Atheism in the twenty-first-century is a facile form of its counterpart from a previous generation. The abandonment of atheism by Antony Flew before his death in some respects marks the closing of an age of disbelief that at the least offered well-framed arguments against the Christian faith. With the ascendancy of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others who follow in their procession, arguments against Christianity are often superficial and presented with a force that is unwarranted in light of the weakness of the proposition.
Admittedly, there are aspects of recent arguments that have popular appeal. In the case of Christopher Hitchens, his rhetorically-gifted appeals to throw off the shackles of a totalitarian God; to free the mind from the limitations of religious thought and to reclaim the right to make autonomous moral decisions have a certain ring to them in the opinions of many. The attraction to him amongst the sixties generation and their progeny can be accounted for because Christopher embodies the spirit of that movement—indeed, he was and remains a key figure in that lingering cultural revolution.
Hence why The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith by his brother Peter Hitchens is so utile; it strikes at the heart of Christopher’s arguments from a common perspective. The two Hitchens’, though often at odds with one another, share similar experiences: each went to a respected Cambridge boarding school; both are former Trotskyists who made loud breaks with the Left; are journalists who have reported from conflict zones around the globe; are masters of English prose; are trenchently forthright with their views and are committed to independent thinking. In a sense, The Rage Against God is like Hitchens battling Hitchens; not in the sense of brother against brother, rather of Christopher against himself.
While Christopher has garnered significant attention with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Peter Hitchens remains relatively unknown outside of Britain. He is somewhat notorious as a conservative thinker in England where he writes a column for the Mail on Sunday and is a frequent contributor to politically-oriented talk-shows. As a journalist Peter has reported from Communist Russia and was a correspondent in Washington for the Daily Express. He has written a number of books, including The Abolition of Britain, a sociological look at the rapid changes taking place in British society due to the replacement of a Tory worldview with that of New Labour. As well, he has famously taken on high-level British politicians including Labour’s Tony Blair and the Conservative’s David Cameron, the current English Prime Minister. While a Conservative, Peter is just as scathing in critique of his own party as he is of those of the Left.
The Rage Against God is a refreshing and accessible alternative to the dismissable arguments of God is Not Great. As well, it shares reflective similarities with Christopher’s recent Hitch-22: A Memoir. There is overlap between books as they recount stories of life in middle-class twentieth-century England. One could learn a lot about the decline of religion in Britain and the resultant change in culture from reading the three together. They are also an introduction of sorts to twentieth-century literature; the writings of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and other recent additions to the western canon loom large in the lives of the Hitchens’.
Peter’s book is divided into three sections. The first is autobiographical where he reflects on his upbringing; the failings of a theologically liberal Christian education; the demise of traditional English values; and his embrace of atheism and Trotskyism. In some ways this reads like a summary of The Abolition of Britain and one sees that the British subtitle, “Why Faith Is the Foundation of Civilisation,” is appropriate. Hitchens excoriates the Left for leading England away from its traditional cultural milieu that once made it a great nation and he chides the Right for its withering and useless class-structured governance. Both are to blame for the relativist mess that has changed Britain, according to Hitchens, for the worse. In the midst of this, Peter explains how he lost his faith, memorably demonstrated in the burning of a bible when he was fifteen years old. The chapter on his rediscovery of faith is an especially good part of the book. Peter’s conversion involves him being awakened to the reality of his own immanent judgment by God as he contemplated the painting The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden in the Musee de l’Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, France.
The second section is apologetic where Peter takes on what he calls “the three failed arguments of atheism” against religion: conflicts fought in the name of religion; morality without God; and atheist states not actually being atheist. Each argument is dismantled using examples from history and common sense. For instance, it is demonstrably reductionist to claim that all religious conflicts are always about religion. In the case of Northern Ireland, says Hitchens, religion is less a factor than the ownership and control of territory.
The third section looks at some of the defenses of atheism, in particular those of Christopher in God Is Not Great. This is the part of the book that Peter sees as “the foundation of the answer to my brother’s position” (164). Christopher denies that the atrocities committed by atheist states are a result of atheism, even going so far to argue that Stalinist Russia was actually religious. Peter, again using history and common sense, clearly shows that such arguments fail. Not only is Christopher’s failure in view, but socialism’s as well. One of the final sections of the book highlights the “totalitarian intolerance” of the New Atheists, which is especially true of Christopher, and is an unfortunate and unnecessary correspondent to his critiques of religion.
There are many good things to say about The Rage Against God. It is very well-written. Both Peter and Christopher are wonderful writers and this makes reading their books delightful, even if one disagrees with their final conclusions. It has been said that both brothers are great respecters of the English language, and this is borne out in Peter’s writing. The tone of the book is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Peter observes the fundamentalist streak of the New Atheists that manifests itself in vitriolic screeds. Instead of fighting fire with fire, Peter writes circumspectly and never deteriorates into personal attacks, even though he makes good use of wit and satire. Second, Peter’s columns and television appearances are often devastating in terms of argument and tone; he brooks no quarter with those whom he disagrees. The tone of this book is noticeably different.
Peter also has an excellent grasp of the issues and explains them with clarity. He is not fooled by the rhetoric of the New Atheists and sees past the non sequitors, the ad hominems, the generalizations, the redundancies and the euphemism of their arguments. He demands honesty from atheists who critique his religion and offers it in turn, even if it hurts.
The book is also a helpful commentary on the role of beliefs in the shaping of national ideologies. Due to his experience in Russia, he can offer first-hand accounts of the devastation wrought by Communism and its atheist hand-maiden. His insights into the cultural changes in the West, that mirror certain aspects of Communist Russia, is a sound warning to those who want to pursue a similar agenda.
A drawback of the book is its lack of theological depth. Hitchens is a journalist, so it would not be fair to expect him to delve into intricate dogmatic issues. However, more interaction with Christian thought is not unreasonable. There is very little mention of Jesus Christ or the gospel message, which is the book’s biggest failing. If Hitchens has even the slightest hope that someone would be converted to Christianity as a result of reading the book, he has severely limited the possibilities.
Also, his method of critique follows tit-for-tat responses against popular atheism, but it would have been more effective if he had examined some of atheism’s—and his brother’s—philosophical underpinnings. For instance, Peter rightly points out that the problem of conflicts in the name of religion are actually problems of human nature. Instead of leaving his answer at this juncture, another step could be taken: what is the atheist’s standard for evaluating the value of religious conflict? Given atheism, objective, universal, immaterial moral standards are illusive. An even further step could be taken by pointing out that when an atheist makes a moral statement, he must abandon his precommitments in favour of another that makes sense of morality; in this case, Christianity. In almost every section of the book one wishes that Hitchens went further. While this does not lessen the force of his arguments, he could be more effective if he took this more thorough apologetic approach.
Be that as it may, Peter Hitchens has done a good job at giving answers to the puerile claims of his brother, and basically makes Christopher’s book on religion look foolish. It is a shame, because Christopher is an intelligent man and the open flaws of his book, so well pointed out by Peter (and others) is a blight on his otherwise commendable literary reputation. The Rage Against God is a good book to give to atheists who trumpet the arguments of Christopher Hitchens as though they posed a real problem to Christianity. It is also good for those who have doubts about their faith; Peter Hitchens demonstrates the importance of Christianity to a well-ordered society which, in a way, is a proof for its truthfulness.