08 November 2011


I've dithered about posting this. What I have to say here is a very big deal for me. I think, though, that it needs to be said.

When I was nineteen, I had a religious experience. Two, in fact, one a few weeks after the other. The second was in a church, but this wasn’t directly relevant as the first was on a beach. Both involved an intense appreciation of the beauty of the created world (a particularly fine sunset, a woman’s singing voice) which opened up into a transcendent sense of joy, in which I had a profound sense of the Creator who’d worked the beauty I was observing.

It’s fair to say that this pair of experiences was fundamental in maintaining my Christian faith over the following couple of decades. As I came to understand the Bible as an assorted collection of disparate ancient texts whose context we could only attempt to reconstruct; as I became fascinated by other faiths and the alternative truths they represented; as I came to realise that much of traditional Christianity, at least as popularly understood by my contemporaries, was anathema to me; as I became embroiled in more and more discussions with atheists who insisted that faith was a delusion, a self-deception, a complete denial of reason and science, I had this to hang on to: I know God. God must exist, because it’s something I’ve experienced for myself.

I derived a theology based on that premise which was rational and satisfying, at least to me: a theology which acknowledged the many reasons for not believing, but combined them with my certain knowledge that God did exist. It was liberal, allowing the inner light of individual conscience to dispel the shadows of biblical and traditional authority. It was apophatic, maintaining that language, logical propositions and the like simply didn’t apply to God because they were invented to describe the created world. It was pluralist, accepting truths from all faiths while privileging Jesus’s interpretation of the divine truth.

It was -- I’m still convinced, given the premises I was working from -- quite rational.

I understood, of course, that there might be sound biochemical or neurological explanations for those foundational experiences which had no need to invoke the divine. I felt that to accept these would be... I’d have to use the word unfaithful: it would be untrue to the quality of the experience, disloyal to the Person with whom I felt the experience had placed me in contact. Having experienced that transcendence, attributing it to a glitch in my brain chemistry would have felt simply dishonest.

What changed my mind (and here I’m doubly outing myself, compounding my newfound atheism with an admission of mental illness) was my experience of clinical depression. In a diffuse way this is something I’ve suffered from, in retrospect, for my entire life since puberty, and perhaps earlier; but it was the total disruption of all my established habits and coping strategies following the birth of my son which brought it out into the open. It’s a hellish condition, blotting out all happiness and love from life for days or weeks at a time.

I want to be clear about one thing. This isn’t one of those anti-testimonials that runs ‘I believed in God, but then he didn’t help me in my personal tragedy, so I gave up on him’. I wasn’t the kind of na├»ve, arrogant Christian who cheerily assumes the Problem of Pain doesn’t apply to them, and is gobsmacked to discover that suddenly it does. (There are solutions to the Problem which strike me as intellectually satisfying, and solutions which strike me as emotionally satisfying, but I’ve never seen one which managed to be both. Nonetheless, I didn’t assume that my satisfaction was the most important criterion, or -- given the whole apophatic issue -- that the ‘true’ solution was susceptible to being understood in human terms.)

For a couple of years as I suffered from depression, I integrated it smoothly into my Christian faith -- not in any special way as ‘my cross to bear’, but on what seemed to me the obvious basis that shit happens, I’m bloody lucky I don’t live in Darfur, and this is still a world in which God exists.

Then one day, I wondered what it would take for my depression actually to destroy my faith. And almost at once I came to the conclusion that the only way it could do that would be to make me disbelieve in the reality of those experiences of transcendent joy, back in my teens.

This was followed, seconds later, by the realisation that depression is a state of transcendent misery, every bit as all-encompassing and world-obscuring as those fleeting crises of euphoria. And if I could believe -- as I do, of course -- that my depression came from my aberrant brain-chemistry, how could I any longer deny that those earlier experiences could have arisen the same way, in the strange turmoil of my late teens?

If I had never, in fact, been in contact with the divine, if that sense of transcendence had in fact been a neurological artefact, then all my theology was built on a false foundation, and the many perfectly sensible arguments that God was not a necessary proposition to hold to would have to come powerfully into effect.

One solution, of course, would have been immediately to ascribe depression to the Devil. But Satan had never had a place in my theology, and I couldn’t seriously consider introducing him merely in order that I could go on believing in God.

I’d always maintained that faith is not an irrational phenomenon; that it can be as sensible and sane a philosophy as any secular one; that fear of death, desire for reward and punishment, and submission to authority were not among my reasons for belief; that the desire to believe, no matter that I felt it, was not sufficient reason to believe; and that if I ever became convinced through reason that my faith was invalid, I would abandon it.

It lasted twenty years.

But it would be dishonest -- it would be unfaithful to the truth as I perceive it -- to cling on to it any longer.

I have more to say about the consequences of this, about how my thinking has been and will be affected by this, about the kind of atheist I intend to be, and the kind I intend never to become -- and, perhaps, about the kind of Christian I might conceivably still be. But this is long enough to be getting on with, I think.


  1. This is a very, very brave post. I've always been very impressed with the intelligence and humanity of your religious thoughts, and I'm sure I will be equally impressed with your thoughts as an atheist.
    I just hope that such a major change hasn't caused too many other problems in your life.
    Let me know if I can be any help with your depression. It's something my wife and I both suffer from, and I've also had experience working on psych. wards, so I know about it from both ends.

  2. Anonymous6:07 pm

    Thank you for writing that. I realised about 5 years ago that I had lost my faith (it had been ebbing away for years) and it was a hard truth to come to terms with. I'll try and talk to you about it some time if you're interested. I hope you can eventually settle happily into your new view of the world.


  3. Very courageous post, Phil, and not in a Yes, Minister sense. It can't have been easy to write. I can hardly imagine what changing your worldview ike this must be like.

  4. ...fighting the urge to post a response to this post offering to pray for you and cast out the demons of doubt, etc...
    On a less flippant note, I've definitely found reading Cupitt helped me negotiate my head around some of this stuff, and resulted in me deciding to self-describe as "Christian non-realist" rather than "agnostic" although that is of import to pretty much no-one but myself of course, as nobody else has any kind of idea what a Christian non-realist *is* and wouldn't care if they did. Perhaps it's really a kind of esoteric club for people like me who based their lives in organised religion and can't quite bring themselves to let go... in which case it may not be much use to you, but I offer it for what it's worth.

  5. um. Too many Helens. I'm Helen Angove.

  6. NotInventedHere10:51 am

    I am currently reading some stuff that is steering me in a similar direction, so a huge thank you for posting this. I would say more, but I am not quite 'there' yet. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  7. Thanks, everybody, for the sympathy and support. It means a lot.

    I'm still trying to work out what all of this means for my daily habits of thinking, relationship and morality. Essentially, what I've said in this post is a holding position. There are nuances and wrinkles and great big unexplored areas. It's going to take me a while to work out what exactly my position is now. Some people have suggested that I might still be able to find transcendence in "creation" without the need to posit a creator, which is plausible and somewhat comforting.

    I'll be updating the blog with thoughts on that, hopefully.

    I have been wondering about "Christian non-realism" as a position (although it's a rubbish label, given that "non-realist" in this context means exactly what many non-theologians would describe as "realist".) Helen (2), are there any particular Don Cupitt books you'd recommend?

  8. Helen3:33 pm

    The one Cupitt I've read is "Taking Leave of God." It's not flawless, but there's a lot there, and having had this strong gut feeling that theology must go *somewhere* even if God is taken out of the equation (though maybe it should really be called philosophy now?) Cupitt helped put some flesh on that. I keep meaning to read more post-modern theology, and have a whole reading list to get on with, but some bastard editor has got me writing a short story that seems to be taking up all my spare time at the moment...
    Also... I think my last comment didn't actually contain very much in the way of sympathy and support, because I couldn't find the words. But it's there--always.

  9. Incidentally, I hope this doesn't seem crass or inappropriate, but I think in the light of your experiences (and your interest in religious-themed SF) you might find some resonance in Greg Egan's story Oceanic ( http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/OCEANIC/Oceanic.html ) which seems in turn to be based on his own, rather similar, experiences ( http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/ESSAYS/BAB/BAB.html ).

    These are passed on in the hope that they may be of interest or help, though I'm well aware that they may also make you feel worse, and if they do I apologise...

  10. Sorry, that first link should be http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/OCEANIC/Complete/Oceanic.html

  11. Helen -- I've put Taking Leave of God on my Amazon wishlist (along with an interesting-sounding book someone else recommended to me, Rational Mysticism by John Horgan). Thank you.

    Andrew -- Thank you, too. I'm not a fan of Egan's fiction, but there are some interesting parallels there (as well as non-parallels, in that my experiences weren't in the least coerced).

    For the record, I've realised I can't possibly have been nineteen when all this happened -- the chronology's all wrong. I think I must have been at the top end of seventeen, in fact.

  12. FWIW, I don't think that experiences of transcendance in the universe, and atheism, are incompatible. Perhaps that's what you mean by "creation" without necessarily "creator".

    This is, as others have said above, a brave post, and a brave (and intellectually honest, from what you've said about your own thought processes) change of mental direction.

  13. Hi Phil. As others have said, a brave post, both to talk about depression and faith. Thank you for it.

  14. I think you've articulated what many people (including myself) have gone through. My "transcendent sense of joy" came from feeling - as I put it at the time - of being "touched by the hand of God" on a few occasions in my gap year(aged 18/19) when what I suppose now to be fortunate coincidences came about to keep me safe when I might otherwise have been in quite a fix. I came back to the UK full of awe for Him (It?). I don't remember, though, exactly how or when this went away. I think it started to ebb during my university years and has now disappeared altogether I think as a result of relentless floggings by the reality and horror of the world. The question of "do I believe in God" now usually sits in a black tied up box in the back of my head marked "don't go there". The lid does peak open a little on occasion I look at the wonder of the universe and our world within it and think "Really? Did this Really Really happen by accident?". I haven't sought to resolve this question through didactic, reading or deep thought. Most of the time I find it easier just not thinking about it and agreeing with myself that notions of God people feel are really about recognising the humanity in one another. And my rationalisation of Christ's teaching as being all about how to do that. What I mean is, I don't think you have to believe in God to be a Christian...

  15. Anonymous7:42 am

    I was wondering about mentioning Cupitt too. It's a long time since I saw his Sea of Faith series (1984!) and read After God (1997!) (and Anthony Freeman's God in Us), so I'm rusty on details. But my glib understanding of 'Christian non-realism' is simply that it's a clunky term for a position which holds that Christian theology is still useful but should be regarded as metaphorical.

    I totally agree with posters above that one can have a transcendent sense of creation. Though I suppose maybe I mean 'transcendent' metaphorically!

    Anyway, thanks for this admirable post, and good luck exploring your new Weltanschauung.

  16. Phil, I just wanted to come here and record my appreciation for this blog post, which I can only guess at how difficult it must have been for you to write.

    I know you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye on the subject of religion in ‘another place’ which shall remain nameless, but I have been touched deeply by this post, mainly as it has given me a fascinating insight into the struggles mental illness causes. As a fully paid up member of the psychiatric profession, this kind of insight and lucidity isn’t always readily available – so on a purely functional note, this post has notched up my ‘understanding’ which is never a bad thing.

    I also wanted to say, and I don’t know if this offers any relevance, or even any comfort to you, but those transcendent experiences you describe, are not ones that disappear without faith in God. Throughout my life, I have had a number of similar experiences at moments of beauty, or of utter delight in the workings of humanity and the world, and not once have those experiences shaken my fundamental atheism.

    Those moments, I hope, will keep coming for you too even though you won’t need a faith to explain or appreciate them.

    Take care dude.

  17. I too admire the work of Don Cupitt and other Christian non-realists. My own mother, who raised me as an atheist, converted *to* such a form of Christianity without changing her atheistic metaphysical position (i.e. her non-belief in any traditional God) one bit. She talks instead of the importance of ritual, social function, community, narrative and maybe a Jungian conception of God.

    However, I find two things somewhat troubling about such a position. Firstly, it can smack of a Leo Strauss-like position, where you talk of the utility of religion, and let the unwashed masses believe in it all, while the intellectuals know it's all just a story. How does a Christian non-realist interact with the vast majority who do believe the metaphysical side? How does a Christian non-realist enact their belief, and their non-belief?

    Secondly, it also seems to wed one to a certain cultural conservatism. Why be a Christian non-realist rather than, say, a Muslim non-realist, or a Buddhist non-realist? Islam is this wonderful, rich and very cat-friendly religion. Why reject all that? What makes one a *Christian* non-realist other than an accident of birth?

  18. The continued kind comments are very much appreciated, thank you all.

    I need to give some proper thought to the idea of Christian non-realism -- but Henry, I'm not sure what the problem would be with acknowledging that one had chosen that particular mode of religious non-realism as a consequence of birth. Can't the point be one of engaging positively with the religious community of one's origin and subsequent history, which in this instance happens to be etc?

    The argument of elitism is one I've heard before. I don't see that it's in any sense a necessary consequence, but then I've not read Cupitt yet.

  19. It was an experience of depression that forced me to re-examine my religious fundamentalism some 25 years ago. I came out of that re-examination as a religious agnostic. That seems to annoy the fundies more than if I were an atheist: they see it as a sort of Laodicean "neither hot not cold", rather than being hot on questioning and examining everything.


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