Can faith bring back the Prodigal Brother?

Reading from both the Hitchens brothers, firstly by Christoper’s “God is not great”, and secondly by “The rage against God” by Peter Hitchens, I’ve been prompted to add an article about the pair. And knowing already how the story of Christoper ended, it’s rather upsetting to imagine their brother, who undeniably (though feuding) loved him pouring over their scornful book in hopes of finding some argument, some method so to convince their brother that to hate God, or to rage against Him would only lead people into pain and destruction. Still, even the strongest ties, ties we share with family, aren’t able to unseat some people in their desired paths. It’s my hope that no family or relationship between people is so badly fractured by stubborn unbelief again, there’s however no convincing everyone, for which I often think back to the closing words of the parable of The Rich man and Lazarus.

― T. C. M

The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens shows how extraordinarily complicated everything to do with religion is, writes Charles Moore.

First there was Cain and Abel, and then there was Christopher and Peter. The brothers Hitchens are engaged in what Peter, in this book, calls “the longest quarrel of my life”. Sometimes it has been about politics. Both began on the extreme Left, but Peter moved much more quickly than Christopher to the Right. But really, as so often with disputes which appear to be political, this quarrel is about religion.

It all came to a head with Christopher’s atheist book God is Not Great, which appeared in 2007. The following year, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the brothers Hitchens debated in public on the subject, with Peter arguing for the Christian God to whom, after an angry estrangement begun in adolescence, he returned once he had become a husband and father. The organisers were perhaps hoping for the intellectual equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show, in which near-relations are persuaded to degrade and insult one another for the diversion of the audience.

Such spectacles are the Devil’s work, and one of the things which makes this book interesting is Peter’s own sense that this is so. He wants to refute Christopher and his book, but at the same time, he wants to make peace with him. Although he admits that during the Grand Rapids debate the brothers exchanged “one or two low blows”, he also reveals that, a few days before, they had had the friendliest, most fraternal supper of their lives. Older brother Christopher had actually, and quite untypically, taken the trouble to cook the joint himself. Peter’s feeling at the end of the debate was that “while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected”.

So this book tries to do two things at once. One is to bash up modern militant atheism with all the author’s polemical skill. The other is to give an autobiographical account of how, in our time, an intelligent man’s faith may recover. Parts of the book are a thorough-going exposé of how godless utopianism – above all, in the Soviet Union – has given a uniquely powerful licence to tyranny. Other parts are about how Peter loves the smell of graveyards and the Prayer Book’s “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” (“You could almost hear them being said in slow West Country voices, as the rigging creaked and the slow-matches smouldered, and the ship turned towards the foe”).

The two forms of writing do not sit easily together, but that is a good thing. It brings out just how extraordinarily complicated everything to do with religion is. And it is that complication which today’s fundamentalist atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Hitchens ma (as he was presumably known when the two first duelled at public school more than 40 years ago), resist.

Peter Hitchens is quite right that one of the strongest and strangest beliefs of such atheists is that religious faith is a mark of stupidity. “How could any intelligent person believe such obvious nonsense?” they often exclaim, and it is not a question to which they seriously seek an answer. They are like those clever, literal-minded 14-year-old schoolboys (girls, by the way, much more rarely think in this way) who return from the lab one day to proclaim that “science” has “disproved” religion. Their devotion to one particular, valid, but limited method of intellectual inquiry blinds them to everything else. Proud of this insight, many of them now organise on the internet as “the Brights”. In their view, their intelligence gives them the right to dictate. Richard Dawkins, for example, thinks that it should be against the law for parents to teach religious precepts to their own offspring as being true, whereas people like him should inculcate all children in “the truths of evolution and cosmology”.

Surely any dispassionate observation would suggest that utterly brilliant people can be believers, as they can be agnostics or atheists. The Church has not proved the most durable of all the institutions in the history of the world by being stupid. But it is also a key part of Christian understanding that truth is not necessarily discerned by an intellectual elite alone. Christianity’s radical and paradoxical message is that weakness is strength, poverty is wealth, giving is receiving, dying brings life. In the story of the Passion, commemorated this week, the most intelligent person, apart from Jesus himself, is Pontius Pilate. His brain power does not lead him to make the right decisions.

Peter Hitchens’s case is that militant atheists dimly sense this truth, and this is what makes them so angry. If God does not exist, after all, why the rage against him? God’s really unforgivable characteristic is that he is alive and well and quite impervious to the assaults even of people as brilliant as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Brother Peter ends by hinting that Christopher may be softening. After years of smoking so hard that “one observer wondered if he was doing it simply to keep warm”, Christopher has stopped. Might his militant atheism similarly fall away, his brother wonders? He does not expect that Christopher will become a believer, but he does hope that he might “arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault”. This Easter, pray for peace in the house of Hitchens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s