05 July 2009

A.N. Wilson: believer, unbeliever, believer

A.N. Wilson, the novelist and literary biographer, has returned to the Christian faith after a spell as an atheist (hat-tip to The Inklings: A.N. Wilson).

New Statesman - Why I believe again):
I haven’t mentioned morality, but one thing that finally put the tin hat on any aspirations to be an unbeliever was writing a book about the Wagner family and Nazi Germany, and realising how utterly incoherent were Hitler’s neo-Darwinian ravings, and how potent was the opposition, much of it from Christians; paid for, not with clear intellectual victory, but in blood. Read Pastor Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics, and ask yourself what sort of mad world is created by those who think that ethics are a purely human construct. Think of Bonhoeffer’s serenity before he was hanged, even though he was in love and had everything to look forward to.
His article about his reconversion is quite interesting, and that is one of the more interesting bits for me at the moment, perhaps because a couple of days ago I participated in a survey on beliefs, which seemed to me to raise similar questions. I did the survey, and it begged too many questions. I thought the authors needed to examine their presuppositions, and ask themselves whether they could assume that those who answer the survey question share those presuppositions, otherwise they might totally misinterpret the answers they receive.

As another person who took part in the survey put it

The assumptions seem to be that people go from "believing" to "not believing" in:

a) Monsters
b) Santa Claus
c) God or gods

Interesting correlations, those. They do have a couple of questions for those who came to believe in God as adults, but most of the questions have an underlying assumption that people don't go from unbelief as children to belief as adults, which made it difficult for me to respond to the survey. I had to leave several notes in the boxes that asked for explanations.

My own observation was that, concerning monsters, Chairman Mao, who I assume was an atheist, said that "monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed".

Chairman Mao also made frequent reference to "paper tigers" and "bean curd tigers" -- could it be assumed that he believed in the existence of those as a child, and that he could have said (if he were still alive to do the test) whether he stopped believing in them when he was 8, 16, 32 or 64?

The test asked if one had "seen" monsters. Chairman Mao said that US imperialism was a bean curd tiger -- what kind of sense does it make to ask whether one has "seen" US imperialism, either when one is awake, or when one is dreaming? Can one "see" abstract things physically, which is what the designers of the survey seemed to assume? Could I say that I had "seen" bean curd tigers at the age of six, but that I had stopped "believing in them" by the time I was 8, and thereafter only "saw" them in my dreams? What would Chairman Mao have said if he had been asked to take a test like that?

The designers of the survey seem to assume that human beings think like computers, and are not capable of abstract or symbolic thought.

They also appeared to assume that people stop believing in God/gods because of injustice in the world, and continue to believe in God/gods because of justice in the world. The possibility of the reverse being true did not seem to have occurred to them. That, I thought, was the most ridiculous assumption of all, and it is linked to what A.N. Wilson said about Bonhoeffer's Ethics.

Oh, if you want to try the survey for yourself, you can find it here: http://www.surveymonkey.com/DevelopmentofBeliefsNew.

I haven't read much of A.N. Wilson's work, in fact the only book of his I've read is his memoir of Iris Murdoch. When I saw it in a shop, going cheap, I bought it, because I wanted to learn something more about Iris Murdoch and what made her tick. I thought the book was a biography of Murdoch, but it was not; it was more like an autobiography of A.N. Wilson. I was misled, as I flipped thoruhg it in the shop, by a chapter headed "I want you to writye my biography". But it is a memoir rather than a biography. And that's OK, as long as one understands that. Memoirs can make useful sources for biographers, but biographies they are not.

I've sometimes thought of writing biographies of some people that I have known, but I realise that I have neither the time nor the energy nor the patience nor the resources to do it. To write a good biography is a huge task, and I simply don't know how biographers manage it. Where do they find the money, for a start, to travel around and collect their material? From publishers' advances? But the publishers must then be pretty certain that they are going to make a lot of money out of sales, and the only biographies for which they will do that are the badly written ones, the ones hastily tossed off by hack journalists after the death of a celeb, not properly researched, but enough to keep the fans happy and paying. So the biographers who get the money don't need it, and the ones that need the money don't get it.

So I don't blame A.N. Wilson not for writing a biography of Iris Murdoch, but perhaps he will one day. It will be interesting to see if his reconversion to Christianity changes his attitude to ppeople like C.S. Lewis and Hillaire Belloc, for whom he has written biographies. Will he rewrite them, or write an addendum? Or will he claim that what he wrote was just the objective truth. It will be interesting to see.


PG said...

Hi Steve! I was going to email you, but thought it'd be less bothering to you if I posted here - about Phil Rickman - he's rather popular in the UK, and found in all the major bookshops - he himself made the point about being looked down on by literary types (in the UK) and included Jilly Cooper as well in that, in an interview I read or heard somewhere a few years ago.

Like your profile book list; I found a copy of 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' when I was having my book clear out; I'd never managed to read it when I was given it, and it almost went into the jumble pile, then I opened it and decided to keep it as I think I'd enjoy it more now.

Dymphna said...

Understanding atheism is very important as more atheists are "coming out of the closet" to challenge Christians.

Thank you for this post.


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