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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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A multitude of rivals

Unless Donald Trump is able to master geopolitical complexity, the trouble in the Middle East will get far worse.

Well, who’d have thought it? Another popular insurgency in the series that started in Tunis in late 2010. The gift that keeps on giving. Only this time it has hit the United States, to the bemusement of those who like their liberal internationalism neat and any populist revolutions a long way from home. The same people who misread the Arab uprisings of 2011 and continue to believe magically that movements based on the word of God will embrace tolerance and inclusivity seem shocked that some Americans have decided to have an uprising of their own.

None of this will be lost on the leaders or people of the Middle East. My guess is they will be a lot less shocked than commentators in the US and Europe are. After all, the blurring of business and politics, the instrumentalisation of identity, ambiguity about where the public good ends and personal advantage begins and an often casual attitude to facts are characteristic of the politics of the region. More fundamentally, relations between states in the Middle East and North Africa are transactional; most significant trade flows are in commodities; and conflict within and between states is endemic. The region politically looks far more like the Hobbesian world of early-modern Europe than it does the Kantian dream of the European Union. Donald Trump talks like a mercantilist: Barack Obama talks like a Rawlsian idealist. Most Arab, Israeli or Iranian leaders are more comfortable with the former than the latter.

Indeed, Obama’s own eloquence has counted against him. His Cairo speech of 2009 in retrospect looks like a cruel illusion, one of Auden’s clever hopes more than the proclamation of a new ethical order, as many wanted to think at the time. It was unbacked by practical policies or even sustained attention. The moral reset never happened. What followed instead was disorder: the public disavowal of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, an apparent assumption that the politics of Islamist revelation were consistent with ­liberal pluralism and – when the error was realised – grudging acquiescence in the counter-revolution and increasing exasperation with the result.

The Iran nuclear deal may or may not prove to be as great an achievement as its supporters claim. However, the self-congratulatory attempt to sell it to the Gulf states with an odd mixture of scolding and exhortation merely alienated them. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the weight of Iran and the desirability of a negotiated settlement: they did and do. They simply didn’t want to be treated like the most disruptive students at the back of an International Relations
101 remedial class.

So the standard by which they – and Sisi’s Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, Khamenei’s Iran and everyone else in the Middle East – will judge the incoming administration is not the one that socially liberal and politically idealistic Americans and Europeans will use. They won’t worry so much about free trade: oil and gas will find their own markets. They’re OK with going bilateral: multilateralism only gives them headaches, which was why the Iranians liked dealing principally with the US over their nuclear programme, why Cairo is flirting with Moscow and why the choice between Algiers and Rabat is always going to be binary. They’re good at negotiating deals. If that’s how the new guys in Washington want to proceed, that’s fine by them.

The energy producers will like a renewed emphasis on industry: the Rust Belt isn’t coming back but it doesn’t hurt to pretend that it might. They will still worry about the resilience of fracking but that was going to be the case anyway. If new areas for energy production are opened up in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, then that adds to the downward pressure on prices. However, it will take a while to start producing significant quantities of oil and gas from the new fields. And at least it reflects an enthusiasm for hydrocarbons rather than waves, wind or water.

The real areas of uncertainty are elsewhere. All the states of the region want their concerns to be taken more seriously than anyone else’s. That will entail having opinions on the conflicts between them – and sometimes taking sides. That may be more straightforward with Israel than has been the case under Obama. Trump on the campaign trail suggested he will tilt much more towards Israel than Obama has done, not just on issues such as settlements and the status of Jerusalem but on hardcore security solutions to the challenges of Palestinian nationalism, Islamist extremism and the more generalised threat from Iran and its proxies.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, will be closely watching what position the new administration takes on the recently passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which will allow families and victims of the 9/11 attacks to pursue a civil lawsuit against Riyadh. The kingdom will also monitor how belligerent campaign statements about Islamic State and its ideological cousins might play out in power, and how compliant the US approach will continue to be on the Iran nuclear agreement. A unilateral abandonment of US commitments is unlikely: the deal is a Security Council matter, many other states have equity, and they are only too eager to do business, as we have seen for some time with China and now more recent activity by France’s Total and German and British business delegations to Tehran.

It is also not clear that being justifiably suspicious of Iran automatically makes you a friend of Riyadh. Trump has done business with the kingdom in the past but has also criticised Saudi over-reliance on the US for its defence. And hardliners in Tehran would probably be undisturbed if Washington walked away. A resumption of enrichment would hardly look like a victory for the new US administration, especially if European energy firms were the wider beneficiaries.

Trump has displayed a startlingly nativist and isolationist side during the presidential campaign. The test of this will include Iraq, where the US has a highly effective strategy at the moment that involves significant political and military commitments; Syria, where it does not; and Yemen, where it had one but mislaid it. And even in Iraq, the real test will be sustaining an effective political strategy after the fall of Mosul. This will happen on Trump’s watch, not Obama’s.

In the end, the Trump administration will come up against a fundamental and enduring feature of Middle Eastern politics: everything is connected. In business, if one golf-course project is a bust, you can always find another that isn’t. In the international diplomacy of the Middle East, that won’t work. It may be unfair, but US presidents are supposed to do something when 400,000 people die in a civil war somewhere and Iranian-backed militias colonise zombified states. If you recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, you alienate not just Palestinians, but most other Arabs and Muslims and many Europeans. But you need them if you want a proper contain, distrust and verify policy on Iran. You also give movements such as al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Hezbollah – one of the biggest criminal enterprises on the planet – a perfect alibi. If you think the answer on Syria is to let Bashar al-Assad reassert control with the help of the Russians and the Iranians, you need to be able to persuade those Arabs and Turks who back the largely Sunni opposition to stop doing so. You can’t do that if they think you don’t respect them or their interests. And you might want to ask yourself if making nice with Putin over Aleppo could lead him to think you wouldn’t mind if he helped himself to Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius while he was at it.

Full disclosure: I’m a signed-up member of the international relations blob. So I would say this, wouldn’t I? But here goes anyway. The trick is managing political complexity. That isn’t something for which the president-elect is famous, and wasn’t a notable feature of the campaign debates. It may be that his choices of secretary of state, national security adviser, CIA director, and indeed energy and treasury secretaries, will reflect an understanding of the importance in a complicated and uncertain world of competent, experienced figures, and of the central role of the US president in supporting the liberal international order created after the Second World War that underpinned the US rise to dominance. I hope so. If this order collapses it won’t be just because US voters elected Donald Trump. It will be because of demographic, economic and sociological shifts across the globe.

As far as the Middle East and North Africa go, the dilemma is not so much Thucydidean (rising powers challenging established rivals) as Machiavellian: a multitude of rivals with shifting allegiances challenging each other for primacy. We have lacked a common understanding and collective purpose for at least a decade. Determined and smart US political engagement across the region is essential to rebuilding both. Without that we won’t see a new and stable order created by the regional states: we will see more entropy. US partners in the region will feel both abandoned and licensed. US enemies will feel liberated. In both cases, the costs of hedging with other external powers – Turkey, Russia, China, India – will decrease dramatically. Good luck with the aftermath of all that. However bad the region may look today, “the worst is not. So long as we can say: ‘This is the worst.’”

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London. He is now the executive director (Middle East) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world