A very human perspective on an intellectual debate

Just read a great article by Peter Hitchens. I guess its publicizing his new book “Rage Against God”, but it felt very honest and insightful none the less.

In it he tells how he came back to God after a long time of rebellion.

Peter Hitchens

The full details would be tedious for most people, and unwelcome to my family. Let us just say they include some political brawling with the police, some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs, an arrest…

There were also numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty, dishonour, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking, cowardice, spite or pure selfishness. Nothing I could now do or say could possibly atone for them.

A picture played a key role in his conversion:

No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return to religion, specifically a painting: Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th Century Last Judgement, which I saw in Burgundy while on holiday.

Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgement

I had scoffed at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell.

These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions.

On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.

He snuck into a carol concert, got married in a church, then his wife and first daughter got baptised. At first he was loathed to talk about his faith in most circles but:

It is a strange and welcome side effect of the growing attack on Christianity in British society that I have now overcome this.


He asks “Why the fury against religion now?”

Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law.

The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of power worship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

Science is not the sole discoverer of truth:

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher’s passion against God grew more virulent and confident.

As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.

The argument from morals:

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

This is a key, key question! Where is the standard for right and wrong? I know Christopher does believe in the transcendent, so would not go with Dawkins and Hawking on this. Some people would say that there is a transcendent moral truth that is knowable in part through reason, or is universally recognised in different cultures. They seem to doff their cap to it, and recognise it must be there but plead ignorance on the detail or feel the liberty to shape it with their own preferences. But I think we can argue a bit further without getting into too much speculation. First, with morality there must come justice. Morality without consequences of some kind is arbitrary and since we do not see total justice in this world it must come after the grave. Second, morality is a personal category. It’s not in impersonal force but a personal ought. If I do something wrong I have done more than moved something with a physical force, I have misused responsibly and responsibility is given by a person or persons. Hawking would have us believe that free will and presumably morality and justice are just concepts we use because we can’t do all the maths in real time to determine precisely how the matter and energy around us behaves.
Of Christopher’s insentience that Atheism is not to blame for the Stalin, Pol Pot etc:

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today.

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

I would really like to understand better Christopher’s reasoning for separating comuist regimes behaviour form their atheism.
Of his debate with his brother in April 2008 (see here for my blogs on it):

Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected –and some might have hoped – that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not.

Both of us, I suspect, recoiled from such an exhibition, which might have been amusing for others, because we were brothers –but would have been wrong, because we are brothers.

At the end I concluded that, while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was, and remains, more important to me than the debate itself.

His hope for his brother:

I am not hoping for a late conversion because he has won the battle against cigarettes. He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.

I have, however, the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault, and that religion does not poison everything.

An interesting point about the mediums on which truth is communicated:

Those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.

He ends like this:

Let us not be sentimental here, nor rashly over-optimistic. But I was astonished, on that spring evening by the Grand River, to find that the longest quarrel of my life seemed unexpectedly to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us.

It may actually be true, as I have long hoped that it would be, in the words of T. S. Eliot, that ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.

I found it a very moving and insightful article throwing a very human perspective on the debate about the existence and nature of God. There is something very apt about it taking place between brothers as the existence of God, is at heart, not an intellectual question but  a relational question. As we consider God’s existence we are not involved in scientific discovery, but relational reconciliation. We long to arrive back at the beginning again and have the relationship that mankind once enjoyed with God. The good news is that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can get it back in spades.

You can read the whole article here:


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