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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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The darkening skies of the summer game

Cricket was once the English national sport – but, for many people today, it has become invisible.

In 1975 Roy Harper wrote an elegiac song called “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”. With its wistful recollection of “those fabled men” from the game’s golden age and its images of “a dusty pitch and two pound six of willow wood in the sun”, deepened by the melancholy cornets of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, it evoked ancestral memories of distant summers.

Yet, with its nod towards “Geoff” (Boycott) and “John” (Snow), two dominant figures of the here and now, it wasn’t merely nostalgic. The song threw a hoop around a century of English cricket, whether seen or imagined, and pulled off the rare trick of sounding both old and new.

If you were seeking a pivotal year in postwar cricket, 1975 would do nicely. Colin Cowdrey, later Baron Cowdrey of Tonbridge, an amateur in spirit, played the last of his 114 Test matches in a career that had begun 21 years earlier. Graham Gooch, every inch a pro, won the first of his 118 Test caps, spread over the next two decades. Cowdrey, it might be said, with a bit of licence, was Guy Crouchback to Gooch’s Hooper.

In February that year, Sir Neville Cardus, whose romantic, not always factual writing in the old Manchester Guardian had shaped the way cricket-lovers thought about the game, died at the age of 86. Four months later, Clive Lloyd, then the captain of West Indies, scored a century of a brilliance that Cardus would have recognised against Australia’s fearsome fast bowlers as his team won the first and most enjoyable World Cup.

Something else happened that year. David Steele, a bespectacled, 33-year-old batsman (who looked ten years older), was plucked from the obscurity of Northamptonshire’s middle order to take on the mighty Australians at Lord’s. He made 50 dogged runs and added three more half-centuries, although the tourists won the series. Come December, this resolutely unfashionable plodder from the Potteries was voted Sports Personality of the Year by BBC viewers. Such was cricket’s power to capture the national mood, even in defeat.

Last year, when England actually beat the Australians, Joe Root of Yorkshire contributed two glowing centuries. No plodder, he. The cherubic Sheffielder was a member of the team that swiftly went on to win another series in South Africa. But when the BBC presented voters with a list of candidates for the award that Steele had won without any prompting, Root’s name was absent. Cricket simply didn’t figure.

It was an appalling slight on a cricketer who is already established in the annals of English batsmanship. Others also stand tall. The current team is led by Alastair Cook of Essex, who has made more runs in Test cricket than any other Englishman, while James Anderson, the Lancashire fast bowler, holds the English record for Test wickets. These are men of high talent and character, whose names will resonate through our game’s history. Yet, for many people, cricket has become invisible.

When England play Pakistan at Lord’s on Thursday, in the first match of a new series, the ground will be full. In the Coronation Garden behind the Victorian pavilion, there will be talk of “Kipper” Cowdrey, good old Goochie and maybe even the valiant Steele. Beyond the Grace Gate, named after the most celebrated of those fabled men whom Harper sang about, there will be ­indifference. The summer game, squeezed out of view this year by football’s European Championship, as well as the rituals of Wimbledon and the Open, is drifting towards insignificance.

How often do you now see children playing it in parks, or families improvising games on the beach? As for street cricket, with stumps chalked on walls, it has not been spotted in years. Public schools, which have wonderful playing fields and teachers who are prepared to devote to cricket the long hours that it demands, continue to do the game proud. The England team is full of public school boys, led by Cook, who attended Bedford. In state schools, alas, cricket is merely a rumour that many teachers don’t want their pupils to hear in case it gives them ideas.

At a recreational level, too, the story is changing. In “The Whitsun Weddings”, Philip Larkin described seeing from a train carriage the Odeon, a cooling tower and “someone running up to bowl”. Yet fewer people play the game these days – between 2013 and 2014, for instance, there was a 7 per cent fall in the number of players aged between 14 and 65 across England and Wales. As a result, there are fewer cricketers of Test standard. It can’t be ignored that, increasingly, England have to promote players from the swelling ranks of those born overseas. This month, for instance, England replaced Nick Compton (born in Durban, South Africa) with Gary Ballance (born in Harare, Zimbabwe). Both men went to Harrow.

As football becomes ever more newsworthy, even at the height of summer, cricket is banished to the margins of newspapers, including those that, until a few summers ago, served the game so loyally. Once there were dozens of broadsheet reporters, well known and much loved: Alan Gibson of the Times, who was forever changing trains at Didcot; David Foot, who wrote lyrical capsule essays for the Guardian; and Dicky Rutnagur of the Telegraph, who – uniquely – saw both Garry Sobers and Ravi Shastri hit six sixes in an over.

Now, unless there is hard news, or some celebrity dust to sprinkle, sports desks are not interested in cricket. One experienced reporter, who left his post at the paper where Cardus invented sportswriting, says, “I was fed up with having to answer the same question every morning: ‘What’s the Pietersen story today?’ That’s what it had come down to.”

The greatest loss by far has been the absence of Test cricket on terrestrial television. Since Channel 4 took over coverage from the BBC in 1999 and then passed the baton on to Sky after the Ashes series of 2005, a generation of young people has grown up without attachment to a game that their parents and grandparents took for granted. In Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, two former captains of England, Sky has outstanding performers, but their talents are not as widely known as they should be. The game may be millions of pounds richer for Sky’s bounty but cricket has suffered an immeasurable loss.

Meanwhile, on the wireless, where John Arlott and Christopher Martin-Jenkins made their reputations as supreme broadcasters, the BBC’s Test Match Special is mired in tittering mediocrity. It still has its moments – when Jonathan Agnew is in the box, or when Boycott is not talking about himself – but the show, hogged by adolescent show-offs, has lost its dignity.

Arlott, begging Rimbaud’s pardon, held the key to this savage parade, because he represented so long and so faithfully the spirit of English cricket. A Hampshire countryman who trod the beat as a Southampton copper before becoming a poetry producer at the BBC, he gave voice to all those “cricketers of the heart”, as he liked to call them, in honour of those people who followed the game. Summer in England meant, among other things, Arlott’s voice describing cricketers on the green.

Together with Cardus, an observer of a very different kind, he reinforced the idea of cricket as an essential feature of the English imagination. Neither created this mythology, which goes back to shepherds loafing on the Weald of Kent and emerged full-fledged in the glory of W G Grace and Ranjitsinhji. Yet these remarkable men certainly confirmed it in the eyes and ears of their readers and listeners.

Cardus, a distinguished music critic, belonged to the spirit world. Arlott, who had a shelf of first editions by Thomas Hardy (“the greatest of English novelists”), was a man of the soil. Neither was remotely interested in psychology but both knew quite a lot about human character. As Arlott reminded us, “A cricketer is showing you his character all the time.”

***

Cricket, they understood, was the most English of sports because it yoked together the rural and urban, north and south, young and old, men and women. The blacksmith, for an afternoon, stood on the same ground as the squire. L P Hartley caught something of this in The Go-Between and Harold Pinter, a great cricket lover, took delight in making the cricket match in that book a crucial part of his screenplay for Joseph Losey’s 1971 film adaptation, starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie.

By tradition, England teams have relied on cavaliers from the south and west for their runs: Frank Woolley, Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Peter May, Tom Graveney, Ted Dexter. The north has usually supplied the fast bowlers: Harold Larwood of Nottinghamshire, Fred Trueman of Yorkshire, Brian Statham of Lancashire and another Lancastrian, Frank Tyson, who played for Northamptonshire. It is a cultural distinction that has no parallel in any other sport played in this country.

In terms of geography and temperament, cricket has always been the national game. Football may be more popular, but cricket tells us so much more about what kind of people we are. From Grace the bearded Victorian through Wilfred Rhodes the Yorkshire all-rounder and Douglas Jardine, the Old Wykehamist who created the ­“bodyline” strategy to defeat Don Bradman and Australia, to Trueman, Boycott, Ian Botham, Andrew Flintoff and now the ­imperturbable Cook, cricketers have revealed England to us.

Perhaps, given the sport’s capacity for renewal, we shouldn’t be too disheartened. There was a lot of boring cricket half a century ago before the one-day game, in the form of the Gillette Cup, arrived in 1963. The problem is, Twenty20, the bastard grandchild of the old Gillette, now holds the old-fashioned game at gunpoint. It titillates the easily bored, so it is “good” television, and has made millionaires of the leading players. It also makes many long-time cricket watchers wonder whether they understand the game any longer.

With Twenty20 has come a different sort of spectator, one that is new to cricket. These people are not cricket lovers in the old sense but “fans” who demonstrate tribal loyalties. As a consequence, the culture of a game that has never tolerated tribalism has been subverted by rowdy and sometimes intimidating behaviour.

Outside Lord’s, which retains a sense of fair play, it is clear that many people who attend Test matches know little about the men they are watching. The author Colin Shindler attended the Edgbaston Test in Birmingham against Australia last summer and observed that the spectators around him in the Eric Hollies stand “had no idea which counties the England players belonged to. All they wanted to do was drink, shout and draw attention to themselves. They couldn’t sit still even for an over.”

The Kulturkampf is complete and we are living in the ruins. The game’s rulers may not miss the old-fashioned spectators as they leave, never to return, because they want to connect with younger spectators, whatever the price – but cricket will. Who will pass on its lore, as Cardus, Arlott and CMJ did?

Last month it was reported that Yorkshire, the proudest tree in the forest of English cricket and county champions in the past two seasons, were preparing to sell their museum to help trim debts of almost £22m. This, from the club that gave us Rhodes and George Hirst; Herbert Sutcliffe and Leonard Hutton; Maurice Leyland and Hedley Verity; Trueman and Boycott; Brian Close and Raymond Illingworth; Michael Vaughan and young Root. Fabled men, indeed.

The English summer, wrote Cardus, ever the romantic, is inconceivable without cricket. He was right, but the skies are darkening and the air is full of those melancholy cornets.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM