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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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Britain's badger malaise: have the mistrust and misdirection gone too far to cure?

The expansion of the badger cull is dividing rural England and revealing a worrying lack of research enterprise on the part of the government.

Infra-red cameras that fit on top of drones, and devices that can track the signal from police radios: if the new tactics used by anti badger-cull activists appear almost military, that’s because they are.

A leading activist in the protest group Stop the Cull, Jay Tiernan, previously served in the British Army’s Royal Corp of Signals and has helped propel the movement’s technological upgrade.

But don’t mistake this army-like organisation for aggression. Jay left the armed forces when he could no longer reconcile himself to killing for a living – or even to eat: “I convinced myself to go vegetarian and became philosophical to the point where I believed that all life should be treated equal,” he says. He later stepped down from the fox-hunt saboteur movement because he found the risk of becoming caught up in a brawl too great: “I didn’t want to have to be worrying about that.”

In contrast, disrupting a badger cull carries less risk of person-on-person confrontation. Law-abiding protesters look out for badger traps near their local walks, Jay says, and inform others who are willing to go out and destroy them. More-involved activists also attempt to track down the groups of trained marksmen who gather to shoot the badgers. By simply revealing their presence, the activists can force the marksmen to leave the area for safety reasons, he explains.

Yet despite the emphasis on non-direct confrontation, the costs to the state of policing badger culls are still substantial. In 2016 the police costs in Somerset alone reached more than £700,000 – equivalent to £3,277 for every badger killed. Jay himself received a suspended sentence for breaching an injunction designed to keep him away from those involved in the culls.

Many farmers hold that killing badgers is a necessary part of the Government’s wider 25-year strategy for eradicating bovine tuberculosis in cattle. How else could isolated herds be contracting the infection other than via the disease-carrying badger, they ask?

But campaigners and scientists dispute this logic, pointing to the detection of the disease in everything from soil, to sheep and cats. Professor Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London has told the Guardian that the benefits of culling remain “uncertain”. While according to Lord Krebs, who worked on a massive pilot cull between 1997 and 2007, the present government trial was not set up as a legitimate experiment, has not monitored badger numbers properly, and has no independent oversight.

The result is spiralling antagonism, both online and in the fields. Over the last week I’ve listened on the phone as one anti-cull campaigner broke down in tears: “If we can’t live with our wildlife in a country as wealthy and educated as this, what hope is there for the rest of the world?” she said. She also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from cull supporters – a fellow campaigner once had an “eviscerated” badger nailed to her gate, she told me.

On the other hand, I’ve spoken to farmers whose distress at losing their livestock shouldn’t be under-estimated. David Barton challenges anyone to not be moved by the video of his diseased cows being shot on his farm in Gloucestershire: “I’m getting out of beef because I can’t emotionally carry on doing this,” he says in the National Farmers Union-sponsored film. There are also claims that the anti-cull protestors resort to intimidation too – like this Tory MP, who in 2013 accused anti-cull “scroungers” of leaving a dead badger on his doorstep.

So why has the debate reached such deadlock? And with the cull set to be extended to 11 new areas this autumn, raising the possibility of up to 33,347 badger deaths, is this mutual mistrust set to become endemic?

Political history plays a part here. In 2013, Patrick Barkham, argued in the Guardian that there were symbolic reasons why it was beneficial for David Cameron’s government to show solidarity with rural communities over the cull. And after Theresa May’s campaign U-turn on scrapping a fox hunting vote, there is little chance she will want to undo that work.

The welfare debate also has aspects which undermine hope of reconciliation. Jay Tiernan is vegan, for example, and is heavily opposed to many aspects of mainstream cattle farming in the UK. He doesn’t “hate” farmers for this, he explains, because hate is unproductive – in fact he admires the hard work they put in. But this doesn’t extend to sympathy for their situation. “I used to be a soldier and would have killed for money, so who am I to judge,” he says, “but I don’t have sympathy for them: they should get another job.”

Some vegan views are problematic for farmers. It not only reduces their market, but can also be seen as a moral judgement on their whole profession. It all adds to a feeling of being ganged up on by activists and left-wing politicians.

When Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley called for the government to “fully roll out a humane vaccinations programme for both badgers and cows”, farmer David Barton found the statement “irresponsible and stupid” – considering there is at present no such cattle vaccine available to farmers. While farmer Philip Latham tells me the idea he dislikes badgers couldn't be further from the truth – he even has a hide on his farm from when he spent hours watching them as a boy.

Yet perhaps most problematic of all is the heightened focus on badgers, rather than on other ways the disease spreads. The government's latest report concludes that the unadjusted incidence rate ratios “revealed no statistically significant differences” between cull and non-cull areas – and says that more monitoring and analysis is necessary. But with pro-cull sympathisers often citing research that showed culling reduced TB in cattle by up to 16 percent, and anti-cull sympathisers citing the cover letter to the same report, which said culling could “make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control”, there is little to suggest that new analysis won’t fall into the same black hole.

The result? A public ever less trusting of the value of evidence. “The data that has just come out has divided farmers and scientists,” says David Barton. "As ever they can do what they want with it and make it work for them.”

Surely a more productive solution is improved support for research into other aspects of disease control, such as improving cattle testing as I wrote about here? Even the National Farmers Union says it “would like to improve cattle testing and believe that the best way to do that would be through research on better diagnostics".

More research will cost more money, but so will killing badgers. And as Brexit approaches, we must improve confidence in our disease control – or risk digging our farming industry its own very big hole.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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