Monday, April 27, 2009

Absolutely No God

A.N. Wilson converted to atheism, and it was exhilarating, like joining the top fraternity:

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.

Frankly, we know what he's saying. We've been there, and it was great. Not only do you get to feel intellectually superior, but you can do anything you want, and you save a fortune on tithes.

And yet, as Wilson tells his own story in an excellent New Statesman article, "my doubting temperament ... made me a very unconvincing atheist." He had to keep reading David Hume "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."

Ultimately, he came so see that religion "was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore 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. ... 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?"

There's much more to this brief but excellent essay, but this particular idea strikes home for us. In Wilson's case, it was Gandhi and Johnson and Coleridge; in ours, George Herbert and John Donne. And of course a few people we actually met in the flesh over the years. But the idea is the same, and important: that the testimony of the saints is a precious treasure, because -- in a way that polemics and apologetics cannot -- it shows forth the beauty of holiness.


mark said...

I just got a copy of Donne's "Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels" edited by Evelyn Simpson. Long introduction by the editor with many marginal notations. Do you know her? I'm hoping to read it this summer.

Father said...

Sure. Simpson was one of the editors of the standard edition of the Sermons (in ten or twelve large volumes) from which that selection is taken. It's a good selection, and the editing is excellent, although of course there are some people with technical quibbles.