Author: A. N. Wilson

Published: Abacus

Year:  2000, 528 pages


It is a curious phenomenon that intellectuals who have spent a lifetime distancing themselves from religion and the spiritual dimension find themselves ambivalent when the time arrives for them to consider their own destiny.  Having regarded religion and God as merely human constructs, the imminent prospect of nothingness does not sit comfortably with their sense of personal worth and uniqueness. Arthur Koestler for example, the former communist who spent the second half of his writing career on the history of science, left a suicide note in which he expressed “some timid hopes for a depersonalised after-life”.  For the collector of such biographical twists and turns, A.N. Wilson provides another example.  This is of Herbert Spenser, the Victorian polymath who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and popularised the view that science had ‘disproved’ religion.  Towards the end of his life, in 1902,  Spenser wrote in the hyperbole typical of his age, “after contemplating the inscrutable relation between brain and consciousness, and finding that we can get no evidence of the existence of the last without the activity of the first, we seem obliged to relinquish the thought that consciousness continues after physical organisation has become inactive. But it seems a strange and repugnant conclusion that the cessation of consciousness at death, there ceases to be any knowledge of having existed”.  

A similarly curious phenomenon is how die-hard sceptics reconcile themselves with spouses of rock-hard religious faith. Emma Darwin, for example would urge Charles Darwin to seek solace for their lost children through prayer. She prayed too for an after-life to be spent  in the company of her precious cousin husband.  There is also Captain Sir Richard Burton, linguist, explorer and hedonist – a Koestler of his age – who remarked ‘a man without religion may be excused, but a woman without religion is not the woman for me’.  His marriage partner for thirty years was the fervent Catholic Isabel Arundel, who had him buried with Church rites.

These phenomena indicate the conscious and subconscious factors that make it difficult for the secularly minded to be consistent in their rejection of the spiritual dimension.  Even where the God concept is hated as a matter of state policy, as was the case in the Soviet Union, man is compelled to search for a quasi-divine substitute.  A.N Wilson observes that “on 7 November 1918 a huge portrait of Marx was carried in procession through the streets of Moscow, just like the sacred icons which were paraded with the troops in times of national emergency  the days of the Tsars”.   A visitor to Moscow in 1928 noted the widespread superstition that so long as the corpse of Lenin remained uncorrupted in its tomb, Communism would be safe.

A.N. Wilson’s lengthy book provides a wide panoramic sweep on the history of ideas, encompassing philosophers (Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx), churchmen (Newman, Pusey ), writers and poets (George Elliot, Swinbourne, Tennyson), the prophets of the scientific age (Darwin, Freud) and a medley of unclassifiable intellectual giants (Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Ruskin, Jowett, Bernard Shaw and William James). In this overarching sweep of over two centuries of intellectual history, A. N. Wilson is primarily concerned with the challenges to the Churches (Anglican and Catholic) and its responses.  The reoccurring themes are the debates between faith and reason, the quest to retain faith in religion without a sacrifice of the intellect and  the decline in the belief in God.  The author has a brilliant ability to summarise opposing principles and personalities, as for example when contrasting Carlyle, who rejected Christianity but not religious faith (and who wrote an admiring essay on the Prophet Muhammad,  peace be on him, in his book ‘On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History’, 1841) and Marx, the hard-core materialist: “No pair of thinkers could be less congenial to Carlyle than Marx and Engels. For him, atheism was a symptom of profound sickness in society, rather than being (as it is for Marxism) a precondition for its cure”.

A. N. Wilson takes the title of the book from a poem by Thomas Hardy – composed around 1908, about the demise of the God-idea: “O man-projected Figure, of late/Imaged as we, thy knell who shall survive?/ Whence came it we were tempted to create/One whom we can no longer keep alive?”.   It is a quick dismissal of a timeless belief, typical of the Victorian self-perception of being a unique and superior civilisation. To his credit,  A. N. Wilson  recognises that Hardy’s poem is more noteworthy for its dramatic impact rather than metaphysic.

What of A. N. Wilson’s own position on the God question?  He clearly has empathy with Carlyle (he says that if there was one book he would like to keep from world literature it would be Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus), a literary giant “who wished to believe….but he looked into Christianity and found it false.  His heart could not subscribe to it. The God and the religion of Revelation being incredible to him, Carlyle could not rest in mere unbelief.  Such a thing was horrifying to him.  So he spoke and wrote as if God were true, manifesting Himself less in the miraculous and unbelievable tales of religious mythology than in the inexorable workings of History itself.”  Interestingly, like Carlyle, A.. N. Wilson is not unfamiliar with Islam, recently causing a stir with the remark “the next religious hunger of the human heart will be answered by the Crescent, not the Cross” (25 November 2000, The Guardian).  However the Islamic concept of God does not appear to have left its mark as yet, and he favours a diffuse notion, which nevertheless justifies Hardy’s deicide:

“Darwin and his friends became, many of them, atheists, people who believed that there was no god at all; that the Universe was empty and without soul. This is an honourable position because, unlike the huddlers-under-Othodoxy’s umbrella, such stark atheists were guided by the truth. But were they guided by the whole truth? Does Big Bang alter our perception of their truth? Does it not supply an answer to the one question which Darwinism so dismally refuses to address: namely, how (let alone why!) anything happens to exist at all.  It is existence itself which is surely the greatest of all mysteries.  How we, with what we call our consciousness, come to be observing existence, our own and that of all that is, is not a mystery outside the mystery. We are not like the Old God, outside existence, peering into it through a microscope or a telescope.  We are part of fit; so, if it makes sense to speak of  Him, is the coherent Deity….. it is a paradox of intellectual history that – given the state of knowledge in the nineteenth century, and given the addiction of religious people to the notion of God as a Being outside Existence, outside the Cosmos, outside the world ‘which is the world of all of us’ …..God had to die for [such] truly religious perceptions to grow”.

So A.N.Wilson settles for a ‘God is in everything and everywhere’ view, yet also claiming to be a ‘fellow traveller’ of Christianity (he is also the author of a book on Jesus and an biography of St. Paul).  It has become a very broad church indeed!

Notwithstanding this diffuse concept of God  A. N. Wilson is an ally to the religious-minded because he respects religious practice and recognises the reality of the religious experience at least at a psychological level:

“It is unremarkable that in the causes of extreme pain, or grief or wonder, men and women should seek, and find consolation.  Perhaps it is more remarkable that the intelligent human mind, knowing all it knows about the arguments against God’s existence, should continue to practice religious observances; to be led, on some instinctual level [sic] to punctuate the day with  allah akhbar, with O God make speed to save us, with Glory be to the Father. Those who do such things would wish to say ….that religion was the deepest kind of life….And I am bound to say that compiling this study of whose who tried to live without religion, or who chose to live within the limitations of a purely materialistic explanation for the problems of metaphysics, has not made me wish to revise [this] viewpoint”.

The author’s familiarity with Islam raises a number of interesting questions for the Muslim reader.  For a start, ‘God’s Funeral’ portrays the level of intellectual sophistication that would be required of Muslim thinkers if they are to engage in an exchange with scholars of A.N. Wilson’s calibre and reading.  At a simplistic level, unlike Christianity, Islam is not placed on the defensive by modern science, for example discoveries relating to evolution and the age of the earth (where the Victorian clerics earned ridicule in their literal interpretations of the Bible). Moreover Islam would never adopt Cardinal Newman’s teaching that reason must be surrendered to faith.  Islam does not demand such intellectual suicide, but rather at every juncture the Qur’an calls on its readers to approach the Scripture with an open and questioning mind – note the very frequent Qur’anic invocations such as ‘do you not think’ and ‘do you not ponder’, and the repeated invitation to man to observe and reflect (for example  3:190-191). Moreover we can go some way to support the notion of a God who pervades His creation – the Qur’an after all describes Him as being closer to us than our jugular vein (52:16) – but while also holding on to His incomparability and one to be obeyed.  We too would agree with A. N. Wilson when he describes the process of conferring a Pope with infallibility as one of the ‘childish fantasies of Christianity’

Muslim scholars, taking their cue from the Qur’an, place considerable emphasis on the ‘Argument from Design’ i.e. Nature has a moral lesson to teach man, and that one can derive a knowledge of God from the shapes and patterns of nature. The Qur’an invokes the ’Argument from Design’ very frequently, in those verses inviting man to ponder on the miraculous workings, beauty, flawlessness and harmony of nature, that could not have come about accidentally:

“Nay – who is it that has crated the heavens and the earth, and sends down for you [life-giving] water from the skies? For it is by this means that We cause gardens of shining beauty to grow – [whereas] it is not in your power to cause [even one single of] its trees to grow! Could there be any divine power besides God?  Nay, these [who think so] are people who swerve [from the path of reason]!

Bay – who is it that has made the earth a fitting abode [for living things], and has caused running water [to flow] in its midst, and has set upon it mountains firm, and has placed a barrier between the two great bodies of water? Could there be any divine power besides God? Nay, most of those [who think so] do not know [what they are saying]!” (27: 61-62)

“[Hallowed be] He who has created seven heavens in full harmony with one another: no fault will they see in the creation of the Most Gracious.  An turn thy vision [upon it] once more: canst thou see any flaw? Yea, turn thy vision [upon it] again, and yet again; [and every time] thy vision will fall back upon thee dazzled and truly defeated” (67:3-4)

“Are thou not aware that it is God who causes the clouds to move forward, onward, then forms them together, then piles them up in masses, until thou canst see rain come forth from their midst? And He it is who sends down from the skies, mountainous masses [of clouds] charged with hail….” [41:43-44]

Allama Yusuf Ali in his commentary of the last verse draws on the ‘Argument from Design’: “Artists, or lovers of nature, or observers of clouds will appreciate this description of cloud effects ….In this book of Nature can we not see the hand of the powerful and beneficent God?’ (note 3019, Third Edition).

A.N.  Wilson however does not see much mileage in this line of reasoning as a ‘proof’ for a Creator:

“…if you pressed the argument from Design too far you might infer a God who was curious about  a multiplicity of life forms, entirely unconcerned about the bloodiness and painfulness with which so many of these forms sustained life while on this planet, A god who has no more demonstrably interested in the human race than He was in, say, beetles, of which He created an inordinately large variety…….

Hitherto, in order to explain how life on earth came to be as it is, there had been the itching temptation among scientists and among metaphysicians – even ones who had read David Hume and knew it was not logically necessary – to supply some paradigm of design when speaking of nature; and having drawn the paradigm of design, to conclude not only that Nature  had a designer, but that it had been designed, or created, for a purpose….

Darwin could make the even more disturbing discovery that Hume was right, and there was no need to posit a notion of purpose behind Nature at all”.

Here, A.N.Wilson is formulating an intellectually demanding set of problems for the religiously minded, and an adequate response can only best be framed by those steeped in the Qur’an and who have some exposure to scientific developments and methodologies.  What does the Muslim scholar say to someone who points to the geological evidence for thousands of species that came into being, flourished and became extinct even before the first appearance of humans on earth?  Was the purpose of these earlier creations to have lived, and then become fossilised, merely in order to provide an opportunity for the human mind to ponder and reflect on God’s greatness?  Or are we to respond by saying that all these earlier creations form part of some essential sunnah of Allah (laws to which Allah has committed Himself to) – perhaps some law of gradualism? Needless to say, there is room for discussion and scholarship within Muslim circles to arrive at an adequate intellectual response to the doubters.

A second challenge requiring Muslims to develop a coherent response is the problem of evil in the world. A.N. Wilson observes how James Mill “found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness”.  The religiously minded perhaps do not grasp very real difficulties many people have with reconciling tragedies – man-made and natural – with a notion of a Just Creator.  For example, one of Darwin’s biographers remarks on the impact of his daughter’s death: “[It] destroyed Charles’s belief in a moral, just universe.  Later he would say that this period chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity, eve if it had been a long, drawn-out process of decay” (from ‘Darwin’ by Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Penguin 1992, p. 387).

Muslims of course have a many layered response, but can it be formulated in a way to convince A. N. Wilson? Would he appreciate the stock answer that the life of a mumin should be shukr on success and sabr in the face of adversity? Or perhaps we should begin by seeking out the common ground with those neo-Darwinists who now believe that there is something special after all with homo sapiens sapiens, such as his capacity for symbolic communication (see for example ‘The Symbolic Species – The co-evolution of language and the human brain’ by Terence Deacon, 1997).  For Muslims, the special feature would be God’s bestowal to man of a degree of free will – to choose between worshipping his desires or following the path of the Prophets:

“But then, is he who goes along with his face close to the ground better guided than he that walks upright on a straight way?” (67:22)

We could agree therefore that there is something unique about Man, but debate and discuss on its nature.   The possibility of this uniqueness is an opening to introduce the Qur’anic concept of man as khalifa, who has been given the freedom to rise, or to turn his back on God.  It is the adoption of the latter course that causes corruption and injustices.  However the case has of course to be put with greater depth and rigour, and it also should address the problem of natural disasters.

However off-putting a title, A.N. Wilson warrants to be widely read in Muslim circles to understand the West’s problem with God.  It highlights the need for adequate intellectual responses presented in an equally readable and enjoyable form.

M. A. Sherif, 2001