Christopher Hitchens passed away on Thursday, December 16, 2011. (For any who may not be familiar with Hitchens, he was a celebrated journalist, a bestselling author, and an outspoken atheist.) When I heard the news I turned with interest to the Zondervan-published memoir by Mr. Hitchens' brother, Peter, titled The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, where I discovered a slice of the brothers' story that is especially poignant today.
Below you'll find Peter Hitchens' reflections on a public debate on religion with his brother Christopher, a debate which Peter later described as a "ghastly circus."
Unfortunately, "ghastly circus" aptly describes some of the purportedly "Christian" discussion surrounding Christopher's death. So I publish this post for three reasons. First, I want to respectfully say to Christopher's family that I am praying for them.
Second, I am reminded by Peter's thoughtful reflection that Christopher Hitchens was someone's brother, someone's son, and like every person loved or unloved by their fellows, Christopher Hitchens, too, was lovingly made in the image of his Creator.
And third, I challenge myself and anyone reading this far: follow the guidance of the Apostle Peter as we comment on the legacy of Christopher Hitchens: "Dear friends, I urge you … Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:11-12).
- Adam Forrest, Zondervan Internet Team.
Special thanks to Matt Saganski and Rich Tatum.
From Rage Against God
I end this book in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with some thoughts on the unsatisfactory debate that I had there in April 2008, with my brother Christopher, about the existence of God and the goodness of religion. I had decided before it took place that I would not take part in such a debate again, on this or any other subject.
Christopher and I have had over the past fifty years what might be called a difficult relationship. Some brothers get along; some do not. We were the sort who just didn’t. (Parents of such siblings will know about this.)
Who knows why? At one stage — I was about nine, he nearly twelve — my poor gentle father actually persuaded us to sign a peace treaty in the hope of halting our feud. I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall. To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame, and angrily erased my signature before recommencing hostilities. In a way, the treaty has remained broken ever since, and heaven knows what happened to the sad little document.
I had already concluded, as my train nosed westward in the spring twilight through the lovely, wistful mountain and river country that lies between Harper’s Ferry and Pittsburgh, that I did not want to do anything of the kind. Normally I love to argue in front of audiences. This time I seemed to have no taste for it.
No doubt they would have been pleased or entertained if we had pelted each other with slime in Grand Rapids.
Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his apartment in Washington, D.C. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it. We were more than civil, treating each other as equals — and as brothers with a common childhood, even recalling bicycle rides we used to take together on summer days in the Sussex Downs, unimaginably long ago, which I did not even realize he still remembered. And here is another thing. When our Grand Rapids hosts chose the date of April 3 for this debate, they had no way of knowing that it was the sixty-third anniversary of our parents’ wedding — an optimistic, happy day in the last weeks of what had been for both of them a fairly grim war. Not all the optimism was justified, and with the blessed hindsight of parenthood, I cannot imagine that our long fraternal squabble did much for their later happiness. They are, alas, long gone, but my brother and I had both independently become a little concerned at how we should conduct ourselves on such a day.
We had each reached the conclusion, unbidden, that we did not want this to turn into a regular traveling circus, becoming steadily more phony as it progressed around the circuit.
Perhaps I had begun to suspect that something had shifted during our evening in Washington. To my open astonishment, Christopher even cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it. It would be almost as unsettling to come across Mick Jagger living in a Florida retirement community or President Obama attending a meeting of the National Rifle Association. If Christopher is going to take up roasting legs of lamb at this stage in his life, then what else might be possible?
My brother had even given up smoking — a man who once smoked so much, so intensely and with such incessant dedication that one observer wondered if he was doing it simply to keep warm. I am not hoping for a late conversion because he has won a successful battle against cigarettes. He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and he would find it rather hard to climb down out of it. But I have the more modest hope that he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault — and that religion does not poison everything. Beyond that, I can only say that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case that is most effectively couched in poetry.
Christopher and I had been in public arguments before. We had had the occasional clash on TV or radio. We had debated the legacy of the Sixties, in a more evenly matched encounter than Grand Rapids, eleven years earlier in London. Not long after that, there had been a long, unrewarding falling-out over something I had said about politics. Both of us were urged by others to end this quarrel and eventually, if rather tentatively, did so.
When I attacked his book against God, some people seemed almost to hope that our personal public squabble would begin again. No doubt they would have been pleased or entertained if we had pelted each other with slime in Grand Rapids. But despite one or two low blows exchanged in the heat of the moment, I do not think we did much to satisfy them. I hope not. At the end I concluded that, while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was — and remains — more important to me than the debate itself.
So I will say this. On this my brother and I agree: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so. Oddly enough this leads us, in many things, to be far closer than most people think we are on some questions — closer, sometimes, than we would particularly wish to be. The same paradox sometimes also makes us arrive at different conclusions from very similar arguments, which is easier than it might appear. This will not make us close friends at this stage. We are two utterly different men approaching the ends of two intensely separate lives. Let us not be sentimental here, nor rashly over-optimistic.
But I was astonished, on that spring evening by the Grand River, to find that — in the middle of what was supposed to be a ruthless, jeering clash of opposed minds — the longest quarrel of my life seemed unexpectedly to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us. It may actually be true, as I have long hoped it would be, that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
About Peter Hitchens
Peter Hitchens is a British journalist, author, and broadcaster. He currently writes for the Mail on Sunday, where he is a columnist and occasional foreign correspondent. A former revolutionary, he attributes his return to faith largely to his experience of socialism in practice, which he witnessed during his many years reporting in Eastern Europe and his nearly three years as a resident correspondent in Moscow during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hitchens lives in Oxford with his wife, Eve. They have three children. Peter Hitchens has written on the passing of his brother here: "In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011".
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