Hitchens, Hitchens and God, too

When Peter Hitchens was eight years old, and his older brother Christopher was 11, their father asked the two hotheaded young Brits to sign a peace treaty. "I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall," noted Peter Hitchens, in a recent essay published in The Daily Mail. "To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. ... Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes."

Under ordinary circumstances, a column in a London newspaper about a fractured relationship between two brothers would not warrant much attention among readers who care about matters of faith and doubt.

The Hitchens brothers, however, are not your usual brothers.

As an adult, Peter Hitchens regained his Christian faith, after years as an atheist and his new book is entitled, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith." The title of this column was more conciliatory: "How I found God and peace with my atheist brother."

Big brother Christopher, meanwhile, has become famous as an evangelist for atheism, a scribe who revels in stabbing sacred cows with his pen -- as in his book, "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice." Then there is his bestseller, "God is not Great: Religion Poisons Everything."

"There are," he argues, "four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. ...

"God did not create man in his own image. Evidently, it was the other way about, which is the painless explanation for the profusion of gods and religions, and the fratricide both between and among faiths, that we see all about us and that has so retarded the development of civilization."

Hitchens the younger understands that logic, in large part because he once walked the same road. As a teen, he burned his Bible outside his Cambridge school. To his disappointment, "Thunder did not mutter." He set out to rebel against everything that he had been taught was good and right and holy. This is what smart British boys of his generation were supposed to do.

Eventually, he stopped avoiding churches and great religious art -- leaving him open to unsettling messages from the past. While gazing at one 15th century painting of the Last Judgment, he found himself emotionally and intellectually moved.

"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," noted Hitchens. "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.

"I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head."

Then came the great oaths of his wedding rites, followed by the baptisms of his formerly atheistic wife and their daughter. A fellow journalist heard that Hitchens had returned to church and, with "a look of mingled pity and horror," bluntly asked, "How can you do that?"

The twist in this story is that while Peter Hitchens has returned to faith, and Christopher has grown more and more outspoken in his crusade against faith, the brothers have gradually regained their affection for one another. And while many have urged them to turn their personal debates about God and the nature of moral truth into an intellectual traveling circus, neither of the brothers wants to do that.

"I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers' war. ... 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," noted Peter Hitchens.

"I can only add that 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."