The life of the prominent atheistic philosopher, A. J. (“Freddie”) Ayer illustrates the power of education to shape the soul—for good or ill. When he was a young man, his maternal grandfather gave him a copy of the Confessions. Unfortunately, it was not the famous spiritual autobiography of St. Augustine, but the enlightenment reflections of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, rather than Augustine, would help mold the life of the infamous, atheist Oxford philosopher.
As Ayer himself testifies his early years were solitary. His parents, a lapsed Swiss Calvinist and a Jewish convert to nominal Christianity, understood little about religion and communicated even less to Freddie. Ayer was sent to boarding school at the age of seven. “It was the beginning,” writes one biographer, “of a very English, which is to say a very unhappy education.”
In 1923, Ayer left the Ascham School in Eastbourne on a scholarship to Eton College. He was twelve years old. Ayer’s status as a king’s scholar placed him in the intellectual elite of a school that claimed to represent the social elite of England. Tragically, Ayer’s education seems to have progressed without a single Christian influence from either a teacher or a friend. Perhaps the most hopeful source of such instruction emerged as the most destructive. The headmaster of Eton, the Reverend Cyril Alington, also taught divinity to the students. His reaction to Ayer’s teenage posturing and iconoclasm was to assign as reading W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Morals—a skeptical rebuttal of Christianity. Lecky’s work had also profoundly influenced Bertrand Russell in his school days. In his autobiography Ayer simply notes that the book provided him with a “storehouse of ammunition” against Christianity. At the same time he was captivated by Bertrand Russell’s Sceptical Essays.
From Eton Ayer went up to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Greats (Classics). There he came under the influence of the atheist philosopher Gilbert Ryle—who was, perhaps, most famous for defending philosophical materialism and for his arguments against the human soul. With such a man as the “most important” influence on Ayer during his time at Oxford, it is no surprise that Ayer developed into a passionate and skilled advocate of secular humanism and atheistic philosophy which declared religion and ethics meaningless. His popular doctrine, “logical positivism,” counted as nonsense all things not immediately observable to the senses, including God. Through teaching, writing, and frequent media appearances, he helped to shape the culture of the United Kingdom.
The tragedy of Ayer’s life is that he was shaped by those who should have walked faithfully with Christ, but utterly failed in their calling. His father was from a Christian home and professed some vague beliefs, but as Ayer recalls, “[o]fficially my Father was a Calvinist . . . [but m]y parents never went to church, with or without me. . . .” Doubtless Ayer’s parents recognized his talents from his early years. Such a genius required compassionate discipline and a rigorous Christian education from his parents, which he missed in boarding school.
Both Ascham and Eton were schools founded on Christianity, yet all Freddie encountered was harsh overbearing discipline and the corroding effects of apostasy from the faith. At Christ Church he was educated by the grandson of the famous evangelical Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle. But Gilbert Ryle’s family had turned from the truth, and the Bishop’s grandson became one of the most vigorous critics of the Christian faith in his generation. Ayer’s talents were such that he could have turned the world upside down for Christ—instead his education prepared him to live a grossly immoral life and to undermine all that is pure and good.