Prominent Author Peter Hitchens
The Brother of Atheist Christopher Hitchens Speaks Out About God: Peter Hitchens Returns to Faith
Written by Chris Ahrens
Peter Hitchens’ sixth and latest book, The Rage Against God, opens with the author as an adolescent attempting to burn his Bible, and ends decades later with him arguing in favor of the smoldering tome’s main character. That book was in part a counter punch to God is Not Great, a sort of atheistic anthem by Peter’s late brother, Christopher Hitchens.
The Hitchens brothers came of age in England during the early ‘60s. In a time and place where belief in the God of the Bible was as common as it would soon become uncommon. They grew up as nice Christian kids, reasonably close, who, by their mid teens, drifted apart and fell for different facets of atheism. In time, Christopher’s atheism hardened into antitheism, while Peter returned to the faith of his childhood.
The moral rift between the brothers eventually led to formal debates where accusations on both sides were about as gentle as a man attempting to kill his dog’s fleas with a shotgun. Peter, who was one of the few to match his brother’s intense intellectual assaults, and even looked and sounded like him, did not, as he says, “come from the same egg.” He is unique, even in his application of faith, which more resembles the Christ who drove out the moneychangers than the Good Shepard.
While Christopher appeared basically honest in his approach to most subjects, he sometimes seemed unalterably locked into his anti-God stance. Peter sides with the faithful, but it’s not certain that he really likes siding with anyone. In that sense, he is publically (which is the only way most know him) similar to his brother. As it was with Christopher, discussing objects of faith with Peter is rarely simple and never easy.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: As a child moving toward atheism, what sort of grasp did you have of the Bible?
Peter Hitchens: Better than any 12-year old English boy would have today. A basic familiarity with the major stories of the Old Testament, read in the Authorized Version and so remembered, and a considerable familiarity with the gospels, especially the parables, while being almost unlettered in the epistles. Biblical knowledge was still vaguely expected in England, but not thoroughly or consistently taught.
Risen Magazine: Currently, how do you study the Bible?
Peter Hitchens: I pay attention to the lessons in church, and am sometimes stimulated to read further, especially when it is a lesson that I myself read. But I make no claim to be learned in scripture, and find it quite difficult to read long passages of holy writ.
Risen Magazine: How did you tell your brother about your conversion to Christianity?
Peter Hitchens: I didn’t. We communicated rarely. I wouldn’t have discussed such a thing with him.
Risen Magazine: Did he treat you differently after your conversion?
Peter Hitchens: No, the only changes in his treatment of me were brought about by my own rise to modest celebrity, which enabled him to acknowledge my existence publicly. Before then, I suspect most people who knew him thought he was an only child.
Risen Magazine: How do you now view the changes that came over you and much of the youth culture of the ‘60s?
Peter Hitchens: I am filled with shame at the things I said and did during this era. Did they put something in the water?
Risen Magazine: You don’t seem fearful of expressing righteous anger; do you think most Christians are too passive?
Peter Hitchens: No, I admire the restraint and patience of those who can exercise them. They are among the ingredients of saintliness. I think a different gift was given to me, which doesn’t co-exist easily with those virtues. I will argue with people about beliefs if I think they are mistaken, but I try very hard to restrict my criticism to actions done by myself – unless I witness open breaches of law or morality.
Risen Magazine: How does modern government hinder marriage?
Peter Hitchens: Modern government has turned marriage into a contract soluble at will by one of the two parties, and will intervene to remove the faithful party from the home if he or she persists in obeying vows. Because it can be easily dissolved, divorce is the first response to trouble.
Risen Magazine: Are most of the atheists you debate honest in their atheism?
Peter Hitchens: I have yet to meet one who seems willing to consider the possibility that his belief is a choice. The new atheists are extraordinarily arrogant and intolerant, and the foundation of this is the philosophically questionable claim that their belief is not a belief or a choice. I believe they adopt this position precisely to avoid being asked what their motives are for their choice. Since, if it is not a choice, it does not require motives.
Risen Magazine: What frustrates you most about the perception of atheism and the perception of Christianity that exists today?
Peter Hitchens: The ready acceptance of the fallacy that science and religious belief are incompatible.
Risen Magazine: What is/was your relationship like with fellow atheists?
Peter Hitchens: I never really considered myself as a member of a company of atheists. My former comrades in revolutionary socialism, who were by definition atheists, almost universally despise me for my apostasy, and we avoid each other’s society and have done for decades.
I believe in the absolute goodness of God. Evil is the absence of God, or the willful denial of God’s law, or the deliberate turning away of our faces from God.
Risen Magazine: How is your experience similar or different to the way media portrays atheism?
Peter Hitchens: I suppose I was then franker about the reasons for my choice of atheism than most atheists nowadays seem to be. It seemed obvious to me that it was an act of self-liberation from tiresome constraints. I suppose that, as atheism becomes more common, this feature of the atheist faith becomes a bit of an embarrassment. Atheism is only fun if most people continue to be constrained, and you are not.
Risen Magazine: What would you tell someone questioning atheism or Christianity?
Peter Hitchens: I can’t really tell them anything. The choice is theirs. I’m told the best advice is to behave as if Christianity is true, even if you don’t yet believe it. But I would pose the choice as one between justice, purpose, order, hope and meaning on one hand, and pointless chaos on the other. Now, I know exactly why someone would choose pointless chaos, and why I chose it myself, but I find that most people get quite cross if you suggest that they have selfish motives, especially when it is true.
Risen Magazine: Do you think there are any people who are purely Christian or purely atheistic? Even the apostles said, “Help our unbelief.”
Peter Hitchens: A mind that never experiences doubt must be very narrow or dark.
Risen Magazine: Why are so many otherwise rational people, so irrational about God?
Peter Hitchens: Because they fear the implications of belief. Atheists and Christians both fear that God exists. Christians also hope he exists. That is the principal difference between them.
Risen Magazine: You mention in The Rage Against God that the elders crumbled when your generation rebelled. Why do think there was so little resistance?
Peter Hitchens: Institutions often survive outwardly long after they have crumbled within. In my country, the First World War finished off Christian belief, mainly because the Church was associated with lies and folly, and with other discredited institutions, and had little to offer the bereaved. Since then the former countries of Christendom have – and this has been encouraged by wars and their economic, political and technological effects – succumbed to various false religions – worship of government and politics, idolization of celebrity, belief in immediate gratification of desires, which drives out any belief in an eternal reward, made immensely worse by the spread of mind-altering drugs and sterile sex, both of which absolutely demand a selfish ethical system where the individual is sovereign, it is this belief that ‘I am in charge of my own body’ which is the reason for the campus enthusiasm for the new atheism.
Risen Magazine: How do you define good and evil?
Peter Hitchens: I believe in the absolute goodness of God. Evil is the absence of God, or the willful denial of God’s law, or the deliberate turning away of our faces from God. He never turns his face from us, but we often turn our faces away from him. The easiest understanding of this is metaphorical. Good and evil are like light and darkness. Darkness has no positive force. You can project a beam of light, but not a beam of darkness. Darkness is an absence, not a presence, similarly for heat and cold.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2013