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Lost and found

Doctrine brings a famous atheist back to faith

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

Why is religious conviction, which secularists have always advised should be a private matter, such public news? Hardly a week goes by without some screaming headline about major shifts in personal belief. "Young Americans Losing Their Religion," reports ABC News, referring to research conducted by the Pew Forum. Closer reading of the survey results shows that about 25 percent of young adults age 18-29 now profess no religious affiliation: These are the "nones."

The figures reflect the spirit of the age. America's youth still claim religious beliefs and values; it's doctrinal "rigidity" they've rejected. Meaning, in most cases, that they haven't bothered to examine doctrine at all. The muscular Christianity of the past has kicked off its running shoes and gone for an iced latte.

This state of affairs has been a long time building, and will be a long time correcting. But now and then a light flares on the bleak landscape of flabby spirituality. Such is A.N. Wilson's account of a journey to atheism and back.

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Wilson has been a contrary character on Britain's literary scene: a gadfly, a provocateur, a self-confessed "Young Fogey," a "churchy, donnish patrician" (according to The New York Times), who was once slapped by Lady Lucinda Lambton at a publishing party. An eagerly read journalist, he's no less famous for his novels, children's books, biographies, and histories.

Wilson's spiritual journey has been as lively as his professional one. Raised Anglican, he began his college career with ordination in mind but soon drifted to Anglo-Catholicism, then Roman Catholicism, then back to the Church of England. In the early '90s, he underwent what he later described as a "conversion experience" and renounced belief altogether.

He describes his early days as an atheist as exhilarating: "For months, I walked on air." But for someone who now claimed to be Against Religion (the title of a pamphlet he wrote for a public-affairs series), he still seemed obsessed by it, evidenced in biographies of Hillare Belloc, C.S. Lewis, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus himself, as well as critical studies such as God's Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization. He had discarded the content of faith but couldn't deny its reality-although, in tracing the lives of famous Christians and their Lord, he stubbornly overlooked or reinterpreted the testimony of the men themselves. This is typical of atheism. Having determined that Christian belief was all "nonsense, nonsense, nonsense," he refused to hear what anyone inside the pale had to say about it.

While writing Lewis' biography he noticed similarities between himself and his subject, such as a happy childhood shading into miserable boarding-school years and a rejection of their boyhood faith on maturity. But another parallel slowly dawned on him: Just as Lewis gradually became aware that his favorite authors were Christians (odd, that), Wilson noticed a difference between the skeptical and the devout: "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?" The perception of his atheist friends seemed rather parochial and flat. And phenomena lurking outside a strict materialist system gave him pause: How did materialism account for music, or human language, or love?

Such mysteries finally 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. As a working blueprint for life, as a template against which to measure experience, it fits."

His conclusion is actually less doctrinaire than atheism but more definite than religious "values" loosely held by the growing ranks of "nones." It's a faith riddled with doubt, still questioning, still tentative. But faith, according to Reformation theology, is not the thing itself, but the trembling fingers with which we grab hold of the thing that's more solid than rock. "And that rock was Christ."
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Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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