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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

Photo: Miles Cole
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Labour's populism for the middle classes

Jeremy Corbyn has consolidated a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair.

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn a mutant strain of populism has become an integral part of British politics. Commentary on the general election and its dramatic upshot has focused on Theresa May’s disastrous campaign and the hubris of her now departed senior advisers. But what finally defeated the Conservatives was that, along with practically everyone else, they underestimated the power of Corbyn’s message. As the advance of the far right has stalled in Europe and with Donald Trump adrift in Washington, the peaking of populism has been announced almost daily, especially by the Financial Times. The rise of a far-left version in Britain went largely unappreciated.

Corbyn’s campaign had more than a little in common with Trump’s experiment in engineering popular emotions and perceptions. The ecstatic mass rallies, the indifference to fact shown in the Labour leader’s repeated denials of his meetings with terrorists and of the reflexive anti-Semitism that pervades much of the movement he has created, the belief of his supporters that the media are conspiring against him and the poisonous Twitter abuse of his critics are clear parallels. But this is not a protest from despairing communities left to moulder in abandoned zones of economic desolation. It is populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled.

Labour’s success in taking Kensington in west London will be remembered as a defining event. That Corbyn could seize a safe Tory seat in one of the richest constitu­encies in the country is testimony to an extraordinary shift. It is also the culmination of a transformation in Labour that has been under way for many years. Corbyn has solidified a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair. Public-school Stalinists and Debrett’s-pedigreed Trotskyites have long been familiar figures in the upper reaches of the left, just as they are today. What is new is Corbyn’s marriage of radical leftist ideology with a systematic appeal to middle-class interests. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees (which would cost the country as much as £12bn) and reintroduce maintenance grants, while declining to unfreeze welfare benefits on the grounds that reversing Tory cuts would be (as Emily Thornberry put it in May) “unaffordable”. Rather than addressing the desperate lack of opportunities for working-class children, who may never make it to university, Labour has successfully courted the middle-class youth vote.

Labour’s embourgeoisement is an important reason for Corbyn’s success. For Blairites, this can only be bitterly ironical. Peter Mandelson’s stupefaction at the election result showed him struggling to grasp how the modernisation of Labour he masterminded could have such paradoxical consequences. Extending Labour’s reach beyond its working-class base was one of the keys to Blair’s electoral successes.

The goal was to return Labour to power by aligning the party with neoliberal economic policies and the large numbers of those who for a time were benefiting from them. The project was continued by Gordon Brown, and until the financial crisis it worked fairly well. At that point a shiver of doubt went through the body politic. Movements such as Occupy became more prominent. Inequality was back on the political agenda. Another Great Depression had been avoided, but the effect of near-zero interest rates was an inflation of asset prices that left the rich even richer. At the same time, many people found their incomes stagnant or falling in real terms, but their discontent failed to find effective political expression. Because of his inability to communicate to a mass audience and failure to target the beneficiaries of his policies, Ed Miliband’s move to the left came to nothing.

Corbyn’s opportunity to mobilise the anti-capitalist mood came by accident, as an unintended consequence of Miliband’s decision (supported by Blairites) to include the party’s mass membership as voters in leadership contests. The upshot was an organised takeover of the party by hard-left forces, the paralysed impotence of its parliamentary wing and Corbyn’s unchallengeable dominance today. Labour has been modernised, but not in the way Mandelson intended. Whether by serendipity or by design, Corbyn has brought together some of the most vital forces on the contemporary scene: the anti-capitalist radicalism of young people who are innocent of history, a bourgeois cult of personal authenticity and naked self-interest expressed as self-admiring virtue. Nothing could be more exotically modern than Corbyn’s hybrid populism.

Media obsession with the performance of the two main party leaders has obscured this larger picture. It is true that Corbyn acquired a charismatic fluency in the course of the campaign, whereas Theresa May appeared inflexible and lacking in empathy. The result was close enough for this dif­ference to matter – especially as so much had been made of May’s leadership qualities. But the strategic positioning of the two parties has more enduring significance. May and her advisers aimed to create a working-class conservatism by harvesting former Ukip voters and exploiting the alienation of Labour’s old base from a metropolitan, liberal consensus. By offering more stringent control of immigration, and shelter from globalisation through an active industrial strategy, she believed that Labour’s old fortresses could be stormed. If there was such a thing as a May project, this was it.

***

Reconciling the anarchic productivity of the market with social cohesion is the political dilemma of the age, and there is no reason to think that it is, even in principle, properly soluble. May’s manifesto had the merit of at least acknowledging the problem. But the electoral arithmetic on which her strategy depended was over-simple. The Labour vote was stickier than expected, and in some constituencies the party may have benefited from Ukip’s collapse. Much criticised for his equivocations on Brexit, Corbyn turned out to have read the public mood astutely. Support for Remain had shrunk substantially, but few voters were chiefly exercised by Brexit. When he refused to put it at the heart of his campaign, Corbyn outsmarted May’s advisers and strategists. In turn, he helped bring about a move back towards something like a two-party system.

That Ukip lost its reason for existing once Brexit got under way was the theme of countless op-eds before the election. But the same logic applied, in lesser degree, to Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats. Even before the election, it was apparent that a large new grouping of “Re-Leavers” had appeared, while support for reversing Brexit had slumped. Zac Goldsmith retaking Richmond Park and Kate Hoey increasing her majority despite a determined effort to oust her in Vauxhall showed Brexiteers prevailing in what had been strongly Remain constituencies. In contrast, the Lib Dems were damaged by Farron’s decision to shape their campaign around the demand for a second referendum. Though the party made a modest gain in seats (even as its vote share fell), Farron held on by a much-reduced majority and Nick Clegg lost the constituency he had held for 12 years. Because of their fixation on Brexit the Lib Dems remain where they have been for so many years, a bit player in national politics.

More than anything else, it is the spectacular setback suffered by the Scottish National Party that has produced the shift back to two-party politics. Nicola Sturgeon fought the election by trying to link Scottish independence with resistance to Brexit. Ignoring cautionary voices in her party, she displayed a hubris starker than any Theresa May showed. Roughly a third of SNP supporters voted Leave in the referendum, and many others have been disillusioned by the SNP’s record on domestic issues. By making a second independence referendum the central issue in the SNP’s campaign, Sturgeon has shortened her political career and posed a question about the need for the continued existence of her party. With her credibility damaged, Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson casualties of the election, and the push to independence indefinitely postponed, a new generation will have to redefine what the SNP means today.

The compelling leadership of Ruth Davidson was a decisive factor in the revival of Scottish Conservatism. Not only has she revived the party north of the border and buried any prospect of Indyref2 for the foreseeable future, she has, by adding 12 Conservative seats in the Commons, saved the Conservatives in Westminster from outright defeat and delivered the UK from any risk of Scottish secession. The new Scottish MPs could be as important in shaping the government’s approach to the EU as the ten Democratic Unionists to whom May has turned in cobbling together a minority government. Davidson favours what she calls an “open Brexit”, which might mean a version of a Norwegian-style model in which Britain joins the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area, ensuring access to the single market. The Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, pointed in a similar direction when she spoke of the need to keep the border with the south open and avoid a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that May could end up negotiating with Brussels to secure some such deal: the opposite of the stance on which she fought the election. But given her weakened position the advantage would lie with EU negotiators, who might be tempted to make punitive demands. At that point negotiations could break down, as May cannot risk losing the support of the Brexiteers who are keeping her in power.

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Of course, there may be a challenge to her leadership. Inevitably, Boris Johnson is being touted as someone with the human touch that May is seen to lack. But Johnson has dismissed all such talk as “tripe” – at least for the time being. A leadership contest in the current circumstances would be savage and rancorous, leaving the Conservatives dangerously weakened in another general election that would soon follow. Are they ready to risk another gamble in the near future with even higher stakes than before? They lost their majority for the same reason Labour moderates lost control of their party: they failed to take Corbyn seriously. To make the same mistake again would look like carelessness.

There must be many who still cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. After all, Labour failed to win the election. May lost her wager, but in numbers of votes she matched Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide (the electorate is now larger, of course). Corbyn edged closer to power, but many Labour MPs continue to think him unfit to be leader of his party, let alone the country. Yet it would be foolish to conclude that Corbyn will not enter Downing Street.

So far, his march towards power has been greeted with remarkable complacency. Believing it will enable a less disruptive Brexit, the markets have welcomed the humiliation he has inflicted on the May government. The smirking Cameroons have not been able to conceal their vengeful satisfaction. The property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves on having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances. And Remainers will be thrilled as the prospect of an all-out Brexit seems to have faded from view.

These could be brief and costly pleasures. Markets will start to panic if another election is called, and if Corbyn wins they will go into a tailspin. Capital flight will surely leave his government unable to finance its cornucopian schemes, which include expensive commitments to renationalise rail, mail and water companies. Though students will be cheering at the prospect of their burden of debt being lifted from them, the largesse they have been promised is ­unlikely to materialise. Labour would face the same pressure on public services that led the Conservatives to revise their policies on care homes, but in much-worsened fiscal conditions.

It is unclear that Labour, once in government, would opt for a soft Brexit. Corbyn has repeated the mantra about preserving access to the single market and putting jobs first. But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that Labour accepts Britain must honour the EU referendum and may have to leave the single market. There is a hard-left tradition that dreams of a socialist Britain outside the EU, and while Labour may have won by attracting youthful Remainers, the millions of Labour supporters that voted Leave have not gone away.

A Corbyn government would be more divided on Brexit than that of Theresa May. The upshot could be that no deal is reached – a scenario not unlike that favoured by hard Brexiteers, but without any of the preparatory work that could make it viable. As house prices in London crumbled, the nabobs of Chelsea would find their cleverness had backfired. Hopeful Remainers and spiteful Cameroons would have the smile rudely wiped off their face.

At present, Corbyn is walking on water. Like Chauncey Gardiner at the end of Hal Ashby’s magical film Being There, who after leaving his walled garden enchanted the world with his unexpected wisdom and Zen-like calm, the Labour leader seems to defy the laws of gravity. Yet politics is not magic, and the mutant strain of populism he embodies cannot conjure away painful realities. If he finds himself facing the ordeals of power, Corbyn will quickly fall to Earth, along with much else in Britain.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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