The following is the text of an interview with Peter Hitchens from ‘Relevent’ magazine last year.
In contemporary journalism, few figures have as compelling a backstory as Peter Hitchens. Raised in a conservative Christian environment, Peter and his older brother, Christopher, came to adopt a ferocious atheism. Blazingly intelligent and piercingly articulate, they gained notoriety for their winsomely contrarian styles.
But while Christopher would go on to become one of the modern age’s most famous atheists—or, to use his phrase, anti-theists—the younger Hitchens brother followed a different path. Peter left the Trotskyism of his teens and became one of England’s most noted conservative voices, winning the Orwell Prize for journalism in 2010, in which one of the judges called his writing “as firm, polished and potentially lethal as a guardsman’s boot.” More importantly, and perhaps more surprisingly, Hitchens returned to the faith of his younger years. He writes eloquently and forcefully about the need for Christian morality in the public sector.
Tragically, Christopher passed away in 2011 from esophageal cancer. But Peter continues to work as an author and journalist, with a regular column for the Mail on Sunday. He took a little time to talk with us about his journey back to faith, religion’s place in civilized society and what he sees ahead for the next generation.
Q: So, when did you first become a Christian?
A: I was brought up in an explicitly Christian society and taught by teachers whose assumption was that Christianity was the religion of my people, that I held, and held before I came to school … Christianity was still, in my upbringing, what you might call the default position of the English person. So I don’t know if the word “become” really applies.
Q: Was there a definite moment when you decided you didn’t believe in God anymore?
A: Oh, there was definitely a moment when I decided it wasn’t true—in my early teens. I was never indifferent to [Christianity], nor was it ever not a force in my life and in my surroundings and in everything in England. From the architecture to the music, to the shape of the towns, to the language, to the songs that we sang, were all Christian in their nature. You couldn’t have escaped it if you wanted to. But what you could do, which I did do, was deny it and say you no longer believed in it. That was a definite moment, identifiable and clear.
“The fundamental proof of the goodness of our belief has to be the fruits of it.”
Q: Was there a moment where you reverted back?
A: No, no, nothing so identifiable. It was a process so gradual that the moment at which I might have been said to be a believer again cannot be clearly distinguished from the moment when I didn’t believe. I can’t remember a specific moment. It was a very gradual, imperceptible thing and at some point it was necessary for me to acknowledge to myself and to other people that, that was the case.
Q: Do you feel that the time of places like the U.S. and the U.K. being Christian nations is completely a thing of the past?
A: I fear it is, yes. The only thing that’s holding up the recognition of that is the afterglow of Christianity. There is a continued assumption in people’s lives, even though they aren’t specifically and explicitly Christians themselves … People are still governed by assumptions that are Christian, but they no longer acknowledge the roots from which they come. In the end, if you separate any plant from its roots, the plant will die. But there will be a period, depending on the size and age of the plant, during which it will appear to be still alive. But it has undoubtedly died at the roots. I think as the originally Christian societies of the world become less so, it’s going to be harder to believe. That will just be the case. And it will take considerably more courage than anyone in my generation ever had to face.
Q: Some people would say it might be a good thing if we stop being a Christian nation—that we can still hold to the truth, that we don’t have to legislate our own morals on a larger group that doesn’t necessarily hold to them. Do you agree?
A: I think society has to have a fundamental agreement about what its morals are and what the origins of those morals are. You can have a more or less chaotic and lawless arrangement, or you can have a sort of armed truce. But what you can’t have is a functioning, inventive, lively civilization unless it has pretty much agreed on a shared foundation for what it believes is good.
Q: So what do you say then to people who would say—and a good many of them do—“Who are you to tell me that your morality is more right than mine?”
A: I would say the source of morality is not me. I’m merely informing you of another authority that seems to have a good deal more force than I could ever command. But in the end, of course, the illusion of self-authority—which has been one of the major developments of the past 100 years—has persuaded people that they need no such thing. And not only that they don’t need the concept of the deity, but that they actively want there not to be such a thing, which is one of the reasons the new atheism is such a passionate, intolerant and in many cases, rather unpleasant phenomenon. The people who have adopted it actively want there not to be a God. They know that if there is a God then that God must be a source of authority. If a purposeful creator made the universe in which we live, it would be idle to imagine that you could ignore that creator’s desires as to how you should live.
I’ll put this very crudely: It’s like buying a very expensive piece of equipment and trying to work it by actually looking at the manual and doing the opposite of what it says. It won’t work. If you don’t acknowledge that there is a manual or that anybody else knows more about it than you do, all kinds of things will happen which you might even conceivably think are good but they wouldn’t be. You wouldn’t know that because you would have tossed aside the very concept of there being an absolute right or wrong way to use this incredibly complex, delicate, finely engineered piece of equipment.
Q: But many people will point at religion, particularly Christianity, and all the harm that’s been done in its name.
A: Ah, but this is sort of schoolboy stuff, isn’t it? One of the fundamental points about the Christian religion is that it asserts that man is himself fallen and, without aid, is bound to fail.
Q: But people will look at widespread corruption—like some of the abuse scandals that came out of the Catholic Church—and say religion is the common denominator to all that.
A: I find all of this rather tedious. It’s not a proper argument. If you want to dispute the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, by all means, do so. I dispute some of them myself. But dispute them on that basis. Don’t attempt to smear it by the actions of some of its officials, members or hierarchy, who have broken its own rules … Any large organization is human, and again, you have the problem: We’re fallen creatures. If we are in charge of any large organization, even if its aims are fundamentally good, there will be failures. But this isn’t an argument against the institution.
Q: There was a survey taken here in the States stating that something like 90 percent of people outside the Church consider those inside it to be judgmental.
A: Opinion polls and devices generally are for influencing public opinion rather than measuring it … I’d be interested to hear how the question was put. But it wouldn’t matter to me how many people said something was true if it weren’t true.
“It’s often the case what is right is not easy, and it’s always the broad primrose path that leads to destruction.”
Q: You would say that the public opinion isn’t so important as that what we’re doing is right in our own eyes.
A: I don’t see what is to be gained by being ashamed of what you believe because you’re afraid that some indoctrinated person – who has been a victim of conventional wisdom and received opinion – has been told to believe what you say is, in some way, wrong. The fundamental proof of the goodness of our belief has to be the fruits of it. Look at what the Roman Catholic Church does worldwide. The amount of good it does hugely outweighs the amount of evil that is done – in contradiction of its own principles – by some of its officials.
This is a period of great material wealth and the worship of economic growth – and the century of the self, in which religious belief is going to be in trouble. The best metaphor for the state of mind in which we find ourselves is: this is the first generation of the human race which doesn’t generally see the stars at night. It has blotted them out with street lamps and car headlights and everything else. You simply can’t see the stars in most places where human beings are concentrated, and, in the same way, the triumph of consumerism and growth and the temporary joys of pleasure as a substitute for happiness, have blotted out the metaphorical stars of religious faith. It’s very hard to expect people who can’t see the stars to examine the significance of the stars or see their beauty.
Q: There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to fix that.
A: Sometimes there is no easy way. There’s an English hymn which goes … (slowly recites)
Father, hear the prayer we offer; Not for ease our prayer shall be … But the steep and rugged pathway May we tread rejoicingly …
It’s often the case what is right is not easy, and it’s always the broad primrose path that leads to destruction. There’s nothing new about that. If it’s easy it’s probably wrong, if it’s difficult it may be wrong, but it’s also quite likely to be right.