THE RAGE AGAINST GOD: HOW ATHEISM LED ME TO FAITH
By Peter Hitchens
Zondervan, $22.99, 224 pages
@$:The book has two subtitles, one in the United States and one on the other side of the pond. In the United Kingdom, where Peter Hitchens plies his trade as a popular political columnist for the Mail on Sunday, the subtitle is "Why Faith Is the Foundation of Civilization." Here, it is "How Atheism Led Me to Faith."
Both titles have their strengths. The American version gives us a taste of the biographical nature of this book. "The Rage Against God" is as much about burying the hatchet with Peter's brother Christopher - the former columnist for the Nation who broke with much of the left over Sept. 11 and Iraq - as it is about taking on the "new atheism" that Christopher became a spokesman for after the release of his best-seller, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."
Everything including the relationship between two brothers, Christopher might have added. Though Peter and Christopher were both card-carrying Marxists at one point, only Peter has repudiated his past so thoroughly that he calls himself a conservative. He is also a grumbly member of the Church of England who worships in a small, remote church that still retains the "old prayer book."
Christopher has chosen a more eclectic path. He has sided with Republicans and neoconservatives on the War on Terror generally but rages against the God that many of them worship. In Christopher's telling, religion, not the love of money, is the root of all evil. In his best-selling book, Christopher argued that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not really a religious figure and the Soviet Union was, in effect, a theocracy.
That's one of a few arguments that Peter sets out to destroy. In Chapter 11, "Are Atheist States Not Actually Atheist?" Peter writes that "intelligent Christians must - if they are candid - accept that faith has often led to cruel violence and intolerant persecution. They may say, as I would, that this was because humans often misunderstood or misuse the teachings of the religions they follow. This is not because they are religious, but because Man is not great."
And atheists, Peter suggests, "in return, ought equally to concede that Godless regimes and movements have given birth to terrible persecutions and massacres. They" - and for "they," we may read "Christopher" - "do not do so, in my view, because in these cases the slaughter is not the result of a misunderstanding or excessive zeal. Utopia can only ever be approached across a sea of blood."
For instance, one thing that Christopher has clung to stubbornly even as he has ditched most of his Marxist politics is his insistence that one great accomplishment of the Soviet Union was the creation of a secular Russia. But at what cost, Peter asks: The U.S.S.R. provoked conflict with and then brutally persecuted the Orthodox Church; it effectively forbade Christians from positions of power; it banned religious instruction for children. It even issued propaganda raging against Christmas trees.
Christopher has written that he would graciously grant Christians religious liberty. All that he asks in turn is that they leave him alone. But Peter points out that his brother is being disingenuous. By praising a secular Russia, Christopher is siding with the brutal repression by the state of one of our oldest wellsprings of hope and culture.
This book, this reviewer suggested earlier, is also about burying the hatchet. Peter says his peace but this is a gently argued book. He knocks down some spurious arguments but does so by appealing to our good sense and our compassion. He refuses to make a full-throated case for faith. He explains that "those who choose to argue in prose ... are unlikely to be receptive to a case that is most effectively couched in poetry." He doesn't hold out hope that his brother will ever realize that but Peter does hope that Christopher "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."
Christopher may have to arrive at that acceptance sooner than Peter expected when he wrote "The Rage Against God." Peter's brother has recently been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and the prognosis is not promising. The great irony in all this is, if Christopher turns out to be right, he won't be able to tell his brother, "I told you so." And if he's wrong, well, he probably won't be in any mood to admit it.
Jeremy Lott is an editor for Real Clear Politics and author of "The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency" (Thomas Nelson, 2008).
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