Jun 1, 2011

Old Answers to the New Atheism: An Interview with Peter Hitchens

4 Min Read

Many Christians are aware of the hostile atheism of Christopher Hitchens. However, few Christians are aware that his brother, Peter, was also for many years antagonistic toward Christianity and a self-avowed atheist like his brother. Unlike Christopher, however, Peter is a prodigal son who has returned home. The story of the way God used simple beauties, such as architecture and painting, to draw Peter to faith is truly moving. Many Christians have wondered what is going on inside the heads of atheists to make them so angry. In this interview, Peter Hitchens gives us a glimpse into his life and thought as a Christian who was converted from atheism.

Tabletalk: Some of our readers will not have read your book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, by the time this goes to print. Specifically, what are atheism’s three failed arguments?

Peter Hitchens: Atheism has dozens of failed arguments. The ones I felt qualified to deal with were these: that religion, and specifically Christianity, is a major cause of conflict; that an effective moral code can exist without a belief in the eternal; and my brother’s claim that the Soviet regime was religious in character.

TT: In The Rage Against God, you describe yourself as being a part of “robust English Protestantism.” What does that mean?

PH: Oh, it’s a contrast to what in my schooldays would have been called the soppy sort of Christianity, a vaguely effeminate, stained-glass piety of incense and ritual, as opposed to a strong-voiced, earthy, unsuperstitious faith.

TT: What was accurate about your headmaster’s suggestion that the deaths of those you loved would change your atheistic stance? How does the death of a loved one challenge atheism at its core?

PH: Death is the great reminder that this life is limited, and that it may not be the end. For most of our lives, we behave as if this is not so. It is only when death touches those close to us that we are forced into this understanding, especially in a modern world where death is kept at a distance, ignored, undiscussed, and shuffled off into corners.

TT: What is the major failure of Christian education in the modern West?

PH: Its lack of poetry. The abandonment of the great poetic text of the King James Bible (and of the Book of Common Prayer, for those to whom it once applied) has rendered Christianity banal and chilly to three generations. Much of what Christ said is communicable in poetry, which contains meanings prose is unable to express. The same could be said for the abandonment of much of the church’s classical musical tradition.

TT: Contra Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, how is the raising up of children in Christianity decidedly not child abuse?

PH: Why presume guilt? The accusation is grotesque and baseless. Let them be challenged to show why it is, if it is. And to withdraw if they cannot.

TT: Is there any advice you can give to believers in America on how to be faithful to Christ as our country becomes more blatantly and unapologetically secular?

PH: Not really. Don’t expect to be popular, perhaps — and even learn to enjoy being unpopular. Christians in parts of the world where Islam or secularism are triumphant will have a rough time in this world, and so will be more interested in the importance of the next world than they might otherwise be. I believe Egypt’s Coptic Christians actually give thanks for this, as it strengthens their faith. I like being safe and comfortable far too much to welcome the idea, but I have to admit that it seems to me that the Copts have a point. They live more closely with Christ than we do because they must swim against the stream.

TT: In what ways can we show our love for friends and family who are atheists and who may have succumbed to the intolerance prevalent among many atheists today?

PH: Not, I think, by pressing our case on them, nor by returning intolerance for intolerance. People choose atheism. It is a deliberate and conscious act, involving far greater certainty than I can muster on this subject. They do this for a reason. If you can find out what that reason is, then you argue rationally with them about it . This may benefit any uncommitted people in your audience, but will probably make no impact on them. The chances are that they have rejected Christianity because they have correctly understood what it involves and do not wish to follow it. And they believe, as a logical result of this view, that Christianity, as a force, should be driven out of modern life.

Peter Hitchens, brother of prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster. He has authored five books, including his most recent The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, in which he walks the reader through the struggles that led him to atheism and, ultimately, what caused him to see the system of atheism as unsustainable and embrace Christianity.