In the final year of his life, the atheist novelist Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) became terrified of dying and the possibility of judgment by a just and holy God loomed alarmingly. He had led a sordid, decadent and intensely selfish life and he craved secular comfort and consolation. In this state of fevered anguish he summoned the famous atheist philosopher Alfred Ayer to his deathbed in the south of France and pleaded: “Freddie I have led a debauched and depraved life. Please reassure me that I am on the brink of oblivion and not divine judgment.” Ayer, the secular priest, was more than happy to administer the atheist sacrament – “Don’t worry old boy. God does not exist and you will have no suffering in the afterlife! Oblivion is both rational and scientific.” [1]

Background Notes

Very often people assume that some people have faith and many do not. This story challenges this popular prejudice. In this vignette we encounter two believers – passionate followers of a godless narrative. Notice that Maugham was beginning to doubt his faith in the secular story. This story is sometimes called materialism and was brilliantly summarised by Carl Sagan in the following terms: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Maugham’s fear of imminent judgment activated a form of secular ‘backsliding’; he was beginning to doubt the secular story that had guided and nurtured his way of living for almost a century. Ponder this carefully. It takes faith to live in the secular story. Maugham desperately hoped for oblivion! We could say that he trusted in the secular story.

Four Ways of Looking at the Story

Materialist faith: “We believe that Somerset Maugham was foolish to doubt his faith in materialism. When we die, we rot and our corpses are nibbled by rats and worms. Trust in materialism where there is no final judgment.”

Relativist faith: “We believe that both Christian people and atheist people will obtain the afterlife that they believe in. Materialists will garner oblivion. Buddhists will obtain nirvana and Christians will attain to the resurrection of the dead.”

Maugham faith: “Help! I am not sure where to put my trust. Should I trust in materialism or should I repent of my sins and ask Jesus into my frail and fading life?”

Christian faith: “We believe that anyone who repents and believes in Jesus shall be saved. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)


1) Is this a frantic faith?

2) Can atheists prove that their faith is true?

3) Can Christians prove that their faith is true?

[1] These are not the exact words that were used but is, rather, a comic retelling of the incident.

Mark Roques
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Mark Roques

Mark taught Philosophy and Religious Education at Prior Park College, Bath, for many years. As Director of RealityBites he has developed a rich range of resources for youth workers and teachers. He has spoken at conferences in the UK, Holland, South Korea, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. Mark is a lively storyteller and the author of four books, including The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith. His work is focused on storytelling and how this can help us to communicate the Christian faith. He has written many articles for the Baptist Times, RE Today, Youthscape, Direction magazine and the Christian Teachers Journal.