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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

New Statesman composite.
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What to read in 2017

From rebellion and religion to swimming and surrealism – these are the books to look out for in the new year.

How does the publishing industry reflect on such a politically momentous year? One urgent task is to tell us about our new leaders. Six months after the United Kingdom’s second female prime minister took office, Biteback supplies, on 24 January, her first serious biography, Theresa May: the Path to Power, by Rosa Prince. Given how little we know about this very private politician, it will be pored over for insights.

Sadiq Khan’s story is better known – I remember him saying something about being a “bus driver’s son” – but George Eaton, the New Statesman’s political editor, has delved deeper for his biography (Sadiq: the Making of a Mayor and London’s Rebirth, also from Biteback), based on exclusive access to Khan and more than 100 interviews with those around him. It is expected in May, to mark the one-year anniversary of Khan taking office as the first Muslim Mayor of London.

Since becoming a Labour MP in 1982 and joining a House of Commons that was 97 per cent male, Harriet Harman has fought for women’s rights and helped to drag parliamentary culture out of the Stone Age. Her account of those struggles, A Woman’s Work, will be published by Allen Lane next month. Jess Phillips, the 35-year-old self-described “gobby MP”, brings the feminist fight into the digital age with Everywoman (Hutchinson, March). At the “old guard” end, another Westminster memoir worth noting is Chris Patten’s First Confession (Allen Lane, June). And although it looked for a moment as if Vince Cable might have written a whole book about his time on Strictly, it turns out that Open Arms (Corvus, June) is a work of fiction: a political thriller about Westminster, India and big business.

Last year, Miles Cole assembled a cover for the NS in which Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan figured as the three heads of a Brexit hydra. How blessed we are that the last two have books out: Hannan’s Europe primer What Next (out now) is joined by Carswell’s “radical manifesto” Rebel in April, both published – appropriately – by Head of Zeus.

What next, indeed? For the US, it’s too early to answer that question, but Melville House has put together a gutsy collection, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, with contributions by 27 leading progressives, including Bernie Sanders and Gloria Steinem, suggesting paths of resistance. It’s due to be published on 17 January, just before the presidential inauguration.

Resistance will be in the air, not least because 2017 is the centenary of the two uprisings that became known as the Russian Revolution (in February and October). The avalanche that began last year will continue with Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator: an Intimate Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, February), Robert Service’s The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution (Macmillan, also February) and China Miéville’s narrative take on the events of 1917, October: the Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, May). Other books on Lenin are due from Tariq Ali (The Dilemmas of Lenin, Verso, April) and Slavoj Žižek (Lenin 2017, Verso, July). His ideas were built on those of Marx, so it’s neat that 2017 also marks the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital. New reflections on that work include Marx and Capital by David Harvey (Profile, July).

In 1917 Russia was in the grip of financial crisis, revolution and terror and a world war was raging. A century later, are we going the same way? It is clear, at least, that many of our liberal assumptions about progress are being upturned. Age of Anger: a History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra (Allen Lane, January) explores the origins of our “great wave of paranoid hatreds”, while populist politics and nationalism are examined in The Road to Somewhere (Hurst, March) by David Goodhart, The Rise of the ­Outsiders: the Anti-Establishment and Its March to Power (Atlantic, June) by Steve Richards and Grave New World: the End of Globalisation and the Return of Economic Conflict (Yale University Press, May) by Stephen D King. The former Economist editor Bill Emmott offers a slightly less gloomy spin in The Fate of the West, which considers the decline but also the possible “revival” of liberal democracy (Profile, March).

Having got his grandly titled history of the eurozone – And the Weak Suffer What They Must? – out of the way last year, the former Greek finance minister Yanis ­Varoufakis unleashes the gossip, telling the “extraordinary tale of brinkmanship and backstabbing” behind the 2015 EU negotiations in Adults in the Room (Bodley Head, May). A fellow economist, Evan Davis of Newsnight, adopts the phrase of 2016 for his book Post-Truth (Little, Brown, August), about how “bullshit” became “the communications strategy of our imes”.

There is plenty of “post-truth” written about Britain’s Muslims, as was illustrated last month when the Mail Online paid out £150,000 to a family that the columnist Katie Hopkins had accused groundlessly of having extremist links. Attempts to bring some honesty and clarity come from Sayeeda Warsi, Britain’s first Muslim cabinet minister, in The Enemy Within (Allen Lane, March), and Omar Saif Ghobash, in his Letters to a Young Muslim (Picador, January). Another counterblast to those who see Islam as incapable of modernising, The Islamic Enlightenment (Bodley Head, February) by Christopher de Bellaigue shows that, from the 19th century onwards, the faith has been transformed by progressive thinking.

These books will sadly be outweighed by writings on Islamic State, of which The Way of the Strangers by the Atlantic correspondent Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, January) is the most anticipated. Catherine Nixey has found a historical parallel with the destruction wreaked by IS: The Darkening Age (Macmillan, September) describes how a militant religion “comprehensively and deliberately extinguished” the teachings of the classical world, “ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to ‘one true faith’”. That religion was, of course, Christianity.

In biography, we will get two grand surrealists and two great engineers. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead (Virago, April) coincides with the centenary of the painter and writer, while ­Jenny Uglow takes on the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” in Edward Lear: a Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, October). Bloomsbury pits two engineering geniuses, one Scottish and the other American, against each other, with Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain by Julian Glover (January) – which celebrates the “colossus of roads” and designer of the 1826 Menai Suspension Bridge – and Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge (June), in which the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner tells the story of Washington Roebling against a backdrop of civil war, family strife and superhuman achievement in construction. Peter Ackroyd is already London’s biographer laureate but in Queer City (Chatto & Windus, May), he views the capital through its gay population, from the pleasure-filled lupanaria (“wolf dens”) of Roman times to the present day.

Sexuality errs towards the non-binary these days and a raft of books reflects that. Trans Like Me by C N Lester (Virago, May) is joined by The Gender Games by Juno Dawson (Two Roads, July) and Man Alive by Thomas Page McBee (Canongate, May). There’s possibly more fun to be had in One of the Boys by the comic actor Robert Webb (Canongate, July), a coming-of-age memoir that builds on a piece he wrote for the NS in 2014: “How not to be a boy”.

Two other memoirs stand out. When the cultural theorist Stuart Hall died in 2014 he left behind a manuscript – Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands (Allen Lane, April) tells the story of his early life, from growing up in 1930s Jamaica to dealing with the thorny politics of 1950s and 1960s England. Glimpses of a great English institution are given in Balancing Acts: Behind the Scenes at the National Theatre (Jonathan Cape, May) by Nicholas Hytner, who stepped down as artistic director in 2015.

Beyond our cities, we have become a nation of dippers and 2017 is the year of the swim-moir. There’s Turning: a Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee (Virago, May), Leap In: a Woman, Some Waves and the Will to Swim by Alexandra Heminsley (Hutchinson, January) and I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice (Chatto & Windus, July), an Irish writer’s account of her “Tragic Wives’ Swimming Club”. In June Philip Hoare, the King Neptune of literature, returns with RisingTideFallingStar (Fourth Estate), a wide-ranging examination of our relationship with this watery planet.

On dry land, too, big ideas flourish. In Selfie (Picador, June) Will Storr traces the roots of our “age of perfectionism”, and Adam Alter’s Irresistible (Bodley Head, March) looks at addiction in the ­internet age. Bullshit Jobs: a Theory by David Graeber (Allen Lane, September) explains why we are trapped in a cycle of meaningless work, and in The Knowledge Illusion (Macmillan, April) the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach claim that true intelligence “resides not in the individual but in the collective mind.”

The essay continues to enjoy a renaissance. There are offerings from the author of The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Faber & Faber, April); Rebecca Solnit, whose Mother of All Questions (Granta, October) is a collection of “further feminist essays”; Teju Cole, whose “multimedia diary” Blind Spot, coming from Faber & Faber in July, pairs images with text; and Martin Amis, who has assembled his criticism and reportage from 1986 to 2016 in The Rub of Time (due from Jonathan Cape in the autumn). Amis is also working on a novel about three of his friends – Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow and Philip Larkin – all of whom have died since he began writing it. “That gives me a theme,” he said recently. “Death.”

In fiction, the year begins with Paul Auster’s first novel in seven years, 4 3 2 1 (Faber & Faber, January), charting a baby boomer’s four divergent life paths. From the US, too (now that an American has won the Man Booker Prize we’d better pay closer attention), there comes Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, March), the debut novel by the short-story supremo George Saunders. Set in 1862 in a cemetery in Washington, it has drawn high praise from first readers. Also arriving with Stateside acclaim is Homegoing (Viking, January), a story of two sisters and the slave trade in the Gold Coast by the first-time novelist Yaa Gyasi.

If we are – pace Stephen D King and others – seeing the end of globalisation, it’s not showing in fiction, which in 2017 feels anything but insular. The Indian author Arun­dhati Roy returns to fiction, 20 years after The God of Small Things, with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, June), described as “a love story and a provocation”, while the new novel by the Man Booker-shortlisted author Neel Mukherjee, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus, September), is a “fierce and often devastating portrayal of contemporary India”. From Turkey, Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman (Faber & Faber, September) is a short philosophical novel about a murder that took place 30 years ago near Istanbul. Emerging from the Iraq War is Spoils (Jonathan Cape, May), a debut novel by a former US sergeant, Brian Van Reet, centring on three characters: a young female soldier, a jihadi and a male tank crewman. Germany and the UK are the settings for the first novel by the prize-winning biographer (and contributor to these pages) Lucy Hughes-Hallett – Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate, May), which spans the 17th and 20th centuries.

And here’s a rare event: the publication of fiction from North Korea. A cache of stories by the dissident writer “Bandi” has been smuggled out and translated by Deborah Smith, and will be published by Serpent’s Tail in March under the title The Accusation. (Smith also translates Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016; a new novel by the South Korean writer is to come from Portobello in November.)

Elsewhere, strong literary names dot the lists. There are novels by Jon McGregor (Reservoir 13, Fourth Estate, April), Hari Kunz­ru (White Tears, Hamish Hamilton, April), Will Self (Phone, Viking, June), William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Viking, September) and Ali Smith (Winter, Hamish Hamilton, November). We just have to hope that bookshops aren’t too busy ordering extra copies of Into the Water (Doubleday, May), Paula Hawkins’s follow-up to The Girl on the Train, to notice.

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

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