Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Rage Against God

Peter Hitchens’s The Rage Against God is a fascinating account of the world I grew up in—the postwar period in England when the old confidence in traditional authority, imperial power, morals and customs started to fall apart. I am a few years older than Hitchens and when I was at public (private) school, the old ways and beliefs seemed still strong. It was only a few of the more intellectual boys (like me) who were openly atheist. By his time, it seems the old confidence and authority of our elders and teachers was in steeper decline. Hitchens sees the ignominious debacle of the 1956 Anglo-French Suez adventure as a turning point. It shook the self-assurance of our island nation that was never defeated in war. It brought home the decline of empire and all that went with it, including the powerful navy from which Hitchens’s father was let go. The shocking public sex scandal at the highest levels of government known as the Profumo Affair (1963) provided evidence of the moral decay accompanying political decline.

So the ground was already prepared for the 1960s, with its unconstrained vision of how we could cast off all tradition, the collective wisdom and experience of past generations, and start from scratch without need of marriage, family, the capitalist state and economy, and especially the established Church of England. The C of E was associated with all things we wanted to overthrow—monarchy, tradition, conservatism (the established Church was sneered at as the Tory Party at prayer), and, of course, moral (especial sexual) restraint.

Hitchens describes well the utopian illusions of that period and their disastrous social consequences. It was a cultural and sexual revolution that was, among other things, a revolt of the young against the prospect of falling into the fate of their parents—an adult world not only of hollow forms and beliefs (if they were truly believed at all) but, materially, a world of suburbs, the paraphernalia of babies and the demands they make on one to be adult and responsible, confining and restraining the autonomous self. (No wonder baby boomer couples had so few children!)

Hitchens is justly harsh about this brave new world of adolescent pride and self-absorption, the sacrifice of the needs of children to the freedoms of adults (a prevalent theme motif of those who still are undermining our most child-friendly institution, marriage). His central topic, however, is militant atheism, the rage of atheists against God.

In Part 2 of the book, Hitchens takes on three arguments circulated by his brother Christopher and other “new atheists.” He shows how many conflicts fought in the name of religion are not about religion—for example, no-one in Northern Ireland believes that the Catholics and Protestants were fighting over religious differences about the Eucharist, the issue of “justification,” or anything of the sort. He also points to the much higher level of unrestrained violence perpetrated by atheist regimes, from the French revolution to the Bolsheviks, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and so forth. He argues that a non-relativist morality that goes beyond the Golden Rule depends on an absolute power above human society that is not subject to change at a tyrant’s or totalitarian’s whim. And he takes on the argument that the atheist states like the former USSR are not really atheist but depend on religious cults like that of Stalin.

The most powerful part of the book is his account of the difference in practice between an atheist state with a cult of the leader and a Christian society, where the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself has penetrated the culture and survives, even if exiguously, in post-Christian societies like England. He shows how militantly (and successfully) the Bolsheviks sought to extirpate all trace of Christianity from Soviet society, aiming especially at children. One of the very first decrees of the Soviet state in 1917 was to forbid the teaching of Christianity in schools and many more repressive measures followed. Tellingly, Hitchens draws vividly on his own experience as a reporter in Russia as well as showing, by way of his experience of complete political and social disintegration in Somalia, how he became convinced that his “own civilization was infinitely precious and utterly vulnerable and that [he] was obliged to try to protect it” (p.98).

Tellingly, Hitchens links this militant atheism of the Stalinists, this rage against God, to the efforts of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to describe religious education as child abuse—a very serious charge, ludicrous as it sounds, that paves the way for more and more anti-Christian measures enforced by an ever more powerful state. For Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, the family and other institutions of civil society, including the churches, temples, and mosques, were a threat to the apotheosis of the state and its leader. All these regimes attacked the churches and the family, seeking either to extirpate them altogether or subordinate them to the state.

Hitchens notes that he, along with Christopher and many others (myself included, but also the philosopher and Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre) were at one time Trotskyists. We were fiercely opposed to Stalinism and the kind of totalitarian state built by Stalin and Mao, and insisted on the fundamental differences between true revolutionary socialism and Stalinism. Hitchens will have none of this. Unlike Christopher and MacIntyre (and me for that matter), he has completely rejected and settled accounts with that tradition, which he says, rests on the self-delusion that things would have turned out differently if Trotsky had won out in the struggle against Stalin. I won’t take up the argument here, but simply note that many of us who have abandoned Trotskyism in any form have failed fully to come to terms with it despite its complete incompatibility with current commitments.

Another chord the memoir struck with me comes under the nice subheading, “The Prodigal Son Returns Too Late.” He means that the Anglican communion he returned to was not the C of E he had left decades earlier. Even more than the Catholic Church in the West, the C of E had been infected with a liberal, secularizing modernism. Traditional teaching on faith and morals as well as liturgy, architecture, music and ancient practices and forms had been abandoned and the communion was falling into apparently irreversible decline. Hitchens deplores these developments, which include discarding some of the greatest literary treasures of the C of E and the English language—the King James Bible and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. But he gives no hint of finding a more orthodox home in the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church, a choice toward which faithful Christians still in the Anglican communion in the UK and North America are surely feeling pushed.


  1. You owe me money! I have bought so many books based on your impeccable reviews on Amazon! :p

    I would like to get to know you better. I think there is much that I can learn from you - I have read your calm and cool responses to brash and invective atheists, and you have won me over! As far as I can tell, you are a Catholic. I am, too.

    I just celebrated my twenty-first birthday not too long ago. I live in a particularly conservative and religious city in southern California, so the "disease" of atheism has been "quarantined" to college campuses. Nevertheless, being the internet dweller that I am, it was only a matter of time before I encountered a "new" atheist. I entered into discussions and debates totally unprepared, so I am now hitting the books to study my enemy, so to speak. That is how I came across your review of Peter Hitchens' The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith.

    I think I have embarked on a journey that entails A LOT of learning, and I am daunted. You said that you were an atheist in this review. What lead you to knowledge of God and then to the Church? Maybe your answer can help me define what I should search for.


    P.S. I tried to e-mail you, but the address was no good.

  2. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for your kind words. My e-mail was disabled for about 24 hours, but should work now: pladams@hawaii.edu