A Tale of Two Brothers

The Atheist Convention is in full swing here in Melbourne. One of the “New Atheists” who is conspicuously absent from the show is Christopher Hitchens. Last night, celebrating my natal feast with my good Lutheran clergy friends Andrew and David, Andrew mentioned that there had been a “rapprochement” between Christopher and his brother Peter. It was the first I had heard of hit, but coincidentally there was an email waiting for me this morning from one of our commentators (HT to Paul) with a link to the full article on the matter by the younger Hitchens brother, the theist of the duo.

It is a fairly lengthy article, which goes rather deep into the history of the two brothers, and their long feud that seems (like most sibling rivalries in my experience) to long predate Peter’s conversion to Christianity when he was 30. But it is that stark difference, the one who believes that “religion poisons everything” and who “loathes and despises” all religious believers of all kinds, and the one who says that

I think it true to say that for many years I was more or less ashamed of confessing to any religious faith at all, except when I felt safe to do so. It is a strange and welcome side effect of the growing attack on Christianity in British society that I have now overcome this. Being Christian is one thing. Fighting for a cause is another, and much easier to acknowledge – for in recent times it has grown clear that the Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular forces which have never been so confident.

In the article, Peter does take the time to recount a number of issues on which he believes his brother is “astonishingly unable to grasp [the] assumptions [that] are problems for his argument.” Among these is the atheist’s :

fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.
I have heard people who believe themselves to be good, defend all these things, and convince themselves as well as others. Quite often the same people will condemn similar actions committed by different countries, often with great vigour.

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a non-human source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.

Its most powerful expression is summed up in the words ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

Another is the

favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict.

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

Peter and Christopher have apparently occasionally participated in public debates against one another on the relative arguments for theism and atheism, the latest of these being in April 2008. Unfortunately, I cannot find a video or audio or transcript of this on the internet (perhaps a reader can assist?). But after the last debate, Paul admits that

Normally, I love to argue in front of audiences and we had been in public debates before. …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.
Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected –and some might have hoped – that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not.
Both of us, I suspect, recoiled from such an exhibition, which might have been amusing for others, because we were brothers –but would have been wrong, because we are brothers.

The whole article makes fascinating reading, but perhaps that final lesson is the important one. Jesus said that faith in him would divide “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53) Peter has demonstrated that while this is the all-to-common outcome of differences in faith within family groups, this need not be so. We are told to love another, and Paul and his brother Christopher obviously do.

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10 Responses to A Tale of Two Brothers

  1. matthias says:

    schutz i take it that you are also a 12th March bambino like myself. Well Happy Birthday .

  2. Louise says:

    I really liked that article.

  3. R J Stove says:

    I understand that Christopher Hitchens’s brother – who differs from Christopher by being both talented and devout – is called not Paul but Peter.

  4. Paul says:

    Of course, I only know both men via the media, but this article reflects well on both of them. That two opinionated, argumentative men can draw the line well above civility and recognise the good in each other is an example to us all. I tend to agree with Peter more, but some of the things Christopher says about the practice of religion are also true.

    I like Christopher’s question “whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one.”

    I think an answer could be Mother Teresa (I’m sorry, I still think of her by this name). She always said she was trying to “do something beautiful for God”, and did not expect to cure poverty in India. This really is a difference between her and secular states who are trying to create a heaven on earth. Christopher Hitchens has been a critic of her, for exactly this reason, if I understand him right, and that is the answer to his own question.

    The religious person (should) try to do good for the individual people they meet, the Godless try to increase the average happiness on earth, even if it is at the expense of individual suffering (eg the Chinese one child policy).

  5. Christine says:

    Matthias and David,

    Ad multos annos to you both!


  6. Jon says:

    I have heard versions of Peter’s argument before, and I think there’s a lot to it. But I think his argument needs to be supplemented by one of the points Benedict made at Regensburg. Acts are not good or bad simply because of the totally arbitrary fiat of the Almighty. Put another way, the most important thing about a moral code is not that it be absolute but that it be right, that it be truly consistent with reason. For Christians (indeed for any theist) a God-given moral code is a great gift because of God’s wisdom and goodness, not because of His power.

  7. I used the brothers Hitchens as an illustration in my sermon today – of course, the text was The Prodigal Son. I even used the photo you’ve posted on the accompanying Powerpoint – yes, I feel ambivalent about PP, but if it’s there one has to use it and why not use it to good effect?

    Did you by any chance pinch your post title from my own, which pre-dated yours by a week?

    Anyway, David, many happy returns.

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