I am back to work again. After a few days away from work, after a few days of rest and relaxation, today I am back in my office to complete an academic marathon I have set for myself to finish this summer. This marathon includes a lot of reading and a lot of writing.
A personal note about my vacation. Many years ago, I set out to visit all 50 states. As of last week, I had visited 46 states and I was four short to complete my tour of the United States. Last week I visited the 47th state. Now, I have only three states which I have yet to visit: Alaska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. So, my goal is to visit these last three states next summer.
During my visit to Minnesota (the 47th state on my list), I had the opportunity to read a very interesting book. The book, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) was written by Peter Hitchens.
The name Hitchens should be familiar to readers of my blog. Peter is the brother of Christopher Hitchens, the author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Although I have never reviewed Christopher Hitchens’s book, I have mentioned him several times in different posts in which I discussed atheism.
The Hitchens brothers were devout and militant atheists who tried to convince people everywhere that religion was destructive and faith in God was something that should be rejected and abandoned. And yet, in their deep involvement in promoting atheism, Peter became a believer and his brother Christopher continues to proclaim that there is no God.
It is amazing how atheism works in the lives of people. When people deny the existence of God and try to live a secular life devoid of God and of a compass that can guide them in life’s most important decisions, they accept their own view of reality as the basis upon which to make moral decisions and criticize those who accept God as the foundation of ultimate authority.
Peter’s book begins by describing his descent toward atheism and his involvement with communism. He then describes what brought him back from the edge of the abyss into a life of faith in which God became an important factor in his new life. He then addresses the three failed arguments of atheism. It is this second part of the book that was of great interest to me.
However, an issue that all readers of the book want to know is the answer to what Peter said in the subtitle of his book: “how atheism led me to faith.” Before I mention how Peter came to faith, let me say a few words about his journey to atheism.
When Peter was fifteen years old, he set fire to his Bible to demonstrate his break with religion and his rage against God. This is how Peter described that event:
“At that moment I knew–absolutely knew–that it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down. I knew that there was no God, that the Old Testament was a gruesome series of atrocity stories and fairy tales, while the gospels were a laughable invention used to defraud the simple” (p. 18).
To Peter, to be free from the demands of the Bible was to be free from absolute rules, to be free to do anything he wanted to do, to be happy, to be himself. As an unbeliever, his conscience would dictate what was right and what was wrong. As he wrote: “Enlightened self-interest was the evolutionary foundation of good behavior” (p. 20).
But notwithstanding his effort to declare that he was an unbeliever, that there was no God, one thing Peter could never completely remove from his life was the awareness that all people will die someday and that maybe, just maybe, death is not the end of everything. Whenever he saw a church, he recognized the unsettling message it brought to his life: “the inevitability and certainty of my own death” (p. 101).
It was when visiting the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune and contemplating The Last Judgment, a religious painting by Rogier van der Weyden, that his rediscovery of faith began. In that painting Peter saw the realities of the afterlife: the reality of judgment, the consequences of unbelief, and the final destination of the ungodly.
Confronted with the reality that people will be judged for their actions, Peter feared and trembled “for the things of which my conscience was afraid (and is afraid)” (p. 104).
Peter’s experience with the reality of death and the afterlife reminded me of the words of Robert Ingersoll, the great atheist, on the occasion of the death of his brother. On two previous posts (here and here), I wrote what Ingersoll said when confronted with the death of his brother (read Ingersoll’s words by reading the two posts above).
It is in the reality of death that we can see a crack in the walls of atheism. The reality of death and the awareness that there is life here and life beyond becomes a faint light that begins to shine in the dark hearts of atheists.
After recounting his descent into atheism and his rediscovery of faith, Peter addressed the “three failed arguments of atheism.” These three arguments are presented in the form of three questions:
1. “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
2. “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
3. “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”
I am not discussing each of these questions today. However, I want to make a few comments on question two. Peter said that one of the biggest problems of atheism is the inability to concede that “to be effectively absolute, a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.”
The fact is, that when left to themselves, human beings can justify the destruction of cities, the slaughter and starvation of inconvenient people, “and the mass murder of the unborn” (p. 141). He wrote: “In their attempt to argue that effective and binding codes can be developed without the deity, atheism often mistakes inferior codes of ‘common decency’ for absolute moral systems.”
I enjoyed reading this book because it offers hope to people who are struggling with the problems of faith and religion. Peter’s descent into atheism and his rediscovery of faith clearly shows that there is hope for people who live apart from Christ, people who do not know the promises God has made, who live in this world without God and without hope (Ephesians 2:12).
Peter concludes his book with a few words about his relationship with his brother Christopher. He said that his brother “has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower” shooting arrows at the faithful, finding it “rather hard to climb down out of it” (p. 217). Peter’s hope for his brother is that “he might one day arrive at some sort of acceptance that belief in God is not necessarily a character fault–and that religion does not poison everything.”
If Peter was able to come out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9), if he was able to ascend from the depths of atheism into the realm of faith, then we know that there is hope for Christopher Hitchens and for every atheist who is willing to open heart and mind to the light that is shining in the darkness of their atheism (John 1:9).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary