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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

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The great escape

Almost a thousand people drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy in May. Yet still more migrants come. Can anything be done, or are we experiencing a crisis without end?

On 14 June 1985, representatives of five out of the ten members of the then European Economic Community (EEC) – Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – gathered on the Princess Marie-Astrid, a boat moored on the banks of the Moselle River in Luxembourg. Their pens were poised over a pact that aimed to dissolve the internal borders of Europe. The agreement was named after the nearby ­riverside town: Schengen.

There were only five signatories because the other EEC members – including Britain – were dragging their feet. But the bureaucrats had only to glance at the vineyards outside to remember why they were here. To the east of the river lay Germany; a short distance upstream was France. Belgium was only a bike ride away and the Netherlands a cursory drive. The people who lived in this corner of Europe criss-crossed national borders all the time. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they didn’t have to be scrutinised as if they were spies when they were only nipping over the river to buy a sausage or deliver a letter?

It was also an evocative place in another way. This terrain of hills and forests was haunted by centuries of bloodshed. It was where France, Germany and Britain had fought many of their wars: Waterloo was an hour or so to the west by car; Verdun was even closer; the Battle of the Bulge had raged just north of here in 1944 and early 1945. The Schengen Agreement was an attempt to lay such awful ghosts to rest. From now on, people would not have to show passports but could simply “drive slowly” across the frontiers.

David Cameron has received much flak for reminding voters of this detail but it would be shallow to ignore it. The agreement had a significant effect not just on daily life but on tourism, trade and commerce. In the 1990s, many of the old and new members of the European Union signed up and the expansion continued in the 2000s with the joining of non-members such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Today, the Schengen Area is made up of 26 European countries. All the while, Britain and Ireland, anxious behind their sea walls, shook their heads.

Schengen was an optimistic idea and anyone who has worked or holidayed in ­Europe since 1985 has felt the ease that it has brought to the crossing of borders. But as it celebrates its coming of age, 21 years since its inception, Schengen is in the dock. Those who designed it to liberate movement in Europe did not imagine international migration on today’s scale. Partly as a result of the speed of modern travel and communications, more than 240 million people now live outside the country of their birth. This is one of the most important facts of modern life and, because Europe is among the nicest places in the world to live, it is forcing politicians and electorates to ask awkward questions about the way they conduct themselves.

Migration makes people twitchy, for understandable reasons. It would be a mistake to think of the present commotion as a topical issue that can easily be fixed. Last year, a million people fled Africa and the Middle East for Europe. This month, as footballers gather in France and the Mediterranean warms up, it is happening all over again.

Almost every week there is news of a fresh disaster. The EU deal with Turkey – in which the country will be paid €3bn in aid and granted other concessions in return for policing and processing its three million refugees more rigorously – has calmed traffic in the Aegean. Yet the people smugglers have shifted their attention back to the perilous sea crossing between Libya and Italy. Almost a thousand people drowned there in the last week of May, bringing the total to 2,500 so far this year, and there are aquatic graveyards for 4,000 Syrians who have died in Greek waters in recent years.

We cannot be sanguine about the prospect of the English Channel becoming the stage for similar scenes as the summer advances. It could hardly be on the same scale as what is happening in the Mediterranean, but there are already sporadic attempts to make the crossing and there will almost certainly be more. This is no passing cloud. It may even be a permanent shift in the wind.

***

uman beings have always migrated, moving from place to place in search of kinder skies, better food or nicer neighbours. Mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier for migrants to communicate and gather information. Nonetheless, today’s Mediterranean exodus involves people walking from Syria to Sweden – far from a hi-tech manoeuvre. Some politicians want to depict the migrants as trespassing, heavily armed intruders but most people can see that they are both ordinary and desperate: brothers-in-alms.

This may be one of those historic population shifts that mark the story of Europe. One thinks of the swirl of German and Scandinavian peoples in the first millennium – the Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths and Norsemen who created early Christendom; the flight from Europe between 1850 and 1910, when people emigrated to the New World at a rate of almost a million a year; or those who were displaced after the Second World War. Is it possible that today’s turbulence is the first sign of something along those lines? The EU border force, Frontex, estimates that there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings in 2015, six times as many as in 2014, and the true figure is probably higher. It is no wonder that no one knows what to do.

Until now, this migration has been viewed as a response to urgent pressures such as war, poverty, religious violence and famine. Yet what it most resembles is an ­alteration in the prevailing weather: people are swirling between areas of wealth and poverty, just as air is squeezed between high- and low-pressure zones. The disparities between Europe, Africa and the Middle East are profound. This is not about foreign chancers wanting to try their luck in Swindon. It is demographic climate change.

It may be beyond the ability of governments to resist this. They don’t like to admit it but they find controlling the movement of peoples as hard as nailing down their currencies. David Cameron vowed to reduce the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 but he hasn’t come close. While his enemies enjoy depicting this as a broken promise, it is a sign that politicians have only so much power.

There are other reasons to be fearful. Quarrels over water will shape the next century just as oil shaped the last one. In 1950 there were 500 large dams in the world; now, there are more than 45,000. On any map of future water shortages, the warning signs flash over North Africa and the Middle East – and when the wells dry up, people will move.

The nations involved in today’s ­exodus are relatively small. The populations of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria together amount to 60 million. If war or disaster were ever to engulf larger countries such as Egypt or Pakistan, Europe would have an even bigger headache. These two nations have a combined population of 264 million.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Hard though it is to believe in the current atmosphere, migration is a force for good. The noisy claim that it presents a threat to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural blood pressure may sound like common sense but it is a myth. Migrants do not drive down wages, steal jobs, overwhelm social services and displace “true-born” Brits. The opposite is true: in the long run, at least, they expand the economy and promote innovation.

Study after study confirms this simple point. Periods of high migration correlate with economic growth – which is no surprise, given that migration allocates people to places where they can be most productive. This is why the UN estimates that 1 per cent of migration translates into a boost in GDP of 1.5 per cent. And this is why J K Galbraith wrote:

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?

This is not to say that there are not bottlenecks. There are. But although it seems to be an ingrained human assumption to believe that more for you means less for me, the fear that migrants overwhelm services and create social deprivation has a flimsy basis. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the second most deprived area in Britain, yet one of the least affected by immigration. Governments should do more to relieve deprivation but this could involve building hospitals or schools, rather than electrifying borders or watching people drown.

The second item of good news is that even the most alarming statistics in this area are soft-centred. Anti-immigrant campaigners enjoy gasping at the idea that some 300,000 people, roughly the population of Plymouth or Newcastle, are arriving in the UK each year; they imply that these people are swelling the queues for health care, housing and schools. But more than half this number (167,000 in 2015) is composed of students, who pay high fees to attend British institutions; tertiary education is an important export. And migration today is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision but a fluid and intricate process. Migrants drift this way in search of jobs; some stay, while others drift out again. Many even go home for the weekend, or the summer.

It is almost impossible in the present maelstrom to think of migration as a boon. Loud voices insist that migrants are a nuisance, a burden and a threat. It almost defies logic to see them as an energetic itinerant workforce of ordinary people. But the larger truth is that it hardly matters what we think. The question now is not whether or not we wish migration was happening, but how to make the best of the reality that it is.

***

he migrant crisis has commercial implications. This summer’s holidaymakers are likely to shun Greece and Turkey in favour of Spain, which is looking forward to a record-breaking year.

The most striking consequence, however, is the surge of nationalist politics across Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece and the Freedom Party of Austria to the UK Independence Party. The nationalist wrecking ball is swinging.

In Britain’s case, this has taken the form of an assault on the European project, which, though not racist, encourages the expression of some ancient prejudices. As the day of the referendum approaches, the leaders of the Brexit campaign are playing what we might call the Donald Trump card by attacking immigration. The weightier cultural issues are drowned out in the urge to warn Daddy that there are strangers coming up the drive.

This urge is strong and, in the EU debate, creates odd bedfellows – George Galloway and David Owen on one side; Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne on the other. It also persuades men such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith to abandon their lifelong sympathy for the pro-business argument and pose as soulmates of the working man. But the biggest irony is of a different order. It would be perverse if the reflex hostility to migration leads us to take to our little coracle just when the real storm is beginning.

This brings us back to the fragility of Europe’s supposedly porous borders. In truth, they have never been set in stone. Various time-lapse videos on the internet (such as the one on viralforest.com) race through a millennium in mere minutes. The Holy Roman Empire spreads from Sicily to Germany and Muslims press into Spain. The ­Mongols advance and recede; central Europe explodes into a galaxy of tiny princedoms and France’s eastern border wriggles like an angry snake. The Ottoman, ­Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet empires bulge and fall back. Nations come and go in a flash.

It is a salutary reminder that the nation states of Europe have long been elastic and that if the nation state is not yet dead – declarations of its demise are premature – it can at least be said that nations and states are not the same thing. When people yell that we have “lost control” of our borders, they are imagining a past that never was: in the great rough and tumble of Victorian England not a soul was turned away. Britain has been secure on its island but Europe has never been a fortress. If we instal the apparatus of a police state at our ports and harbours – watchtowers, searchlights, paramilitary officials – we may be able to deter some paperless hotel workers and scare off a few students. But this would come at a heavy price.

If stable borders are a modern idea, so, too, are passports. The first identity papers for “safe conduct” were issued in the England of Henry V but the modern passport is a child of the French Revolution. An uprising that dreamed of liberating the citoyens wasted no time in introducing state surveillance: it feared the enemies of the revolution. Britain followed suit in 1794. It wasn’t until the First World War that photographic identification became mandatory. Before then, as A J P Taylor once wrote, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”.

It is hard to imagine such a time now. There are few more emotive reminders of it than the refugee encampment at Calais known as “the Jungle”. A new exhibition on the quiet resilience of the people stuck in that Anglo-French limbo – “Call Me By My Name”, which recently opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, east London – highlights again the way in which inflammatory abstractions (“Immigration chaos!”; “Take back control!”) can trounce ordinary human responses. After all, when the von Trapp family, the illegal migrants in The Sound of Music, finally make it over the border, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

In medieval times Calais was a major English town, a bustling centre of its wool trade. Dick Whittington was its mayor; there was a royal mint. The inhabitants of the Jungle may not know it, but their footsteps have led them to a resonant spot. l

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink