Former atheist, A.N. Wilson, returns to Christianity.

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Andrew Norman Wilson, a former atheist, is a writer and newspaper columnist for the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard. He is also an occasional contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, The Spectator and The Observer. This is his testimony on why he believes again:

“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.”

Source: New Statesman: ‘Why I Believe Again.’

3 responses to “Former atheist, A.N. Wilson, returns to Christianity.

  1. We all go through an internal struggle, both the devout Christian and the atheist. I recall my change of heart, thirty-four years ago, following twenty years of atheism which followed my service as an altar server in the Catholic church. Two separate individuals had approached me about my troubled life, yet neither knew of the turmoil within my soul. I told the first person where to go with his God. The second, I was about to berate when something inside said: “This is your last chance.” Suicide was foremost on my mind at that time. That ‘inner voice’ alarmed me and I agreed to go to the second person’s church on Sunday morning. However, as soon as he left me, I told myself I will never set foot in any church.

    My thirty-four years as a born again Christian have involved struggles, wrestling with God over various issues, and wanting God to just annihilate me so that I don’t exist anywhere, neither in heaven nor hell. Yet the struggles that God allowed me to go through (instead of answering my questions) served to actually strengthen my faith. Today, I have no doubts about anything to do with God; I trust him in everything, and that’s when we have peace with him.

    Thinking back over the years without him, and being totally oblivious to his existence, I now wonder how I could ever have been a true, die-hard atheist as I thought I was. The atheist also goes through the struggles against God. He is not content to just believe God doesn’t exist, he has to make a point of trying to prove it in his own mind, and to prove it to others. His joy comes from the company of other non-believers.

    Mohandas Ghandi once posed a rhetorical question of the atheist struggle to prove God does not exist, if God really doesn’t exist. Taking his observation a bit further, it might be asked why anyone would work so hard to prove Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny don’t exist; it would amount to the same thing. Of course, nobody sets out to do that, it’s only against God.

    Some years ago I came across an Australian atheist website. It was very well done, a lot of hard work put into it and at some expense. I used their ‘Contact Us’ link to congratulate them on all the hard work they put into their website, and then asked them why they went to so much trouble to prove something doesn’t exist if it really doesn’t exist. I expected no answer from them, and wasn’t disappointed to get none. About a month later I went back to the website and found they had removed the ‘Contact Us’ link.

    No matter how hard the atheist works to convince himself and others that there is no God, the struggle is evident.

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” –Romans 1:20.

  2. Pingback: I Have Returned « Thinkerfromiowa's Blog·

  3. Mohandas Ghandi once posed a rhetorical question of the atheist struggle to prove God does not exist, if God really doesn’t exist. Taking his observation a bit further, it might be asked why anyone would work so hard to prove Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny don’t exist; it would amount to the same thing. Of course, nobody sets out to do that, it’s only against God.

    Can you think of any wars that have been fought in the name of Santa or the Easter Bunny?

    Does Santa or the Easter Bunny have any opinion on whether evolution is taught in schools?

    It is quite obvious why religion is so contentious. I agree with you though, it is bizarre that atheists have to bother arguing the non-existence of something that doesn’t exist. But religion has a real impact on the world, just look at ISIS. They really believe that what they are doing is God’s will. And they really think that they are the catalyst for the apocalypse.

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