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In loving memory: We must create a story that is worth dying for 

Peter Hitchens takes us on a breathless journey through the landscape of modern ideologies and the decline of Christianity in the Western world. The genre here is of "confessions" such as Apologia Pro Vita Sua of the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman. This is a genuine story of a conversion, of someone who has long neglected, indeed rejected, religion, coming around to a Christian worldview as the most satisfying account of the cosmos and of our selves. The book can also be read as a continuing debate with his militantly atheist brother, Christopher, even though there are protestations throughout the book that he does not wish to debate publicly again with him.

He charges his brother with assuming that moral truths are "self-evident" when they are only so because of the framework provided by a moral and spiritual tradition. Peter is certain that morality cannot be based merely on utilitarianism, opinion polls or focus groups. For fundamental truths, such as the inalienable dignity of persons, freedom or equality, we must appeal to a transcendental ground for them. The Judaeo-Christian tradition provides this whether in terms of the common origin of humanity or its creation in the divine image or the possibility of obedience to the divine command being based on the freedom to respond to such a summons.

The question is not whether atheists can be moral but from where the moral codes come to which we seek to adhere. The great codes rose in close association with the main religions and, in a Western context, from the Ten Commandments, the teaching of Jesus Christ and Christianity. Peter disagrees with Christopher about the impossibility of loving our neighbours as ourselves, noting that sacrifice (that is, of loving them more than ourselves) is a fact of daily experience: mothers for the sake of their children; medical and relief workers for those who are ill or in danger; husbands and wives caring for their partners through terminal and distressing illnesses; and soldiers on the battlefield.

While conscience continues to be formed by the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition, it is being undermined by several forces. Peter highlights the corrosive effects of the two world wars and the disillusion that they have brought. But he is also conscious of the deliberate way in which Marxists and neo-Marxists have sought to undermine "bourgeois morality" as preparation for the revolution. Whatever advanced its arrival was good. Today's radical secularists may have lost the thirst for revolution but the social agenda of neo-Marxism has become an end in itself. There remain strong connections, however, between the New Atheism and the Old: restricting the freedom of speech in promoting a politically-correct utopia; interfering with the right of free association; extending the role of the State; and schemes to "protect" children from the religious influence of their parents are some of the areas which are seen by Peter as points of attachment to the old way of doing things.

The New Atheists confuse fundamental human rights with the right to instant self-gratification and self-indulgence, which not only weaken society from the inside but also render it less able to counter any threats to it from outside.

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April 27th, 2010
3:04 PM
Great summary! By itself a worthwhile analysis. An almost perfect list of the ailments of our time. "Shooting ducks in a barrel"? I'm sorry to say: not so. The problem is not so much 'new atheism' but utopianism. That's basically the sequel to atheism and its older utopian brainchildren. It's not necessarily anti-religious. At times not at all. Just anti-Judeo-Christian. Those ideas crept pretty much into everything: education, media, politics... . I wouldn't compare that battle of ideas to duck hunting but to a fight against a viral infection.

April 15th, 2010
7:04 PM
Sounds like an excellent book. To some extent though dealing with "new atheism" is a bit like shooting ducks in a barrel.

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