‘I thought I was an atheist’

‘I thought I was an atheist’

DAN BYE  reflects on A N Wilson’s predictable return to the Church – Freethinker, June 2009.


FREETHINKERS should be used to people changing their minds; it happens a lot. Most of us are former religionists, and a few of us will inevitably return to religion. The traffic has always been two-way, and always will be, and yet like snow it always seems to come as a shock to some people.

But like unexpected snowfall, we should learn from it. What’s interesting about recent prominent cases like those of Antony Flew and A N Wilson, (above) is how they have been used by Christian apologists. Flew’s adoption of a deistic position appeared to be genuine, but his subsequent (dreadful) book – There is a God – was heavily and obviously ghost-written and muddied the waters.

A N Wilson’s position was always an ambivalent one – he seems to have been emotionally anti-religious for a while, without ever committing to a full-blooded atheistic humanism – yet now that he has re-embraced orthodox Christianity his non-believing period is being retrofitted for apologetic exploitation. Instead of sticking out like a sore thumb in rationalist company, the spin is that Wilson was straightforwardly and militantly one of us.

When A N Wilson’s CounterBlasts pamphlet Against Religion was published in 1991,  feathers were widely ruffled.  It  began, uncompromisingly:

It is said in the Bible that the love of money is the root of all evil. It might be truer to say that the love of God is the root of all evil.

Even Richard Dawkins has dissociated himself from such a simplistic position; reviewers in the secular humanist press at the time pointed out that Wilson had gone further than most atheists would.  A lengthy pre-publication extract from Against Religion was given prominent space in the Observer (May 26, 1991), and in response the paper received what it called “one of our biggest postbags in recent years”. I still have the cuttings. Wilson had garnered headlines, at a time when secular humanist publications were usually ignored.

Against Religion was strongly worded, but the fierce rhetoric failed to mask the tension at the heart of Wilson’s position. Despite denouncing religion as “cruel”, Wilson nevertheless admitted to being:

Someone who recognises strong religious impulses within himself.

Wrote Wilson:

I am still of a strongly religious temperament. I can never walk by the sea-shore, nor read Wordsworth, nor listen to Beethoven, without feeling that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth’ than are dreamt of in a purely materialist view of things.

Wilson also had little time for the Enlightenment:

The Enlightenment supposed that it was conquering superstition, but it actually replaced old superstitions with new ones. The Encyclopaedists thought that they could conquer all that was least desirable in human nature and human society by the pursuit of Reason, and plunged France and most of Europe into the Terror – an unparalleled period of unreason and anarchy.

Nor did Wilson see any hope “for a society in which formal organised religion dies out”. Thoughtful atheists might have agreed with Wilson about some or all of this, but it wasn’t what you’d expect from an angry anti-religious polemicist. Religion kept leaking through. Interestingly, nowhere in Against Religion does Wilson describe himself as an atheist.

Reviewing Against Religion for the Freethinker, the late Nicolas Walter observed that the fuss over the pamphlet’s publication had presented the freethought movement (which Wilson never joined, and appeared to view negatively) with a welcome opportunity to gets its own message across, even though Wilson’s book:

Isn’t so much a reasoned argument as a series of rhetorical insults.

Walter also pointed out that in his 1985 book defending orthodox Christianity, How Can We Know?, Wilson had said:

I am not a particularly rational person, and I am easily swayed by my emotions.

Walter suggested that in writing the pamphlet, Wilson was indeed:

Swayed by emotional rather than rational factors – especially the Satanic Verses affair.

In 1992, Wilson published a study of Jesus, in many respects a popularisation of the work of Géza Vermes. It tried to reconstruct the historical facts, undermining the traditional Christian story. Explaining his own position, Wilson identified his discovery of the historical facts behind the Jesus legend as the cause of his unbelief. Note how this differs from other accounts of his loss of faith, particularly the “born again” conversion experience related in the New Statesman:

It was a slow, and in my case, as it happens, painful process, to discard a belief in Christianity; and when I did so, I did not feel it was honest to continue to call myself a Christian, to attend churches which addressed Jesus as if he was alive, to recite creeds which acknowledged Jesus as Lord and Judge of the world.

But the break was never complete. In a 1996 article for New Humanist magazine, Wilson said:

As religious belief ebbed out of my mind like water from a leaking pot, I found myself loving the Prayer Book and the old Church of England with an increasing passion, so that anything which is done to injure it fills me with anger or dismay. If I am accused of sentimentality, I plead guilty. If I am accused of irrationality, I plead guilty.

Although Richard Dawkins has expressed his fondness for the language of the Bible (he also respects Jesus as an ethical leader), and a cultural attachment to the Church is not unheard of among atheists and agnostics (Philip Larkin, for example), Wilson’s stance put him at some distance from the “rationalism” he claims to have once embraced but has now abandoned.

In 1999, Wilson published God’s Funeral [buy from Amazon], a history of Victorian doubt. Jim Herrick’s review of the book perceptively noted  that:

AN Wilson witnesses the wake of the deity but gives the impression that he would prefer to be at the resurrection.

Herrick noted Wilson’s tendency to be “waspish – especially towards ‘bigoted atheism’”, and observed that the book was “riven with regrets and nostalgia.” He concluded.

I think if he starts by saying ‘Goodbye’ to God, by the end he is ready to say ‘Hello’ again. 

Terry Sanderson, reviewing God’s Funeral in the Freethinker, observed that:

It is difficult to know where Wilson himself stands.

According to Sanderson:

I get the distinct impression that, although he has contemplated the deed, Wilson has not yet managed to slay the God in his own head. But I can’t say for certain, for there is a feeling about this book that Wilson is mischievously and deliberately hiding himself from us … Once he was a pillar of the Anglican church, but then he became disillusioned and transformed himself into one of its fiercest critics … Now he describes himself as an agnostic, unable to take the final leap into full-scale atheism … His comments on Anglican affairs can be vicious or even crude, and yet there still remains a distinct affection for the Church of England.

Sanderson concluded (remember this was written a decade ago) that:

Mr Wilson seems to be on a journey of discovery … I have a strong suspicion that he is travelling on a return ticket and that eventually he’ll be back in the Christian fold. There will be no funeral for God chez Wilson.

Hints that Wilson was indeed switching sides appeared elsewhere at the same time. In a 1999 interview about God’s Funeral, Wilson said:

I feel much closer to the Christian fold. I feel more like a Christian fellow traveller and indeed do go to church and worship in church on an occasional basis.

By 2002, in an article for the Evening Standard on the succession to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury (January, 9, 2003), Wilson was admitting that:

For all my sins and all its faults, I could never entirely abandon the Church of England – or, come to that, Christianity.

He refers to himself as one of the “pious fellow-travellers” who “do not believe in the conventional sense” but “do not want the Church to die”.

When Wilson went public about returning to faith, in an interview for Joan Bakewell’s BBC Radio 3 series Belief, first broadcast on December 30, 2008, nobody seemed to notice. Then Wilson told his story in an article published in the New Statesman in April this year, and this time it was seized upon by the anti-atheist squad. The article is a curious and contradictory piece. In it, Wilson describes his conversion to atheism, and how it gave him:

The inner glow of complete certainty, the heady sense of being at one with the great tide of fellow non-believers.

Using the language of belief so common when opponents of atheism seek to portray unbelief as “just another faith”, Wilson depicts himself as “a born-again atheist”. Take, for example, his account of meeting Christopher Hitchens:

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.

But this conflicts not only with what we already know about Wilson’s position, but also with his admission that he was a “very unconvincing atheist. And unconvinced.”  Whenever he caught himself “wavering” – and one gets the impression that this happened quite often – he says:

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.

It seems Wilson was most troubled by the discovery that the people he admired most were all believers:

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.

He was also disturbed by the deaths of his mother and several of his close friends, which caused him to question “materialist ‘explanations’” of “our mysterious human existence”.   Finally, comments by a “materialist Darwinian” (of course!) led Wilson to the belief that the existence of language (oh, and music, and love) proves that human beings are “very much more than collections of meat”.   The “whole grammatical mystery” has, bafflingly, convinced Wilson 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. 


Wilson goes on to admit that his conversion to atheism was “a bit of middle-aged madness” (he resisted this conclusion for “a few years”), and that although he still has “moments of unbelief”, they don’t matter:

If you return to a practice of the faith, faith will return. 

He thinks that atheists are missing out on something fundamental about human beings

Like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. 

There is, in short, something wrong with the non-religious. This is an interesting point to pick at.  First of all, some people are converts in one direction or another – sometimes more than once (like Wilson). Does that mean it is possible for one’s religious sensibility to oscillate (love can, I guess, and perhaps so can an ear for music)?  Secondly, if some people are naturally religious and other people are naturally not, doesn’t that present something of a theological problem? (It does: check out J L Schellenberg on “divine hiddenness” and Theodore Drange on “the argument from non-belief”).

In a thoroughly unpleasant and tendentious screed published in the Daily Mail (April 11), Wilson displayed a vicious side rather at odds with the milk-and-water persona on show in the New Statesman.


He clearly knows how to play to his audience. Wilson describes Polly Toynbee as “The Guardian’s fanatical feminist in chief …”, and attacks the usual Daily Mail targets: “smug, tieless architects of so much television output”, “self-satisfied TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Jo Brand”  (neither very prominent rationalist activists, so far as I’m aware), the “liberalism” of the “bishops of the Church of England”,  “liberal clever-clogs”, and, of course, the “vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia… fervent in their hatred of religion”.

Here, Wilson puts his anti-religious period down to feeling that

At some visceral level that being religious was unsexy.

This is ironic, coming from someone with such a fogeyish image. It also contradicts the statements he made during his time in the spiritual wilderness, as well as the New Statesman article, in which it is the writing of his biography of C S Lewis that was the watershed.

Madeleine Bunting, in her latest anti-atheist rant in the Guardian (April 6), stated that Wilson has “apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists”.  But in an online question-and-answer session on the New Statesman website, Wilson uses the phrase, “I thought I was an atheist”, which implies that really he was no such thing.

So who is A N Wilson?  Is he the New Statesman’s reluctant sceptic rediscovering a simple, moderate and doubting faith, or the mocking materialist turned aggressive evangelical of the Daily Mail?  I don’t think either tells the real story.

Wilson was, really, too hesitant as an “atheist”, too fond of the Church, and too emotionally wedded to a religious view of the world to be an impressive backslider from atheism, and there is something dishonest and distasteful about the attempt to make his emotional realignment into a more dramatic homily for our times by falsely portraying him as a former acolyte of Richard Dawkinsesque atheistic “materialism” (whatever that is), a typical pro-Enlightenment Church-mocking rationalist who has seen the light and spectacularly recanted.

“Will Dawkins be next?”, wonder the apologists. Well, he might be; but if he is, I bet his reasons would be more interesting than Wilson’s disingenuous self-caricature and irrational yo-yoing.

• From the June 2009 edition of the Freethinker.

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