Peter Hitchens, an atheist who has returned to faith, gives a personal response to his brother Christopher’s aggressive anti-Christian zealotry.
The introduction was enticing, succinctly articulating some of my own responses to public engagement with high-profile atheists, both in terms of content:
…I intend to address the fundamental failures of three atheistic arguments. Namely, that conflicts fought in the name of religion are always about religion; that it is ultimately possible to know with confidence what is right and what is wrong without acknowledging the existence of God; and that atheist states are not actually atheist...
and, more importantly (because content, in practise, is often incidental), the (at times mutual) utter vitriol and contempt directed at anyone with the audacity to hold a different view:
… The difficulties of the anti-theists begin when they try to engage with anyone who does not agree with them, when their reaction is often a frustrated rage that the rest of us are so stupid…
To return to the content issue, sure, it’s embarrassing how transparently glib fallacies are popularly trotted out as intelligent attack on ignorant theism (e.g. Theists flew planes into the World Trade Center: therefore theism is responsible for all such atrocities, and if there was no theism, there would be no such atrocities). It’s equally embarrassing when such stupidity is countered with equal stupidity (Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler were atheists: therefore atheism is responsible for any large scale dictatorial murder, and if there were no atheists, there would be no such atrocities). Before I had a chance to get to this review I had mused on including a bunch of equally absurd statements along the lines of:
This came to mind because, despite Peter Hitchins’ (essentially validated) claim that he would not “…seek to thunder as [his brother Christopher] thunders, or to answer fury with fury or scorn with scorn. I do not loath atheists, as Christopher claims to loath believers…”, I did feel like he fell into engaging in a foolish argument. I can see why in his first and last content arguments above that he would find it hard not to: his experience living as a journalist in Soviet Moscow, for example, understandably saw him bridle at pronouncements his brother has made to distance atheism from that regime: here was an area that someone claiming to value empirical evidence over fanatical belief would surely have to defer to someone with greater specific experience and knowledge. I can’t fault Hitchens’ logic or examples, and maybe they were of use to people more influenced by such specifics, but I felt there was a dead aspect to this. Sure we could kick around whether the Crusaders were really ‘Christian’ (were they making any attempt to follow the teachings of Christ), or whether Hitler actually had some type of belief; whether ‘the troubles’ in Ireland were tribal rather then religious, or fascists merely replace historical religions with a state one. Each side could try to build a larger list of criminals that held the other side’s views. But I think it’s wiser to simply admit that atheism and theism both denote a huge range of characters: you might as well try to build a correlation between culpability/virtue and blood type.
Hitchens surprised me by how much of the book was more sociological theory, from a personal perspective, than the more measured argument in the second part (only 40 pages of the over 200). As a Christian myself (ooh, what a giveaway), I wonder how much my version of Christianity is shared with his, as much of it seemed to be more caught up with a yearning for ‘the good old days’, pining for many of the trappings (such as King James’ English) as opposed to the essence (I hope Hitchens does realise that Jesus never said a single ‘thee’ or ‘thou’). If faith focuses primarily on forms, I’m has happy as a Dawkins to see it die. However the spirit of the epilogue gave me a much stronger impression that I did have the same Lord as Peter Hitchens, as he describes a recent public debate organised between himself and his brother.
When I attacked his book against God, some people seemed almost to hope that our personal public squabble would begin again. No doubt they would have been pleased or entertained if we had pelted each other with slime in Grand Rapids. But despite one or two low blows exchanged in the heat of the moment, I do not think we did much to satisfy them. I hope not. At the end I concluded that, while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was – and remains – more important to me than the debate itself.
Now that’s the good stuff. That’s Christlike – a guy who often just skipped the debate because it didn’t matter to him. He didn’t need or want to score points. If it’s worth having faith this will ultimately be shown by the way the Christian debater has far more genuine concern for the person who attacks them, verbally or otherwise, than for whether or not they win the contest. That’s what’s distinctive, and, I suppose, the deal breaker for me: mere Darwinism offers nothing as absurd (or Divine) as the principle of loving one’s enemy. And as such the only versions of atheism I’ve had offered to me miss the most precious and essential thing about being human: morality. The joke is I know Christians who have every theoretical reason to be loving, considerate and charitable – who can be entirely selfish and even cruel, and atheists who, as I understand it, have no theoretical basis for doing anything except improving their own chances for survival and reproduction, yet manage to be devastatingly kind and virtuous.
I hope more of us realise there is something far more important than the argument. I’m hardly the only one to think so, or even to say so. Check out: