Rounding up some of the biggest news stories of the year.
Britain became one of the most permissive societies in the world – what of it?
Here’s something you already knew: the UK is becoming increasingly liberal. That’s according to a study published earlier this year by The Behavioural Institute, Kings’ College London. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: the UK is now among the “most permissive” nations in the world on topics like homosexuality, divorce, abortion and euthanasia.
For example, when asked “is homosexuality justifiable?” in the early eighties only 12% of Britons agreed. That figure is now over 66%.
There are a couple of nuances to this: the biggest shift in British attitudes came about in the 2010s. And there is significant variation across the home nations. Scotland is typically the most liberal, Northern Ireland the most conservative.
But so what? There are at least two “so whats”.
A liberal society tends to be more socially accepting. We definitely need more tolerance and inclusion. But it is also less concerned with traditional, Biblical understandings. That hugely influences the popular view for example around same-sex marriage in churches.
Secondly, increasing permissiveness tends to be a slippery slope. There is always a push for more, and more. Consider the 1967 abortion act. This was initially brought in as a last resort for exceptional cases, but gradually society accepted abortion in more and more situations. The same is true for divorce laws and, in those countries where it is legal, euthanasia. All have gone down the same slope.
We can predict that the same-sex marriage legislation enacted in the UK in recent years will also become a sliding scale.
Being righteous after the event – COVID 19
For weeks now, we’ve heard the painful testimony of our politicians. What they did do, didn’t do, and should have done during COVID. Should they have had drinks at number 10? Should we have “eaten out to help out”?
My family believes that the passing of my wife’s mother was hastened by COVID. Being isolated, for weeks at a time, when there was a severe COVID outbreak in her care-home, accelerated the spiral downwards of her vascular dementia. She died earlier this year. Other people suffered worse. Some couldn’t even hold a funeral for their loved one.
But it wasn’t “wrong” of Boris Johnson and co to make poor decisions. We all do that. The challenges they faced were immense. On some days, 2,000 people died. The word “apocalyptic” was used. In such a crisis, can we honestly say we would have done better? (And the opposite idea, that “more people may have died because of lockdowns” — through missed cancer diagnoses, severe mental health effects and so forth — isn’t being addressed at all).
I feel that mistakes were understandable – even getting together for drinks. I’m trying to imagine being there at number 10. After an exhausting week, filled with death and my failed plans, in the midst of intense emotions, if someone invited me for a drink, I might well have said, “you bet”.
It’s easy to be righteous after the event.
For sure we need basic honesty from politician, and we need to make it OK for them to apologise. An early and genuine apology from Boris, instead of the trail of: “I didn’t know … to the best of my knowledge ….I was assured that ”, would have defused much that followed.
But society and the media pressurise politicians to make up statements to look good. We place enormous pressure on politicians to take the line of least resistance, to sound convincing, even to lie. A simple apology is seen as weakness.
What the middle-east conflict reveals about ourselves
The complex relationship between Israel and Palestine has been discussed many times elsewhere. Does this conflict show us anything about ourselves? I think so.
First, it shows us how fickle our news is. As soon as the October 7 events took place, and for weeks after, it was as though there was no other news. How rapidly we forgot about the Ukraine, the terrible floods in Libya, or the earthquake in Morocco to name a few. We are fed reports from whichever region the major media outlets invest in. If they send people to set up camp in Israel, well that’s the news. News from elsewhere is then irrelevant, but it shouldn’t be.
Secondly, it reminds us that as human beings we are not designed to handle a nightly onslaught of traumatising reports and images. The internet and our mobile devices means world-news is real-time, and follows us wherever we go. While staying informed is important — it fuels our prayers and giving – over-exposure leads to mental exhaustion. Balancing news with content that lifts us is equally important.
Lastly and most poignantly, these events are a blunt reminder of how as humans, we are rubbish at placing ourselves in each other’s shoes. At seeing outside of our own tribe’s perspective. These two people coexist side by side. They share a history back to Abraham and even work together (hundreds of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel). But they don’t understand each other’s perceptions, what makes them who they are.
We are rubbish at placing ourselves in each other’s shoes
We’re can be guilty of that in the church, in all kinds of areas. We can be intolerant of people who have a dearly held, but opposite view to ours, without ever really asking them what their views are.
The surprising difference between humans and machines
In 2023 there was more funded research into AI than all other science and technology combined.
2023 also saw the world’s first church service devised, written and presented by AI (it wasn’t great). And the world’s first AI Global Summit, hosted by Rishi Sunak. I recently wrote about AI and the formation of The AI Christian Partnership. AI will hugely improve our healthcare, education, and efficiency.
But, amidst the global dash to “AI everything”, one question keeps poping up: what ultimately differentiates humans from AI? What is the essential characteristic of being human that AI can never replace?
We know it’s not “conversation”. Some people say its “understanding” — AI doesn’t understand what it says. But I suggest our definition of “understanding” may need to change. There are even developments taking place to make AI sentient — conscious of itself.
I have heard Christians say, as a kind of end-of-discussion clincher, “AI doesn’t have a soul”. That is true but hard to explain – how do you define “soul”?
What is the essential characteristic of being human that AI can never replace?
But for Christians, the answer is simpler.
AI is getting better at everything. There are no sensible limits to what it can learn. It may end up being great at everything. But being human means, we are not great at everything. Sometimes we struggle sometimes we fail. That gives us empathy, humanity, even dignity.
This frailty, caring, failing is part of being human and it separates us from machines. It’s a kind of weakness God places within us that draws us to him. Someone said, the difference between a computer and a human playing chess isn’t how good they are. It’s the fact that the computer doesn’t care if it wins (… or if it loses). But we care.
God affirms our frailty to Paul in 2 Cor 12. Paul wants to be healed, he wants to be “better”. But God says no …. “my power is made perfect in your weakness”. And Paul responds “then I will boast all the more of my weaknesses for when I am weak then I am strong ”.
Or, as Philip Yancey once wrote, “our weakness is the landing strip for God’s grace”.
It’s through this frailty that God can have a relationship with us. AI will never have a relationship with God, because, apart from other reasons, it doesn’t see that it needs one.
And LOADS of good things happened in 2023
For example, China – the country that contributes the lion’s share of CO2 reached a ”reverse tipping point” in 2023. That’s encouraging. China has now invested so much in solar, wind and hydro power, and electric vehicles, that it’s CO2 emissions are set to start shrinking as early as 2024.
Then there is the little-reported story of how the Irish Government is banning smartphones in primary schools. This is a result of parents deciding enough is enough. I love technology. I made my living in Silicon Valley companies. But I am also very concerned about the impacts of phones on mental health, especially among children. Well done the Irish Government!
And lastly you may recall the coronation of King Charles III back in May. That surprised many of us, because it was so unashamedly Christian. 400 million people worldwide tuned in to join trumpets, fanfares, pomp, and a thoroughly Christian service.
And we can end with Justin Welby’s words that day:
The King of Kings, Jesus Christ, was anointed not to be served, but to serve. … For Jesus Christ announced a Kingdom in which the poor and oppressed are freed from chains of injustice. The blind see. The bruised and broken-hearted are healed.
That’s something that didn’t change in 2023.