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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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Donald Trump and the age of rage

What the rise of Trump tells us about our failing politics.

I met Donald Trump at a party in midtown Manhattan hosted by Dominick Dunne, the novelist and Vanity Fair journalist. It was October 1999 and the party was being held to celebrate the launch of Dunne’s new book, The Way We Lived Then, which is about old Hollywood (the title is a nod to Anthony Trollope).

Trump wasn’t there to talk to people, of course, but to be photographed, an ambition at which he fully succeeded, significantly helped by the presence of his striking new girlfriend, Melania Knauss (now his third wife). Trump’s urgent need to be noticed manifested itself as a kind of weird social radiance. What is interesting, from my point of view, is that I’ve forgotten the other guests at that party, many of equal ­celebrity, far greater achievement and much more ­interest. Trump registers with people, including, to my surprise, with me.

Those strands of Trump’s personality have served his presidential ambitions well. He leaves an impression, his central point of difference from the amorphous Beltway professionals whom he ridicules. “Ghastly” or “vulgar” aren’t really criticisms in Trump’s world-view; “forgettable”, however, is the bottom of the moral scale. This instantly creates asymmetries for his opponents: it is difficult to inflict reputational damage on a politician who neither needs nor craves respectability.

But personal magnetism – I cannot bring myself to type “charisma” – does not explain the Trump phenomenon. He is the most spectacular beneficiary of something far wider and more international: the perception that politics as we know it is failing. Running against Washington is as old as Washington, but never has it looked quite like this.

How do you like anti-politics now? For it is anti-politics – the contempt for the “establishment” and the convenient flight from serious debate about how it could better exercise power – that has taken Donald Trump to within striking distance of a shot at the White House. And as the search for the right person or plan to stop him becomes frantic (the responsibility is America’s, the concern is global), we should ask the wider questions. What if intelligent people – pundits and voters alike – had stood up more bravely for the political mainstream, pointing out the necessity of compromise, pragmatism and disappointment? Strands of the Republican Party now regret the visceral attacks they sanctioned against President Obama. The party unleashed a demotic rage that subsequently turned against its own establishment. The analogy applies far beyond the Republican Party: is anti-politics a parlour game that has got out of control?

Ironically, the ascent of the establishment as a focus of hatred and political anger has coincided with the decline of the establishment as an instrument of power. Think of the weakness of the establishment currently governing the Republicans in America. It has proved notably useless at doing all the things establishments are supposed to do: manipulate power behind the scenes, undermine mavericks and keep the show on the road.

This failure seems especially out of character for the Republicans. Even allowing for the insanity of its Tea Party strands, you would have expected the GOP – if its “establishment” was what we imagined it to be – to have snuffed out this Trump nonsense, probably during a grouse shoot in South Carolina, or over a few holes of golf at Augusta National in Georgia. Isn’t power what these people do? No longer, it seems, except in our imagination. So why are we so sure that the establishment, which can’t even cough up a decent candidate, is the power pulling the strings? I am beginning to wonder if the establishment’s new role, far from the exercise of unchecked power, is to provide a convenient palliative sideshow. So long as we insist that the establishment is messing up the world, then we won’t have to face up to tangible and worsening political problems and our reluctance to debate them seriously.

***

Donald Trump is both the em­bodiment of political failure and the result of political failure – or perceived political failure. He represents political failure because he has accelerated the descent of political discourse: “They’re rapists, build walls, ban Muslims.” He is the result of political failure because he taps in to a deep, subliminal anger: the conviction that “the system” has betrayed and abandoned the people.

Why do so many people feel this way, to the extent that even Trump (and other preposterous candidates) become palatable? Despite widespread political correctness, there is one group that it is perfectly legitimate to despise: politicians. When I worked for a newspaper, I was surprised one day to hear a reporter, usually so fair and mild-mannered, describe her hatred and contempt for politicians – “the worst people, just disgusting”. This is the kind of comment you hear from normally civilised and balanced people, who usually don’t know any politicians personally, but feel quite certain of the truth of their conviction.

In Britain, the parliamentary expenses scandal, though indefensible, was not the cause of this contempt, but rather its consequence. Given the strength of the underlying hatred, an appropriate story was always going to come along that allowed our contempt to be channelled into ridicule. I’ve seen news stories operate along the same lines in professional sport. When a manager or team has become unpopular with the fans, an event or “error” will act as a lightning rod for general ill-feeling. Usually the tipping point is quite routine; people get away with much worse when their stock is high.

Why are politicians and the “establishment” so despised? The new populism is partly a delayed consequence of the end of deference, in part fuelled by the emergence, especially on social media, of a strong, hard-edged and almost daily picture of “the will of the people”. Maybe this is what real democracy looks like?

Economics is also central to the “age of rage”. In the loosest terms – except among the very poorest – even “late capitalism” has continued to raise absolute living standards, albeit increasingly slowly. But few people judge their wealth according to absolute living standards. Wealth is perceived as relative to something else: relative to the past, relative to others (especially those inside “the establishment”) and, crucially, relative to individuals’ own expectations.

By those criteria, most people feel much poorer. The political class itself is the target of these economic frustrations, exacerbated by the financial crisis, even though politics is far from a complete explanation.

Second, there is a sense that politics has “failed” at ground level. This has two deep causes, which, taken together, create a significant credibility gap. First, as politics has been professionalised, its practitioners have become better at knowing what to say to get elected. Whatever their other failings, none of us can doubt that politicians spend more time than ever working out what the electorate wants, and devote greater energy towards trying to suggest that they know how to deliver it.

Having professionalised electoral messaging, politicians simultaneously professionalised avoiding controversy once in power. The degeneration of the political interview into unlistenable banalities is only one side of the coin. The flipside is the gaffe-hungry media, encouraged by an anti-politics sentiment in the electorate. The “gotcha” culture of debate doesn’t make politicians accountable, it makes them evasive.

The continual threat of being “caught out” saying the wrong thing – or saying ­anything – coexists with the perpetual expectation that politicians will be saying something at all times. We have drifted towards the assumption that politicians will speak in public non-stop, yet without taking any risks: the definition of a boring conversation. Trump’s ghastly voice seems fresh to so many people because he isn’t schooled in this tradition.

Professional political strategy clings to the notion that any vacuum creates space for an opposition advance. I think they’re wrong, and that it is impossible for politicians to have interesting and important things to say on the hour, every day. My view, in contrast, is that politicians devalue their own words by printing too many of them. But would they do it if the electorate didn’t expect it?

***

The ultra-professionalisation of politics has coincided with a huge crunch on the state’s capacity to expand. A simplistic history of politics in the second half of the 20th century would show parties winning power by handing out an ever-expanding range of goodies. Today, however, that ­arrangement is pincered from three sides: an ageing population, burgeoning expectations, and the weight of existing commitments to taxpayers, such as pensions. So, the central challenge facing overstretched liberal democracies is obvious: people want more services and benefits than they want to pay for. (Evidence that voters prefer not to focus on this contradiction lies in the remarkable success of Bernie Sanders, who promises more of everything without explaining how to pay for it. Both the Trump and the Sanders campaigns channel political disenchantment, but they exploit the feeling in opposite ways.)

For governments, however, a credibility deficit accumulates over the long term. And even quite effective administrations, as a result, leave the impression of significant underachievement. In other words, just when politicians have professionalised the art of saying the “right” thing, they have found it harder than ever to get things done in office. As with living standards, it is this deficit – the gap between political promises and governmental performance – that is causing problems, not the performance alone. Are today’s governments really worse than some of those gone? If so, when exactly were these exceptional governments of the past? These questions, intriguing as they are, do not figure in how people think.

How can the political class narrow the credibility gap? The tempting answer is to suggest providing the kind of sparkling, error-free government that has never existed and never will exist. The other problem, revising improbable expectations, at least might be achieved. In the ultra-professional era, political parties have suffered from a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: if, despite the long-term problem of credibility, they don’t play the media-friendly game of promises and button-pushing, someone else will.

After all, what does the alternative look like? “You can’t have this, lower your expectations, things are going to be hard”: it’s easy to see why politicians don’t relish saying these things, even when they’re true. The whole process that has led to today’s political disenchantment is all too rational: rational politicians coming up with rational avoidance strategies for problems that may not be soluble. Haven’t we, the electorate, played a part in that process, too?

Domestic frustrations are compounded by threats emanating from abroad. Hyper-terrorism, globalisation and migration on an unprecedented scale are huge problems and challenges with no obvious solutions. Donald Trump has exploited fears on both counts with crass answers. How much harder it is to turn complex approaches to the two problems into easy soundbites.

When I was living in New York in the late 1990s, the Clintons seemed to represent a great deal of what was wrong with politics. Ethically they hovered somewhere between dodgy and outright corrupt. Their personal relationship seemed an extension of political lobbying, more an alliance than a marriage; politically they told us how much they cared, rather than showing it. Bill had the partially redeeming quality of charm. Hillary had a talking-clock voice and predictable opinions – her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, was beyond parody – without Bill’s knowing wink.

And now? If she is up against Trump in November, I will happily stuff envelopes and campaign for her. Whatever it takes. The nature of my U-turn says everything about Trump: nothing about Hillary, whose reputation has become even more tarnished and whose political voice is more jaded. If she must be the future, we can be in no doubt about the impoverishment of the choice.

There is a view that a win for Hillary, and the restoration of competent (but cynical) middle-ground politics, will show the hollowness of anti-politics as a movement – a frenzy that won’t survive the cold rationality of the ballot box. This opinion holds that it is parties that have gone nuts, not the people. “This is not the revolt of the public against the party leadership,” argued Philip Collins in the Times. “It is the revolt of the party activists against the public.”

Yet the view that a Hillary win will see predictable centrism safely restored feels wide of the mark. I doubt a simple reprisal of Clinton-Blairism (which Daniel Finkelstein defined as the idea that it is “possible to do everything without upsetting anybody”) can get us out of this hole. Trump taps in to something frightening. If it’s defeated this time, it will still come back, even if the man will not. Until the deficit of political credibility is reduced, the demotic potential of the populist “outsider” will remain.

And next time I’m pretty sure it will be someone nastier than Donald Trump. The need is to find a better Hillary Clinton. That will only get harder if intelligent people go on paying lip-service to anti-politics. There are always establishments. The important question is how good they are.

Ed Smith is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster