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Commonplaces: Evelyn Waugh the Young Atheist

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Evelyn Waugh, who would become one of the best-known British writers of his age, chronicled the decline and fall of the British aristocracy in works such as Brideshead Revisited (1945). A generation of Americans now fascinated by Downton Abbey is generally unaware that literary figures like Waugh captured the end of the aristocratic age long before television had been invented.

Waugh was raised within the traditional British educational system for the upper classes. He attended Lancing College, a preparatory school for boys, as a teenager. The school, located in the English countryside in West Sussex, stated as its mission to educate boys “based on sound principle and sound knowledge, firmly grounded in the Christian faith.”

But the Christian faith Waugh found at Lancing was tepid at best, more tradition than conviction. Waugh participated in the compulsory chapel services and served as a sacristan, or assistant in worship.

It was as a teenager at Lancing that Waugh declared himself to be an atheist. In his memoir, A Little Learning, published in 1964, Waugh recalled his loss of faith with reference to his diary entry of June 18, 1921: “In the last few weeks I have ceased to be a Christian. I have realized that for the last two terms at least I have been an atheist in all except the courage to admit it myself.” He was then 17 years old.

Looking back, Waugh recalled that his tutors assigned books that were generally subversive of faith and “we were left to suggest our solutions and encouraged to be unorthodox.” He remembered that half of his class of students “were avowed agnostics or atheists.”

In response, the school offered no help. “And no antidote was ever offered us. I do not remember ever being urged to read a book of Christian philosophy.”

Even worse, when he went to see the chaplain and laid out his doubts, the Anglican priest told him that his atheism was no problem. The young Waugh assumed, rightly enough, that an atheist would no longer be welcome to co-officiate at Christian worship.

In conclusion, Waugh writes: “Adolescent doubts are very tedious to the mature; I was generally assured that it was quite in order for an atheist to be a sacristan.”

This is a graphic and articulate description of what happens when youth are inculcated in a Christianity devoid of conviction and apologetic force. The adolescent doubts that Waugh experienced are quite natural and present an opportunity for theological growth and development. Or, as in the case of young Waugh, an opportunity for the young to believe that there are no answers to their questions.

Adult Christians who dismiss an adolescent atheist or agnostic as “very tedious” are guilty of a horrible theological and spiritual crime. As Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

At some point Evelyn Waugh understood himself to be a believer in Christ (“if not genuinely devout, a particularly church-loving boy”), only to be fed doubts by those in authority. No one should be surprised that he soon declared himself to be an atheist.

Waugh would later convert to Roman Catholicism, finally finding a Christian philosophy of life after starving on a diet of liberal Anglicanism. There are lessons there, too, of course.

But the lesson of Evelyn Waugh’s final year at Lancing before going to Oxford is this — Christians must reach out to young doubters with a listening ear and a reason for our Christian hope, or wave them goodbye as they depart from the faith. Apathy, condescension and liberal theology simply will not do.