Peter Hitchens is the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens. Christopher was famous in the latter years of his life as, essentially, a professional atheist. Peter Hitchens’s book begins as an attempt to round out his arguments in the one debate on the subject he had with Christopher (available on youtube) because he, Peter, felt that they were both pulling punches, not wanting to subject their personal relationship to the atmosphere of animosity that tends to come out in these theist/atheist boxing matches.
Some people are drawn to more analytical, philosophical arguments, on this ultimate question of God’s existence. But others are drawn to more personal narratives of transition from one paradigm to another, concerning the supernatural. Peter Hitchens’s approach is essentially the latter. He writes much of world affairs, from his vantage-point of a globe-trotting journalist, but on this subject of the existence of God, he writes of how those world affairs affected him personally. The book is very much a personal atheist-to-theist conversion story, rather than an impersonal philosophical treatise.
Before getting to the arguments contra atheism, Peter Hitchens first identifies the failings of religion to stand firm in the culture, and the consequences of it. He identifies a civil religion, composed of patriotism and certain cultural expectations, which he identifies in the Britain of his youth with a cult of worship of Britain as victor in World War II, and Churchill essentially as its prophet. That civil religion was, he says, a counterfeit of the real thing, and that counterfeit of civil religion for actual religion still circulates, especially in the United States. He blames Christianity for letting itself be confused with love of country and the making of great wars.
Against this backdrop arose a generational abhorrence of any kind of submission, and a false faith in self-autonomy. About abortion, for example, he writes that:
I have often thought that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with this sensation of lost control, of being pulled downwards into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents. It is not the doomed baby that the unwilling parents hate . . . . It is the life they might have to live if the baby is born.
Seeds of atheism exist in other places. Peter Hitchens decries accurately the absence of adequate Christian education, in schools and homes. And further, the primacy of science in education, when by science what is meant is not really science, but materialism. He summarizes this lack quite well:
Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers, whereas materialist, naturalistic faith was.
Science, understood as the belief that anything beyond materialism was not worth talking about, simply appropriated the larger question of how things should happen, into the smaller observation that they do in fact happen.
Having spent the first half or so of his book on the seeds of atheism, Peter Hitchens turns his considerable intellect to what he regards as the three main arguments for atheism: (1) that conflicts fought in the name of religion are always about religion; (2) that it is ultimately possible to know with confidence what is right and what is wrong without acknowledging the existence of God; and (3) that atheist states are not actually atheist.
Why are wars in which religion is invoked believed to be caused by religion? In short, it’s because the current intellectual attack on God is more specifically an attack on Christianity, and Christianity’s Bible teaches truths about human nature and God’s interaction with man that frustrates and angers “those who believe that the pursuit of a perfect society justifies the quest for absolute power.” He writes that
The concepts of sin, of conscience, of eternal life and divine justice under an unalterable law, are the ultimate defence against the utopian’s belief that ends justify means and that morality is relative.
While most supposedly religious wars are not in fact religious wars, wars of the last century premised on materialist ideology are unquestionably waged on the basis of that ideology. About Stalinism: “[T]he record shows that an actual systematic hatred for Christianity was central to the Soviet regime, flowing directly from its materialist philosophy . . . .” As for Nazism, clearly the churches failed, but that only cleared the decks for what would have been the ultimate destruction of the churches by a pagan or atheist regime with its “undoubted” loathing of Christianity.
About morality, atheists “have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.” The issue is not whether moral actions are possible among atheists, but rather the question is: what is good? And, who is to decide what is good? Moreover, even the argument about relative morality is flawed. Inferior codes, such as that of “common decency” or the Golden Rule, are substituted for the much more rigorous Christian moral code. The Golden Rule for example does not lead one to “love thy neighbor as thyself” (a much more stringent standard), and certainly not to love one’s enemy, or, as with that example of ultimate love that Jesus exemplified: “greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (Hitchens quoting John 15:13).
About atheist states actually being atheist, Peter Hitchens returns to his observations about Stalinism and Nazism, though this time in a slightly different context. Citing Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he convincingly demonstrates that the much-revered Lenin “insisted, as the basis of all his teaching, on a resolute denial of there being any known manifestation of the supernatural. He steadfastly insisted that the universe known to mankind (including mind equally with matter) was the sphere of science; and that this steadily advancing knowledge, the result of human experience of the universe, was the only useful instrument and the only valid guide of human action . . . When the Bolsheviks came into power in 1917, they made this defiant and dogmatic atheism the basis of their action.”
Some people are just unmoved by philosophical proofs of theism. For them, a personal narrative may be much more effective. Here is a personal narrative that draws upon experience of history, resulting in a complete turn-around in the narrator, on this all-important question. And delivered with both sparkling wit and warm compassion.
(See, The Rage Against God, by Peter Hitchens (Continuum International, 2010))
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