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Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rage Against God

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.

Comments

18 Responses to “The Rage Against God”
  1. Amanda Read says:

    I also enjoyed reading “The Rage Against God” (I think there are actually a few pages at the end I haven’t finished yet). I understand the whole power argument, actually – simply because I’m used to studying political science and have seen the spiritual world to be political – in the context of Lucifer seeking power above Yahweh (the anti-Christ argument of the enemy seems to be “there shall be no God – no higher power – above me…”). It’s that entire desire to be free from accountability, free from submission to anything greater than one’s own desires – that many times characterizes opposition to the Biblical worldview.

    However, Peter Hitchens has some political opinions in that book which I disagree with. Also, we cannot be too simple in reducing everything to politics, when there are still greater heart and mind issues at stake. But politics does make an intriguing parallel in the debate.

    ~ Amanda

  2. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Amanda. Leave it to one excellent political writer to understand another one.

  3. Sensei Mitch says:

    Great article. Thank you because I would have never read the book but clearly it has some interesting perspective that make it a might read. ;-) I work with a lot of kids and I always engage them to look at things from different perspectives. I always ask them if they have ever seen something that they thought was one thing but upon getting closer and seeing it differently found it was something else entirely. Our beliefs are often that way or at least similar.

    As a young man, I investigated many different religions and Christian denominations. Looking at everything from different perspectives always helped me see what the devout seemed more than willing to ignore. Even today, as a Catholic, I am in constant “discussions” with the clergy on their interpretations. Sometimes I am right sometimes I learn something, but always I gain a little perspective. That doesn’t mean I agree with the perspective, but understanding your enemies is as important and understanding your friends.

    I work in an environment that is consists largely of atheists and agnostics. The Christians I do work with are either selective in their beliefs or CINOs (Christians in name only). I love when I can steer the conversation to religion or beliefs. There are very few that really understand why they believe what they believe. But your assessment about their desire to stamp out anything that conflicts with their view is driven by fear. I personally believe that is the first step towards hell, turning from the ability to look for the truth.

    Several years ago, when W was in office, there were two talks at the local campus. One was that woman who camped outside W’s ranch in protest. The other was Ann Coulter. The W protest woman came did her thing and left, the campus Republicans went and asked questions to expose her but were orderly and civil. When Coulter came a few weeks later the liberals shut her down and wouldn’t let her speak. No discourse, no civility, etc. The next day a group of my co-workers were talking about it in their glory and full of smugness. I asked them one question…what group silences all others at any cost…fascists.

    We are living in a world where people do not want to be questioned. And they do not want to have to question themselves either. It would be sad if it weren’t just a little scarey. The sentiment expressed by the book’s author and the people I have interacted with are only a few steps from a violent response to silence conflicting voices. If we continue to devolve as a society and more people do not speak up for what is right, I’m afraid we will continue to devolve. For once you rage against God and silence his voice, who else is left to rage against then your fellow man?

  4. gracekalman says:

    Like Amanda, I think I would really like this book. I also look at things from a very political viewpoint (Go Santorum!) and I think the Soviet Union is an extremely good example to use with athiests. If I were an atheist, that would be more likely to change my mind than science. Maybe it’s the emotional value of that example that appeals more to girls? (Let’s see evolution explain that!)

  5. jlwile says:

    Thanks, Sensei. I had similar experiences when I was a on the faculty at Ball State University. Profs would often post articles on the board outside their office. Those who posted articles lampooning religious views never had a problem, but the articles that I posted, which gave a scientific view of religious issues, regularly got torn down. In my experience, there is definitely more intolerance among the nonreligious than there is among the religious!

  6. jlwile says:

    Perhaps you are right, Grace. I have never been swayed by emotional arguments, but I know that many are.

  7. Jake says:

    When I started grad school last fall, and I walked up to my newly assigned office, I found on the posterboard next to my door a very long article by Stephen Hawking about how science has proven that we don’t need God to explain the existence of the universe.

    Anyway, while I always insist that Christianity is rational, I’d like to point out that humans are not. I have learned the hard way that it is impossible to remove emotions or feelings from our reasons for our faith. For emotion is built into us. I can have the most detailed arguments and mountains of evidence for Christianity, but that does not change my sorrow for sin, joy at being saved, or awe and fear of God. Nor can we ignore that unbelievers “suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them”, which is the real reason for their rage against God (the entirety of Romans 1 is relevant here). Humans respond to God with their whole being; it is impossible for us to respond with scientific detachment. (Besides, “scientific detachment” doesn’t exist, anyway; Quine, Kuhn, and friends did away with that.)

    Having had some experience with political theory, I think it is fair to make conclusions based on human behavior. The Bible certainly makes claims about what we’re like. For example, the preponderance and depth of evil in the world convinces me that God must exist – just as much as the tremendous agreement of historical facts with the Bible does. And recall Deuteronomy’s long lists of blessings and curses upon Israel depending on their obedience to the LORD.

    Of course, the important thing is to not commit “post hoc ergo propter hoc”, like Jerry Falwell did as of late. Whether or not the depravity Hitchens reported in the Soviet Union was caused by their rejection of God (which is actually a fair argument in terms of political theory), we as Christians are required to consider it in the same way as Jesus told people to consider the fall of the tower of Siloam.

  8. W. Brown says:

    It does seem to be slightly hard to understand from a scientific point of view.

    Peter Hitchens seems to be holding the line that the absence of God is bad, thus there must be a God. Looking at it from a scientific point of view we think that that’s irrational, with good reason. Just because something is bad doesn’t mean it isn’t true. (ie. Absence of God: with the Darwinian assumption, one would expect a rather nasty society, because it’s all about “me, me, me” and personal advantage.) (See also: “Occupy Wall Street” =P )

    Anyways, I personally think, like you do, that evidence is better than rather abstract thought..

  9. jlwile says:

    Jake, you’ve hit exactly on what bothers me about that reasoning. It seems to me a coincidental correlation fallacy. However, I do agree that as emotional beings, there is no way to divorce our emotions from our decisions, be they about God, science, or politics.

  10. jlwile says:

    W. Brown, I don’t think Peter Hitches is saying that it’s just the “me, me, me” aspect that causes a bad society without God. I think he is saying that everyone has a yearning for God and an innate knowledge that He is real. If you build a society where you do not let people fill that yearning, the people become either nasty or depressed, depending on the individual. Selfishness plays a role in the societal deterioration, of course, but to Hitchens, it is more fundamental than that.

    I most certainly agree that evidence is better than abstract thought, which is why I am a scientist and not a philosopher!

  11. Samphire says:

    JW,

    New atheists do not rage against God. You can no more rage against something that you do not believe exists than I can rage at the little demon who lives in my garage and spends most of his time hiding my tools. What the NAs do rage against is the arrogant assertion of evidence-lite faith such as “I most certainly agree that God is real and necessary in people‚Äôs lives”. Maybe that is true for some people but by no means all.

    Indeed, it is a strange assertion for some-one whose life is in science when it is well-observed that scientists as a breed tend to be the least religious.

  12. jlwile says:

    Samphire, new atheists most certainly rage against God. I agree there is an irrationality to that rage, since they think that God doesn’t exist. However, the rage is plainly evident. Just read their materials.

    If you read much of this blog, you will see that it is anything but “evidence light.” I was once an atheist myself. It was the evidence that convinced me I was wrong. That’s what it means to be a scientist – you follow the evidence regardless of where it leads. This is why there are many scientists who are believers. They are the ones willing to follow the evidence.

  13. "Montague" says:

    Oh, but it IS simple, like all very complex things. Pride was the first sin, and it is the last sin. Pride is the one thing that could make a man (puny man!) have so much anger against God.

  14. "Montague" says:

    “I most certainly agree that evidence is better than abstract thought, which is why I am a scientist and not a philosopher!”

    UGH… I am of the contrary position.. sort of…

    Balance, always the middle way. But, good sir, Abstract thought is the substance by which “evidence” is processed, and that which we but build by conjecture, is built most rationally… on reason.

    So don’t be hating on Philosophers (metaphorically speaking – I’m certain you are much kinder than myself concerning them)

  15. "Montague" says:

    Because SCIENCE cannot ever change a man’s heart – it must be PHILOSOPHY in the sense of making not observations detached from oneself, but understanding relations concerning matters important to the reason-ish-ness (there must be German words for this) of oneself, and thus saying “how must we then live?”

    Not to deny the world of good science does – I too am happy to be using a computer, and eating good food, and whatnot – I mean to say, that knowing the shape of DNA does not move my heart one iota – the thought of a God who made it, or the geometrical beauty of it – does. But that is not “evidence” but “abstraction” – the science of theology, the philosophy of nature.

  16. jlwile says:

    Montague, I most certainly don’t dislike philosophers, which is why I read them. However, science is more important to me than philosophy, since evidence is more important to me than abstract thought. In addition, as a scientist, I don’t know a single one of my colleagues who makes observations detached from himself or herself. We all bring our preconceptions and desires right into the lab, and they shape how we see the data.

  17. W. Brown says:

    Haha that is certainly true, Montague. They’re rather symbiotic… Without something to interpret, philosophy wouldn’t be nearly as interesting/useful, and without philosophy to interpret evidence, science would be… kind of pointless, actually. What I meant, (and what Dr. Wile meant, I believe,) is that we enjoy/prefer science more than philosophy, (which doesn’t mean we hate philosophy.) You can like something to a greater degree than something else, without hating/not appreciating the thing liked to a lesser degree.

  18. jlwile says:

    Well put, W. Brown!

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