including those who think of themselves as being Christians, perhaps that is no surprise. According to Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham and a world-renowned New Testament scholar, most of them are in fact deists – whether they know it or not. “I think that almost all ‘ordinary English’ people – and a good many others, too – simply take a deist framework of thought for granted and when they hear the word ‘god’ that’s what they are thinking of,” he tells me. “The fact that there is a major difference between deism and the three Abrahamic religions is not just news to most; it is incomprehensible when the ‘news’ is told them.”

Wright’s analysis certainly fits with the vague professions and low-level observance that characterise the popular image, and often the reality, of English churchgoing (as opposed to the more rigid theologies and greater demands placed on followers of, say, Catholicism and Islam). And if it is correct, it is of far greater significance than the decision of one particular atheist, however famous, to join them. C S Lewis was once himself a deist, until he took a journey to Whipsnade Zoo in the sidecar of his brother’s motorbike, at the end of which he found he had become a Christian. But his later words, subsequent to his final conversion, are a stern rebuke to any Christian who fails to affirm the divinity of Christ, or thinks of him merely as a great teacher; for they have in fact lapsed into deism. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher,” wrote Lewis. “He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.”

No in-between path can be taken to be truly Christian. In which case, the multitudes that do take just such paths, while still occasionally taking a pew, and the similar numbers of those who profess no formal religion, but maintain a hazy conviction that there must be some originator of the universe, may make up the millions of what could be thought of as Britain’s hidden religion – a deist faith that the world has forgotten.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood