16 January 2014

Book Review: The Rage Against God

I probably would not have planned to read Peter Hitchens's The Rage Against God (2011) if it were not for a fellow Centurion, whose opinion I respect, suggesting that it might be considered as required for the Centurions program (see the Colson Center for Christian Worldview for details). I quipped that I would send him the bill if I didn't like the book.  I have no need to bill him because this was a really good book. 

Peter Hitchens is the younger brother to the outspoken, articulate atheist Christopher Hitchens who wrote the book, God is Not Great.  The elder Hitchens, prior to his death, was considered to be one of the four horsemen of the new atheism movement.  Peter Hitchens wrote this book at least in part as a pushback against his brother.  However, he also recounts his own journey to faith. 

There is much to commend in this book.  Hitchens is an eloquent writer who is a joy to read.  He combines his life experiences as a journalist with well-crafted prose to offer an immensely readable volume. 

The first eight chapters are essentially a description of his own journey from atheism to faith. He rejected the faith offered in his private schooling, but admits in the introduction "one of the things I was schooled in was not, in fact, religion, but a strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it--a counterfeit that can be detected and rejected while yet leaving the genuine truths of Christianity undamaged" (page 10).  What I found particularly beneficial about his presentation was the way in which he related how his initial rejection of faith was in some ways tied to the downfall of the church in his native England.  What was once an authority was far diminished through increasing secularism and two difficult wars, wars that hardened people.  In one particularly poignant section, Hitchens entitled Confusing Patriotism with Christianity, he hypothesized that "the Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and the making of great wars" (page 79).  I think he is right, but I also think that much mouth foaming will proceed from many in America and perhaps Britain over this statement. I consider myself a patriotic American, but I do wish to add my assent to Hitchens's caution. 

I was most deeply drawn in by the sixth chapter, Homo Sovieticus. Hitchens lived for a period of time as a journalist in Soviet Russia and was an acute observer. His reflections on Russia were educational because I had little education about the country apart from what I gleaned from Rocky IV.  He identified the problems with a decidedly atheistic, socialist government and the associated problems.

Hitchens also showed the inconsistencies in thinking from those on the secular left, for example, their willingness to accept the anti-colonialism of radical Islamists, yet fail to raise concerns about their viewpoints on women and homosexuality where they tend to be militant against Christians. 

Hitchens also cautioned the church. He looked to the responses, or lack of responses, of Christian churches to National Socialist Germany.  He believes that "Christian churches largely, but not entirely, failed in their duty of opposition" (page 137). Eric Metaxas's book Bonhoeffer explores this truth in much more detail. The church must speak boldly to society even in the face of opposition. Understand that neither Hitchens nor I are advocating an unholy mixture of patriotism and religion, but rather a church standing for truth.

In the middle of the book, he addressed three common arguments that atheists raise: 1) Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?, 2) Is it possible to determine what is right and wrong without God?, and 3) Are atheist states not actually atheist?  He provided perfectly satisfactory answers to these questions, though they are brief in scope. 

Hitchens final chapters of the book were a more detailed treatment of his disagreement with his brother over Stalin's Soviet Union.  Again, the information presented here was quite enlightening about the problems with Stalin and communism. He also showed how it is still quite common for secular elites to praise socialism as a workable, even ideal, option despite repeated failures in practice. 

In his final paragraph, Hitchens wrote, "Inevitably, it is the Christian churches who are the last strongholds of resistance to change. Yet they are historically weak, themselves infiltrated by secular liberalism, full of uncertainty and diffidence" (page 214). Churches must not fail to take notice.  We are to be salt and light. 

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