Explainer
Creed
4 min read

The unusual power of silently remembering together

The collective silence of remembrance acts is unusual. Christie Gilfeather listens to the powerful lessons it provides.

Christie Gilfeather writes about the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and its relevance to culture. She has a PhD in Biblical Studies from the University of Cambridge and is a parish priest in Hertfordshire.

Princes and army officers walk away from a war memorial while others look on.
Then Prince Charles at the Cenotaph war memorial, 2017.
Number 10, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every year on the 11th of November at 11am, people across the UK stop whatever they’re doing and keep a two minutes silence in honour of those who have died in war. This collective silence provides the opportunity to reflect on the loss of life and cost of peace. It gives us the chance to consider the conflicts raging around the world today.   

Collective silence is an unusual thing in our culture. There are few, if any, other opportunities for silence which are as widespread as the tradition at the centre of Remembrance Day. Silence is, however, a powerful tool in relation to suffering and death. It acts as a reminder that in the face of some horrors, there is simply nothing to say. Presence becomes all that we have to offer, because words simply cannot capture the depth of the sadness to which we bear witness. And we must bear witness to them.  

No words are said. People stand alongside each other and bear witness both to the grief and to the light of hope represented by the flickering candle.   

Remembrance Sunday is one part of the wider season of remembrance in the church. This season begins with the feast of All Soul’s, when the church gathers to remember by name those who have died.  

A powerful tradition lies at the heart of All Soul’s services: the priest reads out a list of names of the dead. If you are grieving a loved one, it is a great relief to hear someone else say their name. Grief can be intensely lonely and easily forgotten by others. But the church promises not to forget, honouring the beloved memories of those missing from our communities on the feast of All Souls. In many churches, after the list of names is read a silence is held in which the congregation comes forward to light a candle in memory of their loved one. No words are said. People stand alongside each other and bear witness both to the grief and to the light of hope represented by the flickering candle.   

The value of silence is easily lost in this world which prompts us to rush to speak about everything that is happening. The Bible, though, offers us examples of the power of times of silence and the wisdom that can emerge from them. 

They did not speak, because this was not a place for words. They remained with him to bear witness to his suffering without trying to resolve it.

At the beginning of the book of Job in the Old Testament, we find the protagonist in the midst of disaster. Job has lost everything, his home, his livestock, his family and his health. When Job’s friends hear about what has happened to him, they seek him out to be with him amid his suffering. The story tells us that  

‘They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’.  
There are no platitudes here. No hastily put together explanation of why this might have happened or what Job needs to do about it. The friends saw that Job’s suffering was ‘very great’ and they allowed their presence to be enough. They did not speak, because this was not a place for words. They remained with him to bear witness to his suffering without trying to resolve it. In the story this silence eventually gives way to unhelpful words, but it is striking, nonetheless.  

We find another example of silence during grief in the New Testament. John’s gospel recounts the death of a friend of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill and quickly dies, and upon hearing the news Jesus makes haste to join Lazarus’ sisters and bear witness to their pain. There is some dialogue in the story, but the most striking part of it comes when Jesus reaches the grave of his friend. The shortest verse in the Bible is found here. It simply says, 

‘Jesus wept’.  

At this point, Jesus doesn’t say anything. He simply weeps, moved as he is by the death of his friends and the grief of those around him. Jesus weeps, even though he knows that before long Lazarus will rise from the dead.  

But Jesus does not rush to the surprise and joy of resurrection. Jesus’ silence and his weeping is an example of what it means to grieve well alongside others when they are hurting. In what is perhaps one of the purest expressions of the human condition, Jesus responds to the weight of loss and the fragility of life in his silent bearing witness to the loss of his friend.  

When we bear witness to the suffering of others without seeking to fill it with our own explanations or opinions, we honour the loss that is before us.

Within the Christian tradition there are also many examples of protest and speech in response to injustice. Silence is vitally important, but at some point, it must give way to speech and action when questions about human dignity are at stake.  

But in order to know how to engage in resistance to that which diminishes others, periods of silence are necessary. When we bear witness to the suffering of others without seeking to fill it with our own explanations or opinions, we honour the loss that is before us. That is at the heart of the national two-minute silence for Remembrance Day. In remembering those who have died in war, and considering the conflict that marks our world today, we bear witness to the fragility of the human condition. Out of silence, comes the resources to know how to speak with wisdom.  

 

Explainer
Belief
Creed
7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.
UnHerd.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.