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How the West was Lost: The decline of a myth and the search for new stories, by Ben Ryan

24 January 2020

Bernice Martin reflects on the fragmentation of Western societies

BEN RYAN, Head of Research at Theos, has written an urgent, persuasive, densely documented, but eminently readable analysis of the current crisis of the West, which he believes has worsened in this decade. Three-quarters of the book is diagnosis, and the final quarter comprises suggestions to reverse decline.

No one who, say, works for the Church Urban Fund, or supports a local interfaith community initiative, will be surprised by what this book shows, but it is good to have it all in one place, supported by hard evidence. It is good, too, to see a coherent case that citizens and voters, including the majority who are no longer any kind of Christian, need shared values beyond individual self-interest, policies not driven by economistic or nationalist goals alone, and inspiring stories, “myths”, of the life that we might together aim for.

Ryan’s premise is that the values that defined the West are a secularisation of Christianity’s forward drive towards the “kingdom of God”. He uses recent sources rather than Charles Taylor, but the point is pivotal. He calls the secular version “republican”, from slogans of the French and American Revolutions, equality, liberty (or freedom), and fraternity, which Ryan translates as “solidarity” with a universalist face.

The West itself has eroded each of them, partly by failing to realise that excessive concentration on any one harms the others. Equality never got beyond “work-in-process”, but income and wealth inequalities have spectacularly intensified in the past decades after a long post-war period of narrowing.

Though racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities have been addressed by political and legislative change, they remain unfinished business; and “identity politics” acts to divide as much as to ensure equality, while religious difference is disfigured by anti-Muslim prejudice and resurgent anti-Semitism. Freedom has been co-opted by interest groups such as the American gun lobby, or, on neo-liberal grounds, to privilege powerful corporations at the expense of workers and citizens. Much of the failure stems from the erosion of solidarity and universalism. “Freedom” has served to break the ties that bound communities, classes, and societies across lines of difference.

The problem of rebuilding is formidable, and perhaps this book is no more than whistling in the storm. Its hope rests in local actions, many already launched by faith groups and citizen initiatives, to remake our politics and our communities, so that we learn again the necessity and blessings of caring for each other.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.

How the West was Lost: The decline of a myth and the search for new stories
Ben Ryan
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