Russell and Duenes

“We Have Forgotten How We Arrived at Our Civilized State.”

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I hated for this book to end, turning the last page with a bit of that melancholy one feels at the parting of an old, good friend. It had that kind of power over me, not least of which because it has such personal depth, written as it is by a believing brother with reference to his unbelieving one. I can relate. Both brothers are obviously very intelligent and thoughtful, and so there is something sad, and yet stirring, about the spiritual chasm between them that haunts the entire book.

I suppose I also enjoyed this book because there’s something fresh here. I’ve read a good amount of “new atheist” argument and Christian rebuttal, and it tends to fall along the same lines, but Hitchens – not being an American, and thus not being your typical American evangelical – has followed a seldom-trod path in his commendation of Christianity, one that is both autobiographical and universal. Not only does his prose pack a wallop, so does his depth of insight. In his introduction he writes,

I tend to sympathize with [the anti-theists]. I too have been angry with opponents who required me to re-examine opinions I had embraced more through passion than through reason. I too have felt the unsettling lurch beneath my feet as the solid ground of my belief has shifted. I do not know whether they have also experienced what often follows – namely, a long self-deceiving attempt to ignore or belittle truths that would upset a position in which I had long been comfortable; in some ways even worse, it was a position held by almost everyone I knew, liked, or respected – people who would be shocked and perhaps hostile, mocking, or contemptuous if I gave in to my own reason. But I suspect they have experienced this form of doubt, and I suspect that the hot and stinging techniques of their argument, the occasional profanity and the persistent impatience and scorn, are as useful to them as they once were to me in fending it off. And yet in the end, while it may have convinced others, my own use of such techniques did not convince me. [12-13]

He offers an excellent critique of “wars of aggression,” particularly the United States’ war against Iraq, but without descending into leftist tropes and disdain for patriotism. He vividly conveys the pervasiveness of what he calls England’s “cult of Winston Churchill,” and the weakening effect it has had on the church in that country. And he opens up a window to the role of art, rather than argument, in his own return to faith.

But the most compelling triumph of this book is his sustained expose of the horrors of the Soviet Union and the misery, ruin and death that inevitably comes upon any people who succeed in stamping out God as they did. This came home to me this morning as I considered that most of my current students, and most others of their generation, don’t have the faintest inkling of the darkness that Hitchens describes. The Soviet Union is ancient history to them, unknown and irrelevant, a question on a unit test. And because it is, they are unable to learn the proper lessons from her history of atheistic materialism, scientism, persecution, violence, oppression, murderous bloodlust and wanton genocide. They are told that there are no parallels, and scorned if they should suggest that anything happening in “western liberal democracies” today might be driving us to the same destination. And yet the chilling truth is upon us and open for anyone with eyes to see. Hitchens concludes,

Must we discover this all over again? I fear so. A new and intolerant utopianism seeks to drive the remaining traces of Christianity from the laws and constitutions of Europe and North America. This time, it does so mainly in the cause of personal liberation, born in the 1960s cultural revolution, and now inflamed into special rage by any suggestion that the sexual urge should be restrained by moral limits or that it should have any necessary connection with procreation. The utopianism relies for human goodness on doctrines of human rights derived from human desires and – like all such codes – full of conflicts between the differing rights of different groups. These must then be policed by an ever more powerful state…Inevitably, it is the Christian churches who are the last strongholds of resistance to this change. Yet they are historically weak, themselves infiltrated by secular liberalism, full of uncertainty and diffidence. The overthrow of Christian education is a real possibility in our generation. The removal of Christianity from broadcasting and public ceremonies is almost complete…Secularists are equating the teaching of religion with child abuse and laying the foundations for it to be restricted by law…The rage against God is loose and is preparing to strip the remaining altars when it is strong enough. [213-14]

Do my students at the Christian school know and prepare to confront this reality? I think not. Do the public schools dare speak of it? We go blithely on resting in the false assurances that “our way of life” is inevitable into the indefinite future. We say that we ought to keep our Christian kids in the public schools where Jesus has been officially banished from the curriculum and educational ethos. We haven’t the slightest clue of what life will be like once the Christian “capital” has run out and the spiritual checks start bouncing. Just keep the iPads coming. My students don’t lose much sleep over the pronouncements of the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and their like-minded compatriots such as Nicholas Humphrey in the government and universities when they say things like,

Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given license to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith. In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. [Humphrey, p.207 in The Rage Against God]

What Hitchens has to say “may seem trivial to us in our secularized societies still benefiting from the freedoms that flowed from centuries of Christianity. We have forgotten how we arrived at our civilized state. Religion has retreated to far of daily life, and death, its great ally, is hidden behind screens.”  So true. For insights like this, I can’t recommend his book highly enough.



Written by Michael Duenes

June 7, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Posted in Duenes, Literature, Theology

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  1. […] b l o g • s h o t ___–__–_–_-_ 7.19.10 Russell and Duenes :: Duenes talks about Christopher Hitchens’s brother Peter Hitchens, focusing on Peter’s critique of the “war of aggression” and Peter’s preference for the role of art rather than the role of argument.  Click Here to Read It. […]

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