Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Review of The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens

The Rage Against God
Peter Hitchens
Continuum Publishing Group

If Peter Hitchens didn't exist, I doubt that anyone would invent him.

Our era has little need for a voice of traditionalist conservativism. The official ideology of our day is secular, liberal and left-leaning. The "official opposition" ideology is free market, libertarian and (as far as it has a social philosophy at all) mildly disparaging of the worst excesses of political correctness.

Mr. Hitchens does not fall into either of these camps. Though he has some libertarian tendencies (he is an ardent opponent of identity cards, and he believes Habeas Corpus is more important than democracy) he also espouses several beliefs that would make most libertarians throw their up hands in horror, most notably his firm conviction that cannabis use should be strictly prosecuted. (He insists that "the war against drugs" was never actually waged, and that class B drugs have been effectively decriminalized.)

Unlike most contemporary conservatives, he does not idolize market forces. Though he is a critic of the bloated welfare state, he regrets the privatization of the British rail network, as well as the many closures of train stations in the mid-sixties, following two notorious reports by Dr. Richard Beeching.

Most amazingly (and almost blasphemously, in terms of modern conservatism) Hitchens actually dares to criticize the cult of the motor car-- the motor car, the very symbol of modern freedom, prosperity, individualism, and progress. And this despite being a sceptic of global warming!

So I regard the fact that Mr. Hitchens has a very public platform, a blog that has had over ten million visitors, a column in the Mail on Sunday, and regular appearances on television as something of a miracle-- rather like the Californian light bulb that hasn't stopped burning in well over a century.

In a Glittering Tradition

Peter Hitchens is also a Christian. And not a Christmas-and-Easter Christian, but an Anglican who takes his faith very seriously, and has thought deeply about it.

He is also, of course, the brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the most well-known and militant atheists of recent times. As a matter of fact, I only learned about Peter Hitchens through reading about Christopher. The worldviews of the two brothers are (or were, I suppose I should say) so diametrically opposed that there is a rather fascinating symmetry to it.

The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens's defence of religious belief against modern attacks, grew partly out of his disagreement with his brother-- especially a debate in Grand Rapids in 2008 that (as the author reveals) brought an unexpected detente to a "brothers' war" that had raged since childhood. As might be expected, given this, it is an intensely autobiographical work, and all the better for it.

In fact, although this book is by no means poor as a polemic, it is much better as a spiritual and cultural memoir. Books about the soul's journey to faith, or the soul's journey to conversion, stand in a long and glittering tradition-- St. Augustine's Confessions, Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, and a host of lesser-known examples. The very subject-matter makes such a book inescapably personal.

This is one of my favourite books. It is a book I've lugged around with me on many occasions. Though it was only published in 2010, I merely have to take it from the shelf and open it for quite a lot of vivid memories and associations to swirl around me.

I remember well the day I bought it (which was as soon as it came out). It was a blazingly bright Summer's day. I finished work early (not to read the book-- for an appointment that fell through), and I remember taking it to the shabby but cosy café attached to Whitefriars Street Church, the church where I eventually got married. I had a ham sandwich (I think), made with thick slices of bread. (Eating and drinking in a café while reading a good book is one of life's supreme pleasures.) Much later, I remember re-reading it in Dublin airport as I waited for a flight to America, sitting in an airport café while drinking an enormous cup of thick hot chocolate, at a tinglingly early hour of the morning.

The book is divided into three parts: "A Personal Journey Through Atheism", "Addressing Atheism: Three Failed Arguments", and "The League of the Militant Godless". As you could guess from what I've said already, the first part is by far my favourite, although the other two parts are also very absorbing (and full of autobiographical elements).

It begins at school. Who doesn't love a school story?

Chapter and Verse

The melodramatic image Hitchens chooses as the starting-point of the book is a juvenile act of Bible desecration. He publicly burned the copy that his parents had given him as a gift, in the playing fields of his boarding school, at the age of fifteen.

His act of blasphemy, even if it had come to the attention of the school authorities, would probably not have caused much scandal. (When he announced to his headmaster that he had lost his faith, the response was gentle and weary rather than argumentative.)

What is most interesting, perhaps, about Hitchens's portrayal of his school days is that he makes it clear that the sea of faith was alreading well and truly ebbing in Britain at this time. And yet, despite this, the religious education that he received puts to shame anything that a schoolchild would receive today, unless things have changed dramatically for the better since my own days in Catholic school:

Some of my older teachers, rigorously schooled in a more serious faith, did their best to instruct us as they had been taught. The classes were still referred to, without embarrassment, as "Scripture". Later, they would be called "Divinity". Later still, there would be "Religious Education"...by comparison with [today's religious education], my Christian education was intensive, purposeful, and single-minded. I still recall classes on St. Paul's travels, which must have been identical to those taught 50 years before, and I cannot get out of my head a mnemonic, itself absurdly Edwardian, which was supposed to fix in my head the route Paul had taken around Asia Minor. "Ass Papa!", it ran, "I Like Dates". The last bit referred, I can still recall, to the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. The rest is lost to me, but I am struck by the fact that the teacher involved expected us to know and remember such details of Holy Scripture, as a matter of course.

This passage puts me in mind of another piece of social history, admittedly from a much earlier time. I am the proud possessor of an old, bound volume of the Harpenden Parish Magazine, dating from the years before the First World War. Harpenden is a town near Luton in England. It's an Anglican magazine. Amongst the many fascinating aspects of the magazine are the reports of Sunday School classes, where children were required to memorize Scripture passages. I don't know whether to envy or pity those kids.

For my own part, I remember I was well into my teens before I realized, thorugh leafing through my sister's Bible, that there was more to the New Testament than the four Gospels. But Hitchens, as I say, makes it clear that a previous generation was even more Scripturally literate:

Though I was extremely well-educated by the standards of 2010, I was hopelessly ill-equipped by the measures my grandfather (an accomplished and fearsome teacher and an uncompromising Baptist) would have applied. In my early teens, he would sometimes stomp around his living room, where he liked to shave towards mid-day with bowl, brush and open razor, deriding my ignorance and mocking the made-up discipline of sociology, which I claimed to be studying. "What is sociology?" he roared derisively, twisting and rolling the silly word on his Hampshire tongue.

The detail of the bowl, brush and open razor is irresistible.

Hitchens has a wonderful gift for drawing such magnificent little vignettes from his past. Possibly my favourite from the whole book is a description of Christmas time at his boarding school. I can't quote as much of it as I'd like, for fear of infringing copyright, but here is a flavour:

Christmas at my West Country boarding school was a long festival of anticipation, pleasing to the senses of taste, hearing and sight. Once Remembrance Day was over we began to prepare for the still-distant feast. We rehearsed a great Carol Service. We were invited to stir the enormous Christmas pudding, so large and deep that the smaller boys were in severe danger of falling into its rich mixture of dried fruit and spices. Term ended with various happy festivities, including an exhibition where we could show off the items (often quite intricate) we had spent the entire term making in woodwork classes, and a Christmas party of a wonderfully old-fashioned English kind, only really possible in a large country house, with games and cake until we were exhausted and sated with sugar. This was always preceded by a long cold walk in the December gloom, while normally dour members of the school staff decorated the normally austere hall.

Such flights of lyricism (for I do consider this lyricism, albeit of a rather restrained kind) are a feature of Hitchens's work. One of the reasons he is such a powerful writer is because he is not a hack, or a hatchet-grinder, or a tunnel-visioned "expert". He is a spectator of the human drama in its fullness-- unfortunately, a rather rare thing.

Poetry and Persuasion

The opening fifty pages of the book, more or less a whistle-stop memoir of childhood to young adulthood, are by far the most powerful part. This is before Hitchens begins to deploy his formal arguments in defence of Christianity and against its enemies.

But perhaps he is actually up to something more subtle in this prelude.

On page three of the book, he writes: "It is my belief that passions as strong as [my brother's] are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the heart at any time." I think this is perhaps the wisest point that Hitchens makes in the entire book, and that it in fact explains the extraordinary potency of his opening sequence.

There are plenty of formal arguments available in the defence of Christianity, but surely one of the most powerful arguments is not a formal one at all-- it is simply the beauty and depth and meaning that Christianity brings to human life, and to the civilizations that it pervades. This could be dismissed as mere sentimentality or irrelevance, but I don't think that it is. I think the fact that Christianity tends to raise individual, family and social life to such a high plateau-- a uniquely high plateau, I would claim-- is an indication of Christianity's truth, of the fact that we were made for the message of Christ.

Though the English childhood that Hitchens describes took place in a fast-secularising nation, and one in which the Faith was mixed up with (as he explains) many other non-Christian elements like the cult of Empire, it seems clear that Christianity was the salt and leaven that gave that English society whatever blessedness it enjoyed.

Hitchens then moves on to discuss the cult of World War Two, and the cult of Winston Churchill, that he claims served as a kind of surrogate religion in the Britain of his childhood. I found this almost the least interesting part of the book. This is partly because it is all so foreign to me, and partly it is because I find militarism and war so dull-- gun-metal grey dull, I might say.

Could you really have a national cult based upon battleships and tanks? What is there for women in that, for example? I suppose there was an Irish equivalent-- the eight hundred year struggle against English oppression, complete with ballads of doomed uprisings and stirring speeches delivered before execution-- but this seems much more romantic to me than a cult of World War Two, since our own heroes were not an army of millions equpped with a vast array of weaponry (and a corresponding bureaucracy), but a raggle-taggle bunch of rebels. Even so, I would not go so far as to describe the Irish tradition of glorious defeat after glorious defeat as a surrogate religion-- it was simply one strand of Irish nationalism, which might possibly (as a whole) be described as having been an Irish surrogate religion for some decades.

I do wonder whether Peter Hitchens exaggerates the popularity of the World War Two cult, since I have never encountered such dramatic claims for it anywhere else, and since he himself is (or was) unusually interested in warfare and in tales of derring-do. He amusingly describes his childhood reaction to the Profumo affair thus: "Here was John Profumo, the Secretary State for War...a man with access to all the wonderful toys of war, from submarines to tanks, accused of spending his time with...girls who also dallied with Russian spies. It was incomprehensible when he had so many guns to play with. What could be wrong with the man?"

Still, Mr. Hitchens grew up in this time, and I didn't, so I should probably keep my trap shut.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

The book picks up again when the author shifts scene to the Soviet Union. He was a foreign correspondent there during the twilight years of the regime, and his descriptions of life in late communist Russia are utterly enthralling, for their own sake as much as for what they contribute to the author's argument.

He describes how he was followed by a spy posing as an interpreter on his arrival in Russia, how his Russian friends would beckon him back inside if he stepped onto his own balcony (Soviet balconies were known to collapse with alarming frequency), and how Russian men would go out drinking in bars which he describes in hellish terms-- dives where vodka was poured into pickle jars (supplied by the customer) and consumed in complete silence, often with a snack of dried fish wrapped in old newspaper. Strangers did not hold doors open for each other, and when the author himself attempted this civility, he was rewarded with suspicion. Drivers even hid their wind-screen wipers when it wasn't raining, for fear of them being stolen-- when the rains began, traffic would come to a stop as everybody fetched them out. The level of squalour, suspicion, and surveillance that Mr. Hitchens describes is truly breath-taking. This is a good book to arm yourself with ahead of the inevitable encounters with left-wing sentimentalists who insist that the miseries of the "Evil Empire" have been exaggerated.

Whether those miseries resulted from the spiritual vaccuum left by the State's persecution of religion, or whether they were simply the inevitable consequences of a shambolic social and economic system, is open to endless debate. I myself would tend to believe that the attack upon religion had a great deal to do with the deterioration of life in the Soviet Union, but in The Rage Against God, the link between them is assumed more than it is argued. Few left-wingers or secularists hold the Soviet Union up as a model, and even though this shows a lamentable lack of intellectual integrity on their part-- after all, you can hardly attack "theocracies" wihout acknowledging that "atheocracies" were a thousand times worse-- the fact is that they remain unmoved by this. (The latest wheeze is to contrast "organic", bottom-up atheism with official, top-down atheism.)

More relevant, perhaps, is Mr. Hitchens's description of the Soviet Union's decades-long persecution of the Orthodox church, and of religion in general. After reading this book, you will never be at risk of swallowing the myth that atheism was somehow incidental to the Soviet regime-- or indeed, to any of the other communist regimes of the twentieth century. It was utterly central to the Marxist project.

In the Soviet Union, believers were granted a formal freedom of religion, but this meant little when they could not express their faith in public or hand it on to the next generation. As well as this, they were subject to constant harassment and intimidation, not always stopping short of murder. (In 1922, over two thousand priests were killed in Russia, as well as almost as many monks and an even greater number of nuns.)

The campaigns of the "League of the Militant Godless" against the Christmas Tree and the supposed booziness of Holy Communion would be comical if they had not been so chillingly effective, despite widesperead popular resentment. Over generations, Mr. Hitchens shows, they did achieve their goal of severing Russians from contact with a living religious tradition. Though there was a superficial religious revival in post-Communist Russia, with churches restored and politicians eager to profess their Orthodox credentials, the damage had been done. "The very limited religious revival of Christianity in the new Russia is one of buildings, ritual and status. God is largely absent from the hearts of the people, who know little of Him and were not introduced to Him at the age (as the Commisars and the new anti-theists know) we learn to love ideas as well as people."

After describing his experience in the Soviet Union, Mr. Hitchens spends several pages on an account of his brief and near-fatal visit to Mogadishu, the lawless capital of Somalia, where civilization had not merely declined but vanished completely. Though harrowing and compelling, this seems rather irrelvant. Mogadishu is surely an extreme case, and (as Mr. Hitchens himself points out) it is not a Christian country, nor was it a victim of militant atheism. The author does demonstrate that civilization is a fragile edifice, always in danger of disappearing completely. But this seems to have little to do with his central thesis. Japan and Sweden, for instance, are more or less secular societies, but they are hardly in the state of savagery Hitchens witnessed in Mogadishu.

I think Christians should be very slow to make the "after us, the deluge" argument. Things aren't that simple. There is a clear pattern of social decline in post-Christian societies, but very often, people who don't subscribe to traditional Judaeo-Christian ethics would not agree on what counts as decline in the first place-- for instance, they might shrug off soaring levels of abortion, family breakdown and perhaps even suicide as simply being a gain for personal freedom, or the removal of a strait-jacket that was causing more misery than it prevented.

From Quiet Homes and First Beginnings

An effective (and surely deliberate) characteristic of this book is the way it continually switches from the personal to the public, from the autobiographical to the historical. After the vast historical canvas of communist Russia and lawless Mogadishu, the author returns once more to England, and to his own spiritual journey. From reading Mr. Hitchens's blog, I know that the contrast between the littleness of the homes and backgrounds from which we all begin, with the vastness of the spiritual and physical distances we travel in our lives, is one that fascinates him. He often quotes the famous lines of Hilaire Belloc:

From quiet homes and first beginnings, out to the undiscovered ends
There's naught in life that's worth the winning, but laughter and the love of friends.

It fascinates me, too. (I even quoted those lines in my wedding speech.) This is why I find the chapter, "A Rediscovery of Lost Faith", to be another of the book's highlights.

Conversion stories are always compelling, because they are about coming home. I think it is very telling that the most influential tale of Western civilization is surely Homer's Odyssey. Even if you haven't read Homer (or James Joyce's Ulysses), the story echoes in your consciousness, through the dozens of books and movies and cartoons that have taken it as a model-- from the Japanese space-cartoon Ulysses 2000 to the Cohen Brothers' Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Why does this story stir our depths to such an unequalled degree? Because it is about a long and difficult journey home.

If you are a Christian, you believe that human life is a long homecoming. The story of the Prodigal Son, upon which Mr. Hitchens has an extended reflection in this book, is perhaps the most moving of Christ's parables. (I fight back tears whenever it is read at Mass.) And every story of a convert returning to the Faith is captivating for the same reason. We linger over all the little details of the drama, touched as they all are by an otherwordly light.

So I have read Mr. Hitchen's own account again and again, savouring every word, comparing it with my own journey to faith at around the same time of my life.

Unlike many converts (or "reverts"), Peter Hitchens had a genuine Road to Damascus moment, vividly described in one of the book's most memorable passages. Standing before a painting of the Last Judgement by Roger van der Weyden, housed in an ancient French hospital, the author found his attitude changing from mild content at the hackneyed subject matter to genuine fear:

A large catalogue of misdeeds, ranging from the embarrassing to the appalling, replayed themselves rapidly in my head. I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned.

This is an extraordinary admission. I have read many stories of people discovering and rediscovering Christian faith in the modern era. I think this is the only such story I've read which involves a fear of damnation as a motivating factor. As we all know, nobody talks about Hell anymore.

(On my own honeymoon, my wife and I attended Mass in Innsbruck, in a little church right beside our hotel. There was a mural in the church grounds-- not an especially old mural-- which showed a scene of the Last Judgement, complete with demons swallowing sinners. To see such a thing in the grounds of a Christian church seemed indescribably jarring to me.)

But there were pleasanter forces at work in this conversion, too:

At around the same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter service, diffident and anxious not to be seen. I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it, though I was unwilling to admit it. A few days later I went to another one, this time with more confidence, and actually sang.

As Catholics would put it, The Hound of Heaven was on the scent of the author, and within a few paragraphs, we read of him marrying his girlfriend in a Christian church, getting confirmed, and facing the incredulity of his journalistic colleagues on their learning that he was "somehow mixed up in church matters".

Unfortunately, the Church of England that he rejoined was not the same Church of England that he had left, so many years before. In the meantime, ecclesiastical modernism had run riot through the institution. Cranmer's Prayer Book and the King James Bible had been replaced by more insipid forms of liturgy and more pedestrian translations of Scripture. (It is interested that Mr. Hitchens focuses upon these more or less aesthetic changes, and says little about the serious corruptions of doctrine that occurred in the Church of England over the same period, and indeed, both before and after it.)

And yet, for all the adversity that Christianity has faced in the West, the author declares rather ringingly: "Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable source 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." In this I think he is absolutely correct.

Answers for Atheists

After a short chapter charting the decline of Christianity in Britain during the twentieth century, Mr. Hitchens devotes the rest of the book to answering atheist arguments. The reader will look in vain for rigorous theological or philosophical reasoning on the evidences of God and the Chrisian faith. However, his experience of the world and his wide knowledge of human nature allow him to make several rather rough and ready points that, though perhaps lacking in the kind of water-tight demonstrativeness that is often demanded when it comes to discussions of God, are still very convincing-- to me, at least.

In a chapter devoted to the question of whether the "religious conflicts" out of which anti-theists make such hay are really and truly religious, Hitchens has very little difficulty in showing that this is, for the most part, not the case. As he wittily puts it: "It is perfectly obvious (for instance) that the recent conflict in Northern Ireland, described as being between Proestants and Catholics, was not about the Real Presence of Christ or the validity of Corpus Christi".

In this chapter, he also turns his attentions back to atheist regimes, asking the corresponding question of whether their crimes were motivated by atheism. He is to be appluaded for refusing to follow all too many religious apologists in classing the Third Reich as an atheist regime, conceding: "I do not believe the matter is so simple, and I do not wish to rely on easy arguments."

A chapter on the much-vexed question of God and morality takes a rather different tack from most discussions of that question. The usual procedure is to ask whether moral absolutes are conceptually possible in a Godless universe. Religious apologists claim (with justification, in my view) that right and wrong, being abstract qualities, can have no existence in a purely material universe. Atheists respond that this is to fall foul of the "Eutyphro dilemma" invoked by Plato centuries ago-- is virtue good because it pleases God, or does it please God because it is good?

Mr. Hitchens avoids this whole meleé by asking instead the more practical question-- can we in fact distinguish wrong from right in the absence of a transcendental creed? I find his arguments on this score very persuasive, though I fear they will have little traction with atheists.

Though he concedes that a basic morality might exist purely on the grounds of enlightened self-interest, he makes the crucial distinction when he says: "We can live at a low level of co-operation by mutual consideration. But as soon as we move beyond subsistence and the smallest units, problems arise which cannot be resolved through mutual decency...Christian societies as a whole are "unnatural", requiring a host of actions which cannot be based on self-interest, however enlightened, and mutual obligation."

Life-long faithfulness in marriage, even a difficult marriage, is surely one of these-- surely it is no surprise that Christ's listeners cried, "It is better not to marry!" when he revealed to them the stringency of God's law in relation to marriage.

The Christian respect for poverty and suspicion of wealth is, I think, another example of an ideal that the "natural man" could never reach unaided-- it is in such tension with our natural inclinations that, in a post-Christian society, the worship of money and success reaches a fervour and blatancy that was never really allowable in societies that at least tried to be Christian.

As Mr. Hitchens puts it, in another neat encapsulation: "Left to himself man can in a matter of minutes jutify the incineration of populated cities, the mass deportation, accompanied by slaughter, disease and starvation, of inconvenient people, and the mass murder of the unborn." The problem with purely human philosophies is that we can tailor them to the circumstances (and to our desires) all-too-easily.

A Book for Your Shelf

In "The Great Debate", the final and rather grandiosely-titled chapter that returns to the 2008 Grand Rapids debate between the brothers Hitchens, the author examines the arguments of some "New Atheists" (true heirs to the Soviet persecutors of religion, at least in intent). These include the claim that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse, and that Christian parents should be prevented from doing so. A speech by the psychologist Nicholas Humphreys, which was quoted with approval by Richard Dawkins on his website, makes for chilling reading. "We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children's teeth out or lock them in a dungeon." And who decides what philosophy of life is or isn't beyond the bounds of acceptability? Richard Dawkins and Nicholas Humphreys, no doubt-- or at least, those who have been influenced by their dubious teaching.

Mr. Hitchens makes an excellent ripose to the "child abuse" accusation, and one that I have often yearned to hear made: "It is ridiculous to pretend that it is a neutral act to inform an infant that the heavens are empty, that the universe is founded on chaos rather than love, and that his grandparents, on dying, have ceased altogether to exist. I personally think it wrong to tell children such things, because I believe them to be false and wrong and roads to misery of various kinds." Absolutely. What could be crueller than telling a child that his life has no meaning, that good will not necessarily triumph in the end, and that there is no Higher Power watching over us? How could you dare preach this to a child unless you absolutely knew it to be the case?

This review might well be the longest article I have posted on this blog in the two years or so of its existence. But I think it is worth it, as I consider The Rage Against God to be a truly significant work, one which side-steps many of the well-worn arguments of the great God debate and looks instead at the fruits of Christian belief, and of atheism. As well as this, it is a winsome and poetic memoir, one that bears up to repeated reading. I recommend that all my readers buy a copy and make a permanent place for it on their shelves.

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