Monday, 5 April 2010

peter and christopher hitchens

Can faith bring back the Prodigal Brother?: 'The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens shows how extraordinarily complicated everything to do with religion is, writes Charles Moore.
- Daily Telegraph, 29 March

First there was Cain and Abel, and then there was Christopher and Peter. The brothers Hitchens are engaged in what Peter, in this book, calls “the longest quarrel of my life”. Sometimes it has been about politics. Both began on the extreme Left, but Peter moved much more quickly than Christopher to the Right. But really, as so often with disputes which appear to be political, this quarrel is about religion.
... So this book tries to do two things at once. One is to bash up modern militant atheism with all the author’s polemical skill. The other is to give an autobiographical account of how, in our time, an intelligent man’s faith may recover. Parts of the book are a thorough-going exposĂ© of how godless utopianism – above all, in the Soviet Union – has given a uniquely powerful licence to tyranny. Other parts are about how Peter loves the smell of graveyards and the Prayer Book’s “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea” (“You could almost hear them being said in slow West Country voices, as the rigging creaked and the slow-matches smouldered, and the ship turned towards the foe”).
The two forms of writing do not sit easily together, but that is a good thing. It brings out just how extraordinarily complicated everything to do with religion is. And it is that complication which today’s fundamentalist atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Hitchens ma (as he was presumably known when the two first duelled at public school more than 40 years ago), resist.
Peter Hitchens is quite right that one of the strongest and strangest beliefs of such atheists is that religious faith is a mark of stupidity. “How could any intelligent person believe such obvious nonsense?” they often exclaim, and it is not a question to which they seriously seek an answer. They are like those clever, literal-minded 14-year-old schoolboys (girls, by the way, much more rarely think in this way) who return from the lab one day to proclaim that “science” has “disproved” religion. Their devotion to one particular, valid, but limited method of intellectual inquiry blinds them to everything else. Proud of this insight, many of them now organise on the internet as “the Brights”. In their view, their intelligence gives them the right to dictate. Richard Dawkins, for example, thinks that it should be against the law for parents to teach religious precepts to their own offspring as being true, whereas people like him should inculcate all children in “the truths of evolution and cosmology”.
Surely any dispassionate observation would suggest that utterly brilliant people can be believers, as they can be agnostics or atheists. The Church has not proved the most durable of all the institutions in the history of the world by being stupid. But it is also a key part of Christian understanding that truth is not necessarily discerned by an intellectual elite alone. Christianity’s radical and paradoxical message is that weakness is strength, poverty is wealth, giving is receiving, dying brings life. In the story of the Passion, commemorated this week, the most intelligent person, apart from Jesus himself, is Pontius Pilate. His brain power does not lead him to make the right decisions.