But for a pair of much-hyped debates, as they were billed, in 2008 and 2010 (see also), I had not previously heard much, on this side of the planet, of Christopher Hitchen’s brother, Peter. Both events mentioned were, to my view, more exposition match than anything approaching what I’d construe as competitive battle. These were spectacles in which the unknown Peter Hitchens could appear to the world unassuming and having no particular agenda; he could be seen, too, mirroring wits with the quite well-known Hitchens. The honest attempts were made.
Peter Hitchens writes for The Daily Mail and it may be no surprise to those more familiar with his writing that he has something rather specific in mind when he speaks of “journalism”. In constructing what would pass as his idea of an objective story, he appears to take as granted that journalism as such — and this emphasis is in his words — is “for changing opinions”. Why emphasis on the didactic? I think he wants more out of journalism than mere investigation, reporting, and analysis.
Peter Hitchens, Atheism and Reason
I sense in Peter Hitchens a bit of the longing one hears from that class of pious, but envious Christians unfairly condemned to a childhood of middle class prosperity, for a spicy story of coming up from the gutter, of miraculously and redemptively coming to one’s senses before being pulled up by one’s bootstraps from misery into the Light of God, and so on.
Simultaneously, doesn’t he merely assume that an atheistic brain would be formed in rebellion against one’s parents and against the village priest? We hear none of the entirely external and accusatory labeling from one’s peers or enemies and none of the relentless pressure of religious demagoguery pantomiming offense by one’s lack of shared, simple-minded credulity.
You might sense that I take this personally. Well, I have to wonder who it is who ever becomes an atheist by “renunciation” and Bible burning at fifteen? Who does that even at thirty or any age without having first come to some kind of realization about facts? Just between you and me, I think Peter Hitchens was no more an “atheist” than was the sentimental and misguided C.S.Lewis who likened his own faux “atheism” to a lifestyle of practicing witchcraft1! Where is any of the skeptical and naturalistic reasoning in that, I wonder?
Along those lines I have to ask, too, what kind of rational thought would lead to a “…feeling of falling through the floor…” and a fear of invisible judgement? Where is the reasoning in speaking enigmatically and patronizingly of atheists not knowing “…the forces they are summoning out of the ground”? I hear in those asides none of the previously boasted intellect. Rather, I get the impression more of a slightly paranoid imagination flitting with swarms of flames and demons and masses of torch-bearing peasants: He conveys in these statements not reason and method, but fear and not a little bit of dark resentment.
He might ever hope his brother would have a change of mind. Knowing at least of his brother, if never actually having read a single one of his books or perhaps even occasionally speaking to him directly, how then can Peter have failed to understand what was enunciated so precisely in so many and disparate volumes? Well, clearly, he did fail. But what could he offer in that spirit (and in kind) that would ever hope to bring a rational and evidence-driven mind around to his way of apocalyptic thinking?
I do think I might know how he misunderstood. He intimates subtly that no religious person — no Christian — would succumb to mere emotionalism. He says plainly that [emphasis mine]:
“…most educated atheists are much more suddenly ambushed in the heart than are ever likely to be convinced by a reasoned argument”
He stops with that emphasis on atheists! Whatever it is to be “an atheist” with no acknowledgement of what is common to all people. It is often true, in fact, following his train of thought, that one does sometimes seem to sense falsity before one is aware of knowing what is false: You might smell the lie on the preacher’s breath before fully grasping it rationally. Yes, there is power in (good) poetry: Verse most definitely speaks to the heart when all of the strained and pretentious arguments, couched in false motives might leave the mind confused or insensible. For all of the emotional ambushes, though, how does a mind, once in fact fully apprehending what is plainly false, continue to ignore what is plainly false while yet remaining unchanged? So, what can begin with a poetic feeling for the false is or can be transformed by reason and more information (pardon me for overstating the obvious) into knowledge: Having felt, known and understood, what kind of argument could ever change the evidence and one’s apprehension of it?
Peter Hitchens, Christianity and Conservatism
He says both too much and too little when he promises that “eventually the darkness falls” for a nation which ceases Christianity. It is too much to appeal to those who claim to have not really wanted the influence they lost through their own abuse and bad fortune. It is too easy to tell anyone and everyone that they are going to suffer vague consequences for what they think, then step back and watch.
But it is false anyway. What “darkness” is this that for the first time in human history, despite evident war and famine, most of the planet is nevertheless connected, desirous of well-being for people on the other side of the world (if not their immediate neighbors), less xenophobic, less prone to murder, more likely to cooperate than not. It isn’t much, I’ll admit, but what good has Christianity or any other monotheism or any other cult brought that philosophy, secular government, and critical, liberal culture didn’t bring first, better, and more abundantly for more people?
Maybe Peter Hitches is afraid, as was James Madison — also without supporting evidence — that society would tear apart if everyone stopped believing in god. I suspect a tone in his voice and at any rate would only counter that that’s blatantly and transparently cynical anyway. Then again, maybe he is being completely sincere and really does think that belief, per se, translates to a better society: This would suggest a plug not just for the Imitation of Christ, but for the Transformation of Christ and would signal his complete failure as a journalist: What group least epitomizes such transformation in the aggregate than those who identify most keenly as His Faithful? You cannot change history, but you might change the way people think (or don’t) about that same history. These are the opinions he may want to change. This may be the reason for his personal emphasis on the didactic?
What Does Peter Hitchens Want?
An agenda can be seen only hazily in this shadow man, desperate to display his credentials and follow straight away in the slipstream of a more successful sibling: That agenda is to get away with asserting one’s worldview at the expense of all else. I think he is pretending to what he thinks is a superior logic and special brand of reason. He hints at evidence which is never forthcoming. Maybe this agenda has to do with loss of privilege or a perceived slight or disrespect or just the fear of imagined and invisible, divine Judges. The Conservative agenda does seem always directed towards protecting special privilege.