Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's a big illogical fly in former atheist's ointment

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Rage Against God
How Atheism Led Me to Faith
Peter Hitchens
Zondervan Press, 224 pages, $27

 

 

BRITISH-BORN Christopher Hitchens is one of the cleverest thinkers now writing in English and also one of most outspoken atheists.

His recent memoir (ironically published prior to his having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer) describes the way in which writing and thinking can lead to a changing of one's mind, with the result that previously expressed opinions can come to no longer represent the author's position.

Now comes a second memoir, this one from Hitchens' younger sibling, Peter, wherein he relates his own fairly significant change of heart, a turning away from his Bible-burning atheist ways, to embrace Christianity.

A less prolific writer than his brother, and significantly less adept with language, Peter has written a book that is at once a confession and a profession of faith.

The fairly frequent references to his brother (whose name recently was conflated with that of fellow atheist Richard Dawkins as "Ditchens," by another unsophisticated thinker) lead one to wonder whether this outing is also Peter's attempt to clear the family name.

Hitchens goes to some length to demonstrate that in the 20th century, particularly in Britain, a country ravaged by two world wars (the first of which was to end all war), a "deep confusion of patriotism and faith" led to a watered-down Christianity, with the result that people left the flock, himself included.

He uses similar, if slightly tweaked (but not nuanced), arguments to suggest that the person he calls "homo Sovieticus," a man (yes) fairly designed to have faith in humanity and government rather than God and church, lived as a result in a "coarse and mannerless society."

"Compared with this desperate squalor," Hitchens writes, "the meanest British public house and the most sordid American bar are temples of civilization."

Few in the 21st century would dispute the almost complete failure of the Soviet enterprise, and Hitchens in fact notes that Christopher has written trenchant criticisms of totalitarianism in all its strains.

What Hitchens can't seem to appreciate is that, even if "Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism," something his brother and others argue against (if somewhat feebly), and even if one accepts that Soviet tyranny was horrible, this says little about the existence of God, except inasmuch as it raises questions about how an all-loving and all-powerful deity can allow so much evil on this, his favourite planet (unless it's because he's so busy planning natural disasters).

Hitchens makes the easy point that under certain conditions humans behave badly. But under which conditions? When there is no God watching, but only "big brother" (one cannot escape noticing the relationship of the Hitchens brothers).

With unintended irony, Hitchens writes, "(t)hey (unbelievers) have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute, a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter," and elsewhere, "unless there is an absolute standard of good and evil," there is no way we fallen humans will behave.

For a man so bent on demonstrating that Lenin, Stalin and even their rebellious follower Trotsky, were evil due to atheism, this smacks of totalitarianism.

If we've learned nothing from generations of thinking and writing, it is that, as Hitchens quotes Trotsky jeeringly, "morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing invariable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory."

Although it is certain that both Christopher and Peter Hitchens will die, it may lamentably be the case that the former's remaining life on Earth will be short.

We can take comfort, and hope he does, from the fact that his books and other writing will long repay examination, and that he thereby will achieve a degree of immortality (insofar as he would tolerate the notion).

On the other hand, if this book is any indication, the writings of the prodigal Peter can and will with confidence be ignored, and he therefore had best continue to pray for pie in the sky hereafter.

 

Ted St. Godard is a Winnipeg physician whose biases are obvious.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 21, 2010 H7

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