From loony left to loony righteousness

Under the scathing title "If there is no God, what is the Oxford atheist scared of?" Paul Johnson issued (in the Spectator on 16 March) a rousing challenge to Richard Dawkins to debate the existence of God in public with him. But no, says Johnson, the man is scared. Why else "his craven refusal to come out of his safe academic burrow and debate with me ... the existence or non-existence of God"? Johnson thinks Dawkins doesn't know whether he can do it: "He is unsure of his arguments, his cause and his skills. He is scared he would make a fool of himself in front of the world ..."

Now, Paul Johnson has never been afraid to make a fool of himself. If, that is, Paul Johnson really exists. But can we reasonably believe in the things done by and said by Paul Johnson? Is there really such a person?

Some eminently reasonable people such as Ludovic Kennedy seem to have their own doubts. In a recent review of Paul Johnson's new book, Quest for God, Kennedy said that on the occasions he had met Johnson he had found him good, pleasant company and simply couldn't reconcile the affable bloke he had met with the intolerant, arrogant author of Quest for God. It was almost as if they were different people.

But then the man who goes under the name of Paul Johnson has often been different people in his life. There is a very good chapter in Christopher Booker's book on the Seventies detailing Johnson's Damascene conversion from flaming left-winger to mighty Thatcherite, from believing in the curative powers of socialism to an equally strong but opposite belief in the redemptive powers of capitalism. Booker writes:

"I have already written in these columns of what I believe to be one of the saddest conclusions to be drawn from Johnson's spiritual tergiversations - that when a man speaks as often as he does of his own devotion to `reason' and of the `fanaticism' of his opponents, one may look to his own works with confidence for a conspicuous absence of the former and an over-abundance of the latter. There is now another truth to which I fear he has borne scarifying witness. That when a man sees through the folly of one extreme and one-sided view of the world there is no greater danger and no greater likelihood than that he will rush to another,equally extreme and even more one-sided."

That was written in 1978, to describe Johnson's rush from left to right, though Booker might also be describing a rather unconvincing and illogically written character in a novel. And where is he now? Well, in the course of issuing his challenge to Richard Dawkins the man called Johnson says that his own chief object in life at the moment is not left-wing or right- wing or indeed political at all but "a burning wish to share the precious gift of belief in God with as many fellow-mortals as possible".

So, in the years since Booker described the conversion from flaming socialist to flailing capitalist, Johnson has seen another guiding light emerge ahead of him: God. There may have been others, of course, in the 20 years since Booker wrote those words. I have occasionally seen articles under his name extolling the power of water-colour painting, and he may have gone through the other passions normal to a man of his age, such as a sudden interest in opera, but even what we know of him strikes me as unbelievable. This dashing madly about from one credo to another, this unshakeable belief in his own rightness, this inability to see himself whole, the conviction of a weather-cock that whatever direction he is facing in is the only one to face in - well, I don't believe it.

I don't think he really exists.

I don't think Richard Dawkins exists either. That's why he won't come out to debate. It's not because, as the man called Johnson says, Dawkins "skulks in his New College tent, afraid to put on his armour and venture forth".

It's because Dawkins is sitting quietly in his tent, waiting for the shouting and screaming red-haired loony outside, flogging his copies of Quest for God, to get tired and go away.