Education—for Good or Ill

The life of the prominent atheistical philosopher, A. J. (“Freddie”) Ayer (1910-1989) 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.1 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.”2

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.3 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.4 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”5 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. . . .”6 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.

Footnotes :

1 A. J. Ayer, Part of My Life (London: Collins, 1977), 21.
2 Ben Roger, A. J. Ayer (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 22.
3 Only 14 students per year become prestigious King’s Scholars, the same number as in the 15th century, when Henry VI founded the school. In those days, Eton had only 70 students, 14 for each of the five years in its course of study, and all were underwritten by the monarch.
4 Ayer, Ibid., 50, 53.
5 Ibid., 76.
6 Ayer, Ibid., 16.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. It strikes me that this is the classic verity of “garbage in, garbage out.” At the same time, one cannot assume that a “healthier” diet of, say, Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, etc. would have dictated a different outcome. Is there a sense, then, that people are governed less by what they read or how they are educated and more by their (pre)disposition? Could someone predisposed in heart and mind read the same things and attend the same schools rise up as a great advocate for the faith against atheism?

  2. Into my mind popped this little gingle that was played between cartoons when I was a child, “You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet….” Or as Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). However, I am not so much of a B.F. Skinner devotee that I would want to rule out one’s pre-disposition. I think yes, it is certainly possible; however, the person you describe would be an advocate for the faith despite his education, which then raises the question what good is education if you are educated despite it?

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