Prodigal Brother

Peter Hitchens takes us on a breathless journey through the landscape of modern ideologies and the decline of Christianity in the Western world. The genre here is of “confessions” such as Apologia Pro Vita Sua of the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman. This is a genuine story of a conversion, of someone who has long neglected, indeed rejected, religion, coming around to a Christian worldview as the most satisfying account of the cosmos and of our selves. The book can also be read as a continuing debate with his militantly atheist brother, Christopher, even though there are protestations throughout the book that he does not wish to debate publicly again with him.

He charges his brother with assuming that moral truths are “self-evident” when they are only so because of the framework provided by a moral and spiritual tradition. Peter is certain that morality cannot be based merely on utilitarianism, opinion polls or focus groups. For fundamental truths, such as the inalienable dignity of persons, freedom or equality, we must appeal to a transcendental ground for them. The Judaeo-Christian tradition provides this whether in terms of the common origin of humanity or its creation in the divine image or the possibility of obedience to the divine command being based on the freedom to respond to such a summons.

The question is not whether atheists can be moral but from where the moral codes come to which we seek to adhere. The great codes rose in close association with the main religions and, in a Western context, from the Ten Commandments, the teaching of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Peter disagrees with Christopher about the impossibility of loving our neighbours as ourselves, noting that sacrifice (that is, of loving them more than ourselves) is a fact of daily experience: mothers for the sake of their children; medical and relief workers for those who are ill or in danger; husbands and wives caring for their partners through terminal and distressing illnesses; and soldiers on the battlefield.

While conscience continues to be formed by the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition, it is being undermined by several forces. Peter highlights the corrosive effects of the two world wars and the disillusion that they have brought. But he is also conscious of the deliberate way in which Marxists and neo-Marxists have sought to undermine “bourgeois morality” as preparation for the revolution. Whatever advanced its arrival was good. Today’s radical secularists may have lost the thirst for revolution but the social agenda of neo-Marxism has become an end in itself. There remain strong connections, however, between the New Atheism and the Old: restricting the freedom of speech in promoting a politically-correct utopia; interfering with the right of free association; extending the role of the State; and schemes to “protect” children from the religious influence of their parents are some of the areas which are seen by Peter as points of attachment to the old way of doing things.

The New Atheists confuse fundamental human rights with the right to instant self-gratification and self-indulgence, which not only weaken society from the inside but also render it less able to counter any threats to it from outside.

He gives is a good account of the substitutes for true religion, such as the post-war cult of Winston Churchill, or national or local observances, such as Remembrance Day ceremonies. There is a great deal of criticism of a kind of hyper-patriotism founded on a false religiosity. But what is the basis for a critical but real patriotism? Must it not be in the defence of a shared story that is not so much about race or place as about the transformed understanding of persons and of society brought by the story of the Bible? Hitchens says of the terrorists that they “know how to die” because they have a shared story, even if it is a false one. Can our soldiers make sense of their situation in the context of a shared story? If their sacrifices are to mean anything, we must provide such a story that is worth defending and even dying for. 

There can be little national renewal without significant strengthening of marriage and family life. Although families and households can be large or small, extended or nuclear, the close and unique bonds between parents and children lie near the heart of authentic family living. Hitchens tells us that atheists are morally self-confident whereas Christians sense the need for forgiveness and for penitence. A recognition of our weakness and wrongdoing and our seeking of forgiveness are basic to Christianity. I sympathise with his concern that this is being soft-pedalled in the modern Church, where talk of repentance is deeply unpopular. Personal and social renewal will come only when we see where and how we have gone wrong and attempt to put things right.

Religious Education cannot continue to be an interesting description of exotic religions and their practices. It must instead encourage children to learn about the world’s religious diversity from the vantage point of the narrative at the root of British society and its social, political, literary and architectural achievements. 

A shared narrative leads to inclusion rather than exclusion. The inventors of multiculturalism were not so much seeking to include people of other faiths as to exclude Christianity, especially as a basis for welcoming and hospitable society. A common story, based on Judaeo-Christian traditions, can be a means of integration, making clear where Britain has come from and the values for which it stands, while inviting others to make their own distinctive contribution to the story.

One of the abiding canards nailed by Peter Hitchens is that religion causes conflict. He does this by showing that so-called “religious” wars had many other elements to them, such as greed for territory, political ambition and nationalism. His repeated references to Soviet brutality reveal that secular ideologies have caused more suffering in recent times than any conflict associated with religion.

This book is a rattling good read. It is also personal testimony. Having effectively analysed our current malaise, it sets out a programme for redressing the problems. As we face the General Election, this is perhaps the most important reason for reading it.

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