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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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"Overnight, my school emptied": the story of a European border checkpoint

At a busy checkpoint between Turkey and Bulgaria near the Greek frontier, a long history of displacement and exile emerges.

“Bye-bye, komshu,” said the taxi driver. The Turkish word for “neighbour” is used throughout the Balkans.

We had reached the vici­nity of the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint and he could go no further. We had driven past the mile-long queue of lorries waiting to be processed into the ­European Union. Some drivers waited for days and had come prepared: fold-up stools and portable stoves lined the road. I wondered what the sealed bulks of the lorries contained, and how much of it was fully known to their drivers.

A week earlier, I had crossed the other way – into Turkey – and witnessed a distressing bust by Bulgarian police of young Kurdish stowaways. The lorry driver seemed genuinely shocked, and he was in trouble. Lone women crossing this border in rented cars were regarded with suspicion, too: a Rom­anian woman had recently been caught with hard drugs inside the seats. In another recent incident, a smuggler had accelerated through customs and run over a border cop standing in his way. The smuggler was now in jail, the cop in a coma.

“Hello, arkadash,” said the new taxi driver as he loaded up my bag. Arkadash is Turkish for “mate”, also widely used in the Balkans. This driver had two cars: one with Turkish number plates, for domestic use, and another with Bulgarian plates, for border
purposes. We drove into customs. Slowly.

I was leaving behind the ­mosque-studded border town of Edirne and would soon reach the factory-filled border town of Svilengrad. Ruined factories, that is. For centuries, before the wounded leviathan of the planned economy collapsed, Svilengrad had produced silk. Today, it produced nothing. It was a transaction terminal for the pleasure-seeking populace of the three border nations: Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Here were casinos called “Pasha”, “Ali Baba” and “Saray” that promised “shows, prizes and many more surprises”. On the outskirts of town, in a former border army building, was a refugee camp that promised nothing.

The twin border cities of Svilengrad and Edirne sat in the fertile plains of Thrace where a section of the Roman Via Diagonalis passed and where everything grew: vines, sunflowers, cotton, wheat, and what early travellers described as the best watermelons in the Levant. Now the Greeks came across the border to both cities, to get what they needed, cheaply – including haircuts in Bulgaria and fake Levi’s jeans in Turkey. The checkpoint with Greece was just a few miles to the west, and from the last sleepy Greek town, Kastanies, across the swollen waters of the Evros-Maritsa River, you could see Edirne sprawled like a concubine in the haze of the Thracian plains.

The three border rivers (Arda, Tundja, Evros-Maritsa) flooded almost every year: if a dam upstream in Bulgaria opened a sluice, both Turkey and Greece would be flooded. Indeed, this border has seen many spillovers and upheavals over the years, including the catastrophic “exchange of populations” after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when borders were redrawn and many in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey found themselves in alien territory overnight. They had to run for their lives across the new lines.

The road under the wheels became bumpy, a sign that we had crossed into Bulgaria. Ahead of us in the haze rose the communist-era apartment buildings of Svilengrad. In my youth, this area – like all towns, rivers and mountains that fell within 30 kilometres of the national border – was a militarised zone.

The border was a taboo subject. Hidden by Balkan peaks and electrified by Soviet technology, it was everywhere, like the state. The border was that which never slept. It was near the Black Sea beaches where, in my childhood, we went for holidays along with the East Germans, Poles and Czechoslovaks – some of whom went swimming towards Turkey, or made a run for the land border and got shot by Bulgarian guards. It was near the mountain villages where we went to pick berries and climb fir trees from which you could see Greece.

“Do you go to Greece?” I asked Ibrahim, the taxi driver. He had once been a schoolteacher.

“What would I do in Greece?” he replied, smiling. “I don’t speak Greek. This is my patch, here, Turkey and Bulgaria.”

Ibrahim was an ethnic Turk but his family had lived in Bulgaria for many generations. Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks account for roughly 10 per cent of the population, a natural effect of the long cosmopolitan centuries of these once Ottoman lands. But in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ibrahim and another 340,000 Bulgarian Turks passed through this checkpoint with all their worldly possessions. It was the largest exodus in Europe since the Second World War – but in peacetime.

They had been left with little choice in communist Bulgaria, where assimilation campaigns had been waged against them and other Muslims at frequent intervals during the Cold War. The last such campaign forced ethnic Turks with Muslim names to change them to Christian (Slavic) ones. In some parts of the country, even the names of the dead were changed in registries and on gravestones – an act of violence that strikes me as especially cruel.

This self-wounding campaign by the communist state was a diversionary tactic: despotic regimes need enemies. Ethnic minorities are easy prey. Those who resisted were told by the state to clear off to Turkey, and Bulgarian officials opened this checkpoint. Until then it had been closed to all Bulgarian citizens and was used only by Western travellers to Turkey or Turkish Gastarbeiter to Germany.

Ibrahim had been a young teacher in a town at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. “But what is a teacher without kids? Overnight, my school emptied,” he said.

Ibrahim decided to follow, although he spoke no Turkish. He departed alone, leaving behind his mother and sister, who couldn’t face a life of exile and took the new names instead. For the first few years, he lived in a leaking tent in a huge refugee camp in Edirne – where he saw some of his former pupils. He attended evening Turkish classes and eventually found his feet.

Many of those who had crossed the border that summer returned to Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, reclaimed (or bought back) their houses, and started again. But many remained in Turkey and made new lives for themselves. Families were split down the middle. Today, entire neighbourhoods of Edirne and Istanbul are populated by Bulgarian Turks; one nation’s loss became the other nation’s gain. Then there were those, like Ibrahim, who continued to live a split life.

“Because my memories are all here, you see,” he said, without malice. “My mother, my sister, the old neighbours. But my wife, my kids, my business, are there.” He gestured back towards Turkey.

How do you feel, I asked him, when you see the refugees today? He shook his head. “It’s your pride that goes, you see. Back home, you were a person. With a history, with a future. When you become a forced exile . . .” He trailed off. “The life of an exile is worse than war.”

We arrived at the hotel in Svilengrad where I had booked a room. Ibrahim took out my bag and placed it on the pavement. “Bye-bye, arkadash,” he said; and standing by my bag, I watched him drive down the broken road back to the border.

Today, the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint is said to be the world’s busiest land crossing. But back in 1989 Ibrahim had crossed this checkpoint alone, on foot. I will always think of him like this: a young teacher with a suitcase, walking through no-man’s-land, into the unknown.

Kapka Kassabova’s “Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe” is published by Granta Books 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda