Seeking the truth about antidepressants

Judging by some recent headlines it would seem that the controversy over antidepressants has been resolved. On February 21 2018 the medical journal The Lancet published on-line a study (Cipriani et al, 2018 – hereafter, ‘The Cipriani study’) containing a meta-analysis of antidepressants, with a view to “compare and rank antidepressants for the acute treatment of adults with unipolar major depressive disorder”.

The Cipriani study was a meta-analysis of other studies. That is, it was a statistical exercise at one remove from clinical experience, concerned to gather as much information as possible from a diverse range of studies (this is a well established and respected form of analysis for seeking more robust conclusions than can be gathered from any single study).

Nearly thirty thousand citations were identified and from these some 522 trials were considered in the meta-analysis, covering nearly 117,000 patients. These trials were those which covered antidepressant use, comparing antidepressant use with placebo or an alternative antidepressant, where there was “a primary diagnosis of major depressive disorder according to standard operationalised diagnostic criteria”.

The Cipriani study concluded: “the findings from this network meta-analysis represent the most comprehensive currently available evidence base to guide the initial choice about pharmacological treatment for acute major depressive disorder in adults” and that “All antidepressants were more efficacious than placebo in adults with major depressive disorder.”

This gave rise to some remarkable headlines and reporting in the national press. The Guardian newspaper, for example, headlined their discussion of the paper with the headline “The drugs do work: antidepressants are effective, study shows.”

I believe that we need to be a great deal more cautious than those journalists. To begin with, it is worth making note of the claims actually made in the Cipriani study itself. The authors of the Cipriani study claim that they provide information for the initial (not the long-term) choice of medication (as opposed to non-drug treatments) for those with acute major depressive disorder (not all depressed patients) in adults (not children). Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that the short-term benefits of antidepressants “are, on average, modest”; that the long-term effects of antidepressant use are “understudied”; that there is “paucity of knowledge about how antidepressants work”; and that “the certainty of evidence was moderate to very low” in the studies that they were assessing. These are commendably cautious comments.

However, even with those caveats, the Cipriani study is open to a more rigorous critique. As mentioned above, the Cipriani study is a meta-analysis. It gathers the most comprehensive survey of relevant research on antidepressants and subjects that research to a statistical analysis, with the aim of extracting a more general truth. The worth of any meta-analysis is entirely dependent on the quality of the research that is thereby aggregated. If there is a systematic flaw in the original research, then that flaw will be reinforced by the meta-analysis – in other words, if the original research is garbage then all that a meta-analysis will provide is highly processed garbage.

The first major problem is that 78% of the papers assessed in the Cipriani study were funded by the pharmaceutical industry. The authors contend that this made no difference to their conclusions, stating “In our analyses, funding by industry was not associated with substantial differences in terms of response or dropout rates. However, non-industry funded trials were few and many trials did not report or disclose any funding.” This conclusion is open to some question, as other research demonstrates that studies funded by the pharmaceutical industry are five times more likely to report a positive effect of a drug.

The second major problem is that the research assessed remains predicated on the ‘disease centred model’ of depression. On this understanding of depression there is an underlying problem with the brain, understood as a physical construct, which a particular drug therapy can rectify. One analogy commonly used is that of insulin for diabetics: the normal functioning of a pancreas is impaired in those suffering from diabetes, giving rise to various unpleasant symptoms up to and including death. The administration of insulin makes up for the lack of insulin normally provided by the pancreas, thus enabling the diabetic to resume a normal life. Thus, a disease centred model for antidepressant drug use views the drug as addressing a specific problem within the human body which gives rise to the symptoms of depression. The drug treats that underlying problem – the ‘disease’ – and as a result the patient is cured, ie returned towards a more normal biological state.

The trouble with this ‘disease centred model’ when it comes to depression is that there is almost no evidence in its favour, and a very large amount of evidence against it. Whilst it has been a dominant way of understanding depression for the last few decades, it is now becoming discredited. According to the British Psychological Society, “it is timely and appropriate to affirm publicly that the current classification system … in respect of the functional psychiatric diagnoses, has significant conceptual and empirical limitations. Consequently, there is a need for a paradigm shift in relation to the experiences that these diagnoses refer to, towards a conceptual system which is no longer based on a ‘disease’ model.”

My sympathies are with a group of psychiatrists, medical practitioners and researchers who align themselves with the Critical Psychiatry Network. According to their chair, Dr Joanna Moncrieff of University College London, “…the disease-centred model of drug action has been adopted, and recently widely publicised, not because the evidence for it is compelling, but because it helped promote the interests of certain powerful social groups, namely the psychiatric profession, the pharmaceutical industry and the modern state.”

Coming back to antidepressants specifically, I find a summary given by Dr Richard Byng (a GP) to be well formed: “while most people get better while taking antidepressants we won’t know if, when you are better, this is due to placebo, other positive things you are doing, the natural course of mood changes or, least likely, a positive effect of the drug.”
In short, we are a long way away from knowing the full truth about the effectiveness of antidepressants, despite the optimistic headlines in places like the Guardian.

Caveat: nothing in what I say here should be taken as underestimating the immense amount of suffering endured by those struggling with depression. My concern is about seeking the most effective way to alleviate that suffering – in other words, about what can help people be healed.

We need to sift the sixties

We are so caught up in the arguments following from our cultural fragmentation that we miss opportunities to step back and ask ‘how did we get here?’ Most historical explanations can go back as far as patience can take us, certainly I think the agricultural revolution is an oft-overlooked factor in our contemporary gender politics, yet it is surely the 1960s that are worth pondering as the background to our present malaise.

After all it was in the 1960s that ‘everything changed’. Traditional defence was pushed aside (as with the Lady Chatterley trial and the consequences of the Profumo affair); progressive laws were introduced with regard to abortion, sexual rights, divorce law and the abolition of capital punishment; popular (youth) culture transformed itself with new musical styles and the consequences of the ready availability of the contraceptive pill; changing patterns of work and home life leading to the equal pay act and so on.

So much of this seems unarguably good, yet I do believe that certain social currents were established in the 1960s that we now need to pay much closer attention to, and these seem to be coming into a focus around gender relations.

All right thinking people believe in equality of treatment for the sexes before the law. That, perhaps, is a weaselly phrase (who counts as ‘right thinking’, and who decides who counts?) yet it is only in the darkest corners of the internet that arguments against a full equality of treatment for one sex – or another – can be found.

Yet what this insistence upon equality of treatment seems to have set in train is the notion that men and women are functionally equivalent. This leads to some absurdities, as when a military force lowers the standards for entry (the US Marine Corps) in order to enable more women to enter. The ideal of an elite fighting force is being sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. This is an ultimately self-destructive path.

We need to learn once again that an acknowledgement of differences in the aggregate between different groups – as between men and women – does not necessitate the unequal treatment of any one individual man or woman. If there is a particular standard that needs to be reached in order to be a marine, let that standard be maintained. Some women will be able to achieve it. Of what worth is the achievement if it is known that the standards were lowered? Isn’t that in itself a deeply patronising and insulting stance to adopt?

There is now so much research indicating the profound differences between the typical man and the typical woman, in terms not simply of obvious biological externals but internal brain architecture and hormonal equilibriums. Remarkably, some of the most eloquent testimony comes from women who are transitioning to a male identity, and taking testosterone supplementation for that purpose – and who are profoundly shocked and chastened to discover the different ways in which male sexuality informs the psychology as a result of that extra testosterone.

What has often seemed to happen as a result of the liberation let loose by the 1960s is that women have been encouraged to be men, that women can do anything that a man can do. This seems to me to be such a profoundly mistaken approach; not only is it the case that making women into not-quite-good-enough men doesn’t help either sex, it also radically underestimates and undervalues the distinctively feminine strengths that women have always been able to bring to bear. The culture of feminism that so denounces patriarchy seems to have no conception of just how strongly men wish to please the women in their lives, and the impact that this has upon the power balance between the sexes.

What is worse, this mistaken evaluation of female strength has gone hand in hand with a vilification of male strength, and this has a current form in discussions of ‘toxic masculinity’. In a culture that has claimed that men are superfluous, and that has pushed that notion to its logical conclusion through the divorce courts, we have ended up with generations of young men that have been deprived, not just of contact with their fathers, but of contact with any truly virile examples of what a noble man might look like. Men need competition; boys need proper ‘rough and tumble’ if they are to learn both their own power and the importance of boundaries. What we now have are so many examples of rootless and hollow men causing chaos in ways large and small. The natural counter to this is not to continue taking away responsibility and authority from all men but rather to ensure that those men who bear authority are well equipped to do so. Which means we need to talk about virility and virtue – both words with distinctly masculine (vir) roots.

What seems to have happened is that an embrace of radical individualism has been allowed to undermine all the blessings that come from community cohesion. We need to strike a new balance between those two necessary elements of a healthy common life: not a return to some mythical bygone era in which everyone knew their place and stuck to it, nor an environment in which every single solitary person is allowed to follow their own desires irrespective of the harms that might follow from their choices, but rather a place in which the community can serve the individual and the individual in turn can serve the community. The truth is that neither can flourish without the other – the present emphasis on individual freedom and personal choice seems to have as its most salient feature a radical rise in personal misery and depression.

These things are all connected. As we see the consequences of choices made fifty years ago we need to sift them to work out what was good and what was bad, restoring a healthy discrimination and judgement that will enable all of us to flourish.

The fragility of civility

I wonder how many of you have seen the Channel 4 interview that took place between the journalist Cathy Newman and the Canadian academic psychologist Jordan Peterson. I thoroughly recommend seeking it out on YouTube if you haven’t seen it, as Peterson is a stimulating and lucid thinker. Yet what most struck me when I watched it was the remarkable lack of civility displayed by Ms Newman.

Repeatedly – and by ‘repeatedly’ I mean on at least two dozen occasions – Ms Newman appeared to listen to Peterson before then stating “What you’re saying is X”, where X is a remarkably dishonest and misleading construal of Peterson’s remarks. This is an example:

Peterson: …if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcome.
Newman: Right, so you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists, call them whatever you want to call them, should basically give up, because it ain’t gonna happen.
Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.
Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine?
Peterson: Not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals and for society.
Newman: But still women aren’t gonna make it. That’s what you’re really saying.
Peterson: It depends on your measurement techniques. They’re doing just fine in medicine…

newman bacon

What I want to bring out here is the remarkable lack of civility that Newman brings to the discourse, compared with the abundance of civility that Peterson displays. Just imagine how the conversation would develop if, instead of Newman saying “What you’re saying is X” she simply asked “are you saying X?”

We might call this the John Humphrys-isation of our journalistic traditions, whereby the task of the journalist is no longer to dispassionately seek the truth and share that truth with their audience or readership – so, in Newman’s case, to ensure that those watching Channel 4 at that point were given a clear understanding of Peterson’s ideas – but rather the journalist believes that their task is to be an advocate for one partisan tradition over against another. When a guest is perceived to be advancing a cause antagonistic to the journalist’s own tradition then they are traduced and mis-represented, as has become so wonderfully clear in the Newman-Peterson interview. Still, at least Peterson was allowed on to the television programme in the first place. The views of the majority of the British population tend not to be given any air-time at all.

I wonder whether this is one aspect behind the popularity of costume dramas like The Crown, Downton Abbey or Howard’s End, which show the country – people like us – operating in a vastly more civilised manner. I am not simply referring to the possibilities of grace and ease that are afforded by being stupendously rich. Rather, I refer to a shared culture of acceptable behaviour that had at its core a distinctly Christian ethos of shared mutual respect – distinctively Christian as it rests upon the idea that all human beings are made in the image of God, which is one of the elements of Christianity that marks it out as different to other world-views. If a person is made in the image of God then it becomes a form of blasphemy to treat that person without respect. In Downton Abbey, this could be seen very clearly with the servants, under the benign stewardship of the Butler Mr Carson. There was a clear standard of correct behaviour which all were required to adhere to.

Is this just a form of curmudgeonly conservatism? A pining for a long-gone age of deference and a refusal to acknowledge the huge advances in human welfare of the last hundred years? I would argue not. It isn’t simply about the possibilities of polite discourse, undertaken in a shared spirit of enquiry and humility before the truth. It is rather one aspect of an overall coarsening and vulgarisation of our national character and culture which has some very stark and chastening consequences.

One that particularly alarms me relates to the welfare of our children, especially our daughters. If we consider the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, amongst the victims of that particular terrorist atrocity were young teenage girls dressed up in ways that exaggerated their age and such secondary sexual characteristics that they might have possessed. There is a link between such display and the way in which the white girls of Rotherham were preyed upon by abusive gangs. In other words, a culture of civilisation protects the vulnerable and the innocent, whereas in the culture that we have now – which is all about assertion and aggression from both men and women – it is the vulnerable and the innocent that suffer the most. Am I the only person who thinks that something like Nickelodeon is designed to stimulate a paedophiliac culture, in Hollywood and then more widely? I worry for the stars of Stranger Things like Millie Bobby Brown, who at the age of 13 is being taken up into the Hollywood publicity machine and made-over to look much older. This is not healthy. This is not right.

I would not wish for one moment to say that there has been a previous golden age to which we must return – that’s a delusional and destructive path to choose. Yet surely there are creative ways in which we can revive the best of what has gone before, alongside all the gains that have been accrued since? A way of restoring a sense of truth, beauty and goodness to guide our common choices around ways of behaving and relating to one another?

What we have without such a shared sense is a disintegrating culture in which all civility is removed in favour of the naked struggle for power. We see the consequences every day, not least in all the arguments that continue to rattle on about Brexit. No longer are different people with different abilities united around a common aim; rather, those differences are exalted and exploited in order to service the media gods of drama and conflict.

Civility is both fragile and marvellous. We neglect its cultivation at our own peril.

The nature of our Brexit

The quirks of editorial deadlines mean that I write this article just two days after Theresa May has forged enough of an consensus with the EU to enable talks about an eventual trade agreement.

I’m mostly extremely happy about what Theresa May has agreed. The financial settlement is the first element, which might end up being around £40bn spread over several years. Given the scale of our contributions to the EU, and the amount that will actually be reimbursed back to us (our rebate is going to continue) this amounts to a net transfer of around two years worth of our prior EU member state contributions. So not a lot in the overall scheme of things. This will then end, at which point we are free of all financial obligations and in a position to enjoy something of a windfall. Excellent.

The second element is about citizenship. It always seemed to me transparently obvious that both sides have an interest in a civilised settlement that preserves all the accrued rights enjoyed by our respective citizens, and that seems to have been accomplished. Again, ongoing recourse to the ECJ is time-limited and will cease after eight years. So: also excellent.

The third element, which has risen in both prominence and political temperature, relates to the Irish border. Any eventual solution will have to be integrated into whatever trading agreement is eventually adopted – there is no way of answering the border question separately. I’m glad that the talks were not fully derailed by this issue but I also have a strong suspicion that the Irish Taoiseach has overreached himself.

Although it was Arlene Foster’s phone call that disrupted Mrs May’s planned announcement of a deal – leading to a week of frantic diplomacy – the essential Unionist point, that there can be no internal barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, is widely accepted. This simply had to be spelled out in extremely clear terms, hence the reiteration in the text of the agreement that the UK as a whole is leaving the EU’s internal market (‘single market’) and the customs union, and that there will be no .

However, in order to get this agreed, there was also inserted into the agreement a text that will continue to cause problems between now and March 2019. The crucial paragraph in the text is this one: “The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”

In essence, Mrs May’s strategy with respect to Ireland is to aim for a wider EU-UK trade agreement that solves the border problem itself. If that isn’t possible then she has agreed to seek ‘specific solutions’ to the border problem, which will be some form of technological and pragmatic compromise.

The kicker comes with the third option, which is what Mrs May has agreed to (in principle – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed). In the absence of a wider EU-UK deal which solves things, or a technological solution, then the UK as a whole is committing itself to ‘full alignment’ with the regulatory system of the EU.

This is a potential disaster, and not something that any Leaver could willingly countenance. Full alignment for the UK would mean that we would track the EU’s internal market regulations without having any say in how they are developed. This is a worse situation than we are in at the moment. Tactically, for the negotiations, it gives the EU an incentive to be uncompromising on the question of the border, as they would benefit from the UK remaining aligned. Strategically it compromises all the most exciting elements of Brexit, involving the pursuit of free trade deals with other countries around the world.

So I see this element as the most problematic. However, I recognise that giving this concession was pragmatically necessary, as it has allowed the movement through to trade discussions. I would see two priorities for the UK negotiators over the coming year. The first is that any trade agreement has to include services, which maintains the existing recognition of UK institutions by the EU. I am hopeful that this will be included as it is in the EU’s interest as a whole, even if not in the interests of all members of the EU, such as those cities like Frankfurt and Paris which seek to take some business away from the city. The second is that the UK needs to be set free to negotiate trade deals for itself from March 2019, even if such deals cannot take effect until the end of the transition period.

I am extremely keen that we move quickly to have an effective CANZUK agreement; that is, a open trading system between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. We have so much in common already – a shared head of state, a shared language, a shared common law tradition, alongside all of our shared history and familial connections. I would give this the highest priority – certainly higher than an agreement with the United States, attractive though that would be.

On the whole, I think that Mrs May has done rather a good job, certainly enough to ensure that she stays in post until this process is complete. There is still a very long way to go, but I am now much more confident than I was that there will be an eventual free trade agreement with the EU, and that our exit from that structure will be well managed.

First they came for the white man

Many will be familiar with the message shared by Martin Niemoller, a German Pastor who spent seven years imprisoned by the Nazis:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller’s point is a profound one. If we allow a society to develop which victimises a particular class of people, then a dynamic is established which will end in our own destruction. A system that requires sacrifices and scapegoats will slowly work its way threw a list. In the Nazi society, the scapegoats were principally the Jews, but also gypsies, homosexuals and handicapped. We now view such a society with utter horror. Yet have we gone too far in the other direction?

Consider briefly the story of James Damore, a former employee of the internet company Google. Google is officially committed to diversity and inclusion, that is, they are concerned to ensure that they are not prejudiced in how they recruit people to work for them. There has been discussion within the company as to why, despite their best efforts, the ratio of male to female amongst their employees was heavily skewed towards men.

Damore wrote a memo drawing on research in the human sciences which indicates that there are significant differences between men and women. These show up not just in terms of intellectual capacity for certain tasks, but also in terms of interests. Damore argued that whilst there were things that could be done by Google to make it a more welcoming environment for women, there may be certain innate constraints that would mean Google would never gain a perfectly balanced ratio of male and female employees – and that this was OK. He called for a conversation around these topics.

For this, Damore was fired from his post.

To my mind, this story sounds like a description of a witch-hunt. The modern gods of diversity and inclusion were offended, and so the source of the heresies needed to be hunted out and expelled from the community. Doubtless there are now many employees of Google enjoying warm fuzzy feelings of self-righteousness – “we’re the good guys”!

What happens when perfectly calm and rational debate is silenced in this way? As Tyrion Lannister put it, “When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” Acting in this way simply gives fuel to those who are much less calm and rational, such as those who recently gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to march for ‘white supremacy’. Whenever I see such a situation I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran, “for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters”.

James Damore is a white man, and that means he is – to use the contemporary jargon – writing from a position of utmost privilege, and as a consequence his words do not need to be considered on their own merits. When there is a struggle for power within a community the different tribes within that community will use all sorts of ways to signal their membership of one tribe or another, and that signalling will serve for the deployment of various sorts of power.

So, James Damore, who is both white and a man (two strikes against him) articulates views that threaten to disrupt the pursuit of what are seen as the highest goods (diversity and inclusion) and is thus deprived of his employment.

The pursuit of diversity and inclusion, what might be thought of as a programme of ‘anti-Nazism’, or a Niemoller manifesto – include those who were excluded! – is now embarked upon the same path as Nazism itself. It has found a scapegoat to embody all that is evil, and will work with all the forms of power available to it in order to victimise and expel that evil. The evil, of course, is the white man.

The challenge is not simply to avoid the manifest evils of Nazism but to engage much more radically in interrogating the human desires which gave rise to such evil. Without this, one form of Nazism (white race is all good!) is simply replaced by its inverse and equal (white race is all bad!). We need to shift away from thinking of human beings as members of categories at all.

What I have in mind is Martin Luther King’s vision of people being judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. Whenever we treat a person as a member of a category we go wrong. That category can be anything we choose – black or white, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim, gay or straight or otherwise engaged – but when we treat a person simply as a member of a class, rather than treating them as a unique individual with their own identity and character – then we are on the dark road that leads to the industrial elimination of that class.

We have to be more creative, honest and open in our search for improving our world, and not rely upon the lazy virtue signalling of the politically correct establishment.

The tightrope we must walk

tightropeI write this article a few days after the latest terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and I wonder what is the right word to describe what has happened. Clearly there is a link between this barbarity and previous barbarities in Stockholm and Paris and Nice and Westminster and Florida and the rest. Should they be called ‘Islamic terrorist acts’? I would say that there is a lot of justification for doing so, for such acts draw upon a long tradition within Islamic thought going back to Muhammed himself.

To do so, would, however, open myself up to all sorts of problems that might make my main points irrelevant; or, if not irrelevant, at least unheard. For as soon as the word ‘Islamic’ is deployed in this context, then the clouds of politically-correct opprobrium descend, accusations of Islamophobia and fascism are made, and all rational considerations depart.

Yet this is also why the police force in Rotherham turned a blind eye to the systematic child abuse perpetrated by those of a particular community in that town. They were afraid of being called racist. As a result thousands of girls suffered horror. Perhaps the only courageous path is also the only honest path – we have to start using the most accurate language to describe the problems that we face. In Manchester, as with Westminster and all the other atrocities, what we face is a form of Islam.

How might we engage with and overcome such a problem? There is a tightrope here that we must walk across with great care.

The recent election in France, to my mind, portrayed the two sides of the tightrope, each one representing a fall into the abyss, two equal and opposite catastrophes. The first catastrophe is Macron, representing an unfettered globalism, where nation states are simply inefficiencies to be overcome by technocratic capitalism. Human beings, both individually and as persons bearing particular cultures, are simply resources to be deployed in the great march towards making more money. Such an approach is both dehumanising and ecocidal, a last flourish for the 1% before the deluge.

Yet Le Pen also offered a catastrophe, one of dehumanising nationalism coupled with a near-imbecilic economic policy. Human beings, when threatened, have a long-studied tendency to scapegoat others when confronted with challenges to their well-being and their world-view. When all that has been held sacred by a community is laid waste, and insult is added to such injury by the suppression of truthful discussion, then the subsequent anger seizes upon the closest available victims on which to vent their furies.

The Macron catastrophe leads to an abolition of meaning, where all are dehumanised in order to worship Mammon. The Le Pen catastrophe leads to a moral collapse, where all are dehumanised in order to worship a reactionary fantasy.

There is a tightrope to be walked between these two options, and we cannot walk upon that tightrope without an honest and truthful account of what is actually happening in our society.

Which means, to my mind, that we have to speak openly about several things. The first is that we have to say that there is a problem with the Islamic community. It does not affect the whole community but it does represent a significant part – a part which is convinced of the inferiority of Western ways of life, and the need to attack such ways using violence. There needs to be an honest conversation about the roots of such attitudes within broader Islamic patterns of thought. Without this discussion, without this ‘bringing to light things now hidden in darkness’, the control of this conversation simply passes to the most extreme voices, and that serves nobody’s best interests.

We also, however, need to talk honestly about the nations, about England and Britain, and about what it means to become a part of such a nation. Much of the contemporary secular mentality is premised on the notion that nations are, as such, obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t just apply to economics, where the expansion of ‘single markets’ reduces the role for national governments in order to maximise profits. Rather, the nation as a source of stability and identity, a focus for loyalty and thereby a ground for community cohesion, needs to be affirmed explicitly and confidently by the whole range of our leadership.

Lastly, we need to talk about religion. Most especially we need to understand the way in which discussion of religious issues in our society are bedevilled by our own peculiar history. We need to understand that our professed ‘enlightenment’ and release from traditional religious beliefs has served merely to blindfold and handcuff us in this present crisis. Without a coherent understanding of the role of religion within our national life, and most especially within the life of those who wish to destroy our culture, we will forever be compelled to robotically reiterate moronic mantras like ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences.

We are so much better than this. We need to avoid such politically correct platitudes that avoid addressing our crisis; we also need to avoid all forms of scapegoating and victimising that pretend to wash our hands of any role in what has gone wrong.

Rather we must engage forthrightly, honestly and courageously with our present predicaments, naming truthfully what is presently happening and yet not collapsing into a reactionary fantasy seeking a restoration of what has been.

We have a tightrope to walk. It is a tightrope made of truth, a tightrope that leads to a hopeful future for all who live in this land, where all give their active consent to a form of life that preserves the peace between all our communities, where we no longer fear to wake up to headlines announcing yet another slaughter of the innocents.

May our political leaders find their proper balance as they seek to carry us across the abyss.

What future for faith?

What is the future of Christianity in this country?

The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.

That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!

The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.

This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.

So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.

So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.

The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.

Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.

So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).

When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.

My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.

People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.

Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.

On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

The grounds of our identity

Have you ever heard Mersea described as the “easternmost inhabited island” in the UK? I know I have. The only trouble with such a statement is that it isn’t true. Horsey Island, in the Walton backwaters, is also inhabited, and is several miles further East from our blessed isle (Horsey is featured in the Arthur Ransome novel Secret Water).

Why mention this? Simply because when Mersea gets described in such a way it seems to be a source of some pride, as if such a geographical feature was important, rather than simply a random fact.

Why is this (false) fact something that gets repeated so often? I wonder if it is because we have lost a sense of what is truly important in our lives, and so we clutch at random bits of information about ourselves to plug the gap.

After all, this is what children do as they grow up. When I was much younger my bedroom wall was plastered with posters, often of Marvel superheroes. The choice of which character to emphasise through such a display felt like a way of asserting my own identity. Such ‘hero-worship’ definitely has a place, as it helps to form a child’s own identity.

Of course, when such adoration persists into adulthood it becomes more of a sign of immaturity. By the time we have reached physical adulthood we are meant to have put away childish things and instead be ready to take part in the shared conversation which is our culture, bringing to it those things which are unique to our own identity.

By that time, all being well, we will have found a sense of who we are that does not depend on trivial, accidental facts – like how tall we are, what hair colour we have, where we were born and so on – but rather on substantial elements of character and virtue, such as a capacity for courage or hard work, or the ability to show mercy and compassion to those in need.

Of course, I am writing this from a Christian point of view. An excellent example of what I am describing was shown recently by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after he discovered that his biological father was not the person that Welby had previously assumed. Welby wrote this, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

Fundamental to the Christian view of the world is the understanding that what the world can offer is of no ultimate importance. Worldly values are for the Christian only ever of intermediate importance, they are means to ends rather than ends in themselves. This includes all forms of material wealth but also all that connects with our material bodies, what St Paul describes as ‘the flesh’ – thus, all the things about ourselves over which we have no control. Rather, what matters for the Christian is who we become through our choices. Do we choose to become more grateful and more gracious, or do we choose to become more cynical and sinful?

As I say regularly when I take a funeral, “We brought nothing in to the world, and we can take nothing out”. What that truth obscures, though, is that our souls do pass on, and our souls bear the indelible marks of our choices in this life. When Christians talk about Heaven and Hell, this is what is meant – that if our choices tend to the good, then our souls will have been enabled to express themselves in this life. If, however, our choices tend to the bad, then in just the same way will our souls have been marred or defaced.

This is one of the most important meanings of the resurrection. All the worldly powers had rejected Jesus – the religious authorities had despised him for his teaching, the political authorities executed him for his insubordination, the crowds cried out for his blood because he had disappointed their hopes. What they then chose to destroy was Jesus’ body. The resurrection is God’s way of saying: the religious authorities are wrong, the political authorities are wrong, the crowd is wrong – Jesus was right! More than this, the resurrection is showing that those who can control the body cannot control the soul, and in the end it is the soul that matters and the soul which is vindicated.

To put that in a different way, it is the soul that determines who we are in the sight of God. The soul is that part of ourselves which is unique, irreplaceable and not subject to decay – that is, it is eternal, it shares in the nature of God, it is the light which draws us on into truth, goodness and beauty.

To walk in the light, for the Christian, means to seek the good, to pursue the Kingdom of God, to combat injustice, to fight oppression, to exercise mercy and forgiveness and seek reconciliation between enemies. These are the things by which we are assessed in eternity. We will not be assessed by how much material wealth we have accumulated but by how much we have shared; we will not be assessed by how famous we are but by how much we have loved.

This is not easy, especially in our present society, which shouts so loudly that the opposite is true – that it is what we own that makes us who we are, that the acclamation of the crowd is what validates us. How then, do Christians gain the strength to pursue the good against such a strong headwind of cultural pressure?

I believe it is because we know for certain that we are loved, loved irrespective of anything we might be able to do or achieve. There is a feeling of absolute safety that can come from being held by God, an assurance that nothing the world can do can touch what is most essential to who we are. More than this, this assurance is bound up with a sense of knowing and being fully known, that all that is most essential to who we are can never be damaged by anyone else.

Our identity, in other words, is found in a relationship with the one who created all things, including us. When that source is acknowledged then we do not need to bolster our identity with random facts about who we are. Rather than identifying Mersea by some spurious geographical locator, let’s instead seek an identity for Mersea which is soulful – that here is a place where we look after each other, where the old are cared for and not left alone, where young people have the opportunity to fully express their talents, where we belong to each other and enable each other to be creative and fully human. That’s something worth working for.

One land, one law, one language

It’s about culture, not race. Whenever there is a discussion about how different people from different backgrounds might be able to co-exist, and potential problems are pointed out – like the fact that ‘co-existence’ might not be the intention of some groups – then the word ‘racism’ gets thrown out.

Racism as an insult has functioned to shut down the debate about immigration that our society really needs to have had. It does that because of the dominance of political correctness in our political conversation. Unless we can signal our virtue by repeating the necessary platitudes then society simply shuns us. (I saw a story that ran before the Brexit vote, about a civil servant that had taken unpaid leave from her post in order to actively support the Leave campaign. It was clearly indicated to her that she had committed career suicide – I hope that the referendum result has changed things for her!)

This is why we need to be clear that the issue is not about race – that is, it is not about particular physical characteristics that a person may or may not have. No, it is about culture, that is, it is about the ways in which we order our common lives together.

Different cultures do things differently. Some cultures encourage free speech and individual creativity; other cultures emphasise the importance of community and shared endeavour. Some cultures prohibit the eating of pork; others delight in bacon butties; others enjoy deep-fried Mars bars (allegedly).

Where there is a healthy distance between cultures, their diversity can be celebrated. Tensions arise when different cultures are required to live in close proximity one with another. At that point, where the cultures clash in significant ways, there is a significant risk of conflict. Put in summary form, if you add cultural diversity to immediate proximity then the result will be conflict.

This is what we have seen in our nation in recent decades. Enoch Powell infamously warned of the ‘rivers of blood’ that would flow from uncontrolled immigration, and that is not a bad description of London after the terrorist outrages of 7/7.

Where I very much disagree with Powell’s analysis, however, is that some groups of immigrants have been able to assimilate into our country immensely successfully, whereas others – a minority – not only have failed in the past but show no indication of succeeding at any time in the future.

So, for example, the ‘Windrush’ immigrants that came in the 1950s came from a distinctly British culture – they were, in general, English-speaking, Protestant, cricket-loving, formed within a state that had adopted British common law. Yes, they faced immense racism on their arrival (to our shame) but in many ways these immigrants were ‘more British than the British’. In other words, once the distraction of racism had been removed, their culture could be seen as profoundly compatible with what already existed here, and the new things that they brought, like reggae, could easily be absorbed.

In contrast to this are cultures with values that are inimical to classical British values, which seem to have established semi-autonomous enclaves within our cities – with horrifying consequences as in Rotherham. Some cultures contain deeply engrained misogyny; worse, that misogyny is particularly focussed on white women who are seen as legitimate targets for abuse, as their behaviour (wearing normal Western clothes) shows that they are not respectable and honourable.

It is not possible to have these two cultures co-existing in one space. In the end, one will displace the other. I would argue that if there is to be any form of healthy assimilation and co-existence between people of different cultures then there has to be an acceptance of ‘one land, one law, one language’. In other words, that if people of a different culture are to live peaceably in the ‘one land’ then the primacy of the existing law has to be paramount ‘one law’ and in order to engage with the wider society there has to be an acceptance that there is only ‘one language’ that can be used in any public forum. To accept that a different language is legitimate is to embed divisions with pernicious consequences over time.

We need, as a single British society, to be very clear about what sort of culture we wish to see affirmed and maintained in this land. The existing culture has been under sustained assaults for many decades, and the Tony Blair-led surge in immigration that has so changed the texture of British life needs to be addressed from a position of strong confidence in classic British values.

What does that look like? I am very fond of the story about Sir Charles Napier, who in the mid-nineteenth Century was the Commander-in-Chief in India. There was an Indian custom called Suttee, which required a widow to be burned alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. This had been banned several years before, and Napier was being petitioned by Hindu priests to allow a resumption of the practice. As recorded by his brother William, Napier said this: “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This sort of robust and unapologetic assertion of British values is desperately needed in our present context. It is because we have seen such assertions as ‘in bad taste’ that we have ended up in the predicament that we are in. We need both the scope and the confidence to assert our own distinct English and British identities, in order to ensure that the dominant culture in this land is not eventually eclipsed by the present toxic and aggressive alternative.

I am also convinced that such a robust assertion of ‘Britishness’ would be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of immigrants, who quite often identify more strongly with Britain than many who have been born here. After all, they have chosen to come here as a deliberate act, rather than simply enjoying the good fortune of being born in the best place in the world. Those who hate Britain and all that it stands for are a distinct minority, but they are a minority which need to be engaged with and required to accept that we cannot have different cultures co-existing in the one space, for it can only lead to conflict. One land, one law, one language.

(A Jeremy Creake article for the Courier)

In Praise of English Phlegm

Whatever happened to ‘keep calm and carry on’? Since the result of the referendum was announced as a clear victory for Brexit it seems as if all around are losing their heads and blaming it on each other. Surely we can do better than this cacophonous disorder.

One of the most repugnant forms that this disorder has taken has been through the rise in what are now classed as ‘hate crimes’ – verbal and physical attacks upon those who are seen as different, whether a different class, a different race, a different level of ability; a different language, religion or nationality. Such crimes are symptoms of a serious breakdown in our national cohesion, a failure to remember who we are and what we stand for.

After all, we who live in England live in a land that has seen immigration happen for thousands of years, and each generation of immigrants has given something to English identity. Why is ‘French’ such a common name on Mersea Island? Because of the number of French people who were fleeing the Huguenot massacres in the sixteenth century and came here for safety. What is the most popular take away food in England? Tikka Masala – and thank God for Titash.

For sure, there are practical issues and problems around numbers, and on this topic the referendum gave a very clear steer to our political class about what direction they need to travel in. Yet to bring immigration under a greater measure of control, and to reduce the numbers from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, is not to give license to the most moronic and bigoted amongst us.

No, surely one of the points about Brexit, about wanting to assert our own identity once more, is that we want to assert the best of ourselves, all the things about which we cam most confidently feel proud. Amongst that is English phlegm.

To be phlegmatic is to be calm and dispassionate; it is to take anything that our leadership tells us with at least the proverbial pinch of salt; it is to be accepting of difference within large bounds of tolerance. That is the best of what it means to be English – that we share a common way of life within our shared land, that we give people the emotional room to be themselves, however eccentric or strange people might seem to be. Phlegm is not a cold indifference, it is a pragmatic way of life that has proven itself down the centuries. It is who we are when we are at our best.

Let us all resolve to work together, calmly, pragmatically, phlegmatically. There is no place for racist extremism here. It’s just not English.

[Courier editorial]