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The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith

Anyone with a sibling knows that a background and DNA in common do not guarantee a complete coincidence of views. Thus, it is not in the least surprising that the most famous pair of brothers in English-language journalism, Christopher and Peter Hitchens, should disagree about almost everything. The former is a vociferous and voluble atheist, the latter a reconvert to Anglican Christianity. The former strongly supports, and the latter strongly deplores, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The list of disagreements could be extended indefinitely.

This is not to say that no similarities of temperament can be discerned in the brothers’ two memoirs, now being published at more or less the same time. Both brothers were rebellious from an early age; both have been attracted to areas of danger; both have delighted to twist the tails of those who otherwise might have been counted as allies; and both have a tendency to radicalism, if by radicalism we mean the expression of opinion opposite to what is generally accepted in the milieu in which one moves.

Both have abjured former opinions and attitudes, although Peter has done so more completely and straightforwardly than Christopher, who seems to have great difficulties with his past commitments, for reasons that I shall speculate on. The memoirs are very different: Peter’s is roughly half the length of Christopher’s, is less personal (Peter does not mention, for example, that his mother committed suicide in Athens), and displays a concern with his brother’s opinions that does not seem to be reciprocated. Christopher looms large in Peter’s book (indeed, is almost the occasion of it) but Peter is a marginal figure in Christopher’s”less important than, say, Martin Amis.

Even those who disagree strongly with Christopher Hitchens cannot deny that he is talented, amusing, witty, and erudite, with an impressive range of literary reference at his disposal. His personality is engaging, and he does not seem spiteful, malicious, or petty (common characteristics of those who lead the life of the mind).

As is often the case with memoirs, however, the most vivid (because the most personal) part of Hitch-22 is what describes Christopher’s early life; much of the rest is about his political commitments, which already are well known and (at least to me) are interesting mainly for the light they shed on his character.

Christopher made an early commitment to Trotskyism, but it is difficult to take him very seriously as a revolutionary because he always has been too much of a hedonist. Indeed, he appears to me to have had roughly the same relationship to proletarians as Marie Antoinette had to sheep: They have walk-on parts in his personal drama. There is not much evidence of his having thought deeply, or even at all, about the fate, under a social system he vociferously advocated, of the pleasures he so clearly values, the liking for which I don’t in the least blame him; nor is there evidence of any real reflection on what the world would have been like had his demands been met. Not permanent revolution but permanent adolescence has been his goal, and I think he has achieved it.

For me, indeed, there hangs over his writing the air of a clever adolescent alarming the less clever grown-ups with pronouncements he knows they will find outrageous or annoying; and, taking to heart his mother’s dictum that the one unforgivable sin is to be boring, he has eschewed moderation because it is so rarely amusing. This air of the naughty boy is present even when (in my opinion) he is quite right; and, unlike religion, it spoils everything.

For all his socialism, Hitch’s outlook is definitely that of a privileged and superior person born to teach the world. He tells us, for example, that by contrast with the current left, which is balkanized into various single-cause groups that are based on personal characteristics such as sex or race, “we [of the Hard Left, of which he was once a member] earned our claim to speak and intervene by reason of experience and sacrifice and hard work.”

Leaving aside that others besides members of the Hard Left have experience, make sacrifices, and work hard and that none of these, in the absence of judgment, is of great worth (quite the reverse, in fact), he is speaking here, aged sixty, of himself aged nineteen or twenty. Although he extols a sense of irony as the greatest virtue in others, there is not much sense of it here.

Nor is there much sense of irony evident in his attitude toward religion. The only religious people of whom he seems to be aware are the Ayatollah Khomeini and Jimmy Swaggart; he sounds like the barroom atheist who has learned, and never for an instant will let anyone forget, that many popes were bad men. When he writes:

Without the stern, joyless rabbis . . . we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, cruel wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity

a sense of irony might have caused him to add “and the whole of Western civilization.”

His fundamental difficulty is that he himself once suffered from, but cannot bring himself to admit, the very fault of which he accuses those in opposition to the war in Iraq: a failure to recognize radical evil. By aligning himself with Trotsky, he declared himself an admirer of a historical project that was, from the very outset, deeply and radically evil”and this is so whatever the motives of its opponents might have been. The man Trotsky, whom he still affects to admire, did not bat an eyelid about executing more people in an afternoon than the Romanovs executed in a hundred years. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that, by comparison with Trotsky, Nicholas I was a moral giant, and there is no reason whatever to think that a Trotskyite Soviet state would have been a whit better than a Leninist or Stalinist one.

Hitch’s problem has been to distance himself from his past commitment without the painful admission that his choice was for evil, thereby introducing the need for a hint of ironical self-doubt. He wants to save his self-respect from the wreckage, which means that he finds it difficult to be unequivocal about the Soviet Union even late in the day. Here, for example, is what he says about the crushing of the Prague Spring:

It seemed so clear that the ossified, torpid Communist systems and parties had committed a kind of political and moral suicide by their Panzerkommunismus . . . conduct in Prague.

Now, if the crushing of the Prague Spring had been the only, or the main, or the most serious crime of communism, that system would merit hardly more than a footnote in the history of twentieth-century infamy; that our author thinks there was any of its own moral authority left for the Soviet Union to destroy is surely a sign that he has not, even to this day, quite freed himself of his past espousal of evil.

His lack of a sense of irony, at least when it applies to himself, is illustrated by an anecdote (a very good one, for Christopher Hitchens has a good ear for an anecdote) about the way the historian Eric Hobsbawm came to leave the British Communist Party:

Running into him shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I asked him if he’d retained his membership and was told “no.” What had finally precipitated the separation? “They forgot to send me the form asking me for the annual renewal of my membership,” he said with perfect gravity, “and so I decided not to write to headquarters and remind them.” Just like that, then.

Two pages later he writes:

So I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty [to Trotskyism], like some attention-grabbing defector, as feel it falling away from me.

I had not realized before that the author was so averse to attention; nor does it seem to have occurred to him that a defector might just wish to draw attention to his defection because he had come to the conclusion that his previous commitment was dangerous and evil. Moreover, the author seems to conceive of his own loyalty as having an existence and initiative independent of himself. Once again, a sense of irony is not much in evidence here. He does not see how much he has in common with Professor Hobsbawm.

Hitchens does see some things with admirable clarity, however: that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a turning point, for example. If the Western powers had acted together to defend a fundamental principle instead of behaving with what they supposed was sophisticated pusillanimity, they might have saved themselves a great deal of trouble.

Unfortunately, the author spoils the effect of his narrative of the Rushdie affair by relaying an anecdote about Susan Sontag. She behaved with great and admirable clearmindedness during the crisis, but when, according to the author, she managed to get hold of Salman Rushdie by telephone, she said to him, “Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time! ” This kind of exaggerated gush is permissible in private, to which sphere it should be kept, but aired in public, it is apt to produce revulsion, especially when added to Hitchens’ comment that “this very manner of expression seemed an antidote: a humanist love plainly expressed against those whose love was only for death.” It might be an evangelical missionary talking, it has such a tinny ring.

Christopher Hitchens’ judgments are nuanced mainly when it comes to judging himself; otherwise, he lives in a Manichean world of good and evil. His brother, by contrast, appears to have undergone a real and painful repentance for all that he formerly was and did. Peter has discovered that it is he, and not just the world, that was and is imperfect and that therefore humility is a virtue, even if one does not always live up to it. The first sentence of his first chapter reads, “I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967.” One senses the deep”and, in my view, healthy”feeling of self-disgust with which he wrote this, for indeed it describes an act of wickedness.

Peter’s memoir, written with less aplomb than his brother’s and with fewer personal details, is more personally searching. A lot of the book, however, is a response to his brother’s arguments in his previous book, God Is Not Great . There, Christopher was so anxious to prove the uniquely murderous quality of religious belief that he attempted to attribute the murderousness of the militantly secular Stalin regime to its religiosity, the rituals of the cult of personality having some kind of anthropological or psychological similarity to those of religion. This is special pleading of so transparent a kind that Peter has little difficulty in disposing of it. Apart from anything else, the extreme murderousness of Bolshevism began well before its cult of personality.

Perhaps the division between the two brothers is essentially this: One believes that man can live by his own individual reason alone; the other believes that something else is necessary and inevitable. Without being religious myself, I side with the latter. Christopher’s faith in Trotsky was and is all the worse for not being recognized as such”for being dressed up in the language of reason. For example, Christopher speaks with absurd reverence of Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution , as if it were not stuffed full of exceptionally nasty sentiments and half-baked adolescent ideas, with violence seeping out of every figure of speech. Here is one ludicrous (and nasty) idea taken at random:

Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry.

In Hitch-22 , Christopher quotes the book’s final, deeply fatuous peroration:

The shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

Compared with this, Ella Wheeler Wilcox is Plato; only an initial act of faith could have led Christopher to describe Trotsky’s book as “beautiful.” If he really still thinks it is beautiful, his memoir would be better titled Kitsch-22 .

Theodore Dalrymple is a psychiatrist, a contributing writer to the City Journal , and author, most recently, of The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism.

Articles by Theodore Dalrymple