The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith by Peter Hitchens, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 224 pages, US$22.99.
In writing The Rage Against God, British journalist Peter Hitchens undertook a much more humble project than writing a comprehensive rebuttal of the atheistic arguments his brother Christopher compiled in his god is not great. Some of the younger Hitchens’ readers will probably be disappointed in this at first. Upon further reflection, however, I hope they will see that humility is this book’s greatest strength. It is a refreshing contrast to the arrogance of the new atheists.
The first and largest section of The Rage Against God is autobiographical. It is also, from this reader’s perspective, the most interesting part of book. The author has given it the title “A Personal Journey Through Atheism” and while it is that, to be sure, it is also much more. In telling his own story Hitchens also tells the story of his country’s journey away from Christianity towards secularism. The two stories are intricately intertwined and World War II plays a key role in both.
The War marked the end of Britain’s being a Christian nation in anything other than name. It also marked the end of the British Empire with the United Kingdom being eclipsed as the world power by its wartime allies, the United States and the Soviet Union. What this meant for the Hitchens family was that their father, a career officer in the Royal Navy, would have to search for alternate employment when the Navy, once so vital to maintaining the Empire, was downsized.
Peter Hitchens describes the Britain of his youth as a country that was using the memory of World War II to shield itself from realities of political and economic decline. As events like the humiliation of Britain by the Yanks during the Suez Crisis and the Profumo scandal caused the British youth of Hitchens’ generation to lose faith in their country and its leadership, the country itself clung to the cult of Winston Churchill, and the idea “we won the War”.
This loss of faith, among Hitchens’ generation, in Britain and its institutions went hand in glove with that generation’s rejection of the faith of their fathers. Like his brother, Hitchens became a revolutionary socialist in ideology in his youth. He writes:
I had replaced Christianity and the Churchill cult, with an elaborate socialist worldview—because I had decided that I did not wish to believe in God or in patriotism. (p. 100)
The words “I did not wish to” are the operative words in that sentence. They form one of the author’s major insights, spelled out in various places throughout the book. A significant element in faith is choice and this is as true of the atheist as it is of the Christian believer. Atheists, like Hitchens’ brother, charge Christians with believing in God because we want God to be real. While that is hardly the entire truth, it is a partial truth, and Hitchens willingly concedes it. However, he adds, it is also true of atheists. They do not believe because they do not want God to be real. This they generally are unwilling to concede, although Professor Thomas Nagel, who Hitchens quotes from in chapter 10, appears to be an exception.
Exposure to the realities of socialism caused Hitchens to lose faith in that secular alternative to Christianity which paved the way for his return to the Christian faith. His account of his return to the faith is not the typical conversion testimony North American evangelicals have come to expect but that does not diminish the book. He describes how his love for architecture led him to the churches and cathedrals of England and the realization that the men and women who built these buildings could hardly have been the ignorant bumpkins the atheists believed them to be. He describes a visit to the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune, France where in Rogier van der Weyden’s The Last Judgment he was confronted with the fear of divine retribution. In L. M. Montgomery’s The Chronicles of Avonlea there is a short story entitled “Each In His Own Tongue” in which a fallen women, in fear of damnation at the end of a wicked life, is brought to an understanding of God’s forgiveness and mercy, through the playing of a violin. Although the details are world’s apart, the common theme of God speaking through art, brought this story to my mind as I read Hitchens’ moving description of his own gradual return from unbelief to faith.
While this book is not, as has been said, a rebuttal of his brother’s book, in the second section of the book Hitchens does answer three arguments of atheism. First, he points out that religion itself appears not to be the root cause of many conflicts that are fought in the name of religion or depicted as religious conflicts.
Then he tackles the matter of God and morality. Atheists such as Greg Epstein insist that man can be “good without God”. Hitchens shows that apart from an external source of justice morality among humans ultimately breaks down into “might makes right”.
The third atheist argument Hitchens answers, and the most important, is the argument that atheist states are not really atheist. Hitchens’ answer to this question spills over into the third and final section of the book where he takes a good look at the atheist regime that existed in the former Soviet Union.
The reason this argument is so important for the atheists is because the truth is so damning to their position. Atheists continually try to downplay the countless ways Western civilization has benefited from Christianity and to condense Church history into the Crusades, Inquisition, and priestly child abuse. As Hitchens points out however, violence and persecution that has been conducted in the name of faith is “not because they are religious, but because Man is not great.”
The same cannot be said for the atheist regimes. Hitchens puts it this way:
Atheists, in return, ought equally to concede that Godless regimes and movements have given birth to terrible persecutions and massacres. They do not do so, in my view, because in these cases the slaughter is not the result of a misunderstanding or excessive zeal. Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood. This is a far greater problem for the atheist than it is for the Christian, because the atheist uses this argument to try to demonstrate that religion specifically makes things worse than they otherwise would be. On the contrary, it demonstrates that our ability to be savage to our own kind cannot be wholly prevented by religion. More important still, Atheist states have a consistent tendency to commit mass murders in the name of the greater good. (pp. 153-154)
The only way atheists can get around this is by claiming that governments like the Bolshevik regime, the Maoist regime, the Castro regime, and the Pol Pot regime, were not, despite their proclaimed ideology, atheistic.
Hitchens blasts these claims to smithereens, showing repeatedly how these regimes relentlessly strove to drive God out of their countries, how they sought to keep parents and churches from passing on their faith to their children, and how their worst atrocities were directly connected to their atheistic ideology.
In focusing on the deleterious effects of atheism upon civilization in countries like the former Soviet Union, Hitchens is not just answering his brother’s arguments. He is also indicating where Britain and North America might be headed. The militant new breed of atheists seem rather open about their wish to use the power of the law to prevent parents from bringing up their children in the faith.
Let us hope and pray that as Peter Hitchens returned to the faith of his fathers, so our countries will as well.