At the age of 15, Peter Hitchens set fire to his Bible on the playing fields of his Cambridge boarding school, and began a period during which his beliefs and actions were precisely those he has spent most of his career railing against. He was a youthful Trot, a nuclear disarmer who regarded "marriage as something to be avoided, abortion as a sensible necessity... homosexuality as very nearly admirable". Above all, he was an atheist.
Now he is a staunch defender of everything he used to be against, including religion; his brother Christopher, two years his senior, is the famous atheist. And the genesis of this short, elegant book, whose passion is both its strength (one may disagree with Hitchens but still admire his conviction) and its weakness (it also leads him to some bizarre conclusions), was a public debate between the two. Hitchens minor thinks that they failed to engage properly, possibly out of some late flourishing of fraternal amity; so he has chosen a less gladiatorial route to put the case against the "militant godless" who made Hitchens major's God is not Great a bestseller.
The most moving section is an elegy to the England that 15-year-old rejected, in which young Peter spent evenings trying to make models of Second World War aircraft, while, at school, "heavy dark blue raincoats, never fully dry, hung in sodden, musty clumps" and "the normal daily smells, of fatty mutton and stodgy puddings, loitered in the brown-painted corridors". It was a sombre, austere world of self-restraint, decent and still filled with the outward manifestations of religion. Hitchens's theory is that the English Christianity he grew up with had been severely compromised by its confusion with patriotism in the two world wars, and that gradually, "a commitment to social welfare at home and liberal anti-colonialism abroad became an acceptable substitute for Christian faith". About this, and about the good-mannered retreat from public life of Anglicanism, Hitchens is spot on, as he is about how the liberal consensus that replaced it is now proving very vulnerable to "aggressive atheism". He is right that atheists will not "admit that their dogmatic insistence that there is no God is in fact a faith". He is right, too, that atheists are unable to concede "that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter".
Unfortunately, Hitchens also comes out with the odd sentence that leads some to place him in the "loonybins" category. People who would once have apologised for Stalin now campaign to tax the Western poor to provide money for Africa's rich, apparently; atheists "actively wish for disorder and meaninglessness". But there is still much to provoke, and to treasure. How could one not enjoy a book that informs the reader that Kim il Sung was not only the "Great Leader" who created the prison state of North Korea, but also a Protestant – and an accomplished church organist?
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