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Between Cross and Crescent: The Future of Religion in the UK

Between Cross and Crescent: The Future of Religion in the UK

The task of making accurate predictions on the future of religion is a notoriously difficult one – and has undone even the most prestigious social scientists. In 1968 one of the most eminent of them all, the sociologist Peter Berger wrote that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”[1]  He was hardly alone in that thinking. In fact the 1960s and 1970s saw sociology as a whole largely dismiss the idea of religion at all – it was simply part of the old world, a sub-genre of history to go alongside countless religions and mythologies of past civilizations. Jesus, like Osiris, Odin, and Zeus, was bound for the intellectual scrapheap.

And why should anyone have been surprised. Nietzsche’s madman had already told us that God was dead back in 1882, and the future of sociological analysis for most of the 20th Century owed more to Marx than to Christianity.

Yet here we are today and such predictions have been made to look ludicrous. They did not, indeed could not, foresee the rise of Islamic extremism as a live policy issue for 21st Century Western politicians. An issue that ever since 9/11 has been absolutely impossible to ignore, it has in fact more than any single event defined 21st Century geopolitics.

Even that statement does not get to the heart of how wrong those predictions were. Globally we must recall that the Western European context is an exception. Worldwide religion is growing. 85% and increasing of the world’s population profess some religion. From the time Berger made his prediction until 2005 the world’s Buddhist population grew by 146 million, Christians by almost a billion, Hindus by 407 million, Jews by 1 million and Muslims by about half a billion.[2]  Nor is this simply a matter of simple population growth, Christianity and Islam in particular have been gaining adherents on a remarkable scale. We need to remember that in order to avoid misunderstanding the world in which we live. In the 1970s the CIA rejected a proposal to study and analyse religious leaders in Iran on the basis that such a study was “useless sociology”. The Revolution that followed and the fact that 40 years later Iran is still largely held together by its Ayatollahs and their use of Fatwas, demonstrates just how wrong that can be.

However, the focus of this piece is on religion and its future in the UK. Here at least we can surely be confident of the decline of religion. Certainly the statistical evidence would lead some credence to that belief. The British Social Attitudes Survey of 2014 shows that around half of Britons say they had no affiliation (49%), while those with an affiliation divided into Anglicans (18%), Catholics (8%), other Christian (17%: consisting of 5% with a specific affiliation and 12% with no denominational affiliation), and those belonging to some other religion (8%).[3]

That marks a clear decline in the proportion affiliating as Anglican (40% in 1983); an increase in the proportion identifying with some other religion (3% in 1983); and the steady increase in those with professing no affiliation – often labelled ‘religious nones’ (32% in 1983). Catholic numbers are relatively stable – they were at 10% in 1983. To be absolutely clear that is data that reflects affiliation – i.e. what people say they are. One of the things this essay will go on to explore is what it means to actually be religious (beyond simply what you call yourself on a survey), but it is worth flagging immediately that what we are seeing is to some extent a transfer of nominalism and the default status. The default, often unthinking and uncaring, position when asked to fill in a form was once to say that one was Anglican, today it is more likely to be that you have no religion – but what that means in terms of the extent to which the person in question actually does about it or thinks may not be very different. A Christian who doesn’t believe in God, go to church, care about Christianity or ever really think about such questions is perhaps not so distinct from the “no religion” who also doesn’t believe in God, go to Church or care about such questions!

The data can only ever tell part of the story. The national data don’t do justice to the situation in many individual religions or places. London, for example, which seems in some ways the archetype of a changing world – a space that is more modern, more fluid,  and younger than most other British cities, and yet, also disproportionately religious by British standards. Of course much of that is down to immigration – Catholicism has its numbers boosted by Poles, Lithuanians, Filipinos, Ghanaians and Nigerians. Pentecostal churches owe much to West African and West Indian immigration, Methodism to African immigration, Islam to Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and North African immigration and Hinduism to Indian and Sri Lankan immigrants.

Two brief notes on that – firstly we can slightly complacently treat British religion as irrelevant because it is “just” being propped up by immigration. The interesting feature will, of course, be what happens to the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of today’s immigrants. Will they follow the trajectory of Irish immigrants, who slowly drifted away from Church after a few generations, or will they be more like the Hindu or Jewish communities that have been much more durable (albeit much smaller).

Secondly, immigration alone doesn’t tell the whole story, even in London. For example the flourishing Evangelical movement in London is largely made up of white, middle class, relatively affluent worshippers that may or may not be part of the Anglican Church.[4
Of course, the other trajectory in the data and the one which dominates the deadlines is the growth of Islam in Britain – Islam represents the fastest growing religious group in the UK and an increasingly significant portion of religious believers. The 2011 census shows that 5% of the UK population is now Muslim.

But this is all just raw numbers, and of only minor sociological interest. Far more interesting is the sort of way in which things are changing and how different religious expressions are forming up to respond.

And it’s on that topic that this essay really seeks to focus – to show how the way religion operates in British society is changing. There is something of a move from cross to crescent but that statement needs to be carefully qualified. Britain is not, in all likelihood, going in the near future, or indeed any future, to become an Islamic country, or a majority Muslim country, or a country in which Islam is on a par in terms of influence with Christianity. But the future of religion in Britain will be defined by two questions – one of which is Islam and how Islam develops in the UK (and it will develop, maybe as a resistance to parts of British culture, or as an integration, or as something in between), and how it may or may or become a part of the British cultural inheritance.

The other is how we as a collective people engage with our own growing sense of cultural amnesia.

A good way at charting those two trends is through the helpful grid developed by Professor Grace Davie.[5]  She defines the way we talk about religion according to two axes. One axis is Believing (so you can believe in a religious position or not) and the other is Belonging (you can belong to a religious group as an identity or not).

That gives 4 possible grid corners in which you can sit. You can believe in religion and belong to a religious group. You can not belong to a religious group and not believe in anything. You can Believe in a religious position but not belong to any group and finally you can Belong to a group without actually believing it. By looking at each grid corner in turn it is possible to sketch some future trajectories of religion in Britain.

Firstly then, Belonging and Believing – which is perhaps what we might immediately think “being religious” means. It is a slightly simplistic measure which stacks up quite badly in practice, but we hear about it a lot. The archetype of this is someone (for the sake of this example Christian, but we could do the same with other religions) who believes in God, prays to God, goes to church and identifies as belonging to a particular group – e.g. Catholic or Anglican. The sort of person that everyone accepts is definitely religious no matter what data you’re using.

Religious groups tend to worry about these people a lot, they are the “bums on pews”  that so exercise Church leaders. Humanist and secular groups like to talk about these people as well, partly because they are very easy to categorize – so the BHA frequently quote stats that say that only 7% of people go to church on a Sunday as evidence for their claim that religion in Britain is an irrelevance, a minority position and something to be removed from the public square.

And indeed, they are right that when we talk about the decline in religion this is the area where it is most noticeable. Partly this is linked to a broader societal trend of a decline in community and rootedness. We as a society are more transient than ever before, just under 50% of teenagers will go to university, many away from home. When they leave (or even if they never went) they are likely to rent their homes for much longer than their parents ever rented. Much more likely to move flats regularly, to move cities, and uproot themselves from community bonds. We live in a more mobile society and one in which local memberships of public organizations have declined. Fewer people than ever before are part of a trade union, or a political party (despite the Corbyn bounce fewer than 2% of British people are party members, and the average age in the Conservatives is a youthful 69). Wherever you look, sports clubs, community groups, and yes churches the trend is of declining membership. So at least to some extent (though obviously not the whole story) this decline in religious numbers among the believing and belonging is part of a broader trend.

That also explains to some extent why Islam has been relatively effective at keeping believers and belongers. As an immigrant religion and one that tends (as a broad generalization) to be found in community pockets (North and East London, Leicester, industrial Northern cities etc.) it is easier and even perhaps more necessary for those identity and community bonds to be stronger. This is accentuated when Muslims bear the flak for a lot of society’s blame and hatred – it embattles the community and makes the identity paradoxically more important. To be a Muslim you have to care, and put up with potential hostility far more than your average Christian.

How long that will last and the extent to which that Islamic identity might change is difficult to predict but will be discussed further below.

The other extreme end of the spectrum is those who are neither believing nor belonging – the “nones” of religious data collection. Certainly this is an increasing group but need to be more careful how we handle it. It is easy to assume that this means that this is a group defined by a scientific, rationalist, humanist perspective. In point of fact that consistently sceptical position is probably quite rare. We might think that the decline of religion means that this group the not believing and not belonging becomes very large, actually for reasons discussed below it probably remains quite small.

It is the other 2 corners of our grid that hold the really interesting messages on the future of religion. Firstly, Believing but Not Belonging. This is going to overlap with some of what was said above. The model example of this section is someone who refers to themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. The sense then is of someone who believes something spiritual but isn’t prepared to subscribe themselves to a particular group or overarching theological model. We would also include in this section a lot of “non-Church Christians” – that is people who believe themselves to be Christians and call themselves as such but don’t go to any one denomination or to any one church.

This is different from the not believing and not belonging. Research conducted by Theos found that 61% of people claiming to be non-religious believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. 34% of non-believers believe in some kind of spiritual being and only 25% believed that “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. Astonishingly 8% of non-religious felt they or someone they knew had experienced a miracle and 12% believed prayer could heal you.[6]  So, note carefully, Britain may have fewer religious people than it has ever had, but that doesn’t mean it is showing much sign of becoming a truly rationalist, humanist society! Rather this big space of “no religion” might often be rather more religious or spiritual then secularists might want to believe.

This is a growing phenomenon, particularly among “millennials” – that is those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s (some prefer Generation Y).  This group, data suggest, is less extreme in its views on religion than its parents. Generation X, it is true, has more “belonging and believings” than the millennials, but millennials are on the whole much more open to the idea of spirituality and religion (regardless of whether they are religious or not) and less likely to take strong stances against religion or spiritual belief.[7]

How is religion going to respond to that change? At a conference recently a respected Catholic academic said that for too long churches had been asking the wrong question. They should not be asking “why are millennials leaving the Church” so much as “why isn’t everyone else?”. By that he means that millennials are disproportionately likely to call themselves spiritual and yet unlikely to go to church. Why is a Church, a place literally built for spiritual encounter not providing that for them?

Some of the responses have been very interesting. My previous Theos research was interested in the idea of chaplaincy – religious groups going out into places where people are rather than waiting for them to come to a religious group.[8]  Critically the most innovative models of chaplaincy are those which work as a genuine partnership, providing impact for the organization or place in which they are working on its own (often purely secular) terms as well as bearing witness to the religious group in question. This represents an important lesson for the involvement of religious groups in the public square, it is no longer the case (and frankly rightly so) that it is taken for granted that religious groups provide something good and should automatically be respected in public spaces, but if they can demonstrate a real value at their work, and show that they can add to a public space they might yet in fact be wanted in. Universities are fascinating examples of this, more and more are appointing chaplains and building faith centres to cater to the needs and desires of their students and leaning on those chaplains to provide benefits to the institution.

There is something in this, particularly when it comes to millennials, about making religion relevant, or at least useful in public life.

Another fascinating aspect of this group – the believing not belonging – is the role of the internet. Whereas once there were fairly clear lines of authority and authoritative teaching about spirituality and religion, today as with all walks of life this has been made more diffuse by the internet. The concept of authentic knowledge and authority has been turned on its head. Once if you wanted to think about religion or have a question answered or wanted to find a religious community that was to your particular taste you had to go out and talk to the priests, Imams, Mullahs, Gurus etc. Today you can just google it.

Of course that brings particular challenges, the quality of online information is of infamously variable quality. It is the ultimate democratization of knowledge, literally anyone can Tweet, or write a blog or lay out their theory on a particular religious issue and it can be  found online. No Fatwa, or Inquisition can serve as a tool to protect “orthodoxy” online. Or indeed even community. Online role playing games and worlds have whole religions, both based on real world religions and entirely new, with their own liturgies and ways of doing religion and community. The question is – are they real? Are they authentic searches for the sacred?  Does it make a difference if they are real to some people but others are just playing a game? How can religion possibly hope to maintain an idea of the “real sacred” in such an era?

In truth there has been little research or thought given to this by religious groups.[9]  The exception of course is how to respond to the more pernicious and sinister element of religion on the internet – radicalisation. Without completely dismissing the efficacy of government anti-extremism policies in universities, schools and mosques the basic fact remains that radicalisation is primarily an online phenomenon. The ability to stream videos from anywhere in the world to anyone who knows where to look makes for a near impossible security challenge and a significant challenge too to Islam and its ability to defend authentic teaching in the face of this extremist online onslaught. This represents a challenge to the believing but not belonging more than any other, because they are not necessarily going to hear any other side of the story than that which they teach themselves from their online activities. That then is one trajectory to watch, how we define authenticity and authority in an internet age.

The final category is belonging without believing – and this is potentially most interesting category of all – the nominal believers – those who claim to be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant etc. but in practice do nothing about it. Perhaps they do not even believe in God, but call themselves religious nonetheless. A French poll a few years ago showed that only half of France’s Catholics believe in God.[10]  Instead their religion is some sort of identity marker – like the old Northern Ireland joke about the paramilitaries who stop a man in the street and ask him if he’s Protestant or Catholic, the man answers “I’m an atheist” and is immediately asked “But are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”.

This phenomenon is a familiar one, but I want to broaden it further and to say that Britain is now collectively a space that belongs without believing to Christianity. Just as Europe is a continent that belongs but doesn’t believe. We are all part of what Benedict Anderson famously referred to as imagined communities – we are bound together as “Europeans” or “British” or “English” or “Londoners” or “South Londoners” or even in the tragic case of some authors “Croydoners” by bonds that are not strictly logical. They are based on cultural accumulations. Which does not mean that they are “imaginary” – as in not real. They exist, but there is nothing natural or inevitable about them, if we were to start history anew there is no reason to suspect that political communities would form along the same borders.

So the academic Emanuel Levinas says that Europe is an imagined community defined by the Bible and the Greeks – that is the foundation of our continent, a space defined by the intellectual achievements of Plato, Aristotle and the development of Christianity. It is certainly not logically a geographical construct – for it is impossible to draw any meaningful border to the East, and we include a number of islands far closer to Africa or Asia than the rest of Europe (Malta, Cyprus etc.). Other “European” bodies include a broader range still. UEFA, the governing football body of Europe, includes Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Israel among its members. The Eurovision song contest this year featured Australia.

The UK too has this in its DNA. It is an imagined community. Yes England, Scotland and Wales constitute a single island (Northern Ireland of course does not even share that much), but within that geographical space we can point to many competing identities, nationalities, even languages – which we somewhat artificially have learnt to group together as Britain.

But when David Cameron says this is a Christian country he is right, in so far as a history or a summary of the identity of Britain cannot be divorced from its Christianity. Note this is as an identity only – a space that belongs to its Christian heritage and cannot be de-rooted from them, but in which most may no longer actually believe in Christianity.

A former lecturer of mine was fond of the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery. The image he particularly likes is when Valery talks about Hamlet.[11]  Valery’s Hamlet stands at Elsinore looking over a battle field which in fact is not Elsinore as Shakespeare wrote it, but the battlefield of the Somme after the First World War. Valery was writing in 1919 having witnessed what he believed was the most barbaric and disastrous conflict there had ever been – and marked the ultimate failure of Europe.

Hamlet walks along the battlefield and he finds skulls – but instead of poor Yorick the skulls are of Europe’s past –they are the ancestors that created the Europe of 1919. So he writes: “This one was Leonardo da Vinci. He invented the flying man, but the flying man has not exactly served his inventor's purposes [says Valery as planes drop bombs]… And that other skull was Leibnitz, who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant...and Kant begat Hegel, and Hegel begat Marx, and Marx begat…” – Valery leaves to our own imagination just what it was that Marx created and bestowed upon Europe.

For Valery the great tragedy is that Hamlet is overwhelmed by all these skulls that make up Europe’s past. It is a past which has led to the most monstrous war ever fought, but yet he does not know which he can throw away and which he can keep. How can he still be Hamlet, but get rid of the past that led to this catastrophe? If he throws away Hegel’s skull would he be able to erase what led to the World War? But if he did, would Hamlet still be Hamlet – does he need Hegel in the past to be who he is today?

More simply we might look at any child. We all of us inherit from our parents attributes, habits, looks, customs, attitudes. Some of those we embrace and make fully part of our own identity, others we consciously or unconsciously reject. Part of the process of growing up is working out how far to mirror or react to what we have inherited. Some things of course are easier to respond to than others – your parents’ political views or taste in music you might shrug off without too much difficulty. Others are far harder – looking like your parent might be changeable only via drastic surgical measures.

Britain and the UK are like that. It has many inheritances, many skulls and things from its own past that it must react to. Some we consciously reject, and to do so is no longer controversial or seen as undermining “Britishness” – slavery and colonialism, for example. Some are much harder to remove from our collective identity – even those same two examples – slavery and colonialism, we reject, but the legacies continue to have power; racism and class are closely related and remain deeply problematic influences in our communities. 

Religion is one of the hardest of all –  it is deep in the marrow of “Britishness” where a shared Christian heritage lies. This is a political and social landscape that has been defined by Christian mores, politics and ethical values. It doesn’t mean you, or any individual Briton has to believe in it, or that it makes someone less British if they are not a Christian –it is possible, even normal, to belong without believing, but it must be recognised that Christianity will define us to an extent. The calendar, the model of education, the legal system, even perversely the way the UK thinks about secularism owes itself to this belonging.

Given that, there are two possible trajectories before us – one is cultural amnesia, a general forgetting of what we are and where we came from. The other is a move from cross to crescent, or rather the growth of our cultural understanding of Britishness from Bible and Greeks to Bible, Greeks and more, perhaps even Bible, Greeks and the Koran.

That first possibility is that British culture develops such that instead of adding more features and skulls to our collective identity we instead reject everything and lose sight of the Bible and the Greeks. Instead of broadening the basis of what it is to define the backdrop of Britishness instead we as Britons might come to suffer from a cultural amnesia, a forgetting of who we are. Rather than try and hold together the skulls and our parental attributes we might try to forget that we ever came from anywhere and try to make everything anew – a sort of history free floating cloud of indiscriminate and ill-defined values.

That is dangerous. Trying to divorce yourself from where you have come from might be attractive, there are few people who don’t in all likelihood sometimes cringe at some legacy from their parents or upbringing that has left its mark. It is, however, impossible to detach yourself from something as fundamental as religion in national identity. The recent government efforts to define British values have rightly been ridiculed, just as EU efforts to do the same have been absurd. The reason is that they are trying to define values in an abstract, they do not want to establish that values are always in a sense culturally embedded, they come from somewhere.

This process of amnesia might be active – as in a deliberate effort to forget and scrub our identity of what came before. That has certainly happened in some countries, I think Germany for obvious reasons has had reason for such an identity scrubbing. France too and its model of hard secularism (Laïcité) owes something to that idea of eliminating what came before (though as we have seen, with tragic results at the Charlie Hebdo shooting and more recently in Paris, not very successfully).

More likely in the British case this is a passive amnesia, something that occurs without anyone driving it. Britain is famously unusual in never having had a written codified constitution. When it tries now to define its “British values” it struggles because such values have traditionally been entangled in institutional forms – the Monarchy, the Empire, the Established Church, etc.. Today such institutions are not what they once were and government efforts to define values without any sort of codified position or strong institutional backing are always doomed to failure.

Even as innocuous a statement as “Everyone should be nice to everyone else” is in fact a highly difficult philosophical statement – what does being nice constitute for example, everything from bland tolerance to the total redistribution of wealth, and do we have to be equally nice to everyone, where does justice lie, what happens when someone is not nice, who defines the results? The answers to these come from somewhere. You don’t have to believe they come from God, but you may want to reflect on the fact that they have more often than not in British society been formed in a cultural and historic space defined by its Christianity. More than that they have been defined by the Christian conception of personhood, responsibility and rights. You can either embrace some of the philosophic logic that stems from that space or reject it. What is foolish is to try and forget it. That way lies to a vapid sense of self-identity, the emptying of values and politics.

The other route is that we do not forget, but instead we embrace the nature of identity, while appreciating that identity cannot be static. Identity must grow and acquire more skulls and attributes, not simply keep casting them off. That is why amidst all this change, all this development in the way religion works and is working in the UK, it would seem that the future, not only of religion, but of British identity is fundamentally tied to the future of Islam.

Not, to be clear, in the sense of an overtaking or any sort of imperial or evangelical framework. There is little reason to perceive Islam or Muslims in general as any sort of threat to the future of Britain – anymore than atheism is a threat, or liberalism, or political idealism of any stripe.

Rather, it represents the future in so far as Islam is now so prominent in the psyche of the UK that how it develops will come to define something about the nature of Britain and British identity. Maybe in future generations that Levinas’s aphorism “the Bible and the Greeks” will become instead, “the Bible, the Greeks and the Koran”.

That is one possibility, that Islam will become added to the way in which culture and Britishness are seen and analysed as a cultural imagined community. The extent to which that occurs will depend on how British Islam develops, the sort of cultural move that scholarship and popular belief lead it down. Not so many decades ago it was considered a fair position that Catholics could not be British, that their loyalty was in question (with a suspect relationship with a foreign power) and that philosophically they were poorly suited to democracy (a charge that no doubt would sound familiar to many British Muslims today).

Today British Catholics are not faced with that challenge, the development of Catholicism has seen the breakdown of small pockets of Irish communities into a broad intermingling with the rest of British society, and the development in religious terms has in practice often worked in partnership and collaboration with other Christian churches. Today so engrained into wider British culture is Catholicism that the ideas of Catholic Social Teaching can be applied openly and without contradiction to economics by atheists like the political economist Will Hutton and can inform and inspire political projects on both sides of the political spectrum, including the IMF’s Christine Lagarde and the Bank of England’s Mark Carney.

Hopefully Islam too might eventually find its way into being a dynamic and unquestioned part of the British cultural matrix and be able to inform and inspire debate on the whole way we constitute the public square, whether that is in how we envisage our economics, or our social relations. At the moment that is not the case, these things take time and fear and ostracisation by other parts of British culture delay it further. If it were to happen we might truly be said to moved from Cross to Crescent (but, critically, without losing the Cross from our parental inheritance).

So some extent it could even be said that Christianity needs Islam to reinvigorate and empower our conception of religion and identity and what it means to be British. For too long Christians have allowed that debate to stagnate and allow the idea of identity to become muted, or even distasteful in a modern British society that has moved on from that sort of thing. There has been a wariness about stating religion as part of British identity.

The final great question is before us then. There are many trends that might define the future of religion and society – particularly in that under-researched pair of positions – those who believe but do not belong and those that belong but do not believe. These are interesting trends to be researched – and I hope we have moved beyond seeing them as useless sociology.

But from a broader perspective the trend for Britain as a whole could go either way. Will we embrace the spirit of a national culture defined by its belonging but not believing – a question in which the future of Islam will play a critical aspect as we move from cross to crescent? Or will we be the Hamlet who throws away all the skulls, the child who shirks all their inheritance, and tries to rid himself of religion in its entirety, buried under an intellectually vapid cultural amnesia? Having learnt the lessons of so many eminent predecessors it would be perhaps foolish make a firm prediction either way, but that pair of questions – two competing trends – will define the future of religion in the UK; and perhaps even more broadly what it means to be British in the UK today.

Based on a lecture delivered on Wednesday 18th November 2015 for the Faith and Spirituality Annual Lecture at Kingston University. 

Ben Ryan is Researcher at Theos. @BenedictWRyan 

[1Peter Berger 1968

[2Data drawn from the Pew Forum -

[3Data drawn from the British Social Attitudes survey. Summaries can be found on the British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) website -

[4See David Goodhew Church Growth in Britain  2012

[5Grace Davie Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Making Contemporary Britain) 1994

[6All this data is from the report “The Spirit of Things Unseen” available on the Theos website ( ), the polling by ComRes more than 2000 adults across Great Britain in September 2013 weighted to be representative of all adults aged 18+ in Great Britain.

[7One example comes from the Pew report “Religion among the Millennials” -

[8See A Very Modern Ministry: Chaplaincy in the UK -

[9With some notable exceptions including Heidi A. Campbell – When Religion Meets New Media 2010

[10Reported by the Telegraph -

[11Paul Valéry La Crise de l’Espirit [Crisis of the Mind] 1919.

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