Peter Hitchens (right) debating with his brother Christopher. Image via Daily Mail
Laura Perrins: The Rage Against God is a profound book. It is deeply personal and almost a conversation between you and your late brother. It must have been emotionally challenging?
Peter Hitchens: I loathed writing it. I didn’t want to write it and resisted the suggestion for a long time. I thought and think that the only honest way to present it would be to say that it was written to take advantage of the fuss about ‘God is not Great’, which, of course, it was and is. I came close to abandoning it more than once and without the aid of my elder son Dan I would have done so.
All my other books have been published as written, and written more or less in a continuous effort. Dan persuaded me to cut and reorder it greatly, to turn it into a publishable work. In the end I suspect it may last longer than any of my books, and I hear almost every week from people who have found it personally useful and helpful, which is hugely pleasing.
But I didn’t have any trouble with disagreeing publicly with Christopher, nor did I expect him to be upset by it. Our relations were complicated, and he was seriously cheesed off when I recalled his ambiguity about the USSR during the Cold War, just when he was becoming an American patriot (which I freely admit was deliberately mischievous of me, but it was also important). What surprised me about that occasion was that he chose a long cold silence rather than a good, hot argument, which was what I had expected him to do (I’d recalled precisely the same incident, of him saying, in the context of the Cold War and nuclear disarmament, he didn’t care if the Red Army watered its horses in Hendon, on US TV some years before, and he’d just smiled at the memory).
I sent him the manuscript of ‘The Rage Against God’ in exchange for a proof of ‘Hitch-22’, and he said at the time he fully expected to be asked to review ‘Rage’ (which he said in an e-mail had caused him some serious chin-stroking by which he meant that he’d found some of my points telling), so would leave his comments for then. I never found out what they would have been.
It is a measure of the spiteful hostility of the literary and publishing world towards me that no editor chose to ask him to do so, ever. It’s an obvious idea, and one almost any editor might have thought interesting, but the desire to deprive me and my book of the oxygen of publicity proved stronger. So that friendly moment passed forever. He was due to appear with me in a joint interview on Fox TV a few months later, but this never happened. He called me from hospital just before the interview was due to start to say he had been taken ill in the night and couldn’t make it. That was the moment I learned he was sick, long before it became public. After that, what he thought of my book, and what I thought of his, became a bit irrelevant. I was in any case determined, by then, to avoid any other cause for conflict.
LP: The image of the Prodigal Son by Thomas Hart Benton, you discuss early in the book, is powerful. This parable is one of my favourites, and was the gospel reading at my wedding. The painting is pessimistic, conveying the message that inheritance once squandered can never be recovered. How serious are the consequences for Britain if she continues squandering her Christian inheritance?
PH: The consequences are limitless. It is hard to think of any society, apart from the USA, which so completely absorbed Christian ideas into its culture, literature and discourse. Normal British conversation, let alone poetry and literature, was full of Biblical and Prayer Book references, or to allusions to ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. Behaviour was greatly influenced by this. As it has now almost completely gone, we must rely on threat and reward, all-powerful employers and the fear of the sack, plus a strong State and huge amount of surveillance, to achieve anything like the same level of peace, order and honesty. This process is really only just beginning, and will become more urgent as the last generations to be influenced by Christian teaching die.
The Benton painting is not pessimistic. It is just deliberately shocking, reinforcing the original parable by pointing out how it could have ended differently. In fact the parable is already quite bitter. The prodigal son faces a life of serfdom, his inheritance squandered on riotous living. The good brother is not assuaged by his father’s words, and the careful reader can see (as he cannot, I think, in any of the other parables) trouble coming later on in the story, which disturbs the metaphor.
The same thing is also unsatisfactorily dealt with in the parable of the vineyard, where the workers who have toiled all day are rather incredibly satisfied by the Lord’s explanation of his decision to pay the latecomers the same as those who have toiled all day. This may well be how grace operates, but it’s not easy to accept. But the Benton picture shows why this must be. Without the hope of forgiveness, the Prodigal would never return, or would return too late, to the abandoned, windswept farm and the bones of the fatted calf whitening amid the desolation.
LP: Many commentators believe that the destruction of the Christian faith will lead to a kinder, more moral, and charitable society.
PH: Do they? I think they hope it will lead to a society in which fewer demands are made on them, which is rather different. But this is the difference which a belief in eternity makes. If we exist in eternity, then what we do here matters somewhere else, and at some other time, and the immediate consequences of our actions aren’t the most important things about them. It might lead to more public acts of self-publicising ‘goodness’, but this is the problem of all Godless ethical systems. They rely on the appearance of goodness rather than on the inner heart seen only by God, and anyone who has attended a school or worked in an office will know that people are not always exactly as they seem to be.
LP: You believe that when it comes to “millions of small and tedious good deeds that are required for a society to function with charity, honesty and kindness a shortage of believing Christians will lead to society’s decay.”
PH: Well, I think this is almost platitudinous. Almost every day, someone dumps litter in my bicycle basket, an act either of great stupidity (how can you mistake a bike basket for a litter bin) or of inconsiderate laziness or of supposedly humorous contempt. Mostly (not, alas, absolutely always, as I sometimes lose my temper), I carefully carry this litter some distance to an actual litter bin. The only reason, absolutely the only reason, for my doing this is my belief in a just God.
The surrounding streets are usually covered in dropped litter and blobs of gum, and if I were to hurl it to the ground it wouldn’t make any practical difference. It’s only God that makes me do it. The chance of my being prosecuted for throwing it on the ground are incalculably tiny. Of course some moron will try to suggest that this is the only effect this belief has on me, but in fact I mention it precisely because of its triviality. It is one of those millions of good deeds. If everyone stopped doing them, you’d soon notice.
LP: The evidence of societal decay is all around us especially in the criminal and family courts. I also think that to prevent the most obvious cases of decay and indeed injustice the State will have to step in where once the little platoons governed. This reduces our liberty and is oppressive.
How far do you think the decay will go, and/or how big will the State get?
PH: There is no limit that I can see, not least because (for reasons discussed above) the State cannot in fact substitute for morality. The more it tries to do so, the more it will fail. And the more it will try to do so.
LP: For our readers’ sake, can you recap on how fundamental atheism was to the brutal and barbaric communist nations?
PH: The idea that human beings are wholly malleable is essential to revolutionary projects, which cannot succeed unless human nature is changed. This is the fundamental reason why revolutionaries are hostile, especially to the Christian religion and its insistence that Man is made in the Image of God, and therefore not, ultimately, alterable. Revolutionaries also rightly see religion as a rival for the complete dominance of the public mind which they seek, often through the virtual abolition of private life and conscience which is standard in such societies.
LP: Towards the end of the book, you discuss how well-known atheists say that raising a child in a religious tradition is ‘child abuse.’ This comparison is really a hate crime, an incitement to hatred against parents of faith? Do you agree?
PH: I don’t really like designations such as ‘hate crime’. A crime is a crime. As I explain in the book, this attitude contains an implicit threat to freedom of speech and thought, totalitarian in nature. This is why my comparison between modern atheists and 20th century totalitarians, often rejected by these atheists, is demonstrably valid. Modern utopianism is hedonist and far closer to Brave New World than to 1984, but it is utopianism and it is by its nature intolerant towards its chief rival, namely religion.
LP: I also watched you debate marriage at the Oxford Union on YouTube. It amazes me that so-called libertarians believe that we should “get the State out of the marriage business”, in other words the State should not recognise marriage.
PH: But why would it amaze you? Marriage is a rival to the State, and a safeguard for private life, as well as being a nursery of tradition. The establishment of civil marriage was an attack upon it, as was the introduction of civil divorce – both of which were consequences of the State’s growing power and of society’s growing need for a more pliant and flexible form of family life, submissive to commercial, civic and military needs. This, of course, requires it to be more easily dissoluble. The genius of the Left is that they have sold the resulting enslavement of women to cash employers, who can chuck them aside like an old glove on a whim, as a liberation.
LP: In fact, marriage as well as being a profound commitment between one man and one woman, is a bulwark against State power and intrusion – as you say in your speech. Its abolition will lead to ever-greater State interference in family and private life. Can you understand the libertarian stance on this?
PH: I’d dispute the use of the word ‘libertarian’. No liberation is taking place. I am always reminded in these moments, where people are persuaded that their interests lie in a ghastly new serfdom, of the terrible scene in C.S.Lewis’s ‘the Last Battle’ in which the Dwarves, refusing to see the true liberation offered them by Aslan, insist self-righteously that ‘The Dwarves are for the Dwarves’ and are then marched off to slavery (and presumably miserable death) in the Tisroc’s mines. All the enslavements of modern society, which offers nothing but work and money as we dwell in hutches amid an undifferentiated landscape of concrete, plastic and neon, are presented to their victims as liberation. Amidst all this, that is why drugs and drink may come to look like liberation too. Brave New World again.
LP: What would you do to try to revive marriage?
PH: I have no idea. I gave up all engagements in politics after 2010, when millions of self-identified patriotic, Christian conservatives combined to save their deadliest enemy, the Conservative Party. Just as Tom Lehrer said there could be no satire after Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize, there can be no hope after that. I engage in some limited causes, but the general political transformation needed to save marriage is quite beyond anything I could hope to do.
LP: How will things look for the grandchildren? Do you have any optimism?
PH: Unbearable to contemplate. When I advise people in their thirties to emigrate, as I repeatedly do, they think I am joking and ask me stupid questions about where to go, as if they will be the ones choosing. I have never been more serious in my life. Optimism in this country as it is now would be irresponsible as well as foolish. If I were young enough to seek a new life abroad, I would be busy doing so.
You can find a copy of Peter’s book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, here.