Why I believe again
A N Wilson
Published 02 April 2009
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 ‚Äúconversion experience‚ÄĚ 20 years ago. Something was happening which was out of character ‚Äď 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 ‚Äútestify‚ÄĚ, denouncing Lewis‚Äôs 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‚Äôs reply was a long silence followed by a repetition of the mantra ‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt matter, it doesn‚Äôt matter‚ÄĚ. He told the priest to continue to worship Jesus in the Sacraments and that faith would return. ‚ÄúBut!‚ÄĚ exclaimed Father Stock. ‚ÄúThat priest was me!‚ÄĚ
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?): ‚ÄúIt bloody well does matter. Just struggling on like Lord Tennyson (‚Äėand faintly trust the larger hope‚Äô) is no good at all . . .‚ÄĚ
I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis‚Äôs Mere Christianity made me a non-believer ‚Äď not just in Lewis‚Äôs 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 ‚Äď the sense of God‚Äôs 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‚Äôd 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. ‚ÄúSo ‚Äď absolutely no God?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúNope,‚ÄĚ I was able to say with Moonie-zeal. ‚ÄúNo future life, nothing ‚Äėout there‚Äô?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúNo,‚ÄĚ I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world ‚Äď that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that ‚Äúthis is all there is‚ÄĚ (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 ‚Äď 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, ‚ÄúI do wish Freddie [Ayer] wouldn‚Äôt go round calling himself an atheist. It implies he takes religion seriously.‚ÄĚ
This creed that religion can be despatched in a few brisk arguments (outlined in David Hume‚Äôs 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.
Extravagantly more at: New Statesman - Why I believe again