Hitchens vs Hitchens
By PETER HITCHENS - Last updated at 22:40pm on 2nd June 2007

Am I my brotherís reviewer? A word of explanation is needed here. Some of you may know that I have a brother, Christopher, who disagrees with me about almost everything.

Some of those who read his books and articles also know that I exist, though they often dislike me if so. But in general we inhabit separate worlds Ė in more ways than one.

He is of the Left, lives in the United States and recently became an American citizen. I am of the Right and, after some years in Russia and America, live in the heart of England. Occasionally we clash in public.

We disagreed about the Iraq War Ė he was for it, I was against it. Despite the occasional temptation, I have never reviewed any of his books until today.

But now, in God Is Not Great, he has written about religion itself, attacking it as a stupid delusion.

This case, I feel, needs an answer. Most of the British elite will applaud, since they see religion as an embarrassing and (worse) unfashionable form of mania.

And I am no less qualified to defend God than Christopher is to attack him, neither of us being experts on the subject.

People sometimes ask how two brothers, born less than three years apart, should have come to such different conclusions.

To which Iíd answer that Iím not sure theyíre as different as they look, and that itís not over yet.

Christopher has quite often written and spoken about our upbringing and background, whereas I havenít, but I think Iím now entitled to give a small account of what we have in common.

Because my father was in the Navy, we were brought up in a very old-fashioned Britain. Looking back, it often seems to have been a sombre landscape of grey warships and the stench of fuel-oil Ė but also of cathedral towers, bells and choral evensong.

Our boarding-school education, mainly on the edge of Dartmoor, took place in conditions closer by far to the Thirties than to now.

Our ancestry, so far as I have been able to dig it up, is a volatile mixture. On my fatherís side, fierce West Country nonconformists mixed with gentle, rather saintly Hampshire Anglicans. One grandfather was a pioneer of the National Union of Teachers and a straggler from the First World War, saved from the trenches by being sent to India.

Well into the Sixties his house was a museum of the world before 1939: no telephone, no TV, but a quietly singing kettle always on the hob and a mangle in the porch, and he refused to read fiction because he thought it immoral.

As for the other grandfather, I have yet to track him down, and we were always told he was "killed in the war", which is true in the sense that he was run over by a bus in the blackout.

From what I can gather, nobody was sorry about this, least of all his wife, my motherís mother, who had long before thrown him out of the house for his misdeeds.

She was partly Jewish, granddaughter of an immigrant from Prussian Poland, who confused things greatly (from the point of view of the racially obsessed) when he married a nice English girl.

Thereís enough material in that background for quite a lot of fraternal variety, I think.

Christopher is an atheist. I am a believer. He once said in public: "The real difference between Peter and myself is the belief in the supernatural.

"Iím a materialist and he attributes his presence here to a divine plan. I canít stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity or who is a person of faith."

I donít feel the same way. I like atheists and enjoy their company, because they agree with me that religion is important.

I liked and enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anybody who is interested in the subject. Like everything Christopher writes, it is often elegant, frequently witty and never stupid or boring.

I also think it is wrong, mostly in the way that it blames faith for so many bad things and gives it no credit for any of the good it may have done.

I think it misunderstands religious people and their aims and desires. And I think it asserts a number of things as true and obvious that are nothing of the sort.

At the heart of this book are two extraordinary, bold statements. One is a declaration of absolute faith, faith that religion has got it wrong, a mental thunderbolt of unbelief.

Christopher describes how at the age of nine he concluded that his teacherís claim that the world must be designed was wrong. "I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong."

At the time of this revelation, he knew nothing of the vast, unending argument between those who maintain that the shape of the world is evidence of design, and those who say the same world is evidence of random, undirected natural selection.

Itís my view that he still doesnít know all that much about this interesting dispute. Yet at the age of nine, he "simply knew" who had won one of the oldest debates in the history of mankind.

It is astonishing, in one so set against the idea of design or authority in the universe, how often he appeals to mysterious intuitions and "innate" knowledge of this kind, and uses religious language such as "awesome" Ė in awe of whom or what?

Or "mysterious". What is the mystery, if all is explained by science, the telescope and the microscope? He even refers to "conscience" and makes frequent thunderous denunciations of various evil actions.

Where is his certain knowledge of what is right and wrong supposed to have come from?

How can the idea of a conscience have any meaning in a world of random chance, where in the end we are all just collections of molecules swirling in a purposeless confusion?

If you are getting inner promptings, why should you pay any attention to them? It is as absurd as the idea of a compass with no magnetic North. You might as well take moral instruction from your bile duct.

Two pages later, speaking for atheists in general, he announces: "Our belief is not a belief."

To which one can only reply: "Really? And that thing in the middle of your face. I suppose thatís not a nose, either?"

Christopher is not tentative about his view on God. He describes himself as an "anti-theist", so certain of his, er, faith that he wars with bitter mockery against those who doubt his truth.

Well, I wish I were as certain about any of these things as Christopher is about his anti-creed.

He reminds me rather more of the bearded Muslim sages of the Deoband Islamic university in India I met last year, than of the cool, thoughtful Anglicanism that we were both more or less brought up in.

For the purposes of this book, religion is identified as a fanatical certainty. No doubt there are plenty of zealots who suffer from this problem.

But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of Englandís greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often.

The noblest thinker of that Church, Richard Hooker, enthroned reason, alongside tradition and scripture, as one of the governing principles of faith, and warned against crude literal use of the Bible to justify or prohibit any action.

Yet Christopher repeatedly asserts that believers "claim to know", not just to know, but to know everything. This simply is not true. Nor do we take the Bible literally.

I never imagined that scripture had the fact-checked authenticity of, say, an account in The New York Times Ė though as we know even that grand newspaper sometimes publishes made-up stories without realising it.

Did the Supper at Emmaus really take place? How I hope that it did, but I do not know that it did, in the way that I know a British soldier has recently been flown home dead from Basra or Helmand, or even in the way that I know that another such soldier will soon make the same sad journey.

Many decades have passed since I fancied the story of Adam and Eve was literal truth, if I ever did. Rather more recently I have realised the great warning against human arrogance that is contained in it, the serpentís silky promise that if we reject the supposedly foolish, trivial restrictions imposed on us by an interfering, jealous nuisance of a God, then we shall be liberated.

As the serpent promises: "Ye shall be as gods." These may be the most important words in the whole Bible.

Take the enticing satanic advice, and you arrive, quite quickly, at revolutionary terror, at the invention of the atom bomb, at the torture chamber and the building of concentration camps for those unteachable morons who do not share your vision of a just world.

And also you arrive at the idea, embraced by Christopher, that by invading Iraq, you can make the world a better place.

I hesitated about mentioning this. Was it unfair, a jab below the belt? No.

Much of his book is devoted to claiming that religious impulse drives Man to do, or excuse, or support wicked and terrible things in the name of goodness.

Is this not a perfect description of the Iraq War, which he backed?

On the few occasions where Christopher is prepared to admit that religious people have done any good, he concludes that they did so in spite of their faith, not because of it.

He even suggests that the atheist Soviet tyranny was itself a form of religion.

You canít win against this sort of circular absolutism.

Yet he has this absurdly backwards. Religious and unbelieving people have both done dreadful things, and the worst of them have committed their murders and their tortures in the belief that they were doing good.

Nothing is proved by either side in this argument, by pointing to the mountains of skulls piled up by evil atheists, and evil theists.

What they have in common is that they are human, and capable of the sin of pride. The practice of religion does not automatically prevent this, and nobody said it did.

It sometimes joins in with it, as Christopher points out.

But if there is a voice raised against such arrogant pride in the heedless modern world, it is usually a religious one, and the death camps and dungeons of dictators always contain their ration of the faithful who Ė at the cost of all they held dear in the world Ė have listened to their consciences even when the message was so unwelcome.

Perhaps they are just mad: I do not think so.

My claims, you see, are much milder than his. When I skulk in the pew of a nearly-empty church, repeating the lovely, poetic formulas of the Church of England, I do not imagine that I am saved for all eternity.

For all I know, Christopher is absolutely right Ė my prayers are pointless and a meaningless oblivion awaits. But if he is right, what a dispiriting, lowering truth it is.

Atheists like to claim they behave no worse than believers, and often better. I donít deny it, in my case. It would be easy for almost anyone to have lived a more virtuous life than mine.

But why should atheists care, or use such terms as "good" and "virtue" anyway?

If we are weak and poor, we can all summon up self-interested decency, behaving in a kind way, in public, towards those from whom we hope for decency in return.

But as soon as we have the power to do evil, we generally do. What is to stop us, unobserved, doing and planning acts of selfish unkindness against others, as so many of us do Ė for example Ė in office politics?

What is to stop us, in the privacy of the home, taking advantage of the goodness of others more generous than ourselves? Who will ever know?

If we become rich or mighty, how much worse the problem is. We can rob, wound and defraud our fellow creatures without any fear that they will be able to take revenge. A surprising number of us have power to act in this way.

Look at the annual massacre of unborn babies, done away with for the convenience of adults.

In the harsher parts of our great cities, strong, violent people rule their neighbours with pre-medieval savagery, demonstrating a fine understanding of what it means if there is no God: that if something works for you, and you can get away with it, then you may do it without fear of consequence in this world Ė and there is no next world.

That is practical atheism. Those who follow it probably cannot even spell it. Comfortable, suburban unbelievers hate to have this pointed out to them.

They would never behave like that, surrounded as they are by the invisible web of ten centuries of Christian law and morality, which still protects the nicer parts of our country.

But it is the application of what they preach, the worship of self and power.

Faith and belief can be and often are restraints on this arrogance of power. They offer the possibility of justice where human society fails to provide it Ė as it almost always does fail.

There is one chapter in this book whose implications are sinister. It is Chapter 16, which attempts to suggest that religion is child abuse.

On the basis of such arguments, matched by similar urgings from Professor Richard Dawkins, I can see a movement growing to outlaw the teaching of faith to children.

Then what? Liberal world reformers make the grave mistake of thinking that if you abolish a great force you donít like, it will be replaced by empty space.

We abolished the gallows, for example, and found we had created an armed police and an epidemic of prison suicides. We abolished school selection by exams, and found we had replaced it with selection by money. And so on.

We are in the process Ė encouraged by Christopher Ė of abolishing religion, and so of abolishing conscience, too.

It is one of his favourite jibes that a world ruled by faith is like North Korea, a place where all is known and all is ordered.

On the contrary, North Korea is the precise opposite of a land governed by conscience.

It is a country governed by men who do not believe in God or conscience, where nobody can be trusted to make his own choices, and where the State decides for the people what is right and what is wrong.

And it is the ultimate destination of atheist thought.

If you do not worship God, you end up worshipping power, whether it is Kim Jong Il, Leon Trotsky or the military might of George W. Bush. In which case, God help you.