Curriculum Vital

    ‘Think on these things’
    A comparison of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, and The Rage Against God: Why Faith is the Foundation of Civilisation, by Peter Hitchens

    1. Introduction
    2. Epiphanies – How each man lost or (re)gained his faith
    3. 'Yes, I believe, but what do I believe?'
    4. 'Why do you wish for there to be no God?'
    5. 'Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?'
    6. 'Is religion child abuse?'
    7. 'The Soviet Union did not so much negate religion as seek to replace it.'
    8. Conclusion

    Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

    Introduction

    This article is intended as a resource for teachers of Religious Studies. Its purpose is to offer a balanced view of the New Atheism and Christianity by examining two books by two brothers, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything , by Christopher Hitchens, and The Rage Against God: Why Faith is the Foundation of Civilisation, by Peter Hitchens. With a new GCSE Religious Studies programme of study in force in England since September 2016, my hope is that this analysis will provide an interesting resource for a challenging subject.

    Published in 2007, God Is Not Great is one of the core texts of the New Atheism. The Rage Against God, published two years later, is Peter Hitchens’ response to his brother’s polemic. In between, in April 2008, the brothers took part in a televised debate in Grand Rapids, Michigan on the subjects of ‘God and War’. As Peter describes in the epilogue of his book, the organisers and attendees had clearly hoped for a fierce squabble in which the brothers rekindled their childhood rivalry and ‘pelted each other with slime’. The debate was interesting, but the anticipated acrimony never appeared. Furthermore, each brother decided ‘unbidden’ that it would be the last gathering of its kind, lest the act turn into, as Peter writes, ‘a regular travelling circus, becoming steadily more phoney as it progressed round the circuit.’

    You will have to read The Rage Against God to find out why the evening descended into peace and civility. My point is that, unlike the organisers of that poignant (though not unique) reunion, I am not trying to stoke sibling rivalry (which, in any case, became impossible when Christopher died in 2011). I have chosen to compare and contrast these books because they are among the most popular in their fields; because one is a response to the other; because they are well written; and because, yes, it is fascinating to consider that two brothers, greatly alike in speech, manner and appearance, born two and a half years apart to the same unreligious parents, should follow the same career path (‘the scribbling trade’) around the world, earn similar levels of success and adoration, share the same passion for many of the same interests (poetry, politics, literature, architecture, history, to name a few), having long held membership of the same political parties and organisations, to the point where they were, as one writes, ‘far closer than most people think’ on some questions, undergo equally tumultuous metamorphoses around middle age, and yet emerge with such profoundly different opinions of God and Christianity.

    We shall touch on some of these similarities and convergences, but let us first begin with what was for one brother a single journey to de-conversion and atheism, and for the other a return journey from Christianity to angry apostasy. From there, I shall describe what each man (dis)believes, and then examine Peter’s rebuttals to several of Christopher’s arguments. I shall conclude with some thoughts on what the two (non)beliefs have in common and how they might co-exist.

    Epiphanies – How each man lost or (re)gained his faith

    Apostasy

    Christopher’s epiphany came at the age of nine at his primary school near Dartmoor. One day, his nature and scripture teacher, Mrs Watts, ‘a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith’, tried to fuse her two roles. She told the class that God, in his infinite kindness, ‘made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the colour that is most restful to our eyes.’ How awful it would be, she added, if all the foliage were bright orange.

    Though ignorant of Darwinism, photosynthesis, chlorophyll and genomes, Christopher ‘simply knew’, almost, he adds wryly, as if he had ‘privileged access to a higher authority’, that Mrs Watts was mistaken. Our eyes had evolved to the greenery, not the other way round.

    Three years later, at the same school, Christopher’s stern headmaster (‘a bit of a sadist and a closeted homosexual’) told him and a group of his classmates one evening, “You may not see the point of all this faith now. But you will one day, when you start to lose loved ones.” ‘Why,’ writes Christopher, ‘that would be as much as saying that religion might not be true, but never mind that, since it can be relied upon for comfort. How contemptible.’

    Peter heard the same thing at the age of 12 when he boldly informed his inquiring headmaster that he was a non-believer. Confident in his new-found non-belief, he rejected the “consolation” argument, but has since found it ‘to be accurate’.

    On a spring afternoon in Cambridge three years later, Peter’s apostasy reached a climax (or nadir) when the rebellious 15-year-old just about managed to set fire to his well worn copy of the King James Bible that had been gifted to him by his parents: ‘This was my Year Zero.’ The irony of Peter’s adolescent arson is that, as he has discovered since his reconversion a few decades ago, the King James (or Authorised) Bible is increasingly rare in modern, diluted Anglican Christianity.

    Entrenchment

    Any lingering fondness for religion Christopher may have had was extinguished on 14 February, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, proclaimed a fatwa, ‘a simultaneous death sentence and life sentence’, on Christopher’s friend Salman Rushdie in response to Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. ‘To be more precise,’ writes Christopher, ‘the theocratic head of a foreign state… publicly offered money, in his own name, to suborn the murder of a novelist who was a citizen of another country… It is impossible to imagine a greater affront to every value of free expression.’

    What enraged Christopher more than the original fatwa (a childish attempt by Khomeini to go one better than several bellicose Muslim groups elsewhere) was the ecumenical support against ‘blasphemy’ from the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the chief Sephardic rabbi of New York and other religious figures. In his memoirs, Hitch-22, Christopher summarises this confrontation as ‘everything I love versus everything I hate.’

    Two decades earlier, Peter, free to behave ‘without fear of eternal consequences’, had experienced the following:

    some political brawling with the police, some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs, less damaging than I deserved, an arrest – richly merited by my past behaviour but actually wrongful – for being in possession of an offensive weapon, very nearly killing someone else (and incidentally myself) through criminal irresponsibility while riding a motorcycle, and numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty, dishonour, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking, cowardice, spite or pure selfishness.

    So what was it that yanked Peter from his self-imposed stupour of ‘selfism’?

    Renaissance

    Where Christopher’s faith faded amid the beauty of nature, Peter’s reawakened before the beauty of art.

    In the chapter ‘A rediscovery of lost faith’ Peter describes a visit to France in his late twenties with his then-girlfriend, now wife. One day they visited the ancient hospital in the town of Beaune. There, most unwontedly, Peter glimpsed and was entranced by Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century altarpiece ‘Last Judgement’. Mouth agape, he contemplated the naked figures hurtling towards the pit of hell: ‘These people’, he writes, ‘did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation.’

    He stresses that the moment was not a ‘religious experience’. He simply ‘had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time.’ Contemplating all the ‘misdeeds’ of his recent past, he felt sure that he was ‘among the damned, if there were any damned.’ In other words, he was afraid.

    Peter does wonder if he should be ‘ashamed’ of the part fear played in his return to Christianity. From two and a half years living in Soviet Moscow and a visit to war-torn Somalia, amongst other foreign travel, he knows ‘proper fear’. Nothing, though, compares to what he felt when he first regarded van der Weyden’s altarpiece. ‘Fear is good for us,’ he writes, ‘and helps us to escape from great dangers. Those who do not feel it are in permanent peril because they cannot see the risks that lie at their feet.’ Later in the same chapter, he writes that he nodded to himself during his wedding when the Rector read Psalm 128, which begins, ‘Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways.’

    By contrast, “Being forced to love someone whom you must also fear,” as Christopher said during numerous debates and literature festivals, “is the very essence of sadomasochism; the essence of the master-slave relationship; the essence of abjection.”

    Christopher was not moved in the same way by van der Weyden’s altarpiece, if he ever glimpsed it. He was, though, shot at several times in different countries, and equally capable of realising that much of what he had believed in and defended had been wrong. Around the time of Peter’s moment of lucidity in Beaune, Christopher was reaching a similarly uneasy conclusion about Britain’s new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The worst of ‘Thatcherism’, he writes in his memoirs, was ‘the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.’

    Vocabulary

    • Apostasy
    • Epiphany
    • Blasphemy
    • Scripture
    • Eternal
    • King James Bible
    • Fatwa
    • Year Zero

    People

    • Salman Rushdie
    • Ayatollah Khomeini
    • Roger Van Der Weyden

    Discuss

    • Have you ever changed a long-held opinion or belief? How and why did you arrive at your new viewpoint?
    • Have you ever protested against or in favour of something? If not, what would make you take to the streets in protest?
    • Have you ever or would you ever set fire to a book? Which one and why?
    • Have you ever been moved by a piece of art? 

    Debate

    • Creationism vs. Darwinism
    • Blasphemy vs. Free speech
    • Fear vs. Freedom

    Analyse

    Look at this image of the front of Rogier van der Weyden’s 1450 altarpiece ‘Last Judgement’:

    Last Judgement

    1. Can you identify any of the figures or what they represent?
    2. Why do you think this piece of art had such a profound effect on Peter Hitchens?

    ‘Yes, I believe, but what do I believe?’

    Before we go any further let us define what each man believes or does not believe.

    Peter Hitchens is a Christian. Christopher Hitchens considered himself an atheist and an anti-theist.

    To understand ‘atheist’ and ‘anti-theist’ one must first define deism and theism. Deism, from the Latin deus (‘god’), is belief in a supreme creator, or Prime Mover, who created life but who does not intervene in human affairs. Theism, from the Greek word for ‘god’ (theos), is the belief in a supreme creator who intervenes (some would say interferes) in human affairs, and who favours those who obey his prescribed rules. Polytheists (e.g., some Hindus) believe in multiple gods. Monotheists (e.g., Jews, Christians and Muslims) believe in one god.

    Atheism is disbelief in the existence of gods or God. “It may not be said that there is no God,” Christopher told the audience at his 2008 debate with Peter, “but it may be said that there is no reason to think that there is one.” In the course of writing (and promoting) his book God Is Not Great, he crafted the school of ‘anti-theism’. That is, even if one proved the existence of God, Christopher would oppose him. Belief in such a supreme being, he writes, ‘seems like the wish for a horrible form of benevolent and unalterable dictatorship.’

    One of Peter’s main points of disagreement with Christopher is the latter’s assertion, in the opening chapter of God Is Not Great, that ‘Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith.’ On the contrary, writes Peter, the ‘new anti-theism is… a dogmatic tyranny in the making.’ Atheists ‘cannot admit that their... insistence that there is no God is in fact a faith’. He has elsewhere summarised the atheist position as ‘There is no God, and I hate him.’

    Peter believes that if one does not accept Christianity, the only rational position is agnosticism. Gnosticism, from the Greek word for knowledge, was one of the earliest forms of Christianity. Some of first Greek converts to Christianity claimed to have particular knowledge of the truth of Jesus’s life and teachings. They became known as gnostikoi (‘those with a choice to claim knowledge’). In the 17th century, a Cambridge scholar named Henry More crafted this into ‘Gnosticism’. An agnostic believes that nothing is known or can be known about the existence or nature of God. What does Peter believe?

    Though in the third part of his book he describes his faith as ‘robust English Protestantism’, Peter is, in fact, often quite coy about what precisely this entails. He writes in chapter six, ‘Homo sovieticus’, that his reasons for reconverting to Christianity were ‘profoundly personal, to do with marriage and fatherhood – a cliché of rediscovery which is too obvious and universal, and also too profound, private and unique to discuss with strangers.’ “Do I believe in the resurrection?” he asked himself with ironic indifference in an interview once, “Well, on some days it’s easier than others.”

    What matters to Peter is the Authorised Bible and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer: “Everything else is just a growth on top… I don’t pay much attention to it.” As discussed in the previous chapter, when he returned to Christianity in his early 30s Peter was dismayed to find in one church after another the Authorised Bible replaced with a banal ‘International’ version and the Prayer Book banished entirely in a vain attempt at modernisation. He regards the phasing out of these books as a great loss for both Christianity and the English language.

    The Authorised Bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book, Peter writes, ‘were written to be spoken aloud, by countrymen to whom poetry was constantly present and normal in every action, from sowing and reaping to the cutting of hedges and the planing of wood.’ In his epilogue, Peter states 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.’

    Let us use poetry, then, to explore the beliefs of modern Christians, in the form of ‘Credo’ by the English poet Anthony Thwaite, from his book Going Out:

    Yes, I believe, but what do I believe?
    Leave out the bits conveniently that stick
    Stiff in my throat and seem much too absurd,
    Or look too much a conjuror’s bad trick,
    All those measurements of Arks (Noah’s and Covenant’s)
    As if they mattered, Paul laying down the law unyieldingly,
    Or churches filled with soft moans and cheery ditties
    Like some third-rate American musical,
    Waugh’s ‘chapter of blood-curdling military history’,
    And bleating synods bickering over women…

    The objections are so many, the stumbling-blocks
    Trip me at almost every turn, until
    Exhaustion makes me silent. Dare I say:
    Yes, I believe, because despite all that
    It’s true and trusted, and I hear him speak
    Clear in his mysteries direct to me?
    The accusers come to demand his rough judgement.
    He scratches something in the dust, and finds
    The woman taken in adultery standing there
    Alone, and the accusers crept away
    Knowing their guilt, knowing their impotence.

    The gentle riddles of the parables,
    That last great cry high on the bloody cross,
    The stone rolled back, and Mary suddenly
    Knowing his voice, and all the voices raised
    At Pentecost in those alien tongues,
    Appearing, disappearing, going on,
    The bread and wine, the simple reached-for things
    So difficult to swallow. Yet I believe.
    ‘Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief’.

    This poem artfully describes the inner conflicts of Christians who, like Peter, find themselves ‘skulking behind the pillar at the back’: the weariness of having to defend so many Jewish myths (‘As if they mattered’); the unease that many Christians feel at merely having to affirm their faith (‘Dare I say: / Yes, I believe…?’); a hint of that fear (‘the accusers crept away / Knowing their guilt, knowing their impotence’); and the fact that, as Peter writes, ‘Christianity is without doubt difficult and taxing’ (‘The objections are so many, the stumbling-blocks / Trip me at almost every turn’). Furthermore, the final line, from Mark 9:24, written in iambic pentameter, supports Peter’s assertion that the Authorised Bible is poetic rather than (in every sense) prosaic.

    ‘Credo’ also presents an opportunity to further explore another of Christopher’s arguments for atheism. The last five lines of the poem’s second stanza recount the well known story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3–11). ‘Who has not heard or read’ asks Christopher,

    of how the Jewish Pharisees, skilled in casuistry, dragged this poor woman before Jesus and demanded to know if he agreed with the Mosaic punishment of stoning her to death? If he did not, he violated the law. If he did, he made nonsense of his own preachings. One easily pictures the squalid zeal with which they pounced upon the woman. And the calm reply (after writing on the ground) —“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”—has entered our literature and our consciousness.

    Christopher then questions the story’s logicality, morality and veracity. Does Jesus’s pardoning of the young woman not undermine the laws of Moses while encouraging sexual permissiveness? What happened to the adulteress’ male partner? And what was Jesus ‘scratching’ in the dust? Furthermore, why are these verses so different in style and language from the rest of John’s Gospel? The evidence points to one conclusion: the story was added much later on. ‘So, then,’ writes Christopher, ‘let the advocates and partisans of religion rely on faith alone, and let them be brave enough to admit that this is what they are doing.’

    Such a critique of the Gospels is nothing new, not even among Christians. The crucial question is whether it matters if Christianity is or is not a revealed religion. In his 1851 essay The Creed of Christendom, the English essayist William Rathbone Greg wrote,

    It is true we have no longer absolute certainty with regard to any one especial text or scene; such is neither necessary nor attainable; it is true that, instead of passively accepting the whole heterogeneous and indigestible mass, we must… separate what Christ did, from what he did not teach, as best we may. But the task will be difficult to those only who look in the Gospels for a minute, dogmatic, and sententious creed; not to those who seek only to learn Christ’s spirit that they may imbibe it, and to comprehend his views of virtue and of God, that they may draw strength and consolation from those fountains of living water.

    This is the kind of ‘modest, accommodating and thoughtful’ Christianity that Peter believes contains a ‘vital truth.’

    Vocabulary and terminology

    • Christian
    • Atheism
    • Anti-theism
    • Theism
    • Deism
    • Gnosticism
    • Agnosticism
    • Credo
    • Synod
    • Pentecost
    • Revealed religion

    Biblical references

    • Mark 9:24
    • John 8:3-11

    Discuss

    • What is the difference between atheism and agnosticism?
    • Which is more rational: theism or deism? Which came first?
    • Can one be an atheist without being an anti-theist? Can one be Christian and anti-theist?
    • Why might marriage and fatherhood make one (re)embrace Christianity?

    Debate

    • Atheism is a belief.
    • Anti-theism is ‘a dogmatic tyranny in the making’.
    • One does not need to believe in the truth of the Gospels in order to be a Christian.

    Analyse

    Reread Anthony Thwaite’s poem ‘Credo’.

    • What aspects of Christianity does Thwaite not like?
    • What are some of the ‘stumbling blocks’ to Thwaite’s belief?

    ‘Why do you wish for there to be no God?’

    For Peter the honest answer to this question, but one atheists won't admit, is what he dubs 'selfism'.

    The new ‘cult of the unrestrained self,’ Peter argues, ‘unleashed into the Western world by Freud and Reich, Kinsey and Marcuse, promoted by the self-pitying anthems of rock music and encouraged by the enormous power of ‘progressive’ education’ is actively hostile to the Christian God because it views absolute moral authority as a threat to unrestrained consumerism, extra-marital sex and unfettered drug use. Furthermore, anti-theists do not wish to acknowledge an equality with, much less submit to and then imitate, their parents, ancestors, teachers or parish leaders. As Peter writes of his atheist days:

    I regarded marriage as something to be avoided, abortion as a sensible necessity and safeguard, homosexuality as very nearly admirable. I renounced patriotism, too… I have come to think that this readiness to live entirely in the present – in which we spare ourselves any self-reproach and fail completely to see ourselves as others see us – is a metaphor for the Godless state, in which we simultaneously ignore the experience and warnings of our past and the unknown, limitless dangers of our future.

    Peter then turns to a frank confession by Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, in his book The Last Word:

    I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

    Anti-theists, as Peter notes, find it difficult or even impossible to countenance that a person who is kind, intelligent and successful can also be a Christian; that Christian schools (in the real rather than nominal sense) often outperform non-religious comprehensives and academies; that for a Christian couple to explain their beliefs to their inquiring children is an act of good parenting, not abuse; and that eschewing immoral behaviour for fear of divine retribution is better than secular selfism.

    A further cause of the anti-theists’ vexation is that Christians attempt to fill with their faith some or all of the innumerable and immeasurable gaps in our understanding of the cosmos. On this point, Peter again quotes Nagel:

    My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. One of the tendencies it supports is the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind.

    From here, Peter inverts his own question by addressing another of Nagel’s interesting points. ‘I am curious,’ writes Nagel, ‘whether there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God – anyone who, whatever his actual belief about the matter, doesn’t particularly want either one of the answers to be correct.’ Peter’s reply is that he ‘definitely’ has motives for his belief:

    I believe in God, and the Christian religion, at least partly because it suits me to do so. I prefer to believe that I live in an ordered universe with a purpose that I can at least partly discover. I derive my ideas of what is absolutely true, and of what is absolutely right, from this source. I need these ideas many times each day. How else can I function as a parent, as a citizen, as a reporter? I should be desolated if it could ever be proved that theism was false.

    Christopher would counter, as he did in the brothers’ 2008 debate, that this amounts to a wish to live “in a divine North Korea”, a country that both brothers have visited and discuss in their books. The analogy always drew a laugh from Christopher’s audiences, but, as Peter points out, a North Korean citizen who displayed even the most modest sign of Christian faith would quickly incur the full wrath of the ruling party.

    Christopher goes on to say that, for all North Korea’s privation, at least its citizens can “f*****g well die.” By contrast, he notes, for Christians it’s only after death that “the real fun begins”, and it’s only thanks to Jesus “meek and mild” that we have the concept of hell.

    It is the obligatory eternal attendance at this ‘after-party’ and the order from “the boss” to have fun that Christopher finds most distasteful.

    Vocabulary and terminology

    • Selfism
    • Consumerism
    • Abortion
    • Homosexuality
    • Self-reproach
    • The Absolute
    • Afterlife

    People

    • Thomas Nagel

    Geography

    • North Korea

    Discuss

    • Do you believe there is such a thing as ‘selfism’?
    • What does it mean to ‘live in the present’?
    • Do you want your belief(s) to be true? Do you want other beliefs to be untrue?

    Debate

    • Which statement do you agree with:

    ‘Families who are at the mercy of mere nature, with its inevitable demand for profusion, will be tied to a cycle that is not much better than animal. The best way of achieving a measure of control is by prophylaxis… The second-best fallback solution, which may sometimes be desirable for other reasons, is termination of pregnancy: an expedient which is regretted by many even when it has been undertaken in dire need. All thinking people recognise a painful conflict of rights and interests in this question, and strive to achieve a balance. The only proposition that is completely useless, either morally or practically, is the wild statement that sperms and eggs are all potential lives which must not be prevented from fusing and that, when united however briefly, have souls and must be protected by law’;

    ‘I have often thought that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with [the] sensation of lost control, of being pulled downward into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents. It is not the doomed baby that the unwilling parents hate (and generally it is the father who is liberated from his responsibilities through abortion, and who exerts pressure for it.) It is the life they might have to live if the baby is born’?

    Analyse

    • Freud and Reich, Kinsey and Marcuse – Who were they and how did they ‘unleash the cult of unrestrained self’ on the Western world?
    • North Korea – Who is the head of the government? Who is the head of the ruling party? Why is Christianity forbidden there? 

    ‘Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?’

    This chapter, the ninth of Peter’s book, is a riposte to chapter two of God Is Not Great, ‘Religion kills’, in which Christopher attempts to prove that religion is humanity’s main source of violence and hatred and the primary cause of some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

    “It is undoubtedly true that people commit horrific acts of evil in the name of religion”: this was Anthony Blair’s opening remark in his debate on religion with Christopher Hitchens in Toronto in November 2010. Christopher retorted: “They don’t do it ‘in the name of religion’. They do it because they believe they have scriptural authority.”

    There are numerous examples of this ‘scriptural authority’ in the foundational texts of the three Abrahamic monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). In A History of Christianity, Diarmaid MacCulloch writes, ‘The Epistle to Philemon is a Christian foundation document in the justification of slavery.’ Similarly, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams asked Tripoli’s ambassador in March 1785 what right the Barbary states had to take American sailors as slaves, they received the following answer: ‘it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged [Islam’s] authority were sinners, that it was their [Muslims’] right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners’. In Genesis 17:7 God says to Abraham, ‘I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God’, which is cited by some Israeli Jews as justification for building settlements in the West Bank.  

    Thus, Jews, Christians and Muslims have (if they choose to believe it) scriptural authority to commit murder, take slaves and colonise certain land. Christopher notes that none of the Ten Commandments condemns rape, genocide or child abuse, “perhaps because these things are about to be positively recommended.” Unsurprisingly, this has led and still leads to inter and intra-faith conflict based not on spurious evocation, but on the unambiguous commands of the relevant foundational texts. 

    To prove the catastrophic effects of this erroneous authority, Christopher analyses the recent (and in some cases on-going) conflicts in six cities – Belfast, Bethlehem, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade and Baghdad (deliberately chosen to show that one can prove ‘religion kills’ simply ‘by staying within the letter B’). Peter thinks Christopher’s arguments represent ‘a crude factual misunderstanding.’ He then analyses three of Christopher’s six examples – Belfast, Belgrade and Beirut. Let us begin with Belfast.

    Belfast

    ‘In Belfast’, writes Christopher, ‘I have seen whole streets burned out by sectarian warfare between different sects of Christianity, and interviewed people whose relatives and friends have been kidnapped and killed or tortured by rival religious death squads, often for no other reason than membership of another confession.’ In his memoirs, he describes being across the street from a Belfast pub the moment it was destroyed by a bomb, and another incident in which he was nearly killed by British troops who mistook him for a Republican terrorist.

    To describe the Troubles (the common term for the civil strife in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s) as being between Protestants and Catholics is, Peter argues, incorrect. It was not about

    the Real Presence of Christ or the validity of the Feast of Corpus Christi, nor even over the authority of the Bishop of Rome. It was a classic tribal war, over the ownership and control of territory, in which the much-decayed faiths of the people served as both badge and shorthand for a battle which disgusted the most faithful and enthused the least religious.

    This is what it means to fight ‘in the name of’ religion: the terms ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ were, as Peter writes, ‘badges’; the combatants were not religious and did not seek to convert their enemies; there were no attacks on churches or religious processions; neither side wished to prove its creed right and the other’s wrong.  

    The conflict did, though, ‘enthuse’ a number of religious people, such as the late Reverend Ian Paisley. A proud and pious Presbyterian and founder of the Democratic Unionist Party, Paisley openly mocked Catholicism (particularly the Eucharist) and resisted all attempts at ecumenical compromise. Similarly, the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and Provisional IRA member James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, who died in March 2017, was not an unenthusiastic Catholic.

    Belgrade and the Balkans

    On the subject of Belgrade and the Balkan wars of the mid 1990s the two brothers actually converge. Both point out that although the armed forces of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were, respectively, Christian Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim, western media generally referred to the first two by nationality and only the third by religion, despite the fact that, as Christopher writes, the Serbian and Croatian forces ‘went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts.’ Of the non-religious ‘religious’ conflict in Northern Ireland Peter writes, ‘The processions and funerals of each side were dominated by secular symbols… not by holy images’. If we apply this criteria to Yugoslavia, then the conflict was at least partly ‘about’ religion.

    Beirut

    The case of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, presents another difference of opinion, but also a greater source of agreement. The Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975 stemmed in part from the country’s sectarian constitution and rivalries between the different religious and ethnic groups, including Maronite Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to repel the PLO, which had been conducting attacks on Israel from bases in southern Lebanon. This led to the formation of several Islamic terrorist groups, most notably Islamic Jihad (from the Arabic word for ‘holy war’), which carried out a truck bombing of American and French troops in Beirut that killed over 300 people; and Hezbollah, ‘the modestly named ‘Party of God’,’ as Christopher writes, a group funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    How much of this, if any, was ‘about’ religion? Christopher cites Lebanon’s sectarian constitution as the root of the conflict, and then describes the case of the Phalanx, the country's main Christian party, which, under the orders of the Israeli general (and future Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon, conducted a massacre of Palestinian refugees in September 1982.

    Peter argues that both Christians and Muslims in Lebanon ‘trample on their own scriptures in the cruelty they inflict on each other’, adding that ‘Sunni and Shia Muslims overcome deep religious differences for a shared political objective. This would tend to suggest that they are united more by a political distaste for their common enemy than by religious feeling.’ This is perhaps true of some of the groups, but the aforementioned Islamic terrorist organisations, Christopher argues, were definitely motivated by ‘religious feeling’.

    The brothers share a dim view of Islamic terrorism and Islam in general. In Christopher’s case this is obvious from the title of his book, God Is Not Great, a riposte to the jihadist war cry Allahu Akbar, ‘God is great’. Peter, meanwhile, writes ‘there is little doubt that the real issue is Islam’s utter refusal to cede any ground which it has once conquered.’ In fact, Islam ‘still yearns for the lost lands of Spain.’

    Peter goes on to write that the European secular Left for the most part can ‘sympathise with [Islam] because it is the enemy of their Christian monoculture’. Some in Britain have ‘formed alliances with British Muslims despite their highly conservative attitudes towards women and homosexuals. Others prefer to live in a state of unresolved doublethink.’

    Bethlehem and Israel

    Christopher concedes that he would feel ‘safe enough standing around outside the Church of the Nativity’ in Bethlehem, the town where, according to Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. After something of a tangent about the number of religions that feature a virgin birth, Christopher notes that Manger Square in Bethlehem is now ‘a tourist trap of such unrelieved tawdriness as to put Lourdes itself to shame.’ The wider question, though, is of the surrounding territory.

    Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, a small piece of disputed land on the western bank of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. Controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, the governing body of the as yet unrealised state of Palestine, the West Bank has only one land border, with Israel, which in September 2000 began building a security barrier along nearly the entire frontier in order to repel (successfully, it would argue) Palestinian suicide bombers. These are just some of the elements of one of the most intractable geopolitical disputes in modern history.

    The on-going conflict between Israel and Palestinian Arabs may appear to be a purely religious quarrel, but the brothers have different interpretations about the nature of the often violent disagreement. Since its creation in 1948, which involved the expulsion of thousands of Arab Muslims, Israel has been at the centre of many violent struggles in the Middle East. Its proclaimed capital, Jerusalem, also in the West Bank, is a nexus of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and, like Bethlehem, has changed hands amongst these three religious groups many times over the centuries.

    Today East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war, is claimed by Palestinian Arabs as the (future) capital of Palestine. It is, if one may pardon the expression, a diplomatic minefield. For example, though in May 2017 Donald Trump, having vowed during his election campaign to recognise all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, became the first sitting US President to visit the city’s Western Wall (a sacred site in Judaism), he and his press team took care not to state that Jerusalem was in Israel. 

    For all this, Christopher writes, ‘The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute… [is] the ease of its solubility’: two peoples of similar size have a claim to the same land. The solution, he and many others argue, is to create two adjacent states. This would appear to support Peter’s claim that, like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Israel-Palestine conflict is territorial, not religious, much like, Peter notes, the displacement of Aborigines in Australia, the expulsion of millions of Germans from their ancestral homes following the end of WWII, and the India-Pakistan partition of 1947, in which Muslims campaigned for and won ‘a sort of Muslim Israel’ in Pakistan.

    Christopher goes on to write, though, that the apparently obvious solution in Israel and the West Bank would have been reached

    decades ago if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war.

    Peter argues that ‘while the Muslim impulse against Israel is profoundly religious, Israel is in almost all ways a secular state’, in contrast to the explicitly Islamic states of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, amongst others (31 in total) which do not recognise Israel. He adds that Israel ‘is actively disliked as blasphemous by many of the most Orthodox Jews,’ and was founded ‘by irreligious, socialist non-Jewish Jews’. (Interestingly, the latter description fits the brothers’ mother, who never shared this potentially troublesome side of her ethnicity with her sons, something Christopher reflects on in a chapter of his memoirs.)

    This prompts an important question. Is Israel a Jewish state, or a state for Jews? Christopher argues that it is the former, Peter the latter. In his memoirs, Christopher writes, ‘As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil.’ He later reflects on Jerusalem as follows:

    that place of blood since remote antiquity. Jerusalem, over which the British and French and Russians… fought a foul war in the Crimea, and in the mid-nineteenth century, on the matter of which Christian Church could command the keys to some “holy sepulchre.” Jerusalem, where the anti-Semite [Arthur] Balfour had tried to bribe the Jews with the territory of another people in order to seduce them from Bolshevism and continue the diplomacy of the Great War. Jerusalem: that pest-house in whose environs all zealots hope that an even greater and final war can be provoked.

    He then relates an incident in the West Bank town of Hebron: ‘When I asked [an armed Israeli solider] where he got his legal authority to be a squatter, he flung his hand, index finger outstretched, toward the sky.’

    The answer, then, appears to be ‘both’.

    Vocabulary and terminology

    • Scripture
    • Sunni Islam
    • Shia Islam
    • Maronite
    • Protestant
    • Catholic
    • Jewish
    • Presbyterian
    • Phalanx
    • Secular
    • Orthodox

    Geography

    • Israel
    • Palestine
    • West Bank
    • River Jordan
    • Jerusalem
    • East Jerusalem
    • Western Wall
    • Bethlehem
    • Hebron

    Discuss

    • What does it mean to fight a war ‘in the name of’ religion?
    • When is a ‘religious’ conflict ‘about’ religion?
    • What other conflicts might be described as ‘religiously motivated’ or fought ‘in the name of religion’?

    Research

    • What is Zionism?
    • Why did Donald Trump visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem in May 2017?

    ‘Is religion child abuse?’

    This question, the title of the sixteenth chapter of Christopher’s book, draws a stern rebuttal from Peter.

    Christopher focuses his argument on instances of ‘immoral teaching’ and ‘immoral practice’: in the former, religious aversion to sexual health and family planning in general and abortion in particular; in the latter the ‘grotesque’ act of circumcision on both boys and girls (the latter more commonly known as female genital mutilation, and a crime in the UK and many other countries). He introduces this ‘moral terrorism’ by analysing a scene from James Joyce’s novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which a priest describes hell in graphic detail to a group of youngsters. ‘The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing,’ Christopher writes, ‘has been part of every system of absolute authority.’

    Peter’s rebuttal to the above statement is to point out that, not for the first time, Christopher has unwittingly described the Soviet Union. He then goes on to say that religion is most often introduced to children not by the state but by their parents; and points out, as Christopher does not, that for the brothers it was the opposite.

    As for the specific accusation that raising one’s child a Christian is a form of abuse, Peter’s defence is directed as much at Professor Richard Dawkins as at Christopher. Dawkins has stated that sexual abuse is ‘arguably less [harmful] than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.’ Peter first reminds the reader of the gravity of the accusation: ‘In modern Britain… an accusation of ‘child abuse’ is devastating to the accused. It is almost universally assumed to be true.’ Professor Dawkins, Peter writes, ‘should logically believe that ‘bringing the child up Catholic’ should be a criminal offence attracting a long term of imprisonment and total public disgrace.’

    Peter then explains that parents share ‘beautiful things’ with their children because childhood is the most impressionable age; that children are more interested in questions of existence than adults; and that stories are the most effective form of teaching. ‘But if’, he writes,

    we ourselves believe, and are asked by our own children what we believe, we will tell them and they will instantly know if we mean it, and also how much it matters to us. They will learn from this that belief is a good thing. We will also try to find schools which will at the very least not undermine the morals and faith of the home. And for this, we are to be called abusers of children? This has the stench of totalitarian slander, paving the road to suppression and persecution.

    At the same time, he adds, ‘if a man wishes to bring his child up as an atheist, then he should be absolutely free to do so.’

    Peter does not address Christopher’s arguments against male and female circumcision, the teaching of creationism and eternal damnation, and the various religious prohibitions on sex and masturbation. In fact, he dismisses these points as ‘ramblings’ that do not in any way answer the ‘bold question’ that forms the chapter’s title.

    On the question of actual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, Peter writes that although the Church’s response was ‘feeble’, ‘it can hardly be claimed that they were the only people ever to abuse children sexually, or to cover it up, or that they were in any way following the dictates of their Church.’

    In the section’s penultimate paragraph, Peter attempts to turn the tables somewhat:

    … it is ridiculous to pretend that it is a neutral act to inform an infant that the heavens are empty, that the universe is founded on chaos rather than love, and that his grandparents, on dying, have ceased altogether to exist. I personally think it is wrong to tell children such things, because I believe them to be false and wrong and roads to misery of various kinds.

    Christopher makes the opposite claim in his opening chapter:

    … we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinising things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful—and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding—than any creation or “end of days” story. If you read Hawking on the “event horizon,” that theoretical lip of the “black hole” over which one could in theory plunge and see the past and the future (except that one would, regrettably and by definition, not have enough “time”), I shall be surprised if you can still go on gaping at Moses and his unimpressive “burning bush.” If you examine the beauty and symmetry of the double helix, and then go on to have your own genome sequence full analysed, you will be at once impressed that such a near-perfect phenomenon is at the core of your being, and reassured (I hope) that you have so much in common with other tribes of the human species—“race” having gone, along with “creation” into the ashcan—and further fascinated to learn how much you are a part of the animal kingdom as well. Now at last you can be properly humble in the face of your maker, which turns out not to be a “who,” but a process of mutation with rather more random elements than our vanity might wish.

    The uncomfortable conclusion for atheists, though, is that while Peter believes atheists ought to be free to raise their children as they wish, the anti-theist movement believes not only the opposite, but that raising children as Jewish, Christian and Muslim is a heinous crime.

    Vocabulary and terminology

    • Child abuse
    • Male circumcision
    • Female circumcision
    • Creationism
    • Eternal punishment (hell)
    • Family planning

    Discuss

    • What does it mean to ‘bring up a child’ Christian, Jewish or Muslim?
    • What is the purpose of circumcision as a religious rite?

    Debate

    • Parents should be free to raise their children however they want.
    • It is abusive to teach a child that the universe is ‘founded on chaos’, not love.
    • It is abusive to teach a child about hell and eternal punishment.

    Analyse

    • “Give me the child until he is ten, and I will give you the man.” Who said this and how does it relate to the subject of this section?

    ‘The Soviet Union did not so much negate religion as seek to replace it’

    In his book’s penultimate chapter, ‘An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism’, Christopher addresses the claim that ‘secular totalitarianism has actually provided us with the summa of human evil. The examples most in common use—those of the Hitler and Stalin regimes—show us with terrible clarity what can happen when men usurp the role of Gods.’ This argument, he adds, is the most common and frequent objection secularists and atheists encounter.

    Christopher begins by arguing that theocracy was the original totalitarianism. He then examines the great triad of 20th century evil in Europe – Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism.

    It is not a coincidence, Christopher writes, that fascist regimes ‘arose first and most excitedly in Catholic countries, and it is certainly not a coincidence that the Catholic Church was generally sympathetic to fascism as an idea.’ In 1929, Benito Mussolini, leader of the ruling Fascist party, made a pact with the Vatican that established Catholicism as the only recognised religion in Italy. In Spain, Portugal and Croatia around that time, ‘the church was a reliable ally in the instatement of fascist regimes’.

    ‘The case of the church’s surrender to German National Socialism is considerably more complicated’, Christopher writes, ‘but not very much more elevating.’ The first argument is that it was with the Vatican in July 1933 that the newly elected Nazi government of Adolf Hitler signed its first diplomatic agreement. Six years later there was a change of papacy, in which Eugenio Pacelli became Pope Pius XII. Christopher not only describes Pius as ‘pro Nazi’, but adds that the Catholic hierarchy in Germany even took time every year to mark Hitler’s birthday.

    Peter does not try to claim that the Nazi regime was atheist; he writes that ‘The relation between National Socialism and the churches, in Hitler’s 12 years in power, was often awkward but not always hostile.’ He believes, though, that had it lasted longer, the Nazi party would have come ‘into ever-greater conflict with believers’. The Hitler Youth was, Peter notes, ‘startlingly similar’ to the youth movements of the country that would defeat the nascent Third Reich in World War II, the Soviet Union.

    It is Christopher’s remarks about religion in the Soviet Union that draw the most sustained and detailed response from Peter. In fact, Soviet anti-theism is a recurring topic in The Rage Against God.

    The two brothers have personal connections to the USSR. Christopher was a Marxist and a Trotskyist for most, if not all, of his life. Peter used to share the same beliefs, but discarded them around the time he returned to Christianity. He also lived in Moscow for two and a half years in the early 1990s, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. He describes the latter experience in detail in the first part of the book and returns to it intermittently throughout.

    The Soviet Union in 1991, Peter writes, was a country of ‘desolate cityscapes of concrete slabs under poisoned skies’; a corrupt, ‘coarse and mannerless’ world, in which the majority of citizens lived in grinding and filthy mediocrity while a secret elite enjoyed special privileges: it was everything George Orwell describes in Animal Farm. It was also a country that had been deliberately gutted of its religious heritage.

    Christopher argues that the Communist absolutists in Russia, led by Lenin, Trotsky and, ultimately, Stalin, ‘did not so much negate religion, in societies that they well understood were saturated with religion, as seek to replace it’. He notes the following similarities: ‘[t]he solemn elevation of infallible leaders who were a source of endless bounty and blessing; the permanent search for heretics and schismatics; the mummification of dead leaders as icons and relics; the lurid show trials that elicited incredible confessions by means of torture’.

    Christopher, though, as Peter points out, makes little mention of just how viciously and relentlessly Soviet atheists persecuted the Russian Orthodox Church. It was a sustained attempt to ‘stop the teaching of the gospels to children, to mock and harry the celebration of Christmas, to drive the very idea of God out of the national mind.’ There were ‘Anti-God’ publications, conferences and museums; attacks on churches and places of worship; and even arrests and murder of clergymen. In brief, there was a great deal of ‘negation’ and much worse besides.

    The USSR may seem a distant relic, but Peter claims that ‘Soviet Communism used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as Western atheism does today.’

    One could write a great deal more about each brother’s interpretation of the history of the USSR, but the point to debate is whether atheists and anti-theists today would take their (non)beliefs to the same extremes as the ‘Communist absolutists’ of the Soviet Union. 

    Vocabulary and terminology

    • Communism
    • Stalinism
    • Nazism
    • Fascism
    • Marxism
    • The Vatican
    • Theocracy
    • Totalitarianism
    • Russian Orthodox

    Geography

    • Russia
    • The USSR (Soviet Union)
    • Vatican City

    People

    • Pope Pius XII
    • Joseph Stalin
    • Leon Trotsky
    • Vladimir Lenin
    • Adolph Hitler

    Discuss

    • Which modern dictators have tried to usurp the role of God?
    • Why do governments ban or try to negate certain religions?

    Debate

    • We should educate our children not to believe in God.
    • We should make Christmas and Easter purely secular festivals.

    Conclusion

    For an example of how agnosticism and Christianity can co-exist one can look to a writer Christopher admired and twice refers to in his opening chapter, George Eliot.

    The woman born Mary Anne Evans renounced her Christian faith in her early 20s. To the horror of her father and brother, she stopped attending church and began translating great works of German theology that questioned the veracity of the Gospels.

    After several years of estrangement and acrimony, Eliot agreed to attend church with her ailing father. Though she remained agnostic, dabbled in a secular movement called Positivism and maintained an open relationship with a married man (George Henry Lewes), Eliot continued to attend church long after her father had passed away.

    In 1873 in a letter to a friend, Eliot wrote that she liked ‘the delightful emotions of fellowship which come over me in religious assemblies.’ Nonbelievers, she added, might be ‘better members of society by a conformity, based on the recognised good in the public belief, than by a nonconformity which has nothing but negatives to utter.’ She expresses this respectful convergence of differing opinions in her novel Silas Marner.

    For all its passion, Christopher’s anti-theism cannot mask a similar fondness for certain elements of the Christian faith in which he was raised. In his opening chapter, Christopher writes that if he were to return to his home county of Devon, he would probably find himself ‘sitting quietly at the back of some old Celtic or Saxon church’. He then notes that on such occasions Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’ is ‘the perfect capture’ of his own attitude.

    In ‘Church Going’, Larkin, an unreligious writer and librarian who never married or had children, stops at a church where ‘there’s nothing going on’. He goes inside, takes off his hat and cycle clips ‘in awkward reverence’, looks around, peruses a few ‘hectoring’ Bible verses, signs the guest book, donates an Irish sixpence and reflects that the place ‘was not worth stopping for.’ And yet he did stop. ‘In fact I often do’, he says. Why? After much musing, he concludes,

    though I've no idea
    What this accoutred, frowsty barn is worth,
    It pleases me to stand in silence here;

    A serious house on serious earth it is,
    In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
    Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
    And that much never can be obsolete.

    Peter does not quote ‘Church Going’, but he does make use of two other Larkin poems: ‘Never such innocence, / Never before or since’, from ‘MCMXIV’, to describe the shattering experience of the Great War; and ‘The trees are coming into leaf, / Like something almost being said’, from ‘The Trees’, to describe the feeling that comes over him when he encounters beauty in music and architecture. He believes Larkin was a religious poet precisely because he did not intend to be, and that these verses, amongst others, are profoundly religious.

    Christopher, like Peter, is equally fond of the ‘splendid liturgy’ of the King James Bible and the Cranmer prayer book; and equally critical of the ‘fatuous’ Church of England for discarding them. To Peter’s consternation, though, Christopher does not entertain the notion that the beauty of the books’ language speaks of a higher power.

    It is in the King James Bible that the brothers’ beliefs converge most movingly. As he describes towards the end of his opening chapter, Christopher eulogised his and Peter’s father by reading the following verse of the epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians (chapter four, verse eight):

    Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

    Nearly 25 years later, at the memorial service for Christopher organised by Vanity Fair, Peter read the same verse.

    Discuss

    • Is Britain a Christian country? Do you want it to be so or not to be so?
    • What elements of religion and atheism are ‘true’, ‘honest’, ‘just’, ‘pure’, ‘lovely’ and ‘of good report’?

    Analyse

    Read Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Church Going’. Have you ever felt the same way in a church or place of worship? Do you agree with Larkin’s belief that they will never become ‘obsolete’?

    Books by the same authors