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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

© LEWIS MORLEY/NATIONAL MEDIA MUSEUM SCIENCE & SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY. COURTESY OF VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON
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Nostalgia without memory

We had a terrific time in the Sixties – but at what cost to the millennial generation?

There is a flurry of Sixties-worship at present, with an exhibition at the ­Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a cinema documentary about the Beatles’ ­touring years directed by Ron Howard. Next month, two more books on the ­subject will join the pile to which I have admittedly contributed more than my share. Steve Turner’s Beatles ’66: the Revolutionary Year reconstructs the band’s exploits in that eventful season (also recently chronicled in Jon Savage’s weighty 1966: the Year the Decade Exploded). And Paul Howard’s I Read the News Today, Oh Boy tells the story of Tara Browne, the gilded young Guinness heir whose death at the wheel of a Lotus Elan inspired John Lennon’s greatest song, “A Day in the Life”.

Truly, this is the decade that never dies. At frequent intervals since the mid-­Eighties, glossy magazines have announced that “the Sixties are back”, with fashion spreads of Paisley fabrics, Mary Quant-ish bobs, ­shorter-than-ever miniskirts and elastic-sided Chelsea boots. Sixties pop music eternally dominates radio playlists, while the Rolling Stones, the decade’s most notorious band, though now withered old-age pensioners, are still widely reckoned the coolest, most dangerous dudes on the planet.

For that, we largely have to thank the “Sixties children”, who lived through the most magical time for youth there ever was, survived its surfeits of alcohol, sex and mind-shredding drugs, and now seek to perpetuate their glorious heyday even unto senility. But the greatest celebrants of the era are often people who never experienced it first-hand yet still yearn for it in a syndrome that psychologists call “nostalgia without memory”. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” shtick in the Nineties, for instance, pastiched the Swinging London of three decades earlier, right down to the Union Jack carrier bags. In folk memory the Sixties are as a rosy blur of psychedelic colour, free love and Beatles music, their complexity and manifold horrors either unrealised or disregarded.

***

The mythic decade, as opposed to the real one, was no straight ten-year stretch. It didn’t get into gear until 1962 with the satire boom that produced BBC TV’s That Was The Week That Was, David Frost’s first starring vehicle, and Private Eye magazine, and didn’t absorb pop music until the Beatles’ historic first visit to America in 1964. Its closing year, marked by a series of vast open-air festivals – Woodstock, Bob Dylan on the Isle of Wight, the Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park – felt almost like a decade on its own. When 1970 dawned, so much resembling a grey morning-after, many Sixties children simply refused to believe the party was over and clung to their caftans and joss sticks far into the harsh new eras of glam rock and punk.

Its prime time is generally agreed to have been 1965, when London gave vent to a concerted burst of youthful creativity in music, art, fashion, photography, cinema and graphics, and a shabby, sleepy metropolis, bombed to ruins not long previously, received the unlikely sobriquet of “swinging”. At this stage, the swinging was confined to a small circle of musicians, models, actors and photographers, congregating in the same few, unpublicised bistros and clubs: the most emblematic pop single, among so many, was Dobie Gray’s “The ‘In’ Crowd”.

It is seen above all as an era of burgeoning freedom and tolerance when Britannia seemed to be loosening her Victorian stays one by one. The contraceptive pill became widely available, ending centuries of shotgun marriages and perilous backstreet abortions, and theatre censorship by an archaic royal flunky called the Lord Chamberlain came to an end. Male homosexuality was decriminalised, though not yet destigmatised, and the first feminist voices spoke out. The word “fuck” appeared in the Times (during the farcically unsuccessful obscenity prosecution of Penguin, publisher of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) and was heard on BBC Television, albeit only in quotation marks, from the National Theatre’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan.

Yet alongside the pop-cultural harlequinade, Britain faced many of the same problems as we do today – some, indeed, significantly worse. Industrial strife was so common that the rest of Europe came to know strikes as “the English disease”. Harold Wilson’s Labour government, continuously in power after 1964, imposed a strict wages freeze, then known as a “pay pause”, and failed so utterly to solve its own financial deficit that in 1967 Wilson was forced to devalue the pound by 14 per cent. The World Cup-winning 1966, that supposed annus mirabilis, also brought two events whose horrors still resonate: the Moors murders trial and the Aberfan disaster, in which a south Wales primary school was engulfed by a giant slag heap, killing 116 children and 28 adults.

Meanwhile, the outside world was taking its first steps backwards into hell. America’s inspirational young president John F Kennedy was assassinated, as, in horrifically quick succession, were his brother Robert and the great civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King. The United States was shamed at home by racism and police violence (not much change there, then) and abroad by its war in Vietnam, which nightly filled British TV screens with images of bombed civilian enclaves and maimed children (little change there, either – except today barrel bombs replace napalm). A democratic movement in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia was crushed; there was incalculable murder and terror in China’s Cultural Revolution, genocide in Indonesia and Biafra, apartheid in South Africa and endemic famine in India. June 1967 brought not only Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the “Summer of Love” but the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, whose cumulative effects remain seemingly impossible to resolve.

Throughout the Sixties, Britain, along with the rest of western Europe, faced the threat of nuclear war with Soviet Russia and more-than-possible total obliteration. And yet, paradoxically, this was a time of enviable domestic peace and stability. There was full employment, with almost nobody ever getting sacked except at the very top. Inflation was marginal; the NHS and other public services functioned without any hint of crisis; the nationalised railways, shorn of unprofitable branch lines by Lord Beeching, were dirty but dependable; the postal service, even after the introduction of an avowedly “second-class” tier, remained the envy of the world.

Pending that terminal flash in the sky, people felt safe. The only communicable disease left to be feared was smallpox. ­Terrorism was something that happened only in the distant Middle East: it could not conceivably take root among Britain’s hard working and law-abiding Indian and Pakistani immigrants despite the unfettered racism constantly hurled at them. One walked on to aircraft or into official buildings or the BBC without security checks. The first shadow of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, which were to bloody the Seventies and be described by American commentators as “Britain’s Vietnam”, did not appear until 1968.

Two world wars in the space of 30 years had trained ordinary Britons to feel guilty about any conspicuous consumption. In the Sixties, the advertising industry set about remedying this. The new Sunday newspaper colour supplements bulged with adverts for Scandinavian furniture, stereo systems and white Kosset carpets, and bombarded their readers with recipes for exotic dishes such as chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, using quantities of butter and cream that once would have seemed downright immoral. When Rowntree launched a new wafer-thin chocolate mint, the company made a last-minute name change from Minty Thins to After Eight, suggesting elegant high-society dinner parties to a demographic only recently weaned from high teas. So older generations, too, could join an “in” crowd and share the feeling of life becoming measurably better every day.

The attention paid to youth was an extraordinary volte-face from that ancient British maxim “Children should be seen and not heard”. Young people now not only wielded huge economic power through pop music and fashion, but kicked aside class distinctions and social barriers. Following the Beatles template, almost all of the decade’s brightest new celebrities were in their twenties and from humble backgrounds: the photographer David Bailey, the model Twiggy, the painter David Hockney, the comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, the film stars David Hemmings, Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay and Terence Stamp. A northern or a cockney accent was almost a prerequisite of success. In Britain in the past, the working class had always tried to talk “up”; now the upper and middle classes strove to talk “down”. It still goes on.

Without any form of social media other than underground newspapers and ­flyers, Sixties youth culture managed to be remarkably united. It assumed that every figure of authority – indeed, anyone over 30 – was a pitiable lunatic. Unlike its counterparts in America and across Europe, it raised up no demagogues: its figureheads were lead singers in bands and radio disc jockeys whose dimness in no way reduced their potency. The hippies, who arrived post-1966, are now viewed as hopelessly naive and deluded, with their mantra of “Love and Peace”. Yet their pop festivals, love-ins and “happenings” were occasions that brought hundreds of thousands together without the slightest violence. There were ­moments when even their fiercest detractors wondered if they might really be a force for changing the world for the better.

***

The V&A exhibition “You Say You Want a Revolution?” focuses on the decade’s final phase, when Britain’s initially playful underground hardened into a many-headed protest movement containing every kind of extreme-leftish ideology; churning out insurrectionary literature amid the comforts of the consumer society; holding marches, demos and sit-ins of increasing militancy despite having nothing to protest about nearer than the Vietnam War (in which the Wilson government played no part whatsoever). It was always more serious in other European countries and the US, where former hippies made an easy transition to urban guerrillas and to Charles Manson’s serial-killing “Family”.

Simultaneously, the British police declared war on leading musicians whose songs seemed to encourage their fans to take drugs, whether the pot known to jazz players for generations or the new, man-made, “mind-expanding” lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which leaked from the very pores of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. The fear was legitimate – in fact, nowhere near proportionate to the long-term problem in the making – but the reaction was hysterical scapegoating. In early 1967, with the collusion of MI5 and possibly the CIA, 18 police officers raided the Rolling Stone Keith Richards’s cottage in Sussex and Richards and Mick Jagger were charged with drug possession. After a grotesque show trial – yet another strike against that supposed Summer of Love – both Stones received prison terms for offences that normally would have rated a small fine or merely probation.

The recent death of Richard Neville, the founder of Oz magazine, awoke further memories of that moment when the Sixties’ indulgence of youth was suddenly turned off. The 1971 trial of Neville and his two co-editors for conspiracy to corrupt youthful morals (specifically by depicting Rupert Bear with an erection) was just as self-defeatingly comical as the Lady Chatterley prosecution almost a decade earlier.

For millennials who grew up around the year 2000, the Sixties are an object not so much of nostalgia without memory as envy without memory. My 25-year-old daughter often remarks what a terrific time my generation had and what a messed-up world we created for hers. I can’t argue with that.

Philip Norman’s “Paul McCartney: the Biography” is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. He tweets at: @PNormanWriter

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation