Monday, July 22, 2013

The Other Hitchens

The Rage Against God is a book written by Christopher Hitchen's brother Peter.  He and his late brother apparently were not close, as adults at least, and differed regarding God as may be guessed from the title of the book.  He writes well, though in my mind not as well as his late brother.  But I'm not certain just what he was trying to achieve in this book.  It would seem that the book was intended to be a kind of response to CH's (I'll use initials to distinguish them) voluble atheism as well as an effort to characterize and explain the rage which PH felt is behind the the New Atheists.  If that was the intent, I don't think it has the intended result.

In a way, the book begins much the same way as Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind (discussed in an earlier post) began:  with a summoning and nostalgic description of good old days, now gone, in part at least as a result of the decline in the Christian religion.  Is this sentimental recollection the result of age?  It would seem PH and I are not many years apart (perhaps Bloom was about my age, or older, when he wrote his book).

Do I do this too?  I have a certain fondness for the Catholicism of my youth, or at least for the aesthetics of it, and tend to be critical of the dullness and inanity of the current ritual and music.  But for me, at least, this fondness doesn't translate into a belief in the doctrine behind the older variant of the Church, nor is it a part of an insistence that the world has spiraled into a toilet due to the abandonment of that doctrine or variant.  PH indicates he is a Christian.  Just what that means and why he is one is not explained.

But it would appear the descent which is claimed to have taken place began even earlier than the 1950s.  PH believes that it all began after the First World War.  It makes sense to me that this cataclysmic event changed the world for the worst, and that it may have been responsible for a growing disdain for traditional religious beliefs which it seems both sides invoked in support of their efforts to kill.  But the belief that God was on the side of those warring against one another has characterized wars for centuries.

The wars of the 20th century dwarfed those of the past in magnitude, as a result of technology, but it is unclear the ferocity of those wars resulted from an abandonment of religion.  I think it is more likely that it resulted from the inference that given the technology available, it is necessary to engage in total war in order to defeat an opponent.  Victory on the battlefield is no longer as dependent on the skill and training of an opponent when one side can annihilate the other with mere firepower.  It's said that Napoleon's tactical brilliance declined as he came to rely more and more on massed artillery fire to win battles. 

PH is inclined to blame such things as the total war and atrocities of the 20th century on materialism.  He goes into detail regarding the character of society and culture in the Soviet Union where he lived for a time.  I'm sure conditions there were miserable for all but the elite, as he says, and share his disdain for Western intellectuals who it seems were incapable of viewing Stalin as a monster.  But in what sense was Russia better before the abolition of the Orthodox Church by the Bolsheviks?  Wasn't life miserable for all but the elite under the Czars?  Does PH think it was miserable in a better way under the Czars than it was in the Soviet Union?  Again, this is not explained.

I'm struck by the fact that this book, like that of Bloom's, is a series of assertions mingled with fairly frequent complaints.  There is no argument made in either work, properly speaking.  They consist of pronouncements, proclamations.

PH claims that morality is not possible without God, which is to say without belief in certain precepts which exist outside of what we consider reality.  If I understand him correctly, he maintains this is demonstrated though the concept of Christian love.  He notes that his brother CH wrote that it is not possible to achieve such love.  He distinguishes Christian love from the Golden Rule and believes the former provides a truer basis for morality than the latter, and the abandonment of the former is responsible for or demonstrates by its consequences the impossibility of a truly effective morality (he seems to acknowledge that reciprocity and decency are not dependent on the existence of God, but feels them to be insufficient).

Frankly, I've felt that what is called Christian love is impossible to achieve as well, and is something we honor in the breach, as it were.  We may tout it as an ideal, but we are better off practically speaking to try to do what we actually can do.  Regardless, though, I don't think it is accurate to claim that this love is something peculiar to Christianity, or even to religion in any institutional sense, at least.  PH appears to understand that Christianity is in many senses derivative of older religions, but he doesn't discuss this derivativeness in the context of his thesis.  I assume he must be aware of the writings of Celsus, who demonstrated long ago that the ancient pagan philosophers also referred to the need to love one another, to love others as we love ourselves, long before Jesus is said to have lived.

I'm no fan of the New Atheists, who do indeed sometimes seem enraged, and sometimes without good reason.  Their attitude seems to be one of contempt not only for established religion but for the religious or spiritual generally, and I think that is uncalled for and arrogant.

The book has a touching epilogue, in which PH notes that his last debate with CH was not bitter or contentious, and that they had some friendly time together before the debate.  The book was written before CH"s death, and there is no indication it was understood CH had terminal cancer when written.  One hopes the brothers reconciled fully regardless of their differences on this issue.

But this kind of response does little to defend traditional religion in general or Christianity in particular, in my opinion.  I keep looking for what I think would be a reasonable defense of a reasonable belief in God and do not find it.  Perhaps that's because the defenses made are dependent on a view of religion too tied to the myths and doctrines vested in established, institutional religions which must carry with them baggage which should be discarded.  Or perhaps that's because there is no reasonable defense.  I hope the former is the case.

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