A Kinder, Gentler Hitchens
When I picked up a review copy of Peter Hitchen’s Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, I half expected some of the same vitriol I found in his older brother Christopher’s bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But whereas Christopher goes for the jugular by challenging his opponents to a profanity-laden bar fight, Peter prefers to invite his guests in for a proper afternoon tea.
As the book opens Peter chronicles the rise of secularism in postwar Britain, noting how these developments informed his rebellious anti-God streak. After he grows tired of playing the naughty little atheist schoolboy, he decides to assume the mantle of a proper English gentleman by getting married and joining the Church of England. The version of Anglicanism that Peter embraces seems more Pythoneseque than pastoral, a church that’s adorned with Eddie Izzard-isms, not to mention the occasional Rowan Atkinson sighting or a reenactment of Monty Python’s “The Bishop Sketch.”
Now that he’s a man of faith, he proceeds to logically dismantle the arguments raised by his brother. The questions he raises like “Can Stalin be a Communist and a Christian?” might make for interesting salon chatter. But Peter never ventures into the more profound angst-riddled questions that might help shed some insight into where he feels God might be present in both the global crises he covers as a journalist, as well as in his own personal pain.
Out of respect for his family, Peter chose not to delve into his parents’ difficult marriage that culminated in his mother’s suicide when he was a young adult. I’ve spent enough time in the UK to understand that the Brits are far more reserved about their personal feelings than us Yanks (though they are the ones who introduced the reality TV craze into the US). But what prevented Peter from opening up and presenting a bit more of his personal side like his brother Christopher did in his new memoir Hitch-22? Now, I’m not advocating for a Prozac-inspired, angst-laden tell-all full of ramblings best shared in privacy with one’s therapist. While one can respect his desire for privacy, the lack of personal detail prevented me from connecting more with Peter’s spiritual journey.
In the end, the reader encounters a tame, domesticated God that may edify the soul and inspire small acts of good through personal charity. In the words of Mike Yaconelli, founder of The Wittenburg Door, “What happened to the category-smashing, life-threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire and was considered (by those in power) dangerous?” But instead of joining forces with Anglicans like Archbishop Desmond Tutu who put the Beatitudes into practice, this brand of Anglicanism plays ostrich in the face of atrocities such as the persecution of gays in Uganda. And that silence in the face of evil can indeed be deadly.
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).