Look Who's a Believer Now


Have you ever heard the one about the Christian who started to study calculus and ended up losing his faith?

Of course you have. Such "conversion" to atheism is supposed to be the story of all modern, thinking people. But imagine it happening the other way around. Moreover, imagine the convert being a well-informed, public intellectual who had long made it his business to argue that faith is irrational?

Just such a conversion has happened to A.N. Wilson, the 58-year-old British biographer, novelist and man of letters. He was once an observant Anglican and, later, a Roman Catholic, but in the 1980s he lost his faith and began skewering the supposed delusions of the faithful. His antifaith stance was expressed in books such as God's Funeral (1999) and Jesus: A Life (1992). A few weeks ago, however, Mr. Wilson confessed that Christ had risen indeed. He attributed this to "the confidence I have gained with age." He now says he believes that atheists are like "people who have no ear for music or who have never been in love."

Mr. Wilson's story matches that of other skeptical authors who became convinced by Christianity, not least in Victorian Britain, when Darwin and various modern ideas shook the foundations of faith among the educated classes. Among the notable examples from Victorian Britain are Thomas Cooper, the most popular free-thinking lecturer in London in the 1850s; George Sexton, the most academically accomplished secularist intellectual of the time; and Joseph Barker, a well-respected leader of the mid-19th-century free-thinking movement. The 20th century also had its share of writers and intellectuals who rediscovered Christianity as mature thinkers, including T.S. Eliot, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and W.H. Auden.

Our modern assumption that thought and faith are incompatible can be traced to the Victorian atheists. As one of them snidely remarked when a fellow secularist came to faith: "I find it hard to believe that someone could progress backwards."

For his part, A. N. Wilson had denounced as dishonest every leading Victorian intellectual who maintained a commitment to orthodox Christianity. Indeed, in God's Funeral he did not just go after the usual targets, such as John Henry Newman, but savaged even Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. They were not presented as simply mistaken, but rather as downright "dishonorable."

Secularist leaders were usually raised religious. As clever youths, they would begin to handle the Bible critically. They prided themselves in being "rational" and would decide that Christian beliefs did not meet this standard. They would then go on to find intellectual satisfaction in picking apart the beliefs of others. Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, a book beloved by free-thinkers in the 19th century, systematically went through the Bible, gleefully mocking each book in turn.

George Sexton, for example, decided that Jesus as presented in the Gospels was so compelling and haunting that only a historical original could account for this: "If Christ be simply an ideal picture, the man who sketched it will be as difficult to account for as the Being himself."

Those who later recanted their atheism went on from this common start to begin to doubt their doubts. They gradually decided that their rationalistic method was too narrow: It could pick holes not only in Christianity but in any attempt to distinguish between right and wrong or to articulate the meaning of life. They came to realize that they could only tear down and thus were left intellectually with no habitable place to live. John Henry Gordon, who held the only full-time, salaried secularist lecturer position in England, came to believe that secularism was a creed of "mere negations."

Having realized that their method was flawed, they then began to reconsider faith. Christianity, they discovered, spoke to the deepest realities of human experience. George Sexton, for example, decided that Jesus as presented in the Gospels was so compelling and haunting that only a historical original could account for this: "If Christ be simply an ideal picture, the man who sketched it will be as difficult to account for as the Being himself."

Their skeptical pasts did leave a permanent stamp on their thought. Joseph Barker believed as a young man that the Bible was error-free. As a free-thinking lecturer he specialized in highlighting problem passages. As a convert, he conceded that the Bible was not perfect but went on to argue that it was perfectly suited to speak to the human condition. The Swiss Alps are not perfect cones, he observed, but this does not detract from their grandeur. Thomas Cooper declared that his newly rediscovered faith did not include a belief in eternal punishment.

As is the case with Mr. Wilson, intellectuals often pursue long, drawn-out love affairs with Christian thought. Next time you hear someone fume that God is the most contemptible being who never existed, keep in mind that you just might be watching the first act of a divine romantic comedy.



Timothy Larsen, "Look Who's a Believer Now."The Wall Street Journal (May 29, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


Timothy Larsen is the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. His intellectual interests are in the areas of British history, historical theology, Christian thought, and intellectual currents and controversies. His research and writing tends to explore theological and intellectual ideas as they were appropriated and wrestled with in specific cultural, social, and historical contexts. He is the author or editor of numerous books including Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II, Reading Romans through the Centuries: From the Early Church to Karl Barth, Christabel Pankhurst: Fundamentalism and Feminism in Coalition, and Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology.

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