Posted by jlwile on February 9, 2012
Peter Hitchens is probably best known for the fact that he is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, the famous New Atheist who recently died. This is unfortunate, because he is actually a very accomplished writer. He was a resident foreign correspondent for British newspapers in both Moscow and Washington, and over the years, he has written five books. In 2010, he was awarded Britain’s most prestigious prize for political journalism, The Orwell Prize. Honestly, I had never heard of him until I read about his latest book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Given that he is the brother of a New Atheist, and given that New Atheists are known for their anger against God, I decided this would be an interesting book to read. While it did turn out to be interesting, it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be.
I think my expectations for the book were wrong because I didn’t appreciate the fact that Peter Hitchens is a political writer. As a result, he seems to see things through the prism of power and control. For example, here is how he explains the New Atheists’ rage against God:
Why is there such a fury against religion now? Why is it more advanced in Britain than in the USA? I have had good reason to seek the answer to this question, and I have found it where I might have expected to have done if only I had grasped from the start how large are the issues at stake. Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable force forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. Only one reliable force restrains the hand of the man of power. And, in an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power. (pp. 112-113)
In other words, as far as Peter Hitchens is concerned, it’s all about power. There is a rage against God (and Christianity in particular), because belief in traditional religious principles gets in the way of the New Atheists’ desire to force people to live the way the New Atheists want them to live.
How does Peter Hitchens come to this conclusion? Mainly, it is because of his life experiences. A large part of the book is concerned with his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. As he discusses them, he paints a picture of Russia in the waning days of the Soviet Union, and it is not pretty. The people are mostly depressed, alcoholism is rampant, and there is no freedom. Everyone is watching everyone else, and if you aren’t connected to one of the elites, the slightest mistake can produce drastic consequences. In the end, all this was possible because of the supreme power the Soviet Union wielded over its people.
How did the Soviet Union get that supreme power? In Peter’s mind, it was because the state stamped out religion wherever it reared its ugly head. He spends several pages discussing how the Soviet Union actively worked against any relevant use of religion in its people’s lives. In his mind, this was done specifically so the state could take God’s place in the lives of its people. In the end, he says that kind of replacement will never work for very long:
The League of the Militant Godless had done their work too well. In the names of reason, science, and liberty they had proved, rather effectively, that good societies need God to survive and that when you have murdered him, starved him, silenced him, denied him to children, and erased his festivals and his memory, you have a gap that cannot indefinitely be filled by any human, nor anything made by human hands. (p. 213)
While Peter Hitchens doesn’t come right out and say it, the message I got from reading this book is that this is the main reason he has returned to Christianity. There were other events that happened in his life to nudge him in that direction, such as a very emotional experience viewing Rogier Van Weydan’s fifteenth century polyptych (a painting divided into several panels) The Last Judgement. However, I think the overall message of the book is that the author knows very well what happens to a society when God is removed, and the results are miserable. This tells him that God is not only real, but necessary in people’s lives.
I simply can’t agree with that line of thought. I most certainly agree that God is real and necessary in people’s lives, but I don’t think the Soviet Union or any other godless regime demonstrates this. Of course, I am a scientist, not a political writer. Perhaps this reasoning makes more sense to those who look at things through the prism of politics and regimes.
Now even though I was a bit disappointed in the main reason Peter Hitchens gives for coming back to Christianity, there was still a lot of other material in the book I found to be valuable. For example, near the beginning of the book, he discusses his childhood education. He talks about being taught science as if scientists had pretty much figured everything out. He says he was taught that the claims of science were unquestionable facts, and that made him rather disinterested. He then adds:
Perhaps if I had been taught science with a little less confidence and told that these claims were open to argument, I might have been more interested in it. (p. 48)
I personally think this is a great insight into the proper way to teach science. When teachers assure students that science has figured most things out, it isn’t all that interesting to them. If we instead add a bit of the controversy that actually spurs on scientific advancement, we will engage more students. Now of course, I have to add that just after Peter Hitchens writes this very important insight, he follows it with, “Though I doubt it.” Perhaps controversy wouldn’t have worked for him, but I have seen it work for other students, and it certainly works for science as a whole.
I will end this review with one other statement in the book that I found incredibly valuable. Peter spends time discussing how New Atheists, like his brother and Dr. Richard Dawkins, decry the fact that religion can be taught to children. Indeed, he mentions that Dawkins and his brother both consider religious education to be child abuse. He then says:
By contrast, I say unequivocally that if a man wishes to bring up his child as an atheist, he should be absolutely free to do so. I am confident enough of the rightness of Christianity to believe that such a child may well learn later (though with more difficulty than he deserves) that he has been misled. (p. 206)
I have never seen this contrast presented in quite this way, and I think it’s very powerful. Why are the New Atheists so concerned about religious education when it comes to children? In my mind, it’s because they aren’t very confident in their stance. When you get past the rage, bluster, and arrogance, you see at their core a desire to stamp out competing ideas. They don’t want to discuss competing ideas. They want to eliminate them.
Like Peter Hitchens, I have no desire to stamp out atheistic education for children. Why do the New Atheists want to stamp out religious education for children? I think it’s because they are afraid. Just as militant evolutionists desire to stamp out competing ideas in science because they are afraid those ideas might be found to be correct, the New Atheists desire to stamp out religious education among children because they are afraid certain religious ideas might be correct.
Perhaps that’s the best explanation for the rage against God.