“New Atheist” Christopher Hitchens’ Christian Brother, Peter

Tip of the hat to Ross Douthat for his link to Peter Hitchens’ How I found God and peace with my atheist brother.

The article is more interesting, in my estimation, than Douthat’s excerpt, interesting though that is. I was prepared from that excerpt for a manifesto of dubious orthodoxy. What I found instead was a sketch of a pilgrimage from banal atheism to thoughtful Christian faith.

Having never gone through an atheist or agnostic phase myself, I would commit stereotyping if I uttered this, but Hitchens has earned the right to name it:

We were sure that we, and our civilisation, had grown out of the nursery myths of God, angels and Heaven. We had modern medicine, penicillin, jet engines, the Welfare State, the United Nations and  ‘science’, which explained everything that needed to be explained.
The Britain that gave me this self-confidence was an extraordinarily safe place, or at least so it felt to me as a child.

But I can appreciate how “the old unsettling messages” became a wedge that gradually opened his mind and heart:

I no longer avoided churches. I recognised in the great English cathedrals, and in many small parish churches, the old unsettling messages.

One was the inevitability of my own death, the other the undoubted fact that my despised forebears were neither crude nor ignorant, but men and women of great skill and engineering genius, a genius not contradicted or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it.

I also knew I was losing my faith in politics and my trust in ambition, and was urgently in need of something else on which to build the rest of my life.

I don’t think the inevitability of my own death was a sufficiently conscious concern of mine until I found Orthodoxy (which coincided, of course, with my aging and the consequent, undeniable physical infirmities), but I was very aware that believers of old were not crude or ignorant and that politics and ambition were inadequate foundations for life.

Peter (I call him that not from faux familiarity, but because the other Hitchens is better known) pulls no punches in identifying the covert locus of much of today’s anti-Christian rage, and the culprit he fingers appears guilty to me:

[I]n recent times it has grown clear that the Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular forces which have never been so confident.

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power-worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

But unlike Peter, I think the urge to power has an accomplice: the sort of facile faith that finds science a threat – a faith I once held, knowing no better way to live out devotion to Christ – and whose fear of The Other is expressed in demonization – of which I was mercifully guilty less often than many on the religious right. Facile faith invites facile atheism. Demonization invites counter-demonization. I think Peter may intuit that, as here:

I do not loathe atheists, as Christopher claims to loathe believers. I am not angered by their failure to see what appears obvious to me. I understand that they see differently. I do think that they have reasons for their belief, as I have reasons for mine, which are the real foundations of this argument.

Peter and I diverge stylistically about the utility of arguments over morality:

He [Christopher Hitchens] often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributing purpose to the universe and swerving dangerously round the problem of conscience – which surely cannot be conscience if he is right since the idea of conscience depends on it being implanted by God. If there is no God then your moral qualms might just as easily be the result of indigestion.

Yet Christopher is astonishingly unable to grasp that these assumptions are problems for his argument. This inability closes his mind to a great part of the debate, and so makes his atheist faith insuperable for as long as he himself chooses to accept it.

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

I do agree with Peter that a binding moral code needs grounding. Maybe there’s a gene for altruism, as the evolutionists recently seem to postulate. But what if I don’t have it, or mine’s mutated or unexpressed? What if I act the sociopath as a result? Society, made up of a majority where the gene is present and expressed, may have the raw power to squash me, but they cannot logically utter any moral condemnation – though they assuredly would do exactly that.

But Christopher Hitchens likely will never appreciate that unless he’s first blindsided by something else – maybe Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th Century Last Judgement (which blindsided Peter) or “the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time” (as Peter notes).

Finally, I really appreciate Peter’s succinct putdown of a stupid, stupid, canard that can only be uttered by somebody who didn’t notice the savagery of pagan Nazis and atheist Communists in the bloodiest damned century the world has ever seen:

Another favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict.

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

Amen, brother Peter. Only brother James – one of those crude and ignorant folks from 2000 years ago – rivals your brevity (James 4:1-2).