Peter Hitchens and the Hope for Civility

Anyone who is familiar with the icons of the new atheist movement is fairly familiar Chistopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great. Less known in the US yet fairly well known in the UK is his younger brother Peter Hitchens. While Chistopher is an atheist protagonist, Peter is a conservative Christian, and a somewhat staunch and capable defender of the faith.

In a recent post titled How I found God and peace with my atheist brother on his blog, published in Britain’s MailOnline, he writes about his own conversion to Christianity from left-wing atheism, and how he came to make peace with his passionately atheistic brother. As someone who was previously a leftist and agnostic, I could relate to how the events in his life transpired.

Of particular interest are two things – the first is his argument for the necessity of a morality grounded in an external objective source:

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?

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.

I have heard people who believe themselves to be good, defend all these things, and convince themselves as well as others. Quite often the same people will condemn similar actions committed by different countries, often with great vigour.

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a non-human source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.

Its most powerful expression is summed up in the words ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

This is something I have found frequently. I have had many atheists tell me (as if I would be surprised) that atheists are as capable as Christians of doing good. No Christian familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan would ever of course doubt this – what is almost always lost on the atheist is the fact that they are assuming a particular standard of good; and unless there is an objective standard of good, who is to say anyone is capable of doing it? Or not doing it, for that matter.

The second thought is one that struck me more personally because I have had numerous (more than I can count or remember, actually) conversations with atheists over the years as a Christian. Usually face to face these are quite pleasant, online, often less so. I am often somewhat cynical about the ability of atheists to be civil as a result; nonetheless I was hopeful reading about a reconciliation of sorts Peter had with his brother Christopher, after years of vitriol:

Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his Washington DC apartment. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it.

We were more than civil, treating each other as equals, and as brothers with a common childhood, even recalling bicycle rides we used to take together on summer days unimaginably long ago, which I did not even realise he still remembered.

To my astonishment, Christopher cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it. He had even given up smoking.

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.

Beyond that, 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.

My brother and I agree on this: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so. Oddly enough this leads us, in many things, to be far closer than most people think we are on some questions; closer, sometimes, than we would particularly wish to be.

The same paradox sometimes also makes us arrive at different conclusions from very similar arguments, which is easier than it might appear. This will not make us close friends at this stage. We are two utterly different men approaching the ends of two intensely separate lives.

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’.

That is an encouraging bit there – to know that civility is a possibility despite significant differences.

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2 Responses to Peter Hitchens and the Hope for Civility

  1. jackhudson says:

    That is because the first question begs the question, as it were.

  2. bZirk says:

    Really enjoyed that piece.

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