A.N. Other Religious Convert

News of last month’s articles by AN Wilson (in the Daily Mail and in the New Statesman here and here), in which he explains his gradual re-conversion to Christianity from atheism, have crossed the Atlantic; Charles Colson in particular exults:

Again, the question is “why?” Part of the reason was that atheism and atheists in his words, ” [miss] out on some very basic experiences of life.” He described listening to Bach or reading the works of Christian authors and realizing that their “perception of life was deeper, wiser, more rounded than [his] own.” seeing the world through the eyes of faith is “much more interesting” he said, than the alternatives.

Then there was the low esteem in which Darwinism holds man. The people who insist that we are “simply anthropoid apes” can’t account for something as basic as language. The “existence of language,” love and music, to name but a few, convinced Wilson that we are “spiritual beings.” For Wilson, they prove that “the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true.”

Then there’s what he regards the “an even stronger argument”: “the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives.” From “Bonhoeffer’s serenity before he was hanged” to the person next to you at church, Christians bear witness to the truth of Christianity and that as a “working blueprint for life” and “template against which to measure experience, it fits.”

I couldn’t put it any better. Welcome home, Mr. Wilson. It’s great to have you back.

Of course, as with Antony Flew’s (temporary) turn to deism, the story of an intellectual atheist who rejects disbelief is invariably trumpeted; but I can’t imagine the fundamentalist Colson and the mainline Wilson having much to say to each other.

I wrote about Wilson for a student newspaper some years ago, when I was an undergraduate (see below) – it was a report on a talk he had given about why we are better off not believing in an afterlife. Certainly, he critiqued Christianity, but his discourse fell very short of Dawkinesque “railing”; then as now, his views seem to have been largely grounded in personal introspection rather than rationalistic deconstruction. I saw him again a few years later discussing his Jesus book, and he was quite irritated by a questioner who conflated critical historical Jesus research with atheism.

In his New Statesman essay Wilson writes that

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.”

It seems to me that would also apply to someone who went round calling then-Archbishop George Carey “Mr Blobby“. In contrast to his tirades against Carey, Wilson praised Rowan Williams’ qualities on his election to Archbishop, noting his “cleverness and originality and subtlety” in matters of public debate; but those are the very things which have made Williams a hate-figure for many conservatives of the Colson variety, who want black-and-white attacks on Islam and a re-affirmation of Biblical fundamentalism.

Wilson also wrote positively about Christianity a few years ago in a (must-read) piece about the gay men he knew at theological college. After meeting one former fellow-student in a bookshop,

I went out, and like Peter in the Gospels, I wept bitterly…I have lost my religion – their religion – but I do not feel that this is a good thing. I am aware that the spiritual life of England is most alive in its national church…These are men who have been prepared to devote their whole lives to working in poor parishes, visiting the sick, the housebound, the lonely, the prisoners and the captives. They believe in, and live, the Gospel of Christ.

Wilson’s latest New Statesman piece includes the reminiscence that he once denounced

[C.S.] 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…I can remember almost yelling that reading C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity made me a non-believer…

There’s no indication that he has revised his view of Lewis (I must say I found Mere Christianity insufferably smug), although it’s strange he is now affirming a duff argument from personal incredulity about the origins of language. Wilson also tentatively commends James LeFanu’s book Why Us?, which has drawn fire for its anti-Darwinist views.