Prodigal Son


For all too many years, eminent novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson was a self-satisfied atheist, a proud member of the British unbelieving intelligentsia, along with Richard Dawkins and expatriate Christopher Hitchens. But no more. Andrew Norman Wilson has come home.

I still remember the taste of ashes in my soul reading A. N. Wilson's biography of C. S. Lewis. It was filled with the kind of meticulous spite that can only be mustered by someone entirely bent on chipping away at a larger-than-life figure until he is largely unrecognizable, riddled with pock marks and imperfections. I sensed that I was not getting a representation of Lewis, but rather, a glimpse of the atheist Wilson himself and his thinly disguised contempt for so great a Christian apologist.

Looking back on it, I would dare to suggest that what animated Wilson's spiteful treatment was a deep anger and frustration that Lewis, his intellectual superior, could waste his talents on something so infantile and obviously inferior as Christianity. If he was that evidently smart, why couldn't Lewis -- like Wilson -- see that the whole God thing was a sham?

Wilson just couldn't understand, and so in writing about Lewis, he searched under every psychological rock to find evidence that Lewis's great intellect had been deformed by some hidden twist in his soul, and bent unnaturally to the defense of Christianity.

This Easter found that same Mr. Wilson in church among the faithful, singing the praises of the Risen Christ, a believer once again, a man who had experienced the heady thrill of casting away all belief in God thereby freeing himself from all ultimate claims, and then gradually, humbly recognized how small-minded and trendy his whole anti-God phase had been. Looking back on it all, Wilson wondered, "Why did I, along with so many others, become so dismissive of Christianity?"

"Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti.

"To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs.

"This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio.

"It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion."

What ultimately changed Wilson's mind? There was no dramatic, sudden conversion experience; just a slow, sure recognition that atheism rang hollow. Life was too deep, too rich for mere materialism.

"My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age.

"When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love."

"Rather than being cowed by them [the anti-religious smart-set], I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis; foul-mouthed, self-satisfied TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Jo Brand; and the smug, tieless architects of so much television output.

"But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known -- not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

"The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people's lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

"Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love -- whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends -- and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves."

And what of all the atheists he left behind, all his fellow comrades in the struggle against belief? Wilson accuses them, not of dishonesty, but a certain woodenness of soul.

"When I think about atheist friends, including my father, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love. It is not that (as they believe) they have rumbled the tremendous fraud of religion -- prophets do that in every generation. Rather, these unbelievers are simply missing out on something that is not difficult to grasp. Perhaps it is too obvious to understand; obvious, as lovers feel it was obvious that they should have come together, or obvious as the final resolution of a fugue."



Benjamin Wiker. "Prodigal Son." tothesource (May 6, 2009).

This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.

Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.


Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the author of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, The Mystery of the Periodic Table, and co-author of Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature and Architects of the Culture of Death. He lives with his wife and seven children in Hopedale, OH.

Copyright © 2009 tothesource

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.