Hitchens Brothersâ Rift Starts With Religion
By MARK OPPENHEIMER
NYT Published: July 30, 2010
Chatting at a coffee shop in his hometown, Peter Hitchens is disinclined to talk about his older brother, Christopher, the famously combative journalist.
In May, Peter published the American edition of âThe Rage Against God,â a pro-Christian tract meant to counter his brotherâs 2007 book, the popular atheist manifesto âGod Is Not Greatâ; last month, Christopher announced that he was starting treatment for esophageal cancer.
The two brothers have never been close, and in fact are well known to dislike each other. But Peter is obviously sad when asked about his brotherâs illness, and one can imagine that, if he had known what was to come, he might have kept his sword in its scabbard.
But that is not in the Hitchens nature. Christopher is known in England, in his adopted United States and beyond as a mercurial provocateur â once a Trotskyite, now a supporter of the Iraq war, always an atheist, author of a derisive book attacking Mother Teresa â while Peterâs fame is concentrated in England. But his own books, journalism and television commentary, all very conservative, show the same frank ruthlessness, and the same ability to attract enemies. For two sons of a respectable officer in the Royal Navy, they are not very good boys.
Christopher has moved somewhat to the political right in the last few years, thus aligning the brothersâ views a bit. But they still are far apart on religion, and that is what âThe Rage Against Godâ is about. Peter got the idea for the book after a public debate with his brother about theism, in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2008.
âI do not think that either of us engaged properly with the other on that occasion,â Mr. Hitchens writes. Afterward, he resolved to hold no more such debates, fearing that they could only lead to enmity and further estrangement. âI am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothersâ war.â (Christopher is now 61.)
âI think,â Mr. Hitchens writes, âthis is a better way of completing the unfinished business of that evening.â
The memoir section of âThe Rage Against Godâ is rather terse, a clear case of British reserve. (âHitch-22,â Christopherâs recent memoir, has the expansive self-revelation of one who has by now become temperamentally American.) âRageâ begins clearly enough: âI set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967.â
We quickly jump to his late 20s, when on a visit to France he sees Rogier van der Weydenâs 15th-century painting âLast Judgment,â with its ânaked figures fleeing towards the pit of hell.â
âI did not have a âreligious experience,â â Mr. Hitchens writes. âNothing mystical or inexplicable took place â 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.â
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. Hitchensâs 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 âThe Rage Against Godâ 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.
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: âI 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.â
Whereas Christopher argues, in âGod Is Not Great,â that criminal states like Stalinâs 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.
American readers will notice a lack of enthusiasm in Peterâs 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. Lewisâs âMere Christianity,â 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 â as he makes clear, âno trance, no swoon, no visions.â
The Sunday morning we meet, Mr. Hitchens has just bicycled four miles to an Anglican service in a nearby village, the closest church he can use Cranmerâs 1662 Book of Common Prayer. His wife, he says, is with their young son at a âhappy clappy serviceâ that is, he confesses ruefully, a bit better for young children. âMy wife takes him there so he wonât think church is a place that is only a third full.â
At coffee, I tell him that his book seems to have a strange lack of evangelism. He explains, to my surprise, that he is not seeking converts.
âI am hated by a lot of people in this country, where I am viewed as a reactionary thug,â he says. âI doubt if I am going to bring any of them to the cross of Christ. My view is not to preach to other people, though I will attack people who are teaching bad things. Morality is a battle fought in your own heart.â
âPeople who are teaching bad thingsâ â including one, he believes, in his own family. But we do not speak of that over coffee, and soon his wife and son arrive, fresh from the happy clappy service.