Dec 8, 2010
neil

Why I believe again

As a young Christian the man we had to contend with was AN Wilson. He just seemed to have it in for us Christians.  He wrote a biography of CS Lewis in which in page after page he worked hard to  erode my confidence in the man, his faith and his reasoned defense of Christianity. But Wilson wasn’t satisfied to rob me of CS Lewis.  He followed it up with a booklet entitled ‘Against Religion: Why we should live without it’ and then he wrote a book on Jesus himself denying his deity and reducing him to the place of a merely misguided end-time ‘prophet’ of liberal Christianity. Perhaps my biggest problem was not Wilson but the media’s delight in him and his books. Time and again his  views were splashed across the papers and Christians were once again in retreat.

Born-again unbeliever

Here is how AN Wilson describes his own conversion to atheism:

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.

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.

Doubting Wilson

But then in April of last year Wilson wrote an article for the New Statesman entitled ‘Why I believe again’ in which he traces his surprising route back to faith.  It’s well worth the read (not least to encourage us to continue to pray for even the most hostile enemies of the faith!) but in particular it’s worth reading for the reasons Wilson gives for abandoning his atheism.

At the heart of Wilson’s argument is that atheism as a worldview is unconvincing and intellectually unsatisfying not least in that it miserably fails to answer the essential questions as to what it means to be a human being. In his conclusion he offers this thought-provoking analysis: ‘ the real category mistake made by atheists is not about God, but about human beings’.

Why did Wilson abandon atheism?

1. The lives of believers

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.

2. The bleakness of atheism

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?

3. The lack of explanatory power in atheism

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.”

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.

4. The need for a moral law outside of ourselves

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.

Conclusion

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.”

What can we learn from Wilson’s conversion?

Firstly, don’t be surprised if the same media that was so quick to feature his books attacking religion has chosen to ignore his abandonment of atheism (apart from one article in the Daily Mail). More importantly, we need to draw attention in our apologetic against atheism that it fails at every level to describe and defend a view of humanity that corresponds with who we know ourselves to be. Ravi Zacharias’s book ‘Can man live without God’ is a helpful example of how to do this well.

Maybe in some of our conversation with atheist friends we need to gently push on the question of whether they can really live with a view of humanity that atheism contends for?  In all probability many will never have been given cause to reflect on the de-humanising philosophy of atheism in which truth is a human construct and beauty and goodness are meaningless and arbitrary statements.

For all our arguments about God perhaps we should be making more of our arguments about ourselves

3 Comments

  • neil – thanks for posting this. i had recently heard about the article from Wilson and I found your ‘conversion to atheism’ added greatly to the theme. i’ll forward this to a few friends, but do you mind if i do a link to this from my site? as an actor/believer, i have tried to focus on the very issues Wilson writes about … humanity. this is core of the Gospel, that we are created in the image of God and that HE became human so that we might know Him.

    • Thanks for the comment. Please feel free to link to the article and glad you found it inspiring.

  • [...] atheist and now Christian, AN Wilson ( see whyI believe again), has written a super piece in the Telegraph today out-lining why the falling numbers of [...]

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