Hats off to Peter Hitchens

Peter Hitchens, the brother of Christopher, is the subject of a slightly slanted, but surprisingly fair piece in the New York Times:

The memoir section of “The Rage Against God” is rather terse, a clear case of British reserve. (“Hitch-22,” Christopher’s recent memoir, has the expansive self-revelation of one who has by now become temperamentally American.) “Rage” begins clearly enough: “I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967.”

We quickly jump to his late 20s, when on a visit to France he sees Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th-century painting “Last Judgment,” with its “naked figures fleeing towards the pit of hell.”

It is beyond amazing how many conversions have been initiated while viewing great religious artworks from the past. It’s perplexing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard similar stories. But it seems to be a real impetus for conversion for some atheists.

“I did not have a ‘religious experience,’ ” Mr. Hitchens writes. “Nothing mystical or inexplicable took place — no trance, no swoon, no vision, no voices, no blaze of light. But I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time.”

From there, his return to Christianity is gradual, beginning with a rediscovery of the joys of Christmas, followed soon, on the occasion of his wedding, by the urge to be married in the Church of England. Mr. Hitchens’s catalog of return sounds quite ordered, indeed rational. He reattaches to the rituals of his natal church; he realizes that Christendom helped shore up what was best in old England. Much of “The Rage Against God” is in fact a rage against the forgetfulness of Britons, who no longer know their hymns, their great literature or the heroism of their forefathers who died in two world wars. Having noticed that the secularization of England seems to have coincided with its decline, he becomes alive to serious flaws in the reasoning of atheists, like his brother.

And there you are: atheism seems to be associated with decline.

He notices that post-Christian societies, like Russia, where he lived for two years as a correspondent, are coarse and brutal. Of Islam and Hinduism, he says over coffee: “I would certainly say, especially having visited countries where they are broadly practiced, that I think they are inferior to Christianity. They are certainly a heck of a lot better than nothing.”

Whereas Christopher argues, in “God Is Not Great,” that criminal states like Stalin’s were in fact not atheist, but quasi-religious cults, Peter concluded that they were indeed as good as their word, atheist to the core, and that their overthrow of God helped enable their murderous policies.

This notion that the Communists were not really atheists is really lame. This is simply an attempt to explain away the evidence -something the supposedly scientific atheists were not supposed to do. Yet they must do this, because to take the whole book of evidence into account blows their whole theory. So they pretend that the Communists were not atheists, but religious people. Like I said, lame.

American readers will notice a lack of enthusiasm in Peter’s Christian apologetics. He proceeds largely from historical, rather than personal, evidence: here are the fruits of Christianity, and here is what one finds in its absence. The narrative is cool, not hot; very English, and not with the pious plain-spokenness of, say, C. S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” but with a kind of stiff upper lip, as befits a man sent to boarding school when he was 7. The case for God is built slowly and rationally — as he makes clear, “no trance, no swoon, no visions.”

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