This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 02 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Award-winning British journalist Peter Hitchens masterfully narrates a lively and insightful account about how he “returned to religion” as a result of his journey through atheism (Part One), including how he came to address various arguments of atheism (Part Two), and how the “league of the militant godless” should be understood and countered (Part Three).
The book closes with a reflection on his infamous 2008 debate with his atheist brother, Christopher. The book opens with a vivid anecdote from the author’s life in 1967 when, in a dramatic act of rebellion against everything he had been raised to believe, the fifteen-year-old Peter Hitchens burned his Bible at his Cambridge boarding school. The entirety of Part One develops how such a rebellious spirit—“the carnival of adolescent petulance, ingratitude, cruelty, and insensitivity that was my Godless period” (p. 9)—was apropos given the zeitgeist of the time. The secularism in society during Hitchens’s “godless period” fueled his passion for atheism. It gave him and his generation permission to be a “braggart sinner” (21–26), whose greatest fear growing up was that they would conform to their parents’ lifestyle and values (28–30), including conformity to “the deadly chill of ancient chants and texts” (26–28) that was Anglicanism in the mid-twentieth century.
What changed for Hitchens? Initially, it was several harsh encounters with reality that challenged his then-Marxist revolutionary outlook while living in corrupt Soviet Moscow and reporting in a deteriorating Mogadishu in the early 1990s (chap. 6). But what was transformational was his encounter with Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century painting, The Last Judgment, where Hitchens “had a sudden, strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time,” including a recognition that “[he] had absolutely no doubt that [he] was among the damned, if there were any damned” (103). When he returned to Anglicanism as a “prodigal,” however, Hitchens discovered to his shock how his own generation had deconstructed that religious tradition in Britain (106–23), leaving a gaping cultural hole for aggressive atheism to fill in society.
According to Hitchens, Christopher and the aggressive atheists try to convince people of the evil of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular. How? First, by insisting that “conflicts found in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion” (127). But that doesn’t follow, Hitchens rebuts, because “man is inclined to make war on man when he thinks it will gain him power or wealth or land” (127), regardless if he has religious reasons or motivations. Second, New Atheists insist that it “is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God” (chap. 10). But to be “effectively absolute,” Hitchens observes, “a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter” (141). Otherwise, “if I pull down the pillars of the moral universe, I too will be crushed when the roof falls” (152). Third, it is argued that atheist states are “better” (read: more tolerant) than Christian states. But Hitchens contends that “atheism is a license for ruthlessness, and it appeals to the ruthless” (160). Indeed, the secularism of the New Atheism is a “totalitarian intolerance” (chaps. 13–14). With Hitchens’s experience as a guide, one can come to see how Christianity, not atheism, really is better for society (chaps. 6, 8, and 11).
In terms of apologetic value, The Rage against God is a uniquely beneficial autobiography. First, it reflects a “sociological imagination,” to borrow from C. Wright Mills’s phrase, concerning the fruitful interplay between biography, history, and society in Hitchens’s narrative. His journey is an excellent case study of how the sociological formation of theistic or anti-theistic beliefs is a relevant factor when it comes to how a worldview changes. Second, Hitchens astutely discerns how passion, instead of knowledge, often governs people’s lives. “It is my belief that passions as strong as [Christopher’s] are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time” (12). But wouldn’t stronger arguments for God’s existence be the best means of countering anti-theistic passion? Not necessarily, if the initial goal is to loosen the grip of such passion. For, as with all atheists, Hitchens counsels that “Christopher is his own chief opponent. As long as he can convince himself, nobody else will persuade him” (12). Consequently, anti-theists’ “refusal to accept that others might be as intelligent as they, yet disagree, leads them into many snares” (12). One can see wisdom in these observations.
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The Rage against God offers a rare opportunity to gain insights about how atheist souls are formed (or malformed) from the vantage point of a first-person perspective. Surely, such knowledge will stirringly empower any presentation of superior arguments for Christianity. —Joseph E. Gorra
Joseph E. Gorra is the manager of academic programs and research for Biola University’s Christian apologetics program.