Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 1)

*Posted by Dr. Jerry A. Johnson

*This post is the first part of an extended commentary on Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965 , the last volume in the epic series The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid. You can read the second and third posts here and here.

Was Winston Churchill a humanist with a godless ethic, an agnostic, or even an atheist? He was all three—if you believe his latest biographer, Paul Reid. But not so fast. Before you relegate Churchill to the secular dustbin of history, “Question Time” about the Prime Minister seems in order.  What are Reid’s claims about Churchill? What is his argument for secularizing Churchill? Moreover, does the argument make sense and does the evidence support Reid’s conclusion? Furthermore, why is this important?

Taking that last question first, the answer is: the back story.  Reid’s work is the long awaited finale of a much celebrated trilogy entitled The Last Lion. William Manchester wrote the first two volumes that were highly rated by Churchill aficionados and sold about 700,000 copies. While fans of Churchill, and Manchester, were disappointed to hear of the author’s death before he finished the project, they were happy to learn that Manchester had handpicked Reid as his successor and looked forward to its release.

So far, the reviews have been flowing, and mostly glowing. I should announce now that there is much that is good in Reid’s work. While reading Reid is not the same as reading Manchester, and while some reviewers have noted a few historical errors, Reid channels the Manchester method enough that it looks and feels like it belongs to the textual trio. It is weighty.  It does not come off as just the latest Churchill book of the month. People are taking Reid seriously because they took Manchester and this series seriously. This book matters because it completes an exclusive triangle of three books and three men: Churchill, Manchester, and Reid.

Added to this, the heroic Prime Minister as atheist or agnostic is important because Churchill, the man, is important. The full title of Reid’s volume drives this point home—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965. When Hitler’s Nazi threat was at its worst, the British Bulldog was at his best. Standing alone, for good, against evil, Churchill prevailed. But did the great leader’s conviction and resolve flow from a God-fearing sense of the right and trust in Providence, or was it merely the natural outworking of a godless ethic from an atheistic heart? If we are to have heroes, celebrate them, or follow their example, it is essential that we think rightly about them. We must weigh what motivated them and what sustained them. This book matters because heroes matter. For many, Churchill has been and still is a hero.

No God for Churchill?

Reid’s secularizing claims matter too; they are new and they are escalating. With a scheduled release just before Thanksgiving, Reid’s book was on my Christmas gift list and I was not denied at the tree. On Christmas Day, while working through the preamble that provides readers with an overall introduction to the historical giant, this line caught my attention: “as a young man, Churchill declared for agnosticism,” (p. 18). For the next three pages, Reid develops this agnostic theme as the defining religious characteristic for Churchill’s adult life as well.

Something about this did not seem right, so I decided to be attentive to Reid’s treatment of this topic as I worked my way through the text. I discovered that Reid continues this approach all over the book as the religious narrative for Churchill’s entire life (pp. 18-21, 263, 782-84, 816-17, 927). Indeed, Reid’s take on the mature larger than life figure is, “He regularly reminded those around him that he had declared for agnosticism early in manhood,” (p. 783). This concerned me. Granted, Churchill was not what Americans today would call an evangelical or what the Brits then would call a religious enthusiast.  But Churchill as life-long agnostic? Was Reid deliberately misrepresenting Churchill or was I reading too much into this?

These doubts did not last long. A quick online search revealed that before the Thanksgiving turkey was gone from the refrigerator, Reid had already upped the ante.  In a November 26 interview on Diana Rehm’s NPR radio program, Reid said of Churchill: “he was an atheist.” Yes, he actually said “atheist.” I double checked the transcript by comparing it to the audio recording. Later on Christmas Eve, Reid interviewed with Brian Lamb on CSPAN and said that this man who saved England adopted “a humanist, but godless ethic.” My son suggested that on Easter Paul Reid would reveal that Churchill was secretly a charter member of the Church of Satan! Hyperbole aside, it was clear from these interviews that I was not reading too much into Reid, nor misreading Reid. Paul Reid means to say that Winston Churchill was an agnostic, an atheist, and a humanist with a godless ethic. This is news. This is important.

One should actually start with Reid’s book to test the validity of these claims. As noted, Reid maintains that Churchill jettisoned Christianity for an agnosticism that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Reid’s argument for this enduring agnosticism: it is something about which Churchill “informed the world at large in his autobiography, My Early Life,” (p. 783). Here Reid asserts that Britain’s rising star embraced “old-fashioned British empiricism” and cites his confessional bio again, “I therefore adopted quite early in life a system of believing whatever I wanted to believe.” On the surface, this might make Reid’s case sound plausible.

However, Reid can’t avoid mentioning that Churchill himself wrote that he “passed through” what he called this “violent and aggressive anti-religious phase.”  The transient nature of this juvenile stage is made more explicit in My Early Life. Yet Reid soft pedals the temporal qualification, leaving out the author’s hindsight quote about it, “had it lasted, might easily have made me a nuisance.” Churchill’s reflection on the “anti-religious” stage, both its interim and irritating quality, makes this omission huge.  Also telling, Reid admits that in the same text Churchill wrote that he practiced prayer in times of need, after this anti-religious period “passed.”

More conclusive is what Reid fails to acknowledge at this juncture. He only considers Churchill’s embrace of the rational and the empirical. Reid does not discuss what occasioned the “therefore” conclusion from the above quotation in the autobiography. Namely, Churchill had just noted three beliefs, along with prayer, that brought joy and were evidently part of his “believing what I wanted to believe.” They are “how Christ turned the water into wine…walked on the lake…rose from the dead.” While a close reading of this section in My Early Life admittedly reveals that Churchill struggled to reconcile faith and reason, it equally shows that he was not an atheist or even an agnostic as he matured. To the contrary, Churchill not only valued reason but also wanted to believe and did believe, especially about Jesus.

Reid does produce a powerful primary source that appears, on the surface, to back his secular hypothesis. To be fair, Churchill’s own words should be quoted in full:

If the human race ever reaches a stage of development—when religion will cease to assist and comfort mankind—Christianity will be put aside as a crutch which is no longer needed, and man will stand erect on the firm legs of reason, (p. 21).

This statement places reason over Christianity and reflects a condescending attitude towards religion, fitting words for an agnostic or a humanist. However, Reid errs by using this as hard evidence for his proposal. Why? Because according to Reid’s own end notes, this sentence is taken from Churchill’s letter to his mother dated no later than 1900, when he is no older than 26 years of age. It is indicative of the youthful anti-religious mood; again, according to his own testimony it was a phase he “passed through.” Gradually as one continues to investigate Reid’s hypothesis, the counter-finding that Churchill outgrew this viewpoint becomes more apparent, and more important.

No Prayer, Worship, or Church for Churchill?

Reid tries similar negative assertions about prayer, worship, and the church. He states bluntly, “Churchill didn’t write prayers, and he didn’t say prayers,” (p. 782). Reid’s “evidence”:  The wartime leader skipped a prayer service to look over battle maps. Some who did attend the service interpreted a dove that flew over as a sign of peace and reported it back to Churchill. He responded, “There is nothing in such stuff,” (p. 783). This anecdote proves little. I can think of many Christians, myself included, who might have chosen to study war maps instead of attending the service (It could depend on the military situation or the quality of preaching). Also, I probably would not have taken the dove as a sign, and I am no atheist, not even an agnostic!

Contra Reid’s agnostic thesis, he cannot help recounting the famous 1941 meeting with Roosevelt and the sailors on the battleship Prince of Wales. “Churchill had personally choreographed a worship service…the hymns to be sung….He was seen to dab away tears as he and Roosevelt joined the ship’ crews in singing, ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” (pp.393-94).  Absent from Reid’s record is Churchill’s theological commentary on radio about this Christian hymn from that service, “in which the brief, precarious span of human life is contrasted with the immutability of Him to whom a thousand ages are but as yesterday,” (August 24, 1941). Do agnostics, do atheists, typically organize worship services with Christian prayers and hymns, theologize via radio on those hymns, or participate in worship with sincerity that moves them to tears?

Also left out of Reid’s account are Churchill’s written words about what he called this “Divine Service” with the Americans. In his The Second World War: The Grand Alliance memoirs, the P.M. wrote: “This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples….” Let’s see, what faith would that be—atheism, agnosticism, or humanism? No, Christianity. In this textual description of the event, Churchill glories in “the pulpit….the reading of the prayers….sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both….Every word seemed to stir the heart.” None of this is in Reid.

In spite of these facts, other anti-church insinuations are scattered throughout Reid’s publication: Churchill “detested superstition,” thought the Witchcraft Act was all “absolute tomfoolery” and “thought much the same for churchgoing.”  Yet one also finds in Reid evidence to the contrary: “Churchill attended a service….After the minister delivered his sermon, the Old Man walked up to the pulpit and delivered one himself,” (p. 19). And again, “He loved the glory and pageantry of christenings, funerals….was deeply moved by the melodic grace of hymns, by the power of voices uplifted in song,” (pp. 19-20).

This evidence notwithstanding, Reid still tries to pit Churchill against the church with the Prime Minister’s well-known saying that “he was not a pillar of the church but a buttress—he supported it from the outside,” (p. 19). Ha, Ha. There are three problems with Reid’s comedic premise, found in three words from the quote itself:  1) he (Winston Churchill); 2) supported (helped); 3) it (the church). In other words, Winston Churchill helped the church. Even if this church aid was from the “outside”, the quotation demonstrates the opposite of what Reid maintains. Churchill described himself as pro-church, even if not in church.

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3 Responses to Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 2) | For Christ and Culture

  2. Pingback: Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 3) | For Christ and Culture

  3. Mads says:

    “Churchill described himself as pro-church, even if not in church.”

    Well, that still makes him a condemned Christless pagan. Being a conservative or traditionalist does not save anybody from Hell or the final eternal fire (Gehenna), that is the second death.

    This Churchill-cult really has to stop, he was no saint and ultimately no defender of christianity, but only of an old unruly empire.

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