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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

Mike Niles/PEAS
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How to keep a girl in school for 56p

In Uganda, a strip of fabric can help lift families out of poverty.

“Every school holiday, we lose ten to 15 girls. They elope or conceive.” I’m sitting in an orange-brick house, mint-green and pink paint flaking off the walls. This is the front line of an ambitious social experiment: trying to lift families out of poverty by convincing them to educate their daughters.

My guide is Paul Lyavaala, the head of school at Kityerera High in Mayuge, eastern Uganda. The son of a local dignitary, he studied in the capital, Kampala, but returned home to run this institution, which has 605 students, 58 per cent of them female. Before the British charity PEAS opened Kityerera, students faced a ten-kilometre walk to the nearest secondary school.

Most of the school’s pupils come from homes like this one, just ten minutes’ walk from the gates. There are few possessions in the front room here – a grain silo, a vivid poster of the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, unironically photoshopped into various Rambo-style poses – but there are handmade doilies on the table.

The homeowner, Yusuf, never went to school; he depends on agricultural labour, digging in a nearby field for himself in the morning and for others in the afternoon. One of his eight children comes to meet us, introducing herself as Phionah. She is 18 and hopes to train as a nurse. The country sorely needs girls like her – there is one nurse for every 11,000 people – but the training costs two million Ugandan shillings (£445), and her family does not have the money.

Further down the road, Paul greets another family: a father and his two wives. Two months earlier, the second wife’s teenage daughter Precious had a baby, Moses. Many schools wouldn’t have allowed her to return but Kityerera has, and she comes home every lunchtime to breastfeed. “When they found out she was pregnant, they were afraid she would be ashamed and feel small,” Paul says, translating for us. “They were extremely happy the school let her come back and gave her free time to breastfeed.”

Precious is lucky, he tells us afterwards. The family believes in witchcraft, and a few years ago might have thrown her and the baby out for bringing bad luck and attracting the disapproval of neighbours. Earlier, on the short drive to the village, we had passed a mound of rocks by the road. “They caught a thief yesterday; he stole a motorbike,” Paul had observed, with no visible emotion. A pause. “Mob justice.”

Yusuf and Phionah. Photo: Mike Niles/PEAS

Uganda is a beautiful country: iron-red soil and lush green grass. It defies easy characterisation. Middle-aged men hold hands unselfconsciously in public, but in 2013 the parliament debated a bill that would have made homosexuality punishable by death. Poverty rates have fallen dramatically in the past two decades, but 37.8 per cent of the people still live on less than £1 a day. Yet in Kampala you can (if you have the money) eat a takeaway chicken with ginger and spring onion that tastes like Chinatown’s finest. The recent arrival of Chinese investment money is obvious – the highway running from Entebbe Airport to the capital is plastered with signs in Mandarin next to half-built roundabouts.

 I arrive a month after the presidential election, which brought about the unsurprising re-election of Museveni. The victory was helped by his chief rival, Kizza Besigye, being under house arrest. That said, the appeal of continuity under a strongman – Muse­veni has been in charge since 1986 – is more understandable when you look at some of the countries that share a border with Uganda: Rwanda to the south, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Kenya to the east and South Sudan to the north.

I’m here as the guest of PEAS, a charity supported by the New Statesman which runs 28 schools in Uganda and two in Zambia. In recent years, most development money has been focused on primary education, pushed by the second Millennium Devel­opment Goal, which states that every child in the world should complete five or six years of schooling. In 1997 Uganda began to make primary education available to all, and it now spends 900 billion shillings (£200m) a year supporting the policy, though Museveni’s government is troubled by rising dropout rates.

At secondary level, those are hugely magnified. Even schools supported by charities need to charge fees to become sustainable in the long term, and the cost, plus books and uniform (between 25,000 and 35,000 shillings, or £5.50-£7.70), is too much for many parents. Children are also often needed at home to do seasonal work, or they get married young, or families decide there is no point educating their daughters – hence Paul Lyavaala’s gloom about the numbers of pupils who disappear from the rolls over the summer holiday.

***

Travelling through rural Uganda, I get used to double-takes and occasional cries of “Mzungu!” (a Bantu word, first used for European explorers, that is now applied to any white person). Yet the class sitting in front of me at Kityerera High could not be more polite. There’s a formality to schooling in Uganda that jars with my recent trips to state schools in London. The uniforms – orange dresses, and white shirts with grey trousers – are immaculately washed and pressed even though the school offers little in the way of laundry facilities. This school has a “senior woman teacher”, Lilian ­Wamai, and a “senior man teacher”, Moses Kibita. There is one laptop, which belongs to the headmaster, Albert Ondonyi.

The school has gathered pupils to talk to me about their lives and aspirations. Jonathan, 17, loves music but wants to be an aeronautical engineer. Eighteen-year-old Felistus is the third of six children and one of the few boys to join the “Girls’ Club”. The children’s names – Isaac, Zakaria, Fatumah, Aloysius – reflect the country’s religious ­diversity, with a population that is 44 per cent Catholic, 39 per cent Anglican and 10 per cent Muslim.

PEAS puts extra effort into female education, with the support of money made available by the UN and NGOs. (The boys at ­Kityerera tell me they are annoyed that their dormitory, unlike the girls’ one, doesn’t have solar-powered lights.) All the research suggests that better-educated women are healthier, are more able to work for money, marry later and have healthier children. “Educate a girl, education a nation,” reads a sign stuck into the grass.

Sitting in a cool classroom, we talk about the Girls’ Club, an after-school group the school has established to try to retain more female pupils. Here, they do what we might call PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) and learn skills such as basket-weaving. The boys help by collecting the raw materials, such as papyrus reeds or palm leaves, from nearby swamps. At the local market, a small basket might sell for 2,000 Ugandan shillings (44p) and a large one for 10,000 (£2.20). The profits help ­pupils buy extras they need.

There is one particular extra I’m interested in because it can make a huge difference to girls’ chances of making it to the end of secondary education: sanitary towels. At the school canteen, a pack of disposable pads costs 2,500 shillings (56p), putting them out of reach for many pupils. The girls have to use rags, or whatever else they can find. Some parents keep them at home and they lose a week of lessons every month.

As girl after girl tells me how much she worries about standing up in class to find blood all over her orange dress, I remember how much the same thought preoccupied me as a teenager. At my school, we compulsively shared stories of the apocryphal girl who had started her first period during a choir recital and had fled the assembly hall, eternally shamed as a scarlet stain spread across her uniform.

Mixed up with embarrassment here in Uganda is a fundamental issue of hygiene: managing a period without running water or sanitary bins can be messy and smelly. It might be only an eggcup of blood, but often it feels like a deluge. Across the developing world, and in refugee camps, a lack of safe, clean, single-sex toilet facilities exposes women to violence and disease.

For that reason, the girls and boys of Kit­yerera are well coached in telling Western visitors about menstruation; I’ve never had a 15-year-old boy talk to me about periods before, never mind half a dozen of them. Two years ago, the girls in Kityerera were ­issued with AFRIpads, made by a local company. Reusable, washable sanitary pads clip into a fabric holder that can be slotted inside knickers. There is only one problem: they are supposed to be used for not much longer than a year. So the girls want more.

PEAS is trying to identify more of these small-scale ideas that can have larger benefits. At another school, this one in Malongo, near Lake Victoria, five hours’ drive from Kampala, Annie Theresa Akech from the board of governors tells me how important it is to let parents pay in instalments. (Subsistence farmers and fisherfolk can rarely produce a lump sum.) Yet the schools do charge fees, because the aim is for all of them to become self-sustaining within a year and to be run and staffed by local people. Solar panels provide electricity, which in turn ­allows for the installation of computer labs. None of the PEAS schools uses corporal punishment, in contrast to a nearby primary school we visit, where a long, swishing cane keeps the children in line.

In this context, sanitary pads – and the craftwork on offer at Girls’ Clubs that makes it possible for pupils to buy them – are liberating. They offer equality, helping girls get as much out of school as their brothers do. They free girls from the extra burden of worrying that they will be shamed in front of their classmates. They give girls in Uganda what they need: a chance.

Helen Lewis stayed with PEAS at its house in Kampala. You can donate to the charity here: peas.org.uk

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq