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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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Pale, male but far from stale: what can the economists of history teach us?

In an age of science and statistics, thinkers such as Marx and Adam Smith may hold the answer to capitalism’s crisis.

Is economics a science? It’s an old question – and in my view, not a terribly useful one. Yet there is a reason why it never stops being asked. Physicists have discovered the universal laws governing energy and motion, and as a result can tell us with scarcely credible precision how to land a man on the moon. Economists, by contrast, can’t even agree on why the last financial crisis happened, let alone what we should do to prevent the next one – and that’s despite the fact that we wrote the rules of finance ourselves. Real sciences make progress. Economics, on the other hand, seems to go round and round in circles.

Needless to say, this embarrassing situation irritates economists more than anyone else. As a result, over the past several decades mainstream economics has attempted to assimilate itself ever more closely to the culture and methods of
the natural sciences. These days, self-respecting economists express their theories as mathematical models, rather than in words. Advanced statistical techniques are deployed to test hypotheses and so resolve the answers to empirical questions. If possible, experiments are designed and conducted. A few avant-garde researchers have even gone so far as to rebrand their research groups as “labs”. Whether these developments represent a long-overdue reform of the methodology of economics, or just the symptoms of a chronic inferiority complex, they have certainly dealt a mortal blow to one formerly central area of the economics curriculum: the history of economic thought. If economics is a science, there is as little point in reading the economists of prior ages as there is in engaging with Aristotle on biology or mugging up on the theory of phlogiston.

The publication of Linda Yueh’s The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today is therefore a fascinating event for anyone interested in economics. For this is a book which, as its title suggests, champions the value of studying the leading economic thinkers of the past.

It sounds like swimming against the tide of history. Is it really possible to reclaim a role for the scientifically backward theorising of a canon of Dead White Men (and, to Yueh’s credit, one Dead White Woman)? Well, there can hardly be anyone better qualified to try. As an Oxford don and a professor at London Business School, Yueh undoubtedly knows her stuff; and as a former chief  business correspondent for the BBC and economics editor at Bloomberg TV, she is a well-known and skilful communicator.

The challenge Professor Yueh has set herself is even bigger than it first appears, however. For looming like Muhammad Ali in his pomp over any modern attempt at an overview of history’s great economists is a classic so enduringly popular as to make most challengers throw in the towel before the starting bell: Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers.

I first read this multimillion best-seller, published in 1953, 25 years ago. There can hardly be an economist in the English-speaking world who wasn’t assigned it as the first text on their undergraduate reading list – and for not a few of them, I suspect, it is about the only thing they can remember from their course. And with good reason: for Heilbroner – a student of Joseph Schumpeter at Harvard who later became a professor at the New School for Social Research in New York – was a talented writer in command of his subject matter and with a gift for leavening abstract ideas with earthy biography. Yet the real reason that The Worldly Philosophers has reigned for so long as the heavyweight champion of the genre is that it is organised around a clear and compelling vision of what, historically speaking, economics actually is.

The book’s underlying argument is that economics is nothing more nor less than the project of trying to understand, evaluate, and then control capitalism – the historically unprecedented system of organising society though the operation of markets and money that began to evolve in Europe in the late Middle Ages.

Before the capitalist revolution, there was no need for a discipline devoted to explaining why production, distribution and exchange are structured as they are, because, as Heilbroner says: “[who] would look for abstract laws of supply and demand, or cost, or value, when the explanation lay like an open book in the laws of the manor and the church and the city, along with the customs of a lifetime? Adam Smith might have been a great moral philosopher in that earlier age, but he could never have been a great economist; there would have been nothing for him to do.”

Once capitalism began its relentless rise, however, people felt an imperative to clarify its unwritten rules, to pass judgement on whether they were good or bad, and to strive to rewrite its constitution accordingly. The project that answered that call was economics – an enterprise as value-laden and politically fraught as constitution writing always is. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in other words, economics is unashamedly not a science – and, in striking contrast to the natural sciences, there is no real distinction between the history of economic thought and the history of the economy itself. The former is a reaction to the latter; and as economic thought began to pervade the modern mindset, the latter was just as often a reaction to the former.

Hence the plan of The Worldly Philosophers: a parallel history of the capitalist revolution and of the theories that have been developed to make sense of it. In Heilbroner’s scheme, in order to understand the rules we live by today, we need to understand who invented them, and why. The history of economic thought is therefore one of the keystones of economics – and economics itself is, to an important extent, intellectual history.


On the face of it, Yueh’s book follows the format of The Worldly Philosophers. It too devotes a series of separate chapters to a pantheon of historical economic thinkers (and six of them – Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter – are covered by both books). It, too, aims to extract contemporary guidance from study of their theories. The resemblance is only superficial, however, because the conception of economics that underpins Heilbroner’s work is not one that would be recognised by most economists today.

Heilbroner himself, in an epilogue to the 1999 edition of The Worldly Philosophers entitled “The End of the Worldly Philosophy?”, explained that economics had even then almost completed its transition to a new sense of its essence and purpose. “The new vision,” he wrote, “is Science; the disappearing one, Capitalism.”

The Great Economists reflects this dramatic change in how economics conceives its methods and its aims. For Yueh, as for most contemporary practitioners, economics is not about reconstructing the historical mind-map of capitalism, but
about the discovery of objective economic laws through the scientific study of the social world.

Her rationale for exploring the history of economic thought is accordingly quite different from Heilbroner’s. It is not so much to understand the era in which the great economists lived, still less to grasp any role their theories may have played in shaping the conventions that govern the modern economy. It is rather because each of her  subjects was the first to explain some fundamental economic principle or discover some economic law applicable to our contemporary dilemmas. It is in this direct sense that their ideas can help us today.

One chapter, for example, recruits the 19th century English economist David Ricardo to help answer the timely question “Do trade deficits matter?” Ricardo was the first to formalise the principle of comparative advantage – the idea that all nations gain if each one specialises in producing the things at which it is relatively more efficient and then freely trades its output. The truth of this principle, Yueh explains, is more important than ever as the US seems headed for protectionism.

Another chapter summarises the life and work of Irving Fisher, the greatest American economist of the first half of the 20th century, in order to answer the question “Are we at risk of repeating the 1930s?” Fisher’s most celebrated contribution was his book The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions, which explained how a recession-induced drop in prices can raise the real burden of debt, leading to further deflation and so yet heavier debt, in a vicious circle. That led him to advocate reflationary monetary policy as the correct response to debt crises – a conclusion which, as the past decade has shown, modern central bankers have taken warmly to heart.

Yueh acknowledges that the validity of such principles is not unchallenged today and she is scrupulous in stressing ongoing debates. Nevertheless, the general idea is that they represented major advances in our knowledge of how the economy works, and that these economists are, to paraphrase Newton, giants on whose shoulders modern economists stand.

Hence the plan of The Great Economists reflects a distinct conception of the purpose of studying the history of economic thought, and indeed of economics itself. In this view, the history of economic thought is primarily a pedagogical device – a harmless cosmetic aid, as useful for adding some much-needed colour as, and no less scientific than, teaching physics by referring to Boyle’s Law, or biology by studying Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Economics itself, however, is definitely a science.


As I said, I don’t think the question of whether economics is a science is a very useful one. The inconvenient truth is that in some respects it is, and in others it isn’t. As a result, the different approaches to the history of economic thought taken by Yueh and Heilbroner both have their merits.

 Nevertheless, if I was forced to recommend only one of them to a budding student of economics, I would have to plump for Heilbroner’s classic. In my view, the challenges facing Western economies in the post-2008 era are existential, as well as normal – and over all of them hovers the master question that haunts the writings of every one of Heilbroner’s worldly philosophers, from Smith to Schumpeter: whether or not capitalism is ultimately sustainable as a way of organising society.

The achievements of modern, scientific economics are significant, and the reader who wants a slick and well-curated tour of its current policy recommendations will profit greatly from Yueh’s enjoyable and up-to-date book. But if you want to know whether capitalism can survive its current crisis, and what might replace it if it doesn’t, then Heilbroner’s study of those great thinkers, who explored these questions free from our contemporary prejudices and vested interests, remains the place to start. 

Felix Martin is the author of “Money: the Unauthorised Biography” (Vintage)

The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today
Linda Yueh
Viking, 368pp, £20

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist, bond trader and the author of Money: the Unauthorised Biography

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue