The New Atheists – clever, uncompromising, polite – seized the initiative only a few years ago, at least in publishing. They turned out best-sellers like The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) or The End of Faith (Sam Harris) or Infidel (Ayaan Hirsi Ali). You can still dig up a few Old Atheists like the late Kingsley Amis, the acclaimed novelist, who described himself as ‘an unwilling unbeliever’- with ‘a deep attachment to the Christian religion.’ But they are rare. Although Amis had, he said, no belief whatsoever in the existence of God (‘not a shred’) observation had convinced him that people who live without faith are ‘the poorer for it in every part of their lives.’ Faith, he concluded, is a gift – and, like so many of his contemporaries, he did not have it. Conversion was never an option for him. He regarded a convert like Malcolm Muggeridge as a phoney.
But is the tide turning again? Some 24 conversion stories, most of them Australian, are collected in a new book edited by Wanda Skowronska, Catholic Converts from Down Under…and All Over (Connor Court). Some of the converts are well known to readers of these pages – such as Robert Stove and Christopher Pearson. Robert is the son of the late David Stove, the renowned philosopher and austere freethinker who brought his children up in an atmosphere of ‘clean living and high thinking’. Read a biography, the younger Stove would later write, of Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, and you will find a mental climate so similar to his own childhood’s as to be ‘scary’. The Stove family despised Christianity in general and regarded Catholicism as ‘a kind of Stalinism mixed with holy water.’ After a brief engagement with Anglicanism (when he occasionally played the organ for the local evangelicals), he abandoned the church with a sense of relief. There was no crisis of faith. As Skowronska tells the story, Robert continued for long years to fear the Catholic church as ‘a catalyst of lunacy’ – as a sort of lighted match to his nervous gunpowder factory. But two interlinked family tragedies had a profound influence on him. At the end of 1993 his mother suffered a massive stroke which left her, in his words, ‘a paralysed, whimpering vegetable’ until her death eight years later. At the same time his father began to unravel. He convinced himself that he had brought on his wife’s stroke by announcing to her that he had been diagnosed with incurable esophageal cancer. He became alcoholic, wept like a child, wandered the hospital ward naked, and in June 1994 hanged himself. His son’s atheistic house of cards collapsed. In his restless and agonised state, Robert began reading widely from Chesterton to Christopher Dawson. But the most influential volume was by a priest in Victoria, with a title that would once have made him rock with derision – Chats with Converts. A Complete Explanation and Proof of Catholic Belief by Fr M. Forrest MSC. As Skowronska tells it, in reading this simple book (and Fr Leslie Rumble’s Radio Replies) Stove experienced ‘something so moving, so subtle and yet so vast’ that it changed his life. He was baptised in 2002 (and took the baptismal name of Pius.) This was the very period in which the scandals of pedophile priests first exploded. This hardly affected him at all (although the scandals of 2010 did.) Christopher Pearson’s conversion is less agonising. It may be a matter of degree only, but Pearson, the aesthete, always stressed the important role of sacred music in his conversion from a sort of gay Marxism, whereas Stove – composer, music historian and critic – has denied it was the primary source of influence in his religious journey. Pearson was attracted to prayer but Stove found it difficult, although as Skowronska puts it ‘not impossible.’ I should add that although Pearson was always a gourmet, there is little or no sign of that in Stove. But there can be no doubt that homosexuality was a primary issue with Pearson. Always seeking certainty and immutable doctrine, he finally concluded that St Paul was right in the New Testament: we are meant to be chaste or monogamously married. He was received into the Catholic Church in September 1999. His friends reminded him that Muggeridge had described his own conversion as ‘a rat swimming towards a sinking ship’ – prompting a telegram from B.A. Santamaria: ‘Welcome aboard.’ There are many more conversion stories in Skowronska’s selection – from Maoism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism, Buddhism and more. I regret that Susan Moore’s testimony of her Damascene conversion from the Judaism of her youth is not included but she has written movingly about it elsewhere. But will Skowronska’s passionate 24 converts influence the mild, scientific, dogmatic but ebullient New Atheists? Will they overcome the polemics of, say, Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything? Perhaps, in some cases. Stove, like his father, was after all steeped in the atheist classics. But the last time Robert visited his father in hospital, he found him reading a Gideon Bible. The father, as the son recalls, fixed on him ‘the largest, most protuberant, most frightened, and most frightening pair of eyes’ he had ever seen. ‘I’ll try anything now,’ he said. Robert referred later to ‘the tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.’ His own conversion soon followed. Does Kingsley Amis have the last word? Is he right that you need the gift of faith before you will find faith? But didn’t someone say: Knock and it will be opened?
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