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A N Wilson: Why I believe again

A N Wilson writes on how his conversion to atheism may have been similar to a road to Damascus experience but his return to faith has been slow and doubting.

 

By nature a doubting Thomas, I should have distrusted the symptoms when I underwent a "conversion experience" 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character - the inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers. For my conversion experience was to atheism. There were several moments of epiphany, actually, but one of the most dramatic occurred in the pulpit of a church.

At St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London, there are two pulpits, and for some decades they have been used for lunchtime dialogues. I had just published a biography of C S Lewis, and the rector of St Mary-le-Bow, Victor Stock, asked me to participate in one such exchange of views.

Memory edits, and perhaps distorts, the highlights of the discussion. Memory says that while Father Stock was asking me about Lewis, I began to "testify", denouncing Lewis's muscular defence of religious belief. Much more to my taste, I said, had been the approach of the late Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, whose biography I had just read.

A young priest had been to see him in great distress, saying that he had lost his faith in God. Ramsey's reply was a long silence followed by a repetition of the mantra "It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter". He told the priest to continue to worship Jesus in the Sacraments and that faith would return. "But!" exclaimed Father Stock. "That priest was me!"

Like many things said by this amusing man, it brought the house down. But something had taken a grip of me, and I was thinking (did I say it out loud?): "It bloody well does matter. Just struggling on like Lord Tennyson ('and faintly trust the larger hope') is no good at all . . ."

I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis's Mere Christianity made me a non-believer - not just in Lewis's version of Christianity, but in Christianity itself. On that occasion, I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me - the sense of God's presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

It was such a relief to discard it all that, for months, I walked on air. At about this time, the Independent on Sunday sent me to interview Dr Billy Graham, who was conducting a mission in Syracuse, New York State, prior to making one of his journeys to England. The pattern of these meetings was always the same. The old matinee idol spoke. The gospel choir sang some suitably affecting ditty, and then the converted made their way down the aisles to commit themselves to the new faith. Part of the glow was, surely, the knowledge that they were now part of a great fellowship of believers.

As a hesitant, doubting, religious man I'd never known how they felt. But, as a born-again atheist, I now knew exactly what satisfactions were on offer. For the first time in my 38 years I was at one with my own generation. I had become like one of the Billy Grahamites, only in reverse. If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret. "So - absolutely no God?" "Nope," I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. "No future life, nothing 'out there'?" "No," I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world - that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that "this is all there is" (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself - go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

My doubting temperament, however, made me a very unconvincing atheist. And unconvinced. My hilarious Camden Town neighbour Colin Haycraft, the boss of Duckworth and husband of Alice Thomas Ellis, used to say, "I do wish Freddie [Ayer] wouldn't go round calling himself an atheist. It implies he takes religion seriously."

This creed that religion can be despatched in a few brisk arguments (outlined in David Hume's masterly Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) and then laughed off kept me going for some years. When I found myself wavering, I would return to Hume in order to pull myself together, rather as a Catholic having doubts might return to the shrine of a particular saint to sustain them while the springs of faith ran dry.

But religion, once the glow of conversion had worn off, was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer's Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi's own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate. Of course, there are arguments that might make you doubt the love of God. But a life like Gandhi's, which was focused on God so deeply, reminded me of all the human qualities that have to be denied if you embrace the bleak, muddled creed of a materialist atheist. It is a bit like trying to assert that music is an aberration, and that although Bach and Beethoven are very impressive, one is better off without a musical sense. Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?

Watching a whole cluster of friends, and my own mother, die over quite a short space of time convinced me that purely materialist "explanations" for our mysterious human existence simply won't do - on an intellectual level. The phenomenon of language alone should give us pause. A materialist Darwinian was having dinner with me a few years ago and we laughingly alluded to how, as years go by, one forgets names. Eager, as committed Darwinians often are, to testify on any occasion, my friend asserted: "It is because when we were simply anthropoid apes, there was no need to distinguish between one another by giving names."

This credal confession struck me as just as superstitious as believing in the historicity of Noah's Ark. More so, really.

Do materialists really think that language just "evolved", like finches' beaks, or have they simply never thought about the matter rationally? Where's the evidence? How could it come about that human beings all agreed that particular grunts carried particular connotations? How could it have come about that groups of anthropoid apes developed the amazing morphological complexity of a single sentence, let alone the whole grammatical mystery which has engaged Chomsky and others in our lifetime and linguists for time out of mind? No, the existence of language is one of the many phenomena - of which love and music are the two strongest - which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits.

For a few years, I resisted the admission that my atheist-conversion experience had been a bit of middle-aged madness. I do not find it easy to articulate thoughts about religion. I remain the sort of person who turns off Thought for the Day when it comes on the radio. I am shy to admit that I have followed the advice given all those years ago by a wise archbishop to a bewildered young man: that moments of unbelief "don't matter", that if you return to a practice of the faith, faith will return.

When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion - prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue.

I haven't mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler's neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer's book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer's serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.

My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus. My return was slow, hesitant, doubting. So it will always be; but I know I shall never make the same mistake again. Gilbert Ryle, with donnish absurdity, called God "a category mistake". Yet the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings. Turn to the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge - "Read the first chapter of Genesis without prejudice and you will be convinced at once . . . 'The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life'." And then Coleridge adds: "'And man became a living soul.' Materialism will never explain those last words."

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

Picture: SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT
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Jeremy Corbyn, Emmanuel Macron and the age of volatility

The rise of populism in Britain and France is the result of a restless “crowd electorate”. Both countries' future stability depends on their changing relationship with the EU.

Britain seems to have joined the rest of the democratic world in the volatility of its politics. Electorates are no longer armies, but crowds. Identities shaped by religion, class, region, ideology and tradition weaken. Conventional parties are hollowed out, and disoriented and angry voters turn to single-issue campaigns or insurgent populism. In every country this takes diverse forms shaped by political institutions and political cultures – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in France, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement in Italy, Nigel Farage’s Ukip and now Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

The trend, noticeable from the 1990s, was analysed in a now classic work by Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: the Hollowing of Western Democracy, which was published in 2013, two years after the author’s death. Elected governments had conceded powers to non-elected agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and above all the EU. Politicians had become professionals, largely detached from civil society and operating increasingly within these international institutions, “safe from the demands of voters”. Citizens were decreasingly willing to join professionalised political parties financed by large donors or public funds, or to identify strongly with them.

Membership fell across Europe and beyond, and among the sharpest falls were those in France and Britain, where levels of political participation had previously been high. Electoral turnout fell too.

As Mair saw it, “hand in hand with indifference goes inconsistency”, as low levels of participation were paralleled by rising levels of volatility. People who did vote for mainstream parties often changed allegiances at random, and made up their minds at the last minute in response to short-term factors. Others flooded into new movements, or even old ones that reinvented themselves as enemies of the system.

The political effects of the 2007-08 banking crisis are still being felt everywhere and subsequent policy failures have aggravated the discrediting of elites. Naturally, the most volatile element has been the young. Youthful radicalism is hardly new. In my youth, inspiration came from Mao, Che Guevara and even the Khmer Rouge. Now it comes from elderly white males such as Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who seem able to present old remedies as new revelations to those inevitably lacking political memory. Historians are perhaps tempted to seek precedents. My own choice is the 18th-century radical John Wilkes. His brilliantly provocative tactics made fools of successive governments and appealed to a largely London-based electorate.

Wilkes’s secret – apart from barefaced cheek – was that he was not seeking office. It has been liberating for Sanders, Corbyn and Mélenchon that they were not expected, and did not expect, to win, and hence were free to run election campaigns that were not programmes of government but protest movements aimed at generating maximum support and momentum. Brexit seems to have further liberated the British left. Only the hardest of Brexits would give free rein to a radical programme of nationalisation and support to industry, which would contravene EU legislation on equal competition and restrictions on state aids.

This kind of populism is a new phenomenon in modern British politics, because never has a major party entered a campaign with such an absolute conviction that it would lose. And never has the Labour Party been so dominated by the ideas and campaigning style of the hard Left: the ubiquitous rent-a-crowd, the conspiracy theories, the violence of language (especially online), the ruthless and immediate politicisation of national tragedies. This old recipe has been given unprecedented dynamism by social media. It is populism in its purest form: a movement purporting to represent “the many” against a corrupt and remote system.

Populism is unlikely to come to power in normal circumstances because of its evident risks. However, volatility is now “normal” and accidents happen.

The two most successful populists are Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron. Both won only with the help of a chapter of accidents. The divisions in the Democratic Party, the peculiarities of the American voting system and the accusations directed at Hilary Clinton’s email system were crucial for Trump. The collapse of François Hollande’s Socialist presidency and the meltdown of the Parti Socialiste following Mélenchon’s populist challenge from the left, along with the “Penelopegate” scandal enveloping the conservative presidential favourite, François Fillon, have delivered both the presidency and a huge parliamentary majority to Macron. What might have resulted in Britain had the Grenfell Tower tragedy happened a few days before the poll?

***

Macron’s extraordinary victory in France, which some hail as a defeat of populism, is its most brilliant success. Macron came from outside politics, set up a new movement, and pledged to “renew” and “moralise” politics by recruiting half his party candidates from civil society and half from women, and excluding all with criminal records. His La République En Marche! has crushed the other parties. Unlike Trump, he has moved smoothly into power as if born to it.

The Fifth Republic is a “republican monarchy” and Macron seems to be pushing the system as far as it will go. His inauguration ceremonies equalled or exceeded the regal style of his loftiest predecessors, Charles de Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand. He has been dubbed “Jupiter in the Elysée”, above the public fray, refusing to speak to journalists except in circumstances of his own choosing, and tightly muzzling his aides and ministers. Macron has ensconced himself in his palace with a tiny number of trusted young advisers – perhaps, as with Trump, a direct consequence of a populism that rejects established political elites. He has also begun an intensive centralisation and politicisation of the civil service, assuming the power to decide the reappointment or replacement of several hundred top officials.

However, Jupiter has an Achilles heel. The solidity of his support in the country is uncertain, and hence much depends on his cunning and charisma. This may seem paradoxical for the leader of a populist movement, but perhaps it is a fundamental feature of a politics that bypasses intermediaries and relies on the volatile support of the crowd-electorate: Trump, Macron, Corbyn, Farage, Mélenchon, Grillo – all one-man bands.


Emmanuel Macron’s success represents a populist eruption from the centre. Photo: Getty

In France’s recent legislative elections only 43 per cent of the electorate voted –probably the lowest turnout in a national election in its democratic history – due to uncertainty or suspicion. One survey puts the level of Macron’s positive support at only 11 per cent. His left-wing opponents have announced their intention of shifting the contest from the ballot box to the street, and Mélenchon has called for a “civic general strike”. Macron’s slick middle-class populism might have to confront the tough populism of the old left. I wouldn’t care to bet on the outcome.

How French and British politics develop in this time of volatility depends on the countries’ changing relationship with the European Union. France has chronic youth unemployment and its economic performance has long been sluggish. Some of its wounds are self-inflicted, but underlying them is the problem of the eurozone and the disparity of economic behaviour between France (and southern Europe) and Germany.

As long as the eurozone is managed as at present, this problem is insoluble. Germany is permanently in surplus and presses austerity on the laggards. France, while a less extreme case than Italy, needs Germany to agree to expand state borrowing by setting up eurobonds backed by the EU (that is, by Germany) and with an EU finance minister to control national budgets – hence, removing another core function of democratic governments. France’s future rests on Macron’s success. If his bold attempt to change France and the EU fails, it is hard to see where the country can go next.

Brexit may prove an easier prospect than that facing Macron, but its successful management – not least because of its centrality in the national debate – is equally crucial to our political stability. A crisis here could mean the wreckage of the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, turmoil in Northern Ireland and the breakaway of Scotland. Readers may regard some or all of these outcomes with favour.

***

Theresa May’s failure to secure a majority has revived doubts about how resolved the British really are. Labour’s side-stepping of the issue – accepting Brexit but not the Prime Minister’s version of it – was electorally clever but adds to the uncertainty. Adopting David Cameron’s approach to negotiation, Corbyn declares that “there is no such thing as ‘no deal’”. This inevitably encourages those in the EU who wish Brexit to be damaging enough to deter others: there have already been provocative statements from Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt. Macron recently declared that “the door is always open” to Britain dropping Brexit; reversing national electoral choices is something the EU has past form on.

Quasi-Remainers of all parties are trying to strip the issue of everything except “jobs and the economy”, blithely denying the importance of democratic legitimacy, national sovereignty, immigration, strategic security and the future of the EU itself. Imagine the divisive effects on British politics and British society if a future government were forced to apologise for the referendum and asked to be readmitted to the EU: bitter recrimination, national humiliation, evaporation of international influence – all far beyond anything we are experiencing today

It would deliver a death blow to any attempt to reassert democratic choice over bureaucratic and financial power within Europe, and would mark the effective eclipse of national sovereignty for the foreseeable future. Nor would it make sense in the long run: the eurozone, if it is to survive, must create greater central control, which hardly anyone in Britain accepts; so we would in any case find ourselves on the outside.

The effort to restrict debate to “jobs and the economy” is based on reiteration of the dogma that Brexit threatens economic disaster. This revives the narrative created during the referendum campaign, whose most influential element was the official report produced by George Osborne’s Treasury. The IMF and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development naturally followed Whitehall’s lead: that is how such bodies operate. The Treasury predicted that a “no deal” Brexit would cost around 7.5 per cent of GDP by 2030, an average loss of £6,600 per family. Even some Remainers were alarmed at what seemed a politicisation of the civil service. The former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King has since described the report as “not an objective presentation of the facts”.

Nevertheless, the report had a huge impact on the referendum (most Remain voters said they were motivated mainly by economic fears) and its pessimism continues to overshadow the Brexit negotiations and provide grist to the mill of anti-Brexit groups in the UK and beyond: “we didn’t vote to become poorer”.

Significantly, the Treasury refuses to discuss with academics how it arrived at its forecast. However, a group of economists based in Cambridge, led by Graham Gudgin and Ken Coutts, has for the first time applied the standard scientific method of verification by trying to reproduce the Treasury’s results using the same economic models. Their findings, now accessible through Policy Exchange (“A Critique of Estimates of the Economic Impact of Brexit”), are startling.

Astonishingly (or perhaps not) the Treasury did not produce an estimate of the effects on UK trade of leaving the EU. Instead, it worked out the average importance of EU trade for all 28 member states, including the new eastern European states that do most of their trade within the EU. It also adopted a long time-scale, rather than focusing on the years since the creation of the euro – which have seen a slowing of intra-EU trade generally, and for the UK particularly.

This approach greatly magnifies the importance of EU trade for Britain, which is less than for any other EU country, and which has been declining in importance for years. Finally, the Treasury made the extraordinary assumption that if Britain did less trade with the EU, it would not be able to compensate significantly by embarking on more trade outside the EU – even though its non-EU trade has been growing and shows a favourable balance. In consequence of these methods, the Treasury prediction of the results of a “hard Brexit” was a considerable exaggeration.

Using the same methods as the Treasury, but applying data relating specifically to the UK rather than to the EU as a whole, the Cambridge researchers reach a very different conclusion. Even if it proved impossible to reach a free trade agreement and the UK reverted to trading under WTO rules (“falling off a cliff”, as some express it) there would be “only a minor loss” in overall GDP by 2030, as tariffs in 90 per cent of products have already been more than compensated for by the fall in a previously over-valued sterling. As for per capita GDP – that is, average living standards – they predict that this could actually rise if the rate of immigration were reduced.

So no deal is clearly better than a bad deal, including the “soft Brexit” advocated by Corbyn and others: to leave the single market but stay in the customs union. This would mean being unable to trade freely either inside or outside the EU or to influence EU policies from within.

In short, we have no reason to be frightened by the Brexit negotiations. Being inside or outside the EU has made no difference to our economic fortunes: our national wealth has increased at exactly the same rate as that of the US for the period since 1945. We are not facing economic disaster. It is not the case, as Nick Clegg recently asserted, that we face a choice between “painful concessions” and “economic disruption”.

Moreover, Britain is a major power independently of its ties with the EU. The international relations specialist and New Statesman contributing writer Brendan Simms estimates that it is the third power in the world after the US and China because of its wealth, size, “soft power”, military potency, and its relative internal cohesion and long-term political stability. A good relationship with Britain is important for the security, stability and prosperity of the whole European continent. Unless we play our hand extraordinarily badly in these negotiations, the outcome should reduce the potential of that volatile populism of which we are presently feeling the shock: volatility, after all, is a two-way process.

Peter Mair feared the democratic world was losing control of its political institutions, and thought it “not at all clear how that control might be regained”. Brexit should, as many of us hope, provide the beginning of an answer.

Robert Tombs is the author of “The English and their History” (Penguin) 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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