BBC World Service Talk
B.B.C. World Service December, 1985
If the war forced me to think about what it meant to be a human being, the peace deepened my disillusionment with everything I had been sure of before the war. Here in Britain progress seemed to have led to nothing but over-population, tower-blocks, and unemployment; the welfare state to boredom, drug-addiction, and hooliganism; science, which I had cast in the role of saviour of mankind, had produced both radio-active isotopes for medical research and the shambles of Hiroshima with far from admirable impartiality – and so I could go on. I had always had a taste for reading philosophy for the fun of it, but now I began to read it for dear life, and I was shocked to discover how many of the great philosophers were believers in God in some sense or another; and I was further shocked when I ran by chance into a bunch of Christians led by a parish priest, who was also a Cambridge double first, all of whom seemed thoroughly to enjoy having me about to argue the atheist case with them. The priest – a man named Douglas Hill, now dead alas – spoke of Christianity in a very different way from that in which it had been presented to me at school; instead of a heavy emphasis upon Stoicism, self-discipline, and a strict adherence to a legalistic code of restrictive moral precepts, Douglas talked of grace, forgiveness, freedom, love, and hope, and at the same time he opened up what was for me an entirely new approach to mythology and images.
All this started a long process of argument and discussion, which slowly demolished most of my old misunderstandings about belief in God in general and Christian belief in particular, and set me thinking harder than I had ever thought before; not that I believed any of the things Douglas and the others believed. I was as determined as ever not to believe in God; but at the same time I began not to believe in my atheism either. I simply didn’t believe in anything, and that was a very uncomfortable position to be in. Then, after many months I woke one morning to discover that something had happened in my head; a very slight shift in the angle at which I viewed things had somehow taken place, and it paralysed me with dismay. It was a moment like that other time on the train in the Kentish suburbs, when the world had become transformed and as charged with meaning as a Beethoven quartet, and I knew that there was nothing I could do about it. I knew, too, that many – most even – great scientific breakthroughs had been the result of similar sudden moments of disclosure to the scientists involved – even occasionally in their sleep – but I didn’t want to believe. I remember the pattern of sunlight on the white painted window-frame opposite my bed and on the low uneven ceiling above it, and the faint smell of musk roses and grass coming in from the garden outside, as I discovered that I could no longer argue against the heart of Christian belief, but knew that it held some sort of truth, though almost literally God knew what. I knew that I believed almost nothing, but I knew that I believed something, and I was appalled. I began to sweat and was quite unable to get out of bed. I wanted to run away from myself, from the room, the house, the country, and hide somewhere, where I could pretend that nothing had happened. I tried to persuade myself that I was still comfortable, blissfully, serenely atheist; but it was no good. Eventually I got up in the hope that, if I immersed myself in activity – painting, gardening, anything – the feeling would go away, and life would return to normal again; but of course, it didn’t. I kept it secret from everyone, as if I had contracted some shameful and fatal disease. But as one slowly gets one’s breath back after a terrible shock, so as time passed, I began to get my mental breath back, and my horror at what had happened began very slowly to fade away. But it was a long time before I felt normal again, and an even longer time before I began to look at the claims made for Christ by Christians. I might believe in God, but I wasn’t prepared yet to go any further than that; that was to come much later.