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The Long Journey Home

How atheism led Peter Hitchens to faith.

By From the December 2010 - January 2011 issue

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The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
By Peter Hitchens
(Zondervan, 224 pages, $22.99)

Peter Hitchens is the younger and lesser known of the Hitchens brothers, at times referred to as Cain and Abel, both of whom have brought out personal histories this year. Christopher Hitchens's book, taken together with his earlier screed against God, has charmed the literati, especially the American literati, among whom, as Kingsley Amis discerned, a perceived tendency toward dissipation combined with an English accent -- and throw in a commitment to atheism -- will get you just about anywhere you want to go. However, in Christopher Hitchens's case, it's not banality masquerading as genius. Nor is he an apologist for the soft-headed left, as witness his independent stands against militant Islam and the intellectuals who increasingly pander to it, much as an earlier generation of leftist intellectuals pandered to Stalin, and his support of our intervention in the Middle East.

Extrapolating from Islamic terrorism, carried out in the name of a militant faith, it's possible to understand the rationale for an aggressive atheism, even though his rage against a God he says doesn't exist seems, at least on the face of it, logically to negate his premises. But suffice it to say here that whatever his position on faith or his standing in the world of trendy people, Christopher Hitchens ranks among the best of our few surviving men of letters, and his appreciations of authors and literature, done for the Atlantic, are among the finest critical essays being written today.

The Hitchens brothers both write strong, clean prose. As Peter Hitchens puts it, "On this my brother and I agree: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English, even if we are disliked for doing so."

Christopher Hitchens, when telling his version of the truth, can seem angry, at times enraged as he argues his brief against God, much as a Trotskyist might rage against Stalin. Peter Hitchens, in presenting the case for faith, is calmer -- not soft, in any way, and his criticisms of collectivists are hard and sharp, but writing from a strong sense of self, his prose informed by an inner perspective, a peace, that at times gives it something very like a 19th-century glow.

Here, for instance, in a highly evocative passage, is his description of coming home from school by train for the Christmas holidays -- "a long journey in that strange, exciting light that floods the skies of England when the sun is low in the sky, ending with the unmixed delight of homecoming after dark, the extraordinary pleasures of a soft bed, privacy, and adults who were not teachers. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a few days later, were always an anti-climax after this. To this day I prefer the anticipation of Advent to Christmas itself, and the season is strangely incomplete without a long train journey through a cold landscape."

THE RAGE AGAINST GOD is Hitchens's story of his long journey through a cold landscape, from boyhood through the loss of faith and the acceptance of socialism as a secular substitute, from disillusion with socialism and atheism to a return to faith -- a journey with stops as a foreign correspondent in North Korea, Burma, the Congo, China, Eastern Europe, and during the collapse of the Soviet Union, three years in Moscow, "the show city of the Evil Empire," where "they knew they dwelt in the suburbs of hell," and where the reality of the bankruptcy of socialism became inescapable.

In a chapter titled "The Generation Who Were Too Clever to Believe," he tells us of the first leg of his journey: "I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was fifteen years old." (It may or may not be, as Shaw claimed, that English public schools "are the nurseries of all vice and immorality." But during the last century, they did often seem to be the hatcheries of atheists, drunks, degenerates, and effete Soviet spies, who no doubt dreamed of Ivan's boots, and in several cases probably felt them.)

The young Hitchens's state of mind and attitude toward religion, he believes, was and is common among "the intelligent and educated," summed up several generations ago by the high priestess of the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf, who wrote to her sister about T. S. Eliot's conversion to Christianity, "in terms that perfectly epitomize the enlightened English person's scorn for faith and those who hold it."

"I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot," wrote Woolf, "who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God."

It was this attitude, he believes, passed down through generations educated in England's best public schools, that undermined his once great nation and nurtured a belief in socialism that brought it to near ruin. It was helped along by academics like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, highly respected and much honored historians and Fabian socialists who in fact unconsciously functioned as Soviet propagandists, telling us in their multi-volume work, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, that "it is exactly the explicit denial of the intervention of any God, or indeed of any will other than the human will [Hitchens's italics] that has attracted to Soviet Communism, the sympathies of many intellectuals and especially of scientists in civilized countries."

Intellectuals, Hitchens writes, like to mock "the naïve faith of the peasant" in miracles and the symbols of religiosity. But that belief "is as nothing to the materialist intellectual's gullible open-mouthed willingness to believe anything. The biggest fake miracle in human history is the claim that the Soviet Union was a new civilization of equality, peace, love, truth, science, and progress."

However, as he discovered when he lived there, "it was a prison, a slum, a return to primitive barbarism, a kingdom of lies where scientists and doctors feared offending the secret police.… Yet it was the clever people, those who prided themselves on being unencumbered with superstition, those who viewed religion as a feature of the childhood of humanity, who fell for this swindle in the tens of thousands."

Hitchens calls the descendants of these dupes "Homeless Utopians," still searching for certitude in all the wrong places -- Cuba, for instance, "and the strange continuing cult of Fidel Castro…, in defiance of all facts, gives us a faint hint of what the Soviet delusion must have been like when it ruled the minds of so many. The reverence for the tyrant (invariably referred to as 'Fidel,' as if a personal friend) and the misrepresentation of his impoverished prison island as a paragon of medical and social achievement are examples of the power of self-deception."

But through what he has seen and reported on, and through "a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day," brought on in part by a variety of observations, experiences, and flashes of recognition -- a passage from John Buchan; a detail of architecture or craftsmanship from centuries past; the faces, distorted by agony and fear, indistinguishable from our own, caught in a 15th-century artist's rendering of the Last Judgment -- through these and other milestones on his journey, Hitchens believes he knows precisely where that certitude lies:

"Only one reliable force stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. Only one reliable force forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law. Only one reliable force restrains the hand of the man of power." That reliable force, for Hitchens, is Christianity.

"God is the leftists' chief rival. Christian belief, by subjecting all men to divine authority and by asserting in the words, My kingdom is not of this world, that the ideal society does not exist in this life, is the most coherent and potent obstacle to secular utopianism."

HITCHENS ENDS WITH REFLECTIONS on a public debate with his brother on the existence of God and the goodness of religion, held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2008. Over the past 50 years, he tells us, they were the sort of brothers who didn't get along, and the audience expected blood. But although neither veered from his stated convictions, something had shifted. And they ended the evening, he writes, "on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was -- and remains -- more important to me than the debate itself."

At the end of the debate, he was astonished to find that "the longest quarrel of my life seemed to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us."

"It may actually be true, as I long hoped it would be," he concludes, quoting T. S. Eliot, "that 'the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.' " 

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).