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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

RICHARD SAKER/REX
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Electric dreams

How the “hippie tycoon” Dale Vince – a pioneer of renewable energy – plans to turn football and our motorways green.

In the hills above the tiny Cotswolds town of Nailsworth, on a road named Another Way, is an unusual football stadium. As you enter the New Lawn ground, the first thing you see is a pair of Nissan Leaf electric cars plugged into charging stations; on the reception counter are flyers for the Vegan Society. This is the world’s only meat-and-dairy-free football club, where players and fans enjoy Quorn fajitas, veggie burgers, cheeseless pizza and tea with soya milk.

Look out from the main terrace at the Forest Green Rovers club and you’ll see more curious sights. An array of 170 solar panels is positioned atop the south stand. Behind a corner flag is a large tank for storing water that has been recycled from beneath the organic pitch, which is fertilised with seaweed. Even the advertising banners stand out: the most prominent bears the white skull-and-crossbones logo of Sea Shepherd, the marine conservation charity.

It might all seem quaint and worthy, the vanity project of a hippie tycoon. But Forest Green Rovers are a serious club. The team of full-time professionals sits in the playoff places near the top of the National League, the fifth tier of English football. If they keep that up, they stand a good chance of winning promotion to League Two, for the first time in the club’s 127-year history. But the longer-term goal is to make it all the way to the Championship, just a step from the
Premier League.

That is why Forest Green Rovers are moving ahead with plans for an extraordinary new stadium near Stroud, in Gloucestershire. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm that built the London Aquatics Centre for the 2012 Olympics, it will seat 5,000 people, with a capacity to expand to twice that. And it will be constructed almost entirely of wood. “That’s never been done before, anywhere,” said Dale Vince, who rescued the club from near bankruptcy in 2010 and is now its chairman. “It will be the greenest stadium in the world.”

We met in early November at the Stroud headquarters of Ecotricity, the renewable energy firm he founded in 1995, which runs 19 windfarms and two solar parks. Vince, who is 55, is not your typical corporate boss. He was wearing brown boots, ripped jeans and a black T-shirt. His hair is shaved on the sides, with a small ponytail on top, and his sideburns are long. A silver ring hangs from the tragus of his left ear.

Vince’s office is scantily furnished with two beanbags, a standing desk, a small, round table in the middle and a large, green Union Jack on the wall. If you didn’t read the newspapers, which drew attention to his wealth last summer while covering a legal battle with his ex-wife, you would have no idea he was worth more than £100m.

It is a fortune that has allowed him to spread his green dreams into areas beyond football. Before the 2015 general election, Vince gave £250,000 to Labour, £50,000 to the Liberal Democrats and £20,000 to the campaign of the Green MP, Caroline Lucas. But he may yet make the biggest difference with transport. Ecotricity has built what it calls the Electric Highway, a network of 296 charging points at motorway service stations which has made it possible to drive from Land’s End to John o’Groats in an electric car. Vince says he is trying to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. “Our government is not the most ambitious on green issues but by 2030 it wants all new cars to be electric or hybrids. We think it could happen sooner.”

 

 

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Vince grew up in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in a two-bedroomed ­bungalow. His father was a self-employed lorry driver who worked hard yet worried about being able to pay the bills. “That’s why I decided to drop out and live like a hippie,” Vince wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2009. “I didn’t want a career or a mortgage.”

He left his local grammar school at 15 and four years later became a New Age traveller: his first home was an old ambulance. He toured Britain and Europe, and along the way he got married, painted, learned to bake bread – and had run-ins with the police. He was part of the Peace Convoy, a confederation of anti-authoritarian travellers, and in summer 1985 he took part in the “Battle of the Beanfield”, when police trying to prevent a free festival at Stonehenge clashed with protesters. Some travellers were beaten and vehicles were smashed.

Vince, a tinkerer, built a small windmill on top of his van to power the lights. In the early 1990s, while living on a hill in Gloucestershire in a former army truck, he had an epiphany: what if he could harness the wind on a much bigger scale and change the energy industry? He decided to “drop back in” to society to set up Ecotricity, which claims to be the world’s first green energy firm. The model was simple: the company would produce as much renewable electricity as it could, buy in any extra fossil-fuelled power it needed, and use customer revenues to construct more windfarms until the operation was fully green.

“I built my first windmill in ’96, after a five-year battle with all-comers – Nimbys, bigots, planners, big power companies, you name it – and went to Kyoto in ’97,” Vince wrote on his blog, Zero Carbonista. “The rest is just more history.”

That windmill is still turning: its blades can be seen from the top of a stand at the New Lawn. And like the football club, which has doubled its home attendance in six years, Ecotricity is thriving. It has nearly 200,000 customers. Accounts filed at Companies House show turnover for the year ending April 2016 of £126m, up from £109m; pre-tax profit was £6.7m. Vince is the sole shareholder but the company does not pay dividends and he draws a salary of less than £150,000. The converted 18th-century fort where he lives with his second wife and their son is worth more than £2m, but he says he is not motivated by money.

Despite Ecotricity’s success, the firm faces several challenges, including the implications of Brexit, which Vince opposed. “We have not left [the EU] yet, but the pound has slumped and banks are thinking of leaving,” he said. “The process of leaving will be tortuous, and the idea that we can trade better outside the EU – that’s nonsense.”

A more immediate problem for Ecotricity is regulatory. The last Labour government introduced attractive incentives for companies and homeowners to produce renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. These subsidies amounted to billions of pounds – since 2002 Ecotricity has received £36m towards building windmills costing over £100m – and have helped make Britain a world leader in green power. In 2011, 9 per cent of Britain’s electricity came from wind, sun and other renewable sources; in 2015 the figure was 25 per cent.

But since the Conservatives won a majority under David Cameron in 2015, breaking free from the restraints of their coalition partners, the eco-friendly Lib Dems, the government has made it harder for green projects to secure planning permission. It has also reduced financial support for the industry. In December 2015, days after helping seal the Paris climate-change accord, which called on all countries to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, the government announced a series of cuts to subsidies for renewables, which are paid for through business and household energy bills.

“They [the Tories] have smashed renewable energy with a sledgehammer,” Vince said. “And they’ve done it in a deceitful way, saying it was for the good of the industry. They’ve practically shut down solar and onshore wind in the UK. Bringing forward new stuff now – I don’t see it happening.”

At the same time, the government is promoting fracking, a controversial process that involves blasting water and chemicals into rocks to release trapped gas. Fracking has been suspended or banned in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Wales because of environmental concerns. Official surveys show that fewer than one in five Britons supports fracking, yet in October the government overruled councillors in Lancashire and approved plans to explore for shale gas there. “[Fracking] is a big risk to take for a gas that we cannot afford to burn if Britain is to hit its carbon-reduction targets,” Vince said.

His proposed alternative is to produce “green” gas from grass grown on marginal farmland. Ecotricity will build its first grass-to-gas mill in Hampshire next year, and Vince says that in theory the green fuel could be used to heat almost all homes in Britain within two decades. His vision is unlikely to get much support from Theresa May, who, after taking office in July, abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change and transferred its functions to an enlarged department responsible for business. “It’s ideological when it comes to green stuff,” Vince said. “The left embraces it and the right does not.”

That is why, in February 2015, he donated funds to Labour, the first time he had done so. What does he think now, with Labour trailing so far behind the Tories in the polls? “Jeremy [Corbyn] is a lovely man. He believes that he can lead the party to a general election victory. But if I were him I might be inclined to stand aside. The party seems so riven, and that is a real problem. The Tories are having a free-for-all.”

He believes that Tony Blair has a role to play in restoring the fortunes of the left. “I am against Trident and nuclear energy, and for social justice. But I’m also a practical person. What Tony Blair did with Iraq was disgraceful. But there was more that was right. I think Blair did a fantastic job, and rumours of his return excite me.”

Ask Vince what he would do if he were Energy Secretary and he reels off a list: ban fracking; rip up the Hinkley Point C nuclear power contract; spend “a billion dollars” on promoting energy efficiency; tax polluting power companies; perhaps renationalise the energy industry, from producers to suppliers. He would also give green vehicles a big stimulus, as has happened in Norway with marked results. Thanks to tax breaks and incentives – exemption from VAT and public parking fees, freedom to use bus lanes – plug-in cars now account for over a quarter of new car sales in Norway. “It’s economic signals that change behaviour,” Vince says.

 

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As a boy, Vince was astonished at how many cars there were on the road. Surely the fuel they were burning couldn’t last for ever, he remembers thinking. But the oil companies kept discovering reserves, so there was no incentive for manufacturers to develop green cars. In 2008, when there were fewer than 2,000 electric vehicles on the road across 40 of the world’s most developed countries – and barely any at all in the UK – Vince and his engineers decided to take the initiative.

“I’m a bit of a petrolhead and also a tree-hugger, which is a dilemma. I could not get an electric car at that time, so we bought the shell of a Lotus Exige on eBay and turned it into a supercar,” he told me.

The Nemesis, as it was called, broke the British land speed record for an electric car in 2012, clocking 151.6 miles per hour. By then, however, Vince had realised that building cars was a different proposition from generating energy. Instead, he had started rolling out the infrastructure that he hoped would hasten the take-up of electric vehicles.

“We wanted to break the chicken-and-egg scenario,” he said. Few people owned electric cars, so there were barely any motorway charging points in Britain, which in turn discouraged people from buying the vehicles. Ecotricity started with a three-pin-plug point at a service station in 2011. It took eight hours to charge a Nissan Leaf, a small, five-door family hatchback that at the time had a 73-mile range. “We knew it was not good enough, but that a massive increase in technological capacity was coming.”

Today, a Nissan Leaf, the world’s bestselling electric vehicle, can drive for 80 miles on a half-hour power-up at a service station, which isn’t a full charge. Most new electric cars can run for between 100 and 150 miles before they need to be plugged in. “Range anxiety”, which has been a deterrent for many potential buyers, is fading away. “In a few years’ time you’ll be able to drive 400 miles on a 15-minute charge,” Vince said.

The Electric Highway has encountered some bumps along the way. Early on, Ecotricity entered into an agreement with Tesla, the Californian electric car company run by the technology billionaire Elon Musk (who also plans to colonise Mars). But in 2014 Ecotricity claimed that Tesla had gone behind its back, negotiating with service stations with a view to installing its own chargers. Ecotricity sued Tesla, which then countersued; the companies reached an out-of-court settlement in June 2015. (Vince was involved in another settlement a few months later. His former wife, whom he divorced in 1992 when they had no assets, had claimed nearly £2m of his fortune, and was awarded £300,000.)

As with his early embrace of wind power, Vince’s bet on the Electric Highway looks a smart one. According to the International Energy Agency, there were 1.26 million either fully electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road at the end of 2015, more than three times as many as in 2013. The IEA forecasts that by 2040 there will be 150 million plug-in cars in service. With petrol consumption accounting for nearly 20 per cent of all oil consumed, that has huge implications for the petroleum industry – and the planet’s climate. In November, Shell announced that overall demand for oil could hit its peak in as little as five years.

Ecotricity had allowed drivers free use of its motorway plug-in stations since 2011, but in July it introduced tariffs for the first time. A half-hour charge now costs £6. The move angered some motorists; but Vince, who says the Electric Highway should cover its costs this year, is unapologetic. “We don’t have to make money in everything we do,” he said, referring to the football club and the car-charging network – but however altruistic his motives might be, he is also a businessman.

Green cars remain relatively expensive in the UK – the cheapest model in the Nissan Leaf range costs more than £20,000. But prices are falling and choice is growing, with more than 40 electric or hybrid models on sale in the country.

“The stumbling block was the range of the cars and the cost. What’s happening is one is going up and the other is going down,” Vince said. “The technology is on the cusp of mass appeal. You will see the government jump in before long and claim credit for that.”

As for Vince, he doesn’t even own a car. On a beanbag at the office in Stroud are the helmet and jacket he uses when riding in to work on his KTM motorcycle. And yes, it’s electric.

Xan Rice is the features editor of the New Statesman

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain