Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens

I am, as I keep insisting, very uninterested in theology.  My religion can easily be summed up, understood and either rejected or accepted, by anybody who listens to Handel’s ‘Messiah’, who reads the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and who has seen the great English cathedrals. 
So wrote Peter Hitchens recently on his Mail on Sunday blog.  It is as good a summary as any of his attitude towards religion, an attitude which is explored at greater length in this book.

Hitchens wrote the book in 2010 in response to the debate on the New Atheism, a debate to which his brother had contributed a long but somewhat disappointing tome.  His purpose is more modest than that of Christopher, or indeed Richard Dawkins.  This is not a work of apologetics, still less a work of theology.  It has little in common with the writings of Aquinas, or even C.S.Lewis.  Hitchens does not set out to offer a defence of religion in general or Christianity in particular.  What he does give us is the closest thing that we are ever likely to get to his autobiography.

Much of the book is written in Hitchens' distinctive elegiac prose, in which he evokes the austere, lost-for-ever England of his childhood.  And he evokes it well - very well, in fact.  So well that one consciously has to remind oneself that he is evoking it for polemical purposes out of his earliest memories at the age of just under 60.  One can only speculate how far his haunting vision of early postwar England has been coloured and refracted by the lenses of his political and religious outlook - but this is perhaps to break the illusion.  Enjoying this book requires a certain willing suspension of disbelief, as is often the case with works on religion.

Hitchens, who was born in 1951, describes growing up as a member of the last generation for whom the United Kingdom was a Christian country.  His father, a naval officer, was not particularly religious, but for the young Hitch school chapel services and scripture lessons were an unremarkable part of daily life. This didn't stop him from rebelling against them - declaring to his prep school headmaster that he was an atheist, refusing to kneel for prayers and setting fire to a copy of the Bible on the school playing fields.

All was not well in the wider culture either.  Hitchens remembers that Anglican Christianity had become damagingly entangled with, or even subservient to, British nationalism.  War memorials and remembrance services combined the two forms of belief.  Hitchens remembers being brought up in the religion of "We Won the War".  Its god was not YHWH but Winston Churchill.

Yet even in Hitchens' childhood the old England, with its old loyalties and old certainties, was beginning to break down.  He dimly remembers hearing about Suez and Profumo as a pre-teen.  He and his classmates watched the final end of the imperial era live on TV when their teachers thoughtfully wheeled in a television set to show them the broadcast of Churchill's funeral in 1965.  By then, the sixties had arrived.  If it was still a time of school prayers, memorial services and low divorce rates, it was also a time of rock music, the United Nations and faith in the power of science.  Hitchens depicts it as the intersection of two eras, one now passed into history.

Hitchens also has much to say about his later life.  He tells of how his faith began to be stirred when he saw a painting of the Last Judgement by van der Weyden - he does not discount the role of fear in religious practice - and how his fellow journalists took the piss out of him when he started going to church.  He complains about the banality of his confirmation service, and rhapsodises about the beauty of Cranmer and the King James Bible.  Like Roger Scruton, this is a man for whom religion is experienced in liturgical poetry rather than philosophical prose.  He writes with a real believer's conviction of
the intense beauty of the ancient Anglican chants, spiralling up into chilly stone vaults at Evensong.  This sunset ceremony is the very heart of English Christianity.  The prehistoric, mysterious poetry of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, perhaps a melancholy evening hymn, and the cold, ancient laments and curses of the Psalms, as the unique slow dusk of England gathers outside and inside the echoing, haunted, impossibly old building, are extraordinarily potent.
Yet there is an aridity of its own about Hitchens' brand of religion.  It is striking how little there is in the book about the supernatural.  There is a great deal about religion as a support for ethics and social order, quite a bit about religion as a repository of great art - and very, very little about spirituality.  There isn't even that much about Jesus Christ.  The passage above omits any mention of the God whom the congregation are supposed to be worshipping.  The only supernatural beings mentioned are, implicitly, the ghosts who are "haunting" the edifice (metaphorically, one presumes).

Hitchens tends to minimise the significance of his politico-religious odyssey, portraying it as a fairly standard switch from youthful leftism to mature conservatism.  But there seems to be more to it than that.  Hitch was not just a bog-standard idealistic young leftist who ended up going to church and voting Tory once he had kids and a mortgage to worry about.  He went - albeit slowly - from being a member of an extreme revolutionary Marxist sect to being an diehard religious archconservative.  Whatever conclusions one draws from this, his life story, with its changing political and religious opinions, does not strike one as being typical.

After the autobiographical reflections, Hitch addresses three arguments against the existence of God: the argument that religious wars are truly about religion, rather than power and resources; the argument that conceptions of good and evil are not dependent on the existence of God; and the argument that atheist states are really religious.  Hitchens is addressing himself here primarily to arguments raised in his brother's book.  He is a little too eager to draw links between Christopher Hitchens-style New Atheism and Soviet Communism.  He sees an organic, intrinsic link between atheism and Bolshevism, while he argues that no equivalent link can be drawn between Nazism and Christianity.  He notes that Christopher retained an affection for the Bolsheviks to his death.  He claims, more dubiously, that Communism drew support from much the same constituency in the West as New Atheism does today, which rather ignores the huge numbers of right-wing atheists.  Hitchens is interesting, even moving when he writes of the injustices, privations and sheer bad-manneredness of Soviet life (he lived in Moscow for a while during the dying days of the USSR).  He also unearths interesting information about the Soviet campaigns against religion.  But his decision to dwell on Communism is a sign of the black-and-white, all-or-nothing cast of his mind.  For him, it seems that atheism can't just be wrong, or even un-poetic - it has to be implicitly Stalinist.

I doubt that this book will win many converts, though it will be an interesting and entertaining read even for those who don't accept Hitchens' basic premises.  When laid bare, those premises are unusually radical for such a diehard conservative.  I broadly agree with the place where he has ended up (faith as opposed to atheism), but not with the route by which he has reached it.  Hitch indicates in the book, and has said more clearly elsewhere, that his faith is no more and no less than a choice.  The evidence (he argues) can't decide for us whether or not God exists - indeed, our evaluation of the evidence is itself determined by what we inwardly want to believe - and he prefers to choose the option that produces meaningfulness, social order and Anglican Evensong.  In other words, Hitchens is a Christian not because he is conscious of God as a real and active spiritual presence in his life, but because it turns out that Cranmer, not the Devil, has the best tunes.  If this is to trivialise his faith, it is because the foundations of that faith are themselves surprisingly trivial - it is a subjective choice of a radically postmodern kind.  Hitch is surely right that we often choose to believe what we want to believe (see here and here), but he presses this insight very far, beyond the point where it carries conviction.