Menu Close

Former Atheists: A. N. Wilson7 min read

Listen to this article

wilsonAndrew Norman Wilson (b1950), is an English teacher and award winning writer.  His biography of Tolstoy won the Whitbread Award(now the Costa Book Awards) for best biography in 1988.

Wilson entered Oxford on the path of ordination in the Anglican Church, but quit after the first year, and in the 1980’s came out as an atheist.  In 1991 he published a pamphlet entitled Against Religion, and wrote other historical and fiction books critical of religion, including God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization (2000), his 2004 Jesus: A Life, which is critical of the historicity of the gospels, and his fictional piece My Name is Legion, a satire attacking both the British Press and the Anglican Church.  But it seems that all those opinions may now be his FORMER positions on such matters.

However, in Why I Believe Again (April 2, 2009 edition of The New Statesman), Wilson discusses how he became an atheist and his “slow and doubting” return to faith.  Regarding his initial loss of faith:

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….It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

He discusses his elation at leaving a doubting, hesitant faith for the ‘sureness’ and ‘fellowship’ of intellectual anti-theists, and his new found camaraderie with Dawkins and Hitchens:

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.

But his doubting nature soon got him doubting atheism itself.  In fact, the creed that fails to take religion seriously seemed dishonest to him as well:

This creed that religion can be dispatched 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.

In an argument that seems to echo the Moral Argument for God, Wilson discusses the realization that atheism is bleak, and those he admired most from history, like Gandhi, Bach, and Beethoven, were men of faith:

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.

Interestingly, while the problem of suffering had caused him to leave faith, the death of his mother and some close friends made him reconsider faith, since the materialist atheist view did not seem to address the complexity of existence and human situation at all:

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.

But what really seems to have broken his atheist stance was not intellectual argumentation, but the common sense realization that the human intellect, language, and the beauty of music, just could NOT have evolved – nor could mere ‘collections of meat’ create all of this logic and beauty by chance evolution.  He concluded that we ARE spiritual beings, and such beings had to be created.

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.

Again, though his thought process is somewhat heuristic and emotional, it mimics the classic intellectual philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as well as the claim by Paul the Apostle that all men should realize there is a God, just by looking at creation:

What may be known of God is manifest in [mankind], for God has  shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible  attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are  made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without  excuse (Romans 1:19-20)

His summation of atheism is unique and interesting, stating that atheists’ root mistake is not in its assumptions about God, but about man.

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.”