Dec 10, 2010
neil

How atheists are made (sometimes)

A couple of days ago we considered the remarkable story of how atheist and arch-enemy of Christianity AN Wilson rediscovered his Christian faith.

In a follow up article in the Daily Mail Wilson set out some of the reasons he had become an atheist along with his route home to faith. I hope by looking at it together it will give us renewed confidence in our faith and a fresh desire to share it with others.

Like having spots

One of Wilson’s key insights looking back on his life is that his atheism rested not on the fact that Christianity is no longer believable but that it has become so deeply unfashionable. Our culture is much more than secular (in which it would simply ignore matters of faith). Our culture is in fact deeply anti-religious. It’s not satisfied to leave Christianity alone it seeks out opportunity to give it a good beating.

Wilson, in his article, examines how the media-pundits and intelligencia in British society systematically attack and ridicule Christianity.

‘Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti.

To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs.

This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio.

It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion.

The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself.

The Guardian’s fanatical feminist-in-chief, Polly Toynbee, is one of the most dismissive of religion and Christianity in particular. She is president of the British Humanist Association, an associate of the National Secular Society and openly scornful of the millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith in Church tomorrow.

‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ she asked in a puerile article decrying the wickedness of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which have bewitched children for more than 50 years. Or, to take another of her utterances: ‘When absolute God-given righteousness beckons, blood flows and women are in chains.’

The sneering Ms Toynbee, like Richard Dawkins, believes in rational explanations for our existence and behaviour. She is deeply committed to the Rationalist Association, but her approach to religion is too fanatical to be described as rational.’

So what changed for Wilson?

My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age.

Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis; foul-mouthed, self-satisfied TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Jo Brand; and the smug, tieless architects of so much television output.

Being a Christian means accepting marginalisation. In some cultures that might mean economic or political disadvantage in our culture it means social exclusion. But rather than abandon faith we should recognise that it’s actually supposed to be this way. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:19-25

For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength
.

Following Christ may mean taking a few hits but in the gospel of Christ crucified God is glorified and for believers that is enough.

How to save a life

But we may ask ‘If all the media is so stacked against us, what chance have we got with our friends?’ The reality is that despite the millions of pounds invested, through the media, in an anti-God bias the undeniable reality of God in the lives of believers is how God often cut through all the lies and spin. Unpopular it might be but undeniably real it is too. Wilson’s testimony is simple:

‘ My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, notsaints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

An even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives – the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church tomorrow morning.’

What an encouragement for Christians. A man so hostile to Christianity, who wrote books trashing it, converted by the Christian lives lived around him. If God could use the lives of people like you and me to overcome all the arguments of the intellectuals that means he can use you, Christian, to see your friend and family come to know Christ.

Not that faith is irrational or absurd

It is important to realise that Wilson is not saying that we should think though Christianity is true it is irrational or absurd. As the Apostle Paul himself said to King Agrippa ‘What I am saying is true and reasonable’. We should at one and the same time model the power of a transformed life and at the same time expose the bankruptcy of atheism.

The media-pundits may be quick-witted and clever but like many of the people I meet in the street they have given little to no consideration of the failure of atheism to answer any of the questions that surround what it means to be human. It’s as if atheism is simply an ‘anti-God’ badge rather than a thought-through world-view. Like the dragons of fairy-tales it might look ferocious with scaly wings, razor-sharp talons and fiery breath, but it has the softest of underbellies.

Wilson continues:
‘The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love – whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends – and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.

Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility.
Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person.

As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.
Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.

The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story.’

Not ashamed?

So Wilson concludes:
Our bishops and theologians, frightened as they have been by the pounding of secularist guns, need that kind of bravery more than ever. Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all.

On the 1st December the Not Ashamed campaign was launched with the following message:

The Not Ashamed campaign provides an opportunity for Christians across the UK to stand together and speak up for the Christian foundation of our nation, motivated by the conviction that Jesus Christ is good news not just for individuals or for the church but for society as a whole. Indeed, He is the only true hope for our nation.

If the story of AN Wilson is anything to go by surely it is time to take stock, to take courage and to renew our commitment to stand for Christ and who knows who might be won through our bold witness.

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