Winston Churchill: Some Agnostic, Some Atheist (Part 3)

*Posted by Dr. Jerry A. Johnson

*This post is the final in a three-part 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 first and second parts here and here.

“No” is a Simple Thing to Refute

Reid’s religious paradigm for Churchill is essentially negative. Think about it, an agnostic holds the view that there is no knowledge of God, or that nothing can be known about God. Likewise, an atheist insists categorically that there is no God. Similarly, a humanist with a godless ethic factors no God into questions of personal or national morality. Reid makes Churchill all three. Then, like a ventriloquist, Reid props up these denials with a dummy version of Churchill who also says “no” to prayer, “no” to worship, “no” to the Church, and “no” to the Bible.

Churchill’s “Chicken Speech”

But arguing a negative is risky, because the other side only needs one positive counterfactual to debunk any denial. In this case, there are many. We have reviewed the speeches, the memoirs, and the essays by Churchill and they favorably reference God, prayer, worship, the Church, the Bible, and Christian Civilization. These facts, and facts they are, negate Reid’s negations. Facts are stubborn things, indeed. Reid’s agnostic theory is an illusion.

Someone may counter that ghostwriters inserted the God language here and there for Churchill. But this does not square with Reid’s own insistence that the Prime Minister “dictated all speeches, memos, and letters to his typists” (p. 28) and “wrote every word of every speech; no committee of speechwriters toiled at No. 10” (p. 26).

Others might want to grant Reid some sort of creative license with Churchill, but this goes against Reid’s agreement with Manchester “that the biographer must get out of the way of his subject, who should be placed squarely within his times and be allowed to speak and act for himself” (p. xv).

Given this standard, Reid should have seen all sorts of red flags. Why did he regularly have to explain away evidence that seemed to contradict his secularizing hypothesis? Why did he pass over other contradictory evidence such as God-language in Churchill’s well-known speeches? Why did he rely so heavily on second hand stories from people like Moran, instead of the man, himself? Firsthand, primary source material always beats playing the telephone game.

Also, why did Reid have to leverage Churchill’s early letters over so much material from subsequent years to make this theory plausible? Why did he think he saw something that Manchester had not seen in his previous two volumes when he covered the same Churchill era? Reid’s focus was supposed to be the later years; therefore, he is out of his assigned time period and perhaps out of his depth. De facto, Reid’s secularizing thesis amounts to a revision of Manchester’s Churchill.  But maybe Manchester changed as co-author of this book and agreed with Reid’s secular take on their subject? Unlikely, what pages Manchester contributed to the third volume before he died (about pages 35-150) are silent on the agnostic argument.

These questions lead to the ultimate quiz. Does Reid have a secular agenda?  Yes, it seems to be an obsession.  When asked in the Brian Lamb interview what he would ask Churchill if he could, Reid answered: “I would ask about his religious beliefs or lack thereof.” When given the chance to puff his book on CSPAN and NPR, Reid lobbed the atheist/agnostic/godless grenade, in your face. Reid’s agnostic scheme mirrors a disturbing trend to scrub the Almighty out of our culture.

As Churchill might have put it: From Dawkins in the United Kingdom, to Dennett in the United States, a secular screen has descended upon Western Civilization.  Behind this filter, lie all the Judeo-Christian traditions of our public life, out history, and our heroes. Emboldened by the new atheism, secular revisionist historians tease out the Christian, or even God-fearing, symbols when re-telling the stories that define us as the English Speaking Peoples. Has Reid joined the cause? His book and interviews indicate just that. While the new atheists may be smiling, we know a mirage when we see one.

Winston Churchill:  Some Atheist.  Some Agnostic.

Winston Spencer Churchill should have the last word in this dispute. Before the Canadian Parliament on December 30, 1941, the British Prime Minister told how he warned the surrendering French leaders that Britain would fight the Nazis alone.  In light of England’s endurance and improved war prospects, Churchill could playfully recount the French response and the British reality: “their generals told their prime minister and his divided Cabinet, ‘In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’ Some chicken. Some neck.”

So Reid has called Churchill an agnostic, an atheist, and a humanist with a godless ethic. How does one respond? Try this. When Winston Churchill wrote that he passed through his anti-religious phase, when the gifted orator used God language in his speeches, when the Prime Minister organized a prayer and hymn singing service with the President, and when the great thinker made an effort to explain and defend the Bible, all you need to say is: “Some atheist. Some agnostic.”

But I said he should get the last word. So, as any good agnostic or atheist might conclude a talk, the last words in Churchill’s “Some Chicken. Some Neck” speech were:  “whatever the cost, whatever the suffering, we shall stand by one another, true and faithful comrades, and do our duty, God helping us, to the end.”

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

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

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

  3. Bill Riggs, Sr. says:

    I am an amateur historian and admirer of Winston Churchill. Special thanks to Dr. Johnson for his commentary on Paul Reid’s recent book on Winston. No one with even a limited knowledge of Winston would ever see any credibility in Reid’s portrayal of Churchill as an atheist. Reid’s work reflects the times we live where the truth matters much less than the selling of books.

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