EFAC Australia

Peter Hitchens, brother of the famous anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens, describes how atheism led him to faith.

The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
Peter Hitchens
Harper Collins 2010
ISBN 9780310320319

Peter and Christopher Hitchens have a shared heritage of British nominal Christianity and the embracing of atheism as a form of intellectual emancipation. ‘I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15 years old’ (page 7).
Peter has since returned to an active Christian faith after decades of leftist-atheism, whilst his brother Christopher has become a great preacher of the new atheism. This book is a banquet of biography, a prophetic evaluation of 20th Century Western Christian culture, a defence of common objections to the
Christian faith, and an undressing of self-assured anti-theism.
Peter has written this book as a record of his own journey, and also to help those who might be potentially ‘enchanted by the arguments of the anti-religious intellects of our age’ (page 2). Having been on the inside, he is able to shine a light on the motives and arrogance that makes up much of popular atheism.
Peter argues that the biggest weakness of his brother’s ‘faith’ is that ‘he often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributes purpose to the universe and swerves dangerously round the problem of conscience—which surely cannot be conscience if he is right—he 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 this makes his atheist faith insuperable for as long as he himself chooses to accept it’ (page 3). This inability is revealed with insufferable repetition in the 2009 documentary Collision—which narrates a string of public debates Christopher Hitchens held with the American Christian pastor and writer, Douglas Wilson. This DVD is highly recommended as both entertaining and thought-provoking viewing (see www.collisionmovie.com).
Peter puts forward a cogent case that the decay of 21st Century Western societies is due to the 20th Century decay of credal Christianity. He is scathing of Church of England nominalism in the last 100 years, especially in relation to English patriotism and the two World Wars. His reflections on the ‘national cult’ of British patriotism also critique our own Anzac traditions and loyalties.
As a professional journalist, Peter’s observations of the 20th Century have a breadth of wisdom and evidence, not least his insights comparing five years of living in Russia and his return to London at the turn of the century. As part of his spiritual journey he observes what effect predominant belief systems have on the virtue of any society: ‘I also concluded that a high moral standard cannot be reached or maintained unless it is generally accepted and understood by an overwhelming number of people. I have since concluded that a hitherto Christian society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spreading rapidly in my own country as Christianity is forgotten’ (page 66).
Peter knows 20th century history exceedingly well. He was thoroughly versed in and supportive of leftist atheistic regimes, and of the excuses required to maintain this ideology in the face of repeated atrocity after atrocity. He is now ‘baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and his cause. It unquestionably does. Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism today’ (page 100).
The biographical elements are sparse but riveting. The poetic majesty of the KJV and traditional Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer liturgy connected and awakened suppressed beliefs for Hitchens. In fact his journey back to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ came in part through his wife and children’s baptism in a traditional Church of England parish. As Anglican Evangelicals, what does it say of us that should we be surprised by this? There is more than one way to skin a secularist cat—of his brother he suggests that ‘it is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time’ (page 3).
At 160 pages this is a concise book, eminently readable and well worth giving to our atheist friends. It represents a challenge to evangelicals who, being weak on history and aesthetics, are often left to debate on the narrow turf of Enlightenment categories. It highlights Christian failures but it also offers philosophical and historical ways forward from our Anglican heritage.
As a weakness, presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ is significantly absent in this book. But it is a penetrating critique of the spirit of our age and I pray it opens eyes for many to consider the ascended Saviour-King.

Wayne Schuller is Vicar of Berwick Anglican Church in Melbourne’s booming south-eastern growth corridor.