The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens (Zondervan, $26.99, 224 p.)
Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens (McLelland & Stewart, $32.99, 435 p.)
As Peter Hitchens began his adult life, like his brother, in the bosom of the British left during its penultimate revival – the ‘60s, when youth and Marxism were popularly supposed to be twinned in sympathy and aspiration. Like his brother he became a journalist and, like his brother, he had experiences that tempered and ultimately altered his youthful convictions. For Peter it was the Soviet Union, where godlessness became the state religion with the sort of ruinous, cruel effect that such an absurdity would invariably produce.As professions of faith go, Peter Hitchens’ The Rage Against God is hardly St. Augustine’s Confessions. As most things go today, though, context is everything, and it’s important to note the book’s subtitle – How Atheism Led Me To Faith – and its principal inspiration, as a response to God Is Not Great, the best-selling atheist polemic written by Christopher Hitchens, the author’s older (and more famous) brother.
“I believe in God and the Christian religion at least partly because it suits me to do so,” writes Hitchens in what approximates the book’s statement of faith. “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 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 is false. But I am human, fallen and flawed, so I am slippery about this faith (which has a reasonably good effect on me when I try hard to follow it, but can be a great nuisance to me when I wish to follow the devices and desires of my own heart.)”
You’ll go cross-eyed looking for a similarly candid or humble statement in Hitch-22, the book of memoirs recently published by Christopher Hitchens at what turned out to be a poignant moment, just before the author was diagnosed with cancer. It’s not that the elder Hitchens isn’t outspoken or even brazen; early passages reminiscing about his youthful bisexuality at Oxford were certainly well-publicized, but even without the media spotlight they’re hard to recall without the wince that boastful oversharing inevitably elicits.
Hitchens’ meandering and ferociously name-dropping memoir isn’t without its virtues, especially the long sections detailing his support for the invasion of Iraq, another point on which the two brothers are in dispute. The elder Hitchens came to publicly support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after he loosened his embrace of the socialist struggle in an effort to more aggressively argue for the overthrow of dictators, an evolution that also saw him abjure the knee-jerk anti-Americanism of his onetime comrades, and even take U.S. citizenship.
Christopher Hitchens spends many pages on this episode mostly because it’s come to define his reputation as an ally of the Bush neocons, as a putative “lapsed leftist,” and as one of the most outspoken voices in the fight against Islamofascism, a term for which he claims authorship. Whether you take his side or that of his brother on Iraq, it’s the most readable part of the book, mostly because it showcases Christopher Hitchens’ great rhetorical muscle and undeniable conviction in the service of his causes.
If the book ends weakly, it’s largely because, after dropping names for several hundred pages, he expresses his contentment at ending up in the company of a “party of positive non-belief” – anti-religious proselytisers such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, the latter a man possessed of undeniable intellect who becomes one of the world’s most overweening bores when he climbs on the high horse of crusading atheism.
“I have sometimes noticed in other people that a clear-eyed sense of impending extinction can have a paradoxically liberating effect, as in: at least I don’t have to do that anymore.” This is the elder Hitchens, reflecting on his onetime friend, the late Edward Said, who finally resigned from the Palestine National Council upon the diagnosis of his ultimately terminal illness, a move Hitchens thought long overdue. There are many who wish that, with his own mortality in play, Christopher Hitchens would be moved to discard his own belligerent atheism, which alone among his rhetorical skirmishes reveals a peevishness and intolerance that he lethally coaxes out of opponents in other battles.
“He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower,” writes his brother Peter, “with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and he would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.” It goes without saying that even his brother doesn’t hold much hope for even a deathbed conversion, but adds that ultimately the two men, despite their gifts as writers, are probably grappling with the subject with inadequate tools: “I can only say that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case that is most effectively couched in poetry.”
Rick McGinnis is The Interim’s Amusements columnist.