Via Media

Via Media

Hitchens v. Hitchens

Peter Hitchens’ review of his brother’s book:

Am I my brother’s reviewer? A word of explanation is needed here. Some of you may know that I have a brother, Christopher, who disagrees with me about almost everything.

Some of those who read his books and articles also know that I exist, though they often dislike me if so. But in general we inhabit separate worlds – in more ways than one.

He is of the Left, lives in the United States and recently became an American citizen. I am of the Right and, after some years in Russia and America, live in the heart of England. Occasionally we clash in public.


We disagreed about the Iraq War – he was for it, I was against it. Despite the occasional temptation, I have never reviewed any of his books until today.

But now, in God Is Not Great, he has written about religion itself, attacking it as a stupid delusion.


He reminds me rather more of the bearded Muslim sages of the Deoband Islamic university in India I met last year, than of the cool, thoughtful Anglicanism that we were both more or less brought up in.

For the purposes of this book, religion is identified as a fanatical certainty. No doubt there are plenty of zealots who suffer from this problem.

But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of England’s greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often.


The noblest thinker of that Church, Richard Hooker, enthroned reason, alongside tradition and scripture, as one of the governing principles of faith, and warned against crude literal use of the Bible to justify or prohibit any action.

Yet Christopher repeatedly asserts that believers "claim to know", not just to know, but to know everything. This simply is not true. Nor do we take the Bible literally.

I never imagined that scripture had the fact-checked authenticity of, say, an account in The New York Times – though as we know even that grand newspaper sometimes publishes made-up stories without realising it.

Did the Supper at Emmaus really take place? How I hope that it did, but I do not know that it did, in the way that I know a British soldier has recently been flown home dead from Basra or Helmand, or even in the way that I know that another such soldier will soon make the same sad journey.


Many decades have passed since I fancied the story of Adam and Eve was literal truth, if I ever did. Rather more recently I have realised the great warning against human arrogance that is contained in it, the serpent’s silky promise that if we reject the supposedly foolish, trivial restrictions imposed on us by an interfering, jealous nuisance of a God, then we shall be liberated.

As the serpent promises: "Ye shall be as gods." These may be the most important words in the whole Bible.

Take the enticing satanic advice, and you arrive, quite quickly, at revolutionary terror, at the invention of the atom bomb, at the torture chamber and the building of concentration camps for those unteachable morons who do not share your vision of a just world.


And also you arrive at the idea, embraced by Christopher, that by invading Iraq, you can make the world a better place.

I hesitated about mentioning this. Was it unfair, a jab below the belt? No.

Much of his book is devoted to claiming that religious impulse drives Man to do, or excuse, or support wicked and terrible things in the name of goodness.

Is this not a perfect description of the Iraq War, which he backed?

On the few occasions where Christopher is prepared to admit that religious people have done any good, he concludes that they did so in spite of their faith, not because of it.

He even suggests that the atheist Soviet tyranny was itself a form of religion.

You can’t win against this sort of circular absolutism.


Yet he has this absurdly backwards. Religious and unbelieving people have both done dreadful things, and the worst of them have committed their murders and their tortures in the belief that they were doing good.

Nothing is proved by either side in this argument, by pointing to the mountains of skulls piled up by evil atheists, and evil theists.

What they have in common is that they are human, and capable of the sin of pride. The practice of religion does not automatically prevent this, and nobody said it did.

It sometimes joins in with it, as Christopher points out.

But if there is a voice raised against such arrogant pride in the heedless modern world, it is usually a religious one, and the death camps and dungeons of dictators always contain their ration of the faithful who – at the cost of all they held dear in the world – have listened to their consciences even when the message was so unwelcome.


Perhaps they are just mad: I do not think so.

My claims, you see, are much milder than his. When I skulk in the pew of a nearly-empty church, repeating the lovely, poetic formulas of the Church of England, I do not imagine that I am saved for all eternity.

For all I know, Christopher is absolutely right – my prayers are pointless and a meaningless oblivion awaits. But if he is right, what a dispiriting, lowering truth it is.

Atheists like to claim they behave no worse than believers, and often better. I don’t deny it, in my case. It would be easy for almost anyone to have lived a more virtuous life than mine.

But why should atheists care, or use such terms as "good" and "virtue" anyway?


Comments read comments(17)
post a comment

posted June 3, 2007 at 6:15 am

Well, that was certainly a rousing defense of the validity of Christianity.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 6:27 am

Well, one would not wish to call Christopher Hitchens the worst, but certainly he runs around filled with passionate certainty; and meanwhile, Peter Hitchens apparently offers the gospel of doubt as much as belief. Sure, it’s good to be humble, but sheesh! And who the heck wants to be a “cool” Anglican? Bones and flesh and blood is what a faith needs, people!
It’s not a particularly appealing picture of the modern intelligentsia, either way.

report abuse

bill bannon

posted June 3, 2007 at 9:41 am

Christopher Hitchens being white and western misses a whole mysterious side of the Bible that Augustine was immersed in… though Westerners don’t quote that side of Augustine often. And it is a side that Hitchens would be at pains to refute. Augustine saw all Genesis as veiled prophecy of Christ taking Christ at His word in Mt 11:13 “all the prophets and the law have prophesied up to the time of John”. Hence for Augustine even trivial details are prophecy: the measurements of the ark-300/50/30 cubits were the proportions of Christ and slender men…one’s height being 10 times one’s depth of chest to back and one’s width being 1/6th of one’s height and a hole was put in its side out of which issued the 8 just people after the flood just as the Church issued out of the hole in Christ’s side on the cross. That hole in the side was also in Adam out of which his bride also issued. Account after account in the old testament is really about Christ and that leaves Hitchens with a book whose beginning predicts something momentous which occurs at its end though this book extends over millenia in its writing by multiple human authors. No other book on earth does that because no other book is written by God’s inspiration. In 2Kings4 Augustine saw the Trinity plain as day. A woman sends to Eliseus since her boy has died and Eliseus sends his servant, Gehazi, with Eliseus’ staff to lay on the boy but Eliseus comes himself since the staff did nothing and Eliseus descends on the boy twice…the first time conforming his eyes, mouth and hands to the boy’s (during which he would have to grimace for the facial features to match)…and at which the boy grows warm and the second time Eliseus descends on the boy with no mention of such member matching at which second time the boy sits up and coughs 7 times. Augustine proclaimed to the Manichaen, Faustus, that this was a veiled revelation of God and mankind…God who saw mankind dead in sin like the boy was dead/ God sending first his servant and staff…Moses with the Law yet man remained dead in sin for “the law brought nothing to perfection” Hebrews 7:19 and Gal.3:21 “for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.”
So seeing that mankind remained dead in sin, God had to come and descend on mankind Himself first conforming Himself as Son to man’s lowliness (the member matching) and the second time as Holy Spirit with no member matching but with the boy coughing 7 times… the number of the gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah.
Hence a book predicted both the Passion of Christ and predicted Pentecost and no book of man could have done that….predict something that later contributors to the book would bear witness to as having happened not just in the book but in reality outside the book. Karl Rahner had noted that the Biblical writer need not know of what he was predicting. And he was correct. I doubt that the writer of 2 Kings 4 had a clue that he was writing a veiled revelation of the Trinity. Again…no other book on earth does this.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 10:03 am

Well, I thought it was a fantastic response. Thanks for posting it, Amy.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 11:33 am

Romans: Renounce Jesus or die!
Martyr (to himself): Hmm. On the one hand, Jesus is reported to have said that he’ll give me eternal life. That may be true, and I certainly hope it is. But I don’t know that it’s true. If it isn’t, then that would be a lowering truth, but still, I don’t know it is true. If I had read it in the New York Times, then that would be another matter. Maybe, after all, I’d better do what the guys with the swords want, since it might not be true and I don’t want to throw away my life for nothing.

report abuse

Brad C

posted June 3, 2007 at 12:00 pm

I take it you are being sarcastic, Brian. What a pitiful response by Peter Hitchens. This is just sad:
“For the purposes of this book, religion is identified as a fanatical certainty. No doubt there are plenty of zealots who suffer from this problem.
But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason.”
The game is over once he concedes that being certain is intrinsically wrong. That forces him to admit that people who are “open to reason” must therefore be “filled with doubt”. So the only way you can be a “reasonable” Christian is if you hold some demythologized, anemic version of Christianity. See, Christopher, you don’t have to worry abot me going on another Crusade because I barely even believe a word of this stuff!
This just confirms the Catholic view on faith and reason. We believe the dogmas of the Church with certainty because they are revealed by God. Some of these things can be proven by natural reason and some of them can’t. These latter truths are “above reason” but not “contrary to reason”. But even though we can’t provide independent evidence for things above reason it is still rational to fully adhere to them because 1) we have the infallibility authority of the Church ensuring that they are revealed by God and 2)we can respond to any objections put forward against them, even if these don’t prove they are true in themselves.
Like the Pope said in his Regensburg speech, God does not require us to believe anything contrary to reason. If you hear a voice telling you to blow up a schoolbus full of children, you need to go to a psychiatrist or an exorcist because you can be certain that it is not God talking to you. But if someone believed this with certainty it is not the certainty itself that is the problem, but what it is that he is certain about.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 2:08 pm

Vibrant heathen meets cautious believer, and I feel sorry for them both.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 2:08 pm


posted June 3, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Of course, it should be noted that both Hitchens brothers were no doubt horribly wounded in spirit by their mother’s suicide. If what I’ve heard about it is true, the manner and circumstances seem to have been designed to cause maximal pain to everyone she knew. (Some people apparently have a genius for tearing apart their families; and doing it posthumously is particularly messy, whether done intentionally or not.)
But there are a lot of people out there who have similar attitudes but don’t have nearly the excuse that the Hitchens brothers do. That’s what’s really awful.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 4:28 pm

I create most of my problems as I go about my rounds. It would be so nice to blame Mom and Dad for being too strict. Or I’d really like to somehow blame the rest of my dysfunctional family or my early church fundamentalism. But sadly, it’s all me. Satan didn’t even have to dispatch a demon. I guess that’s his vote of confidence I can screw up without help.

report abuse


posted June 3, 2007 at 10:42 pm

Like Tope, I thought it was a good response. Certainly it was the response his brother needs to hear.

report abuse


posted June 4, 2007 at 6:20 am

“They would never behave like that, surrounded as they are by the invisible web of ten centuries of Christian law and morality, which still protects the nicer parts of our country.”
Where does Peter get the “ten centuries of Christian laws and morality”? Sounds like he thinks Christianity was brought to England by William the Conquerer? Does he not think that Patrick or Augustine of Canterbury or even Edward the Confessor and King Alfred were Christians? Am I missing some kind of Anglican belief?

report abuse


posted June 4, 2007 at 1:16 pm

I see that some people have chosen to pounce all over, my fellow Anglican, Peter’s admission of doubt.
My reply to that would be
1) Although doubt has become a dirty word among some believers, it does not automatically mean that one’s faith is either lacking or liberal.
2) The presence of doubt in an Anglican believer and the admission of such doubt is not just more proof of how Anglicanism is somehow befreft of real passion or belief.
3) Peter is responding directly the Christopher’s characterization of believers as unthinking and undoubting zealots. Peter counters that image by insisting that believers are not necessarily unreasonable fanatics and offers himself and others as examples.
4) When other Christians react to such human expressions of doubt with automatic knee jerk condemnations and the quick application of the pale/liberal/KJS type of pseudo-Christian to anyone who dares admit to doubt, then these Christians are behaving exactly as Christopher and other athiests expect them to.

report abuse

Brad C

posted June 4, 2007 at 3:26 pm

Anglican Peggy,
I will speak only for myself, although I do not think that any of your criticisms apply to the responses above.
The criticisms were that P. Hitchens’ response to C. Hitchens was inadequate. I claimed that this was because he accepted C. Hitchens’ identification of reasonableness with doubt. This is incorrect because it accepts the premise that certainty itself is wrong, and that reasonableness is to be identified with doubt and wavering. It would be more effective to respond to C. Hitchens that what he is criticizing is not the certainty of religious believers, but what they are believing. A proper account of the relationship between faith and reason, and how faith requires us to believe nothing contrary to reason, can better answer the atheist’s objection.
I briefly explained the Catholic way of understanding this. So what I wrote was 1)not a “knee-jerk” reaction and 2) not a personal criticism of P. Hitchens’ doubt–but just his identification of doubt with reasonableness 3) not a dismissal of his view because he’s Anglican.
No one who commented above even used the word “liberal” or implied that it is wrong to ask for a rational account of Christian beliefs. Your comment #4 is completely unfair to what the commenters’ above posted. Nobody rejoices in the fact of P. Hitchen’s doubt–if anything most of us feel sorry for him or even sympathize. But that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree with the argument he presented. To accept C. Hitchens’ identification of certainty with unreasonableness, fanaticism, unwillingness to examine beliefs, etc. is disastrous and proved utterly false by the mountains of apologetic and theological works written by Christian theologians over the milennia. Many of these tomes were written by people whose faith was unwavering, therefore reasonableness does not equal doubt.
If any of the comments above can be characterized as “knee-jerk” it is the comments approving of P. Hitchens’ argument but without giving any explanation why.

report abuse


posted June 4, 2007 at 3:49 pm

A good and modest response. Peter’s no theologian and he doesn’t pretend to be. This, I think, is part of his message.

report abuse

Cat Clinic

posted June 4, 2007 at 10:16 pm

To poor Peter and other Anglican’s vigorous defense of the dubious “virtue” of doubt, I can only offer the wisdom of John Henry Newman: “A thousand difficulties do not a single doubt make.”
But than, we all know what became of the wise [Cardinal] Newman!

report abuse


posted June 5, 2007 at 10:38 am

“Where does Peter get the “ten centuries of Christian laws and morality”?”
Perhaps he’s thinking of the ten centuries since Henry II’s introduction of the common law superceding the Anglo-Saxon system based purely local custom. That would be more like nine centuries; however, William’s conquest is seen as the beginning of the imposition of the common law.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

There is nothing I shall want
A couple of weeks ago, a memorial Mass for Michael was held here in Birmingham at the Cathedral. The bishop presided and offered a very nice, even charming homily in which he first focused on the Scripture readings of the day, and then turned to ...

posted 9:24:16am Mar. 05, 2009 | read full post »

Revolutionary Road - Is it just me?
Why am I the only person I know..or even "know" in the Internet sense of "knowing"  - who didn't hate it? I didn't love it, either. There was a lot wrong with it. Weak characterization. Miscasting. Anvil-wielding mentally ill prophets.But ...

posted 9:45:04pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Books for Lent
No, I'm not going to ask you about your Lenten reading lists...although I might.Not today, though. This post is about giving books to others. For Lent, and a long time after that. You know how it goes during Lent: Prayer, Fasting and ...

posted 9:22:07pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Why Via Media
How about....because I'm lame and hate thinking up titles to things? No? about...St. Benedict? Yes, yes, I know the association with Anglicanism. That wasn't invovled in my purpose in naming the joint, but if draws some Googling ...

posted 8:54:17pm Mar. 04, 2009 | read full post »

Brave Heart?
I don't know about you, but one of effects of childbirth on me was a compulsion to spill the details. All of them.The whole thing was fascinating to me, so of course I assumed everyone else should be fascinated as well in the recounting of every ...

posted 10:19:45pm Mar. 03, 2009 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.