The Rage Against God
Peter Hitchens (2011), Continuum, London
168 pages; £10.99. ISBN: 978-1-4411-9507-4
Last month, on 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens, doyen of those anti-Christian intellectuals, the so-called New Atheists, died. He was a man who fascinated both on page and in person – angry yet articulate, winsome yet frightening, Godless yet passionate. I felt duty-bound to read something hefty of his, but the bookshop shelves had already been plundered, so I bought one of his brother Peter’s books instead.
What a trip down Memory Lane! Peter and I are unacquainted contemporaries – he is just three years younger than me, so we are both kids of the Sixties, children of the Revolution. We have other stuff in common too – both schooled in Cambridge, close relatives as Royal Navy employees, warm childhoods, restless teenage years, and so on.
The book, though largely biographical, has a serious purpose. Hitchens wants to explain why he ditched Christianity – or at least the strange counterfeit he was taught at school and elsewhere – and why in later years he returned to the Christian fold – by reason and experience he became convinced of its vital truths. However, atheism is the glue of the book.
The Rage of the book is a rant in three parts – the author’s, society’s and Christopher’s.
Author’s Rage Against God
First, the author’s Rage Against God. It started early. Chapter 1 begins, ‘I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967.’ And, ‘I was engaged at the time in a full, perfect and complete rebellion against everything I had been brought up to believe.’ Teenage angst! I had completed mine, so while the smug little Peter Hitchens was rebelling in his Year Zero at the Leys School, the more contrite John Ling was revelling in Year Two of his Christian life as a student at Leeds University.
As the years went by, Hitchens became more and more entrenched in atheism and regarded himself as a Trotskyite. He had grown out of, ‘… the nursery myths of God, angels and Heaven. No need for Santa Claus fantasies or pies in the sky.’
But then his personal Rage Against God began to subside. By about 1985, while in his thirties, Hitchens had, in his own words, ‘… returned to Christianity, rather diffidently …’ The recurring drivers of this turnaround were two-fold – the realisation of the inevitability of his own death, plus the skilful genius of his forebears, who were nevertheless God-believing forebears. And there were more abrupt game-changers too. For example, there was his sudden awakening, during a visit to Beaune, to the certainty that he was among the damned when standing before the fifteenth-century polyptych of The Last Judgement, painted by Rogier van der Weyden. Then, surprisingly, he rediscovered Christmas and he even got married in church. He was gradually losing his, ‘… faith in politics and my trust in ambition.’ Finally, what he saw during his two-year stint living and working among the people of the atheist Soviet Union as well as during one scary night among the lawless militias of Mogadishu were for him like a prophesy of where his beloved and now vulnerable Britain was heading. These were some of Hitchens’ key wake-up calls – those irresistible beckonings from God, the results of His grace and providence that are recognised only in hindsight.
Rage Against God
Back in his student days, the arrogant Hitchens, the outsider, the free-thinker, had joined the ranks of the great unbelieving, educated British middle class, and had thus enrolled in that second section of the book, society’s Rage Against God. That zeitgeist had been so neatly captured by Virginia Woolf when she wrote to her sister, ‘I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.’
Society in those post-War years was marked by unprecedented upheaval – rebellion became a key feature of the 1960s. Hitchens explains these phenomena as a loss of confidence in the Establishment, with its evident incompetence and its false stoicism. Then there were the political declines, from the majesty of Churchill to the debacle of Suez and the scandal of the Profumo affair. More locally, vicars, policemen, teachers and others were losing their authority. And, of course, society’s ultimate Rage Against God included the arrogation of religious faith from God to science. Science had spoken so there were no longer any mysteries – it had rendered the supernatural God silent.
Hitchens can appear overtly nostalgic – that secure childhood world of steam trains, Boy’s Own Paper, air raid shelters, unsupervised adventures and the like, that I also fondly remember, but to which he recognises there is no return. Yet his societal thesis is bigger – there is no return because the world has utterly changed in the last 50 years. Serious purpose, hard work, austerity, modesty, self-restraint and civility have given way to frivolity, laziness, affluence, sexualisation, greed and rudeness. These former values are not just the stock-in-trade grumbles of Daily Mail journalists, of which Hitchens is a principal, they are the marks of any decent society. But Hitchens digs even deeper. He blames, in large part, the two World Wars which sent men who were ‘gentle, innocent and kind’ and returned them ‘cynical, brutalised and used to cruelty’. According to Hitchens, ‘… war does terrible harm to civilisation’. While this is undoubtedly true, its cause is rarely considered, or even less often preached, namely, that all such belligerent behaviours were triggered by the Fall – ‘Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11).
Nowadays Hitchens sees a second-rate, enfeebled Christianity throughout Britain. He sees it in the ready acceptance of unbelief among the clergy, the downgrade from official Christianity to official religious neutrality, attacks on Christian education, church closures, the banning of public prayer, Christians persecuted and prosecuted for being salt and light in their employment, and much more. Britain has become the fallow land, now nicely tilled and ready for the new militant secularists to plant their seeds of aggressive atheism.
As already stated, atheism is the glue of the book. Hitchens spends about half of it confronting three of the lies of atheism – first, that conflicts fought in the name of religion are always about religion, second, that right and wrong can be known without the absolutes of God, and third, that atheist states are not actually atheist.
First, atheists often maintain that religion is the cause of wars. But atheists can be so selective. Since they tend to be politically leftwing, they tend to ignore those wars sustained by the left. Starting with the examples of the Thirty Years War (religious) and the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland (non-religious), he moves through the Middle East conflicts, the Russian Revolution, including inter alia an analysis of the harms caused by Marx, Trotsky, Stalin, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, on to the Third Reich and the Arab-Israeli war, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Hitchens ends up with the thumping conclusion that these non-religious movements and men sought, and largely caused, the demotion of God and the elevation of the State.
Hitchens thus mounts a heartfelt diatribe against communism in particular, and atheism in general. He lived in Moscow for two years from 1990 and therefore saw firsthand the harsh effects of the totalitarianism of the crumbling Soviet regime, the very fruit of atheism. Atheists hate the biblical concept of heaven – they want a secular utopia, now. They hate the truth that poverty and class cannot be eradicated. God is their rival. And they hate Him. It is not just that they do not believe in God, they do not even want Him to exist. It is an instructive account.
Second, Hitchens contends that God is essential to determine right from wrong – to be effectively absolute a moral code must originate from beyond human power, otherwise we will simply change it to suit ourselves. See how quickly we can justify cruelty of all sorts, ‘… the mass deportation, accompanied by slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.’ It is a powerful argument.
Third, Christians know only too well why men and women fail and fall – atheists have a serious problem here because they assert that men and women are great and victorious. Hitchens claims that these atheists are blind to the truth that their, ‘Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood.’ The history of totalitarianism with its ghastly savagery supports his contention. Such atheist states, from Russia to North Korea, may attempt to destroy God, but they supplant Him with what? Not nothing, but humanistic cults. Power is vested in Man. Such systems cannot be properly described as atheistic because they are man-centred, some even with ‘deities’ such as the Chairman or the Great Leader. Hitchens contrasts this with the freedoms brought about by Christianity and asks the pertinent question, ‘When did Christians last burn, strangle or imprison each other for alleged errors of faith?’ The upshot for the West is that the new militant atheism is striving to drive out the remaining Christian restraints on power, the moral law, education, marriage, sexual relationships and much more. Equality and diversity are among its watchwords. According to Hitchens, Christians are, ‘… constantly under pressure to adapt their actions to atheist norms.’
Christopher's Rage Against God
Finally, Peter turns to Christopher’s Rage Against God. The author cannot understand his younger brother’s affection for cruel Communist anti-theist regimes. He states, ‘The biggest fake miracle staged in human history was the claim that Soviet Russia was a new civilisation of equality, peace, love, truth, science and progress. Everyone knows that it was a prison, a slum, a return to primitive barbarism …’ The self-deception of Christopher and its other admirers, particularly that of the seemingly-decent English couple, Sidney Webb – co-founder of the London School of Economics – and his wife, Beatrice, is exposed. Hitchens calls their present-day successors, ‘homeless utopians’, since the geographical focuses of their admiration, have all but disappeared – with the exception of North Korea and perhaps Cuba. While they were always sure there was no heaven, now they are uncertain about any earthly paradise.
The last 20 or so pages of the book cover the events of the night of Thursday 3 April 2008, when Peter and Christopher were briefly together for their ‘great debate’ at Grand Rapids, Michigan. Richard Dawkins, another of those venomous atheists, has warned, ‘If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline.’ But Peter had a special relationship, and whereas this is not the place to recount the minutiae of that encounter, he had challenged his sibling to dispute in public the existence of God and the goodness of religion.
Never again, he has said – indeed, such a fixture is now impossible. For the last fifty years these two brothers had tolerated ‘a difficult relationship’. That night, many expected, even hoped for, a vitriolic dingdong. Peter was having none of it. ‘Normally I love to argue in front of audiences. This time I seemed to have no taste for it.’ They had met a few days earlier at Christopher’s apartment in Washington DC. They behaved like brothers should – warmly and respectfully – Christopher even cooked the meal.
Here they were, brothers – genetically similar, yet dissimilarly minded, seekers after truth, yet arriving at diametrically-opposed conclusions. ‘Two utterly different men, approaching the end of two intensely separate lives.’ Peter’s hope was for a late conversion of his brother, but he recognised that Christopher had, ’… bricked himself up high in his atheist tower … and would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.’ Less than four years later, he had died. It is a sad swansong.
So what to make of this book? I enjoyed it – it opened up new windows. It is not a great book, it contains no deep theological insights, but it is a thoughtful, provocative and unusual apologetic for Christianity. Some fellow evangelical critics will complain that if it depicts a man’s turn to God, then where are the details of salvation, blessings, Jesus, experience, sanctification, gospel outreach and so on? Oh, come on! We can so easily fool ourselves searching for the old evangelical clichés, niggardly citing them as proofs, or otherwise, of a man’s orthodoxy. Have there not always been unclear and uncertain believers out there? Perhaps, you are one! Perhaps Peter Hitchens is one. But I would contend, with biblical warrant, that faith in Christ, however tenuous, rather than faith in any man-made system, is sufficient – evangelical and Christian are not necessarily synonyms. Go read this book and expand your horizons!