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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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How the United Nations should respond in the age of global dissent

Three former UN insiders on the future of the world's most ambitious organisation. 

US President Donald Trump is ardently embracing a toxic form of messianic nationalism, while demeaning those who oppose him as corrupt, and dishonest enemies. His "America First" chant is creating severe international tension, promoting extremism - within and outside the US - and undermining the homeland security that he has so insistently pledged to enhance.

Trump seems determined to implement policies and practices that could signal the weakening of democracy, and possibly even herald the onset of fascism. His programme to deport undocumented immigrants and to exclude all visitors from six designated Muslim majority countries is illustrative of a regressive and Islamophobic outlook.

The groundswell of popular dissent is vibrant and worldwide, from Romania to South Korea, Gambia to Brazil, from the UK to the Ukraine. Trump is dangerously exploiting the frustration of citizens with the political establishment, which is unprecedented in its depth and breadth. The umbilical cord that connects those governing with those governed is becoming dangerously stressed. The digital revolution is endowing governments with horrifying capabilities for oppression and control but it is also enhancing the ability of the citizenry to mount resistance and mobilize opposition forces.

UN charter law and power politics

As UN veterans, we recall and affirm the preamble to the UN Charter that reads “we the peoples” - not we the governments! The trust of people in their governments to work for social and economic progress and to prevent war has dramatically weakened, if not disappeared.

The prediction made by the Mexican delegate at the founding of the UN in 1945 that “we have created an institution which controls the mice but the tigers will roam around freely” seems truer today than at the moment of its utterance. The UN Security Council’s permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – indeed "roam around freely" lacking respect for international law or the authority of the UN, once more pursuing their respective nationalist agendas without any pretence of accountability. These countries are also the major consumers and exporters of military hardware, facilitating both militarism and "merchants of death".

The international war supposedly being waged against political extremism and terrorism has predictably deteriorated into a series of horrific wildfires and slaughter. Wars that should never have happened, neither the overt ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria nor the partially covert ones in Yemen, Somalia, and a range of other countries in Africa and Asia have brought peace or stability, but a series of unspeakable ordeals of human suffering. Old struggles have been magnified while new ones have been created.

The US tiger, aged as it is, displays the most serious signs of political amnesia. Unilateralism and exceptionalism have just been reaffirmed as cornerstones of the current US worldview. The announced $54bn increase of the US defence budget is justified by Trump with the argument that "we must win wars again".

In contrast, the great majority of the other 192 UN member states have given notice that they clearly prefer a multilateral model premised on the equality of states and international co-operation. President Xi of China at the last Davos meeting of the global neoliberal elite gave voice to this more benign vision of world order.

The so-called "West" - the US, Canada, the EU including the UK -  is made up of 800m people, or a mere 12 per cent of the global population. These Westerners need to come to terms with growing de-Westernisation, a natural outgrowth of globalisation in all sectors of life.

Wise global leaders would respond by seeking an immediate realignment of international relations with a commitment to the promotion of principles of convergence, cooperation, and compromise. The objective would be a new world order based on mutual benefit, sustainability, prudence as well as a demilitarizing ethos.

The UN Security Council is the most important venue for making such an undertaking happen. It is here that bilateral and multilateral diplomacy takes place in a global setting. The primary goal remains to prevent the emergence of a world in which drones replace diplomats and inequality continues to undermine wellbeing.

The UN and civil society

The peoples of the world are confronted by a series of challenging global developments. Tectonic political changes are taking place in the US, Europe, and Asia, along with unresolved crises in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and the formidable speed and effects of easternisation. Prospects for a politically effective UN, and most especially a robust UN Security Council, seem bleak - but hardly impossible. Globalisation potentially supports innovative expressions of multilateralism that are more oriented than in the past towards the global and human interest. The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change is illustrative of such a hopeful turn.

The UN and Trumpism

It is our hope that Trumpism will not succeed in relegating the United Nations to a fringe role. The Mexicans refuse to pay for the wall that the US President insists on building, the UN will bear the costs of the invisible wall Trump and a subservient Republican Congress seems determined to construct between the US and the UN. If Washington goes ahead with its threats to reduce drastically UN funding and end cooperation with and participation in various UN organs, it should certainly be viewed as a significant setback for both the UN and its current US adversary. While we are confident that the UN as an institution would survive these financial and political setbacks, we are not so sure that Trumpism will long endure.

"Alternative facts" are set forth to demonstrate that the US is making sacrificial and disproportionate contributions to keep the UN alive. Real facts show a different picture: In 2016 the US Federal budget amounted to $3.2trn. The US assessed share of the UN budget of $2.7bn was $594m or 0.0019 per cent of the US federal budget!

At no time have US/UN relations been smooth. During the more than 70 years that they have travelled the same road, there have been many potholes along the way. The US often has been heavy-handed in a manner by which it exerted its influence on the UN’s agenda. It has often used its political leverage to weaken the organisation’s independence. Over the years it has manipulated the selection processes used to fill UN leadership positions. Washington has frequently flexed its muscles by delaying the annual payment of mandatory contributions to the UN budget. The US government has set some terrible examples by repeatedly violating the most fundamental provisions of the UN Charter governing the use of force. It has continuously defied international law in all parts of the world, including wars in Vietnam (1963), former Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). It has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield its allies from justifiable UN censure, while doing its best to punish its enemies with the threat of force.

West-centrism, alliances and UN multilateralism

Polarisation, alliance formation and West-centrism were central to the transformation of NATO from a Cold War arrangement intended to defend Europe from a Soviet attack to an American led global domination project with Europe as the junior partner. In this wider geographic setting the expanding eastern Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) can be understood as a geopolitical countermove led by China, which also has its own disturbing implications. In the face of these geopolitical initiatives, it becomes clear that the United Nations is being pushed to the outer margins of world politics in precisely those areas of peacekeeping and global security that were regarded as its primary mission when established in 1945.

The new US administration seems likely to fulfill another of President Trump’s ill-considered campaign promises to make a series of moves to weaken multilateral problem-solving even beyond damaging the UN. These dangerous and irresponsible manoeuvres may fail, as many governments around the world fully understand that multilateral diplomacy has become indispensable, and indeed needs to be strengthened to meet the global challenges facing humanity. It is our fervent hope that these governments will mobilise sufficient energy to rescue the UN in this hour of need. Dutch and Belgian authorities give us some slender hope that this might happen. The Netherlands goverment has already agreed to replenish funds if withdrawn by the US from certain international population programmes. Yet this is only a small and suggestive gesture of what must become a groundswell of support for the UN that will be needed to overcome the damage expected to be inflicted by this anti-UN activism of the US.

The politics of populism

What now appears to be a wave of resurgent nationalism around the world contains the potential to become a new internationalism. We have served in many parts of the world under UN auspices and therefore are keenly aware of the widespread anger and sharp demands for justice present among the peoples spread around the entire planet. These discontented multitudes share many of the same goals: peace, equity, an end to corruption, freedom from fear and want, the rule of law, accountability, and above all, a life of individual and collective dignity. In February 2017, during a meeting of the EU heads of government held in Malta, profound anxieties associated with political changes taking place in Washington were addressed. European leaders strongly reaffirmed their joint commitment to common principles and values as the continuing basis for interacting with the United States and the world, and in this way respond to the challenges being mounted by this ultra-nationalist thinking.

We believe that recent developments in Europe, the Middle East, and especially in the United States are reaching a boiling point. Many citizens are outraged and ready to challenge intolerable aspects of the global status quo. More than ever, Immanuel Kant’s wisdom is relevant and needed, especially his admonition to have the courage to use our brain for the construction of a benevolent public reality. In a similar spirit, we are encouraged by Hannah Arendt’s unforgettable reminder that “thinking gives people that rare ability to act when the chips are down!” And act we must.

The urgency of UN reforms and the incoming UN Secretary-General

For the political organs of the United Nations (the Security Council and the General Assembly) to play an influential role in conflict resolution in the 21st century, governments will have to act with resolve to overcome some formidable challenges. Such a resolve must include the renewed political determination by member governments to look afresh at some major UN reform proposals that are now collecting dust on the shelves of the UN Dag Hammarskjold Library in New York.

Let us also not forget that the UN is the most inclusive global institutional body that has ever existed. It is the only place on earth where there are, and can be, no foreigners. The UN therefore is the obvious venue at which to reflect upon how the increasing number of people throughout the world who have become forgotten could be given new and alternative perspectives.

The recently elected UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, if he acts to fulfil his role as the guardian of charter norms and values, including respect for international law, will face a daunting challenge. He will have to be prepared to remind the US administration and other political leaders of major UN members that peace can only be achieved when unilateralism gives way to genuine multilateralism, when monologues are replaced by dialogues, when convergence, cooperation, and compromise prevail, when civil society is respected and allowed to participate within the organisation, when root causes, not just symptoms, are recognised and understood and most importantly, when governmental decision makers, whether from large or small Member states, show respect for international law and are held accountable for their acts.

The peoples of the world need the United Nations more than at any time since 1945, the year the organisation was established “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". Only a strengthened, respected, and sufficiently funded UN can provide mechanisms for upholding global and human interest. It must not allow itself to serve any longer mainly as a vehicle for the aggregation of national interests, or worse, as an instrument of power to be deployed by the geopolitical giants, and especially by the United States.

The multiple challenges associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, sustaining biodiversity, and lessening global inequality put the future of civilization at great risk, and even endanger the survival of the human species. At such a time, we can only hope that enough political leaders are alert to this menacing situation, are emboldened by their citizens, and act with resolve and courage to create an alternative future for humanity that is responsive to the claims of peace, justice, sustainability, and community.

More than ever before in human history the peoples of the world are being severely challenged by problems of global danger that can only be solved globally. The best hope of humanity to meet these challenges is to abandon unilateralism and isolationism and instead empower the United Nations to become at last an effective mechanism for the protection of “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

Hans-C. von Sponeck served in the UN from 1968 to 2000, from 1998 to 2000 as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and UN Assistant Secretary-General. Richard Falk is Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University and served as UN Special Rapporteur between 2008 and 2014. Denis Halliday served in the UN from 1964 to 1998, from 1994 to 1998 he held the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.