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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

Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
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The new divides

The left-right axis is no longer the most important division in politics. Six of our writers explore the new divides.

To start the year, the New Statesman has taken a step back from party politics to ask: what are the real fault lines in Britain today? Look at voting patterns in the 2015 general election and the EU referendum (and in elections in the US and Europe) and it becomes clear that the old division of "left vs right" does not tell the full story. Attitudes towards immigration, globalisation and cultural touchstones (the monarchy, religion, sexism and racism) complicate the picture.

As the New Statesman leader notes, 

"The politics of left v right is being superseded by the politics of open v closed. In the UK, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU split both the Conservatives and Labour into Remainers and Leavers. For the rest of this decade and beyond, British politics will be defined by Brexit, and attitudes towards immigration will be more important than those towards capitalism. In the US, Donald Trump’s election similarly reshaped historical loyalties. His political programme of closed borders, higher government spending, trade tariffs and tax cuts borrowed from left and right. Like the Brexiteers, he managed to mobilise formerly inactive sections of the electorate."

The result of recent upheavals is that class and income do not affect our political beliefs as simply as they once did. Labour has been described as an alliance of working class voters in northern England and Wales, plus more well-heeled metropolitans. Ukip is seen as a right-wing party, but its voters often agree with economic sentiments which are more usually associated with the left. (Carswellian libertarianism is a marginalised view within the membership, never mind its voters.) Immigration, higher rates of university attendance and the flow of young people into cities have also changed voting behaviour, as has the increasing age of our population and the fact that older people turn out to vote in greater numbers.

Below, six writers each tackle a "new divide" in British politics, and explore how it is changing what we want from our politicians.

 

Whites v non-whites

"In 2010 the Conservatives secured 36.1 per cent of the vote across the country but underperformed that figure among ethnic minorities all the way up the income scale, contributing to the hung parliament. Even in 2015, the few disappointments for the triumphant Tories came in places where ethnic minorities were clustered: Ealing Central and Acton, Ilford North and Wolverhampton South-West. (As for Labour, the party became noticeably more reliant on ethnic-minority votes as some of its white voters moved to Ukip.)"

Stephen Bush asks if the racial divide in voting preferences is about to become starker – despite David Cameron's best efforts.

City v country

"Across the Western world, cities are opting for progressive or establishment causes while the provinces vote for extremist or populist candidates. In Britain’s referendum on EU membership last June, most cities were markedly more pro-European than their hinterlands. The far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer won majorities in the Austrian countryside while the pro-Green Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed in Vienna, Salzburg and Linz. And polls suggest that, should the Front National’s Marine Le Pen win in France, it will be thanks to la France profonde."

We tend to congregate towards people like ourselves, says Jonn Elledge. Is it any surprise the urban-rural divide is becoming so pronounced?

Closed v open

"In the 1990s, with social democrats in the ascendant, the historian David Marquand warned that unless we could provide effective “shelter from the neo-capitalist storm” social democracy would collapse. If the shelter was “illusory”, he argued, then “religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, xenophobic nationalism, moral authoritarianism and the scapegoating of minorities” would offer “seductive escape routes” from “the insecurity, injustices and tensions that untamed capitalism brings”. It is fair to say that in 2016 Marquand’s nightmarish vision became real."

Whether it's Brexit or Trump, it feels as though the left has lost its traditional voter base. Tristram Hunt explains why it's time to address a new cultural divide.

Graduates v non-graduates

"The demand for skilled, professional brain-work in sectors such as information technology, health and financial services has risen steadily even as globalisation and automation have sharply curtailed opportunities for the least skilled. The past three decades have been terrific for university graduates and terrible for unskilled school-leavers. So, it is no surprise if the former gravitate towards the status quo while the latter are attracted by radical alternatives."

University graduates have had a great few years; unskilled school-leavers, not so much. It's no wonder they vote differently, says Rob Ford.

Old v young

"Britain’s over-65s are less likely to be graduates than the younger generations, more likely to be homeowners, more likely to be white and more likely to believe immigration is out of control. All that affects how they vote; and, boy, do they vote: 78 per cent turned out in the 2015 general election, against 66 per cent across the population. Ninety per cent of them cast a ballot in the June 2016 referendum, where they were twice as likely as the under-25s to have voted to leave the European Union." 

The voting power of pensioners has long had a distorting effect on British politics,  says Helen Lewis. Is it time to stop appeasing them?

Owners v renters

"While the Tories privileged owners, they neglected renters. The 2015 manifesto made no mention of private tenants. Social housing, Osborne and David Cameron believed, merely created more Labour voters. 'They genuinely saw housing as a petri dish for voters,' the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg recalled. 'It was unbelievable.'"

Can the divide between home-owners and renters be bridged, asks George Eaton? After Brexit, we may find out.

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