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September/October 2011

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Setting an Example

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Published in the September/October 2011 Magazine
by James D. Standish

By now most of us are familiar with Christopher Hitchens. Christopher1 is, among other things, the author of the 2007 work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Everything? Apparently so, in the eyes of Christopher Hitchens. That his journalist brother, Peter, has now produced a volume in opposite is by its very nature the stuff of drama that drives considerable interest.

Our interest in sibling disagreements of a religious nature goes all the way back to Cain and Abel. How could two brothers, raised in the same home and presumably under similar conditions, end up approaching the most fundamental questions of life so differently? And on a more voyeuristic level—what impact has the disagreement had on their relationship? We know how the divergence of opinion ended in the case of Cain and Abel. What of the case of Christopher and Peter?

In order to appreciate Peter's volume, it is important to first make note of Christopher's flamboyant and wildly successful career. In cuttingly sharp prose Christopher has publicly flagellated the powerful while defending his contrarian views with relish. Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush all came in for the Hitchens treatment. Not even Mother Thresa escaped the unrelentingly harsh judgment of the Hitchens' pen. But should we be surprised? A man willing to attack God Himself is presumably not driven by excessive restraint.

Unfortunately, the deficit of restraint can be found not only in his public life but also in his personal life. Christopher Hitchens proudly describes his daunting daily drinking regimen that for most of his life has been complemented by a steady stream of cigarettes. Christopher recently confirmed he is suffering from esophageal cancer, the prognosis for which is not good.

Against Christopher Hitchens' larger-than-life public persona, Peter Hitchens comes across in his 219-page volume as a rather humble man. There is gentleness to his writing style, and an understated dignity that comes with it. But dignity and gentleness do not necessarily result in great reading. Some readers may find this the case in The Rage Against God. Rather than sharp prose and crisp intellectual argument, The Rage Against God is primarily a series of reflections, firsthand observations, interesting quotes, and poignant memories that feel at times like the musings of a worldly wise uncle. In short, Peter not only takes the opposite position of Christopher's volume, but does so using a language and style that almost perfectly contrasts with his brother's style.

The restraint of style should not blind readers to the acuity of Peter's observations and conclusions, which are at times profound and deeply relevant. In the first section of the book, Peter Hitchens explores his loss of faith. To explain this, he turns to the English society he grew up in. The England of Peter's youth was depleted from exhausting wars and the loss of its vast empire, and struggling under crippling public debts. All of this may not have had a detrimental impact on the faith of the populace—indeed, it may have strengthened it—but for one phenomenon Peter comes back to repeatedly: English religion was tied to the English state. It was fervor for a state-defined God and a God-ordained monarch that had built its empire and fueled the English through two brutal world wars. The virtues of bravery and sacrifice for the nation were so intimately intertwined with the faith of the national church that belief in one could not falter without taking down the other. When faith in the state dissipated after World War I and accelerated after World War II, the state religion necessarily became collateral damage.

American readers may find Peter Hitchens' preoccupation with post-World War II England at times perplexing. Do many Americans remember the Suez crisis or the sex scandals of English politicians obscured in time? Probably not. But in the second half of the book Peter gives an insight into why he believes England provides a cautionary tale to American Christians. He first notes that the presidency of George W. Bush "combined noisy religiosity with ruthlessness," and then goes on to conclude: "The conscription of God into unjust wars does grave harm to faith. . . . Mr. Bush also undoubtedly hurt Christianity in America by allying it to his war and his administration. The ultimate effects of this error on the part of many church leaders may take years to emerge, just as the European churches' support of the First World War took decades to devastate those churches. But among younger people especially, I believe great damage has been done."2

Time will tell if this prediction comes true. It's also interesting to note against Peter's critique of the Iraq War that Christopher became a darling of neoconservatives for his bellicose support of the Iraq invasion. Is there nothing the Hitchens boys agree on?

The second cause for the crisis in English faith Peter explores is the acceptance of science as an explanation of all things. The England Peter grew up in was one in which there was general agreement among the intelligentsia that notions of God, faith, miracles, and so forth were antithetical to intelligence. He comes back repeatedly to Virginia Woolf's statement on learning of T. S. Eliot's conversion to Christianity: "There's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God."3 In the society in which he grew up, if you wanted to be seen to be clever, you couldn't believe in God; both Peter and Christopher, like many of their peers, did want to be clever—so naturally enough, God had to go.

While societal forces are of interest, Peter Hitchens gives little insight into more personal matters. For example, he does not explore to any length the tepid religiosity of his own parents. From what he does say, however, it appears that he didn't so much lose his faith, as simply take his parents' religious indifference to its logical conclusion.

After providing his thoughts on losing faith, he then turns his attention to finding faith. His journey back to Christianity is more hinted at than explained. Maybe this is because it is a journey that is as mysterious to him as it would be to a reader, or maybe it is because of English reticence to discuss personal matters in public. He makes much of witnessing firsthand the brutality of atheism as practiced in the Soviet bloc, but he only discusses in passing why this led him to reject the secularism as practiced in modern Britain.

In describing his return to God, Peter does give one glimpse into his inner thoughts. He focuses on an epiphany he had while viewing a painting of the last judgment in the Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, France. But his reaction of fear to the painting raises as many questions as it answers. Did the painting simply frighten him, or did it expose his moral inadequacies in a deeper, more morally redemptive manner? Many people view the same painting every day, as has the author of this review, but it is safe to assume that most don't have religious conversions as a result. Why did it impact Peter in such a profound way? We are given hints, but not answers.

If Peter's precise journey to faith remains unrevealed in the volume, his efforts to counter some of his brother's arguments in the final chapters of the book are mixed. Maybe the volume's biggest weakness is its extensive rebuttal of Christopher's transparently self-serving claim that the horrors of militant atheism were actually caused by religion because Stalinism is in fact a religion.4 Peter thoroughly debunks Christopher's argument, but he does so by rehashing details of Soviet abuses covered previously in the volume. A good editor would have organized the two sections more tightly or eliminated one altogether.

His efforts to show that religion is not the actual cause of sectarian conflicts fails for an entirely different reason: he is wrong. Religion has and continues to play a key role in a number of conflicts. It may well be true that the conflicts themselves do not rest on particular theological differences, and he is correct that in most religious conflicts there are associated economic, ethnic, and political tensions that accompany sectarian violence. But that religion plays a pivotal role in many conflicts cannot credibly be denied.

Rather than peddling in the wares of denial, Peter Hitchens would have done better to acknowledge frankly that religion can play a deeply destructive role, but put this into context. Every human entity has the capacity for abuse, whether it is religious or secular. This is the price of living in a deeply faulted world. That religion has its pitfalls should not blind us to its enormous benefits. Most societies, including most Western societies, could not function without the education, health care, and social services provided by religious organizations. Further, the peacemaking impact of faith is at least equal to its capacity to make war. Imagine, for example, what the consequences to American society would have been if the civil rights movement was led by a violent secular revolutionary instead of a peaceful Christian clergyman.

But there is a deeper flaw in Peter Hitchens' rebuttal of his brother—Peter takes on Christopher on his own premise, and when dealing with a skilled polemicist this is bound to be a losing battle. One does not have to prove that religion heals all to counter the argument that it poisons everything. Rather, Peter simply has to establish that religion heals when it is rightly understood and practiced. Thus, rather than defending "religion" as a generic—a defense that is fraught with problems as virtually everyone would agree that at least some religions are deeply destructive and have little or no redeeming value5—Peter Hitchens would have done better to defend his own view of faith properly understood. While this might be a little less all-embracing, it would form a much stronger argument and, one suspects, an argument much more in keeping with Peter's own beliefs.

Similarly, his chapter exploring the requirement of faith to establish right and wrong does little to explain why the religious, like the irreligious, so often support hideous acts. The chapter is full of interesting quotes and thoughtful considerations, but it simply fails to make the case that religion provides for a better moral compass than secular philosophies. For that, the reader should look elsewhere.

The final section of the book gives readers the red meat they were looking for from the start. What of all this tension between brothers? Do they hate each other, do they speak, are they friends or mortal enemies? Peter makes a few modest observations and muted references, and concludes with affection. Readers would have to read further afield to learn that Christopher has publically called Peter an "idiot" and other similar ill-tempered insults.6

Readers would also have to read further afield to find the "Rosebud" moment in the lives of the Hitchens brothers. It is a moment so dreadful and so monumental that it is impossible to believe that it did not profoundly impact both brothers' approach to the fundamental questions of life. In 1973 their mother killed herself in a suicide pact with her illicit lover, a former Anglican clergyman.7 How did this moment impact the relationship Peter had with God? How did it impact Christopher? Peter not only isn't giving us any answers—he doesn't even mention that the suicide occurred.

Without critical windows into his personal life, readers can read and reread The Rage Against God and come away feeling that they know as little about Peter Hitchens as they did at the start. Nothing, that is, other than if you were Christopher Hitchens and you had a brother, you'd hope that he was a fellow like Peter—someone you've publicly excoriated, someone who knows your every fault, someone who deeply disagrees with you, someone who must at times feel the kind of intense resentment that only siblings can feel against each other, but nevertheless, when given the perfect chance at a very public revenge, has the decency and the dignity not to spill the beans.

And maybe, in the final analysis, Peter's self-controlled yet generous style displayed throughout the book might be a far better defense of his understanding of God than all the sharp arguments a more troubled soul might make.

James D. Standish was a past executive director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is currently working in Sydney, Australia.

1 For the purposes of this piece, the author will use the convention of referring to each of the Hitchens brothers by their first names to efficiently ensure clarity.
2 Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), pp. 159, 160.
3 Ibid., p. 24.
4 Christopher Hitchens, The "'Case' Against Atheism," God is Not Great (New York: Warner Books, 2007). (In this chapter Christopher Hitchens repeats the well-worn charge that some Christians enthusiastically supported fascism, and then makes the leap to painting the aggressively antireligious regimes of Soviet Union and North Korea as a form of religion. The argument is poorly structured and reasoned. There is no effort to provide a principled definition of what a religion is, nor to delineate between one form of antireligious extremism and Hitchens' own extreme view. If Stalinism is a religion, what of the New Atheists' orthodoxy, of which, Christopher Hitchens is a leading proponent? No effort is made to seriously consider the implications of the argument.
5 Think, for example, of the Heaven's Gate UFO suicide cult, Jim Jones, or Islamic terrorists.
6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitchens%2C_Christopher.
7 Christopher Hitchens describes the suicide in his autobiography Hitch-22, and it is referenced in many biographies of him, including his BBC Bio: Caroline Frost, Christopher Hitchens Profile, BBC Four, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/profile/christopher_hitchens.shtml.

Author: James D. Standish

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