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The day that Peter Hitchens glimpsed hell

Hitchens’s brother was an atheist, until he came face to face with a horrifying work of art

By on Thursday, 5 August 2010

The day that Peter Hitchens glimpsed hell

We do not know whether Peter Hitchens was aware of his brother Christopher’s illness when he wrote The Rage against God, but the revelation that the great atheist commentator is suffering from throat cancer adds poignancy to Peter’s latest book.

Peter Hitchens, the younger by two years, is a committed Anglican and defender of conservative (but not Conservative) England. Like his brother, and many of the baby-boomer generation, he rebelled against the world they grew up in, a gloomy and melancholy but safe post-War Britain, one of minor public schools steeped in the naval tradition where children were raised to be English gentlemen.

It is a world long passed, and it was Hitchens’s generation who destroyed it, determined to overthrow Christian civilisation because, as he recalls: “We were sure that we, and our civilisation, had grown out of the nursery myths of God, angels and heaven.”

At the age of 15 he set fire to the family Bible, but “it would be many years before I would feel a slight shiver of unease about my act of desecration”.

A far-Left cultural revolutionary in the 1970s, Hitchens was in his early 30s, and had experienced life behind the Iron Curtain covering the Polish shipyard strikes when he began to feel strong unease.

“I no longer avoided churches,” he writes. “I recognised in the great English cathedrals, and in many small parish churches, the old unsettling messages. One was the inevitability of my own death, the other the undoubted fact that my despised forebears were neither crude nor ignorant, but men and women of great skill and engineering genius, a genius not contradicted or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it.”

On a cycling trip to Burgundy he saw Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th-century Last Judgment, and this made a lasting impression. “I had scoffed at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of hell. I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head.
I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.”

Fear, indeed, plays a central role in Hitchens’s Christian conservative philosophy, specifically the belief that without fear man is capable of appalling inhumanity. Christianity, on the other hand, requires men to do things which are “unnatural” to them as mammals: marry and stay faithful to the mother of their offspring, build for the future, defer gratification and even lay down their lives for others. Without such restraint the democracy and freedom that we take for granted would crumble to dust.

All of this is, of course, totally anathema to the utopian Left of his generation, who maintain the ideology that man is born free and good. This tradition found its most brutal conclusion in Bolshevik Russia, which Hitchens, who was stationed in Moscow for several years, describes with laconic grimness, a place where men would drink themselves into a stupor in grim dives and where almost half of pregnancies ended in abortion.

Two decades after the collapse of Communism Russian society has not recovered from the trauma, as its demographic death spiral testifies. But, as Hitchens points out, we are going down the same route. Marxism failed economically, but in the West it succeeded culturally once Christianity faded.

The New Atheist movement, of which his brother is joint pharaoh (with Richard Dawkins), is its latest mutation, a “Bolshevism for the Home Counties”.

It was Dawkins who called the teaching of religion “child abuse”, just as the Soviets did, and his confederate, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who said that “parents… have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose.”

This book came about as a result of a public debate in Michigan between the brothers, one that ended a long-running and bitter feud. Despite their differences it is clear that Peter loves his brother deeply, and whatever Christopher’s future health may be, we can be thankful that they were reconciled when they were.

  • Pmang

    The hell seen by St.Faustina is real enough to be frightened to death for those who do not put their trust in God's loving and faithful mercy. Blessed is His name forever and ever.

  • MJCarroll

    I just want to remind Catholic Herald readers that Christopher Hitchens is not quite as ignorant in his thinking as we may imagine.

    I have cut out and kept a clipping that states that Christopher Hitchen's has stated publicly that…..

    '…..atheists only have the luxury of remaining atheists because the body of the christian church is praying for them and society…..'

    I am surprised that this quote has never been thrown back at the Dawkin's supporters and Dawkin's himself who only seem to have hatred in their hearts.

    As for Christopher Hitchen's maybe there is some hope for him.

  • Waldo

    We as human beeins need boundaries if we want to avoid self destruction. That boundary is called God. The wisdom to know that, was provided by religion, some better than others. What Christopher Hitchens has been doing, is using his cleverness with one compulsion, one compulsion only, that is to express that God is Death.That mad conclusion maks him angry,that is why he is lashing out to his last breath.You Christopher Hitchings been born, lived to runt against people that belive in the better angels of nature, and they keep trying to build. You have use you mind and mouth to diminish, degrade. No one mind has changed. You may think that you are Voltaire, but the French revolution the Bolshevik revolution, the ayatollahs revolutions are headed to the same thrash of history. We have seen it all. While we live we belive. Long live life.

  • Ben

    Having had a look at van der Weyden's work I am struck certainly by the brightness and sharpness of the colours, but the content is — I'm sorry — cartoonish, and that it should provoke anyone's subscription to the idea of supernatural forces strikes me as extraordinarily odd. I quite like Peter Hitchens when he is pugnatiously indignant about some political issue or another: here he is methodical, logical, biting and witty. But when he — and other believers — turn to talk about their faith and religion and God, a notion so fanciful to me that it is hard to express, it is very disconcerting. A jarringly quick switch to advocacy of something I see as no less silly than voodoo cultism and pretended sorcery. I wonder if the faithful could better understand how, to secularists and atheists, the apparently normally functioning colleague at work or friend at home can on the mention of their faith suddenly and apparently schizophrenically appear an entirely different, warped person.

  • drew70

    Likewise, an otherwise sane and normal person begins to seem quite odd and strange to us when he or she displays a faith that this amazing universe with its mind-boggling complexity and intricacy just sort of happened along by chance and accident. As a believer I marvel at the faith that it takes to be an atheist.

  • Ben

    Bit of a travesty of the atheist position, as well as the agnostic one. We don't claim we know the origins of the universe, but think an answer can be gradually be approached by rational, evidence-based scientific enquiry. But to throw your hands up and say 'Oh, God must have done it' seems sloppy. And it begs the question, 'who “did” God'?'. I suppose some minds are more easily boggled than others.

  • Athanasius

    Assuming that you are British, I just find it amazing that there is a country, separated from us by such a narrow little strip of water, where to think this way is so (seemingly) normal. I'd rather the old jingoistic Britain, I really would.

    I have nothing against you, of course, but it is this which boggles MY mind

  • Ben

    I don't see where the Britishness comes into the argument. Unless Britain is something that ignites certain strong emotions in you, which it would perhaps be more sanitary not to delve into here. It is highly likely that, wherever you live, there are rather a lot of people who think the same way as I do. If you haven't noticed them, or if they haven't decided to be vocal about their views, it is either because they fear the consequences of expressing their views, or because you move in narrow and congested circles.

  • Dan

    You have no provable answer as to the origin of creation and this wonderful intricate universe in which we live. Then your religion is science, I guess, because you have faith that scientific enquiry will answer the question. Then you are not an atheist. Your god is science.


  • Anthony

    Ben's God may be science, but it is the science of the 19th century, not of the 21st century. In fact, no atheist can follow the science of the 21st century and call him/herself an atheist.

    Scientific theories from different starting points are now suggesting that space and time are not a permanent background in which matter and energy interact, but that they are in fact something which together with matter and energy emerge from a more profound reality which is spaceless and timeless. And as Christians know, the universe was fashioned by a timeless and spaceless Creator

    It appears that the science of the future will turn out to be an enemy rather than a friend of atheism. One wonders where the atheist will turn to for justification, or will atheism, as I suspect, recede into history as have so many heresies in the past?

  • Ben

    Science is not a faith and it has no gods to worship. It cannot disprove that there is a creator (there are zillions of silly theoretical hypotheses that cannot actively be disproved) but that does not mean that the probability of the existence of a creator is equal or greater than the probability that there is not. Quite the opposite. No evidence beyond 'faith' and 'personal revelation' is ever produced, and this is not evidence of any kind since it is subjective and non-falsifiable by any established standards. The splendid intricacies of the universe, incidentally, include exploding and imploding stars (including our own at some point), galaxies crashing into oneanother, the tiny dusting of life it seems to support; the pitiless viciousness of the natural order in which most life that does exist is soon wiped out by by disease or predators. If there is a creator he is either malicious or not interested. If there is one that brought the vast cosmos into being, then why reveal himself to desert peasants in the middle east using a collection of fairly lame special effects to impress local agriculturalists? I would really love to know.

  • Anthony

    “but that does not mean that the probability of the existence of a creator is equal or greater than the probability that there is not. Quite the opposite.”

    The theoretical existence of timelessness and spacelesness from which spacetime emerges and their consistency with the properties a timeless and spaceless Judeo-Christian Creator are powerful evidence that the universe was created.

    For your part, what evidence do you have that it is more likely that the universe was NOT created? Merely descibing the phenomena of the universe is just that, a description. It goes no way towards providing evidence that is was more likely not created that created. You will have to do better than that.

  • Athanasius

    I happen to be Irish, and am also in point of fact probably less nationalist than most of my countrymen in that I do not consider either the 1916 Rising or the “War of Independence” to be justified insurrections. No, I have very little anti-British sentiment. What does arouse certain strong emotions in me is your country's current miserable state—especially given the rapidity of its decline: it was quite literally Victorian only 110 years ago (not that I am a wholesale proponent of Victorianism).

    But I have mentally classified my country as Not Quite So Far Gone Yet, and I think that in my country, atheists might perhaps be more likely to consider themselves as revolutionaries railing against the old oppressor of religion, than as reasonably contented members of the established order wishing that those poor, benighted (and rather odd) religious folk might be delivered from their superstitions.

  • Anthony

    “If there is one (a creator) that brought the vast cosmos into being, then why reveal himself to desert peasants in the middle east using a collection of fairly lame special effects to impress local agriculturalists? I would really love to know.”

    The great event in the history of mankind is the Resurrection of Christ which has made everlasting life possible for all men. In order to be resurrected, Christ has to die on the cross and in order to die he had to have been born, and he was born of the Virgin Mary. She had to be a perfect creature free from sin so that she would be worthy of the incarnation of God from her own flesh through the action of the Holy Spirit. God had chosen the Jewish people from among all the pagan tribes on earth to worship him and him alone so that, through generations of being continuously perfected through such divine worship, the Jewish race would ultimately produce one perfect sinless creature worthy to be the vehicle of his incarnation.

  • Ben

    Thank you for that. But it seems to me that this succession of supposed events is a very convoluted and roundabout way of going about things. And maybe bungled, too. What was the point of God choosing the Jewish people as the vehicle for his plans, only for them to decide, when the supposed Messiah came, to give him short shrift as an imposter and decide that the awaited true Messiah has not yet arrived? And why did God not choose, say, the Chinese, who were much more populous and literate and could have spread His message faster and to more people? Or he could have chosen the Romans who were in charge of much of the western world at the time, so that it wouldn't have been necessary to wait for Emperor Constantine around the mid 300s AD to switch the empire to the true faith. Just wondering if there is an official explanation.

  • Ben

    Who created the Creator? Thanks.

  • Ben

    Thank you. I suppose some might be less inclined to take pride in a 'celtic tiger' fed on EU handouts and now facing a burst property bubble. But, anyway, I was intrigued by the 'Anthanasius' bit, and wonder if, for my benefit, you could explain the concept of the Trinity to me. It seems a bit complicated. Thanks.

  • Anthony

    A timeless Creator has always existed and therefore has no need to have been created.

  • Philipa

    That was nasty and unnecessary.

  • Philipa

    “Christianity, on the other hand, requires men to do things which are “unnatural” to them as mammals: marry and stay faithful to the mother of their offspring, build for the future, defer gratification and even lay down their lives for others” – says who? Who says that lifelong marriage is “unnatural”? They're an idiot. I think it rather depends on who you're married to. And it implies that atheists cannot choose to stay with another and build a life because they haven't the fear of God in them making them do so.

    Look, Peter Hitchens may need the fear of God in him to stay with his wife but that doesn't mean the rest of the world is like him.

    There are all sorts that make a world and fear may make people do all sorts of things, but religious people leave a marriage too (the CofE was created to do just that), clergy have abused children and commit all sorts of sins so fear doesn't always work. There is also the case where people use bits of the Bible to justify all sorts of vile behaviour.

    The more religious Victorian England was a place “where men would drink themselves into a stupor in grim dives” and women too, and infant mortality was high, about 50%. Was that a function of religion or a function of the medical and social environment of the time? Where is the comparitive research in the book that shows Britain is worse now than in a more generally religious age?

    Peter doesn't really address his brother's arguments.

  • Philipa

    Russia gave way to Lenin and communism after the loss of so many of it's sons. That Lenin murdered Tzar Nicholas II is heartbreaking, but how did it get to that point? Europe was largely run by one family and it was the hope of Prince Albert that that should ensure peace. His hopes came to nothing. The religion that Peter Hitchens embraces says that if a woman wants to know anything she should ask her husband and be silent in church. Many have used religion as a tool of oppression. That is not right, nor is it good. But is it right and good? Perhaps he should have questioned that (bravely)? Or is it that one woman, holding a position of power in Russia, who was ever grateful for a mans help with regard to her child, blindly followed the wrong path? These were religious people.

    Were the Russian people rejecting God or Rasputin or war or chaos? And was the welcome of Stalin the welcome of him as he really was or the welcome of hope, of a strong leader? When it comes to restraint I think Christianity as it was had a way to go before it caught up with Stalin.

    So to consider the impact of religion in Russia I don't think an extended trip is enough. I think some real research is needed and as a historian I don't think Hitchens is up to snuff here. It's a view, ok, but rhetoric rather than real argument. To use that view as a serious premise for or against religion is simply not good enough.

  • Ben

    I can see that would be very 'convenient'. But it's just an asserted hypothesis.

  • Anthony

    The Jews were part of the Roman empire and, when they rejected the Messiah, the new faith, instead of remaining an inward looking faith as Judaism had been for centuries, was opened up to non-Jewish peoples. Thanks to the infrastructure of the Roman empire Christianity spread rapidly throughout the rest of the known world. It is no accident that Ss. Peter and Paul travelled to Rome, preached there and were martyred there. Pope St Leo the Great claimed that the Roman empire was pre-ordained by God for the purpose of disseminating the Christian message.

  • Anthony

    More like an uncanny coincidence. There you have ancient scripture and tradition referring to a timeless (eternal) and spaceless (immaterial) Creator of the universe, and now you have different scientific theories all converging on the same notion that space and time themselves emerged from a more fundamental spaceless and timeless background. Quite spooky really, don't you think? How on earth could such ancient teachings have ever begun to imagine a timeless and spaceless origin? That is a question that no atheist is able to answer.

  • Ben

    Thanks. Except that Jesus claimed he was the fulfilment of Judaic prophesies. 'Christianity' was an invention of Paul of Tarsus, who seems never to have met Jesus. As for the instrumentalisation of the roman empire, it's a pity that this required the persecution of so many Christians for several centuries, only for that empire eventually to be overwhelmed by pagans who banished christianity to the fringes of what remained of western civilisation in a period when Islam then gained an astonishing ascendancy. Is this really the best plan God could manage? Leo's claims read a bit like a forelorn attempt to impose a retrospective logic and dignity on a series of hapharzard and chaotic events.

  • Anthony

    “Except that Jesus claimed he was the fulfilment of Judaic prophesies.”

    He was. That's why his message spread from the Jewish people to the entire human race.

    ” 'Christianity' was an invention of Paul of Tarsus, who seems never to have met Jesus.”

    He did meet Jesus, the risen Jesus, on the road to Damascus.

    “As for the instrumentalisation of the roman empire, it's a pity that this required the persecution of so many Christians for several centuries, only for that empire eventually to be overwhelmed by pagans who banished christianity to the fringes of what remained of western civilisation in a period when Islam then gained an astonishing ascendancy.”

    In the early days of Christianity, Rome had competing Partriarchates in Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople. Over time Islam invaded the former three and eventually the latter, leaving Rome the sole unfettered and uncontested beacon of Christianity. Guided by the See of Peter who alone was given the command by Christ to build his church, Roman Catholicism has grown to global proportions encompassing all of humanity. Think about it.

  • Will Cable

    ‘suddenly and apparently schizophrenically appear an entirely different, warped person.’

    That says a lot more about you than it does religious people, and who to say what all atheists and secularists and lots of religious people, and they get on fine. Perhaps you are simply too narrow minded to comprehend the fact that intelligent people can have different approaches to life and ways of seeing the world.