Peter Hitchens tells Ed West that the New Atheism promoted by his brother, Christopher, is corroding our culture At the age of 15 Peter Hitchens burned his first Bible, leaving the Holy Book a “disagreeable, half-charred mess” and the teenager with a sense of anti-climax. It was his “year zero”, and he went on to develop, throughout his late teens and 20s, the typical “enlightened English person’s scorn for faith”, a feeling he characterises by Virginia Woolf’s words upon hearing that T S Eliot had become a Christian: “He may be called dead to us from this day forward.” Christianity was one of the “nursery myths” that the progressive post-war generation had put behind them as they built a glorious new future and overturned the old order.
They were very successful: today the post-war cultural revolution is complete, but Hitchens is its most notable critic. It would be wrong to call him a “bornagain Christian”, for he’s far too English for that. Neither did Hitchens have a Damascene moment as such; rather, in his early 30s he began to feel drawn back, despite the social disapproval. But it was while gazing at Rogier van der Weyden’s Last Judgment, a 500-year-old painting that shows in graphic detail the torment of sinners in hell, which he saw while on a cycling holiday in Burgundy, that he realised he was a Christian again.
In fact, Hitchens, a former Left-wing student activist and member of the Labour Party, would become not only a Christian but a leading conservative journalist, writing for the Mail on Sunday and authoring such bestselling books as The Abolition of Britain and A Brief History of Crime.
This is in stark contrast to his brother who is, of course, Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great, and co-patriarch of the New Atheists movement, along with Richard Dawkins. There is a soap-opera element to the Hitchens brothers that almost detracts from the writing of either, so I only mention this oft-mentioned feud because it is vital to the story of this book. They were always argumentative as boys, so much so that their poor father had to make them sign a peace treaty when Christopher was 11 and Peter nine. The brothers fell out as adults and barely spoke for decades, but are now on good terms. As Peter says: “I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers’ war.” They even exchanged manuscripts two months ago, Christopher sending his memoirs, Hitch-22, Peter his new book The Rage Against God.
The book came about directly after the brothers took part in a public debate on religion, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Peter was having lunch the next day – “I love Middle American cities so I stuck around” – and the publishers asked him to write it.
Peter has suffered slightly because, despite being proAmerican, he opposed the Iraq war; while Christopher, the cultural revolutionary Leftist, has perversely become popular with many on the American Right as a result of his support for the invasion. Christopher supported the invasion on the Left-wing principle that liberal democracy could be spread by force; Peter opposed it on the pragmatic conservative grounds that it would be a bloodbath with little prospect of a democratic Iraq. Most people in Britain might agree that the younger Hitchens was right, but it has not helped his cause in the United States, where the man he calls “Anthony Blair” is still extremely popular.
“It’s not a work of apologetics,” he makes clear. “I’m not a theologian, I’m not even particularly well-versed. The only way I can argue is autobiographically, and it is the most difficult to write of all the books I’ve done.” He recounts his upbringing, the son of a naval officer, in a rather gloomy country beginning its decline after the Second World War. Throughout the book he argues, with great calmness and filial love, against his brother’s belief that “religion poisons everything”. He’s not trying to save his brother’s soul, as such, as he knows such an appeal would only fill Christopher with contempt.
His book is beautifully honest and thought-provoking, and perhaps, as always with Hitchens, finest when describing the former Soviet Union, a place he witnessed as a Moscow correspondent during the 1980s when it was in a sense at its worst, no longer even held together by fear. He recalls a grim world where children were raised by the state and where men would drink themselves into a stupor in grim, dirty dives, sitting in silence while they drowned out the nightmare of Bolshevism. The ideology had destroyed all sense of social obligation, so much so that people actually felt threatened when he merely showed the smallest politeness in opening a door.
The West greeted Boris Yeltsin’s triumph in August 1991 with euphoria, yet even two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian society has not recovered. The population is rapidly shrinking as abortion kills the young and drink the middle-aged; its social solidarity is in tatters, with the super-rich showing off their grotesque wealth and leaving the poor to rot. Some churches have been restored but they are empty, and the sad truth is that, once official atheism has mocked and persecuted Christianity out of existence, there is no way back. The Bolsheviks’ mission of creating a godless society has worked – with appalling consequences.
One realises, on reading Hitchens’s book, how strongly the New Atheism movement mirrors that of the Bolsheviks a century before, including their assertion that teaching religion is “child abuse”. “Of course,” he says: “It’s Bolshevism for the Home Counties.” And while Communism failed economically, culturally it has succeeded, even more so in the West, the subject of his last book, The Broken Compass. Marxism has only truly taken root in the past couple of decades because, as Antonio Gramsci understood, Communism would never work in civilised Christian Europe, where the churches held sway over people’s hearts and minds. Now “the whole of Europe is a wasteland as far as Christianity is concerned”. No wonder that the new establishment hates Christianity so much, and does all it can to undermine it. The abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, although horrific, he says, have been used as an excuse to attack that grand institution.
I ask him whether, being a morally conservative Christian, his natural home is the Catholic Church. He’s horrified by the idea. “I’m English in a very fundamental way. I can recite Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet’,” he says. Protestantism is “in my entire make-up”, he adds.
He’s not even opposed to the ordination of women: “For me, was never about men versus women, it was always about the way it was done.” If Hitchens’s diagnosis is correct, and we are heading towards some sort of Marxist cultural suicide, what is the cure? Can conservatives, who lost the culture war, win a cultural insurgency, especially with a deChristianised generation who have been raised by Fabians to recite post-1968 mantras about equality, diversity and sexuality?
“You start with the generation which has gone through the divorce culture and saw what happened,” he says. “Social and moral conservatism largely exists among people who used to vote Labour. There are still a majority of people who would prefer social and moral conservatism, national independence, rigour in education, punishment for criminals.” The clock, as he’s fond of telling his opponents, can easily be put back.
“Go to Warsaw and see how it was rebuilt after the War, stone by stone. They rebuilt their city as an act of cultural resistance.” “It can be done. All over East Germany new grammar schools arose when the wall fell. Putting the clock back is probably the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe say you go back to where you took the wrong turning. The crucial moment is the First World War, where everything went wrong.” Even so, it will take some time. “The 19th century moralisation was the fruit of the Wesleyan movement. If we began the moralisation now it might be our great-grandchildren who benefit.
“Easy divorce, the European project, the welfare state as currently constituted, they have all failed. All it requires doing is getting rid of those Fabians whose task it is to accommodate the Conservative party to what the Left has done.” The Conservative Party is, for him, the main obstacle. Hitchens actually has two books out at the moment. The second, The Cameron Delusion, is a reissue of The Broken Compass, with an added chapter about the Conservative Party.
He does not dislike Cameron – he thinks he’s a nice person who doesn’t believe in anything. He genuinely does not like Gordon Brown, and the feeling is apparently mutual, “but the vindictive personal attacks on him are absurd. No one can be that bad.” His next book will be about his travels abroad, with the working title of Short Breaks in Mordor. Fans seem to like it best when he’s in dark, unpleasant places, although he also enjoys these trips. “The idea of spending three weeks on a beach is pretty close to hell on wheels.” So will his brother have a deathbed conversion? “No,” he replies, but: “When I go into bookshops they’re crammed with the works of Dawkins raging away at those stupid people who believe in God. The shelves groan with them. Look at any British bookshelf and look for the religious books and they’re not there. Who are these people arguing with?
“Who is Dawkins’s main opponent? Himself. Who is my brother’s main opponent? Himself. The fact that he is interested suggests to me he is at least open to the possibility.”