Former Anti-Theist, Peter Hitchens, Who set Fire to His Bible, Finds God.

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Image Credit: The Guardian, 2013.

Peter Hitchens is a former atheist turned Christian theist, and is a well-known journalist and author from England. He writes for The Mail on Sunday and has also published six books. He is the author of the informative book The Rage Against God that is definitely worth the read if one can get his or her hands on it. Peter Hitchens is brother of the late militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, of whom he has publicly debated. What follows is Peter’s own testimony of how he went from a hateful atheist to believer in Jesus and God.

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Brothers, Christopher (left) & Peter. Image Credit: Daily Mail.

“I set fire to my Bible on the playing fields of my Cambridge boarding school one bright, windy spring afternoon in 1967. I was 15 years old. The book did not, as I had hoped, blaze fiercely and swiftly.

Only after much blowing and encouragement did I manage to get it to ignite at all, and I was left with a disagreeable, half-charred mess. Most of my small invited audience drifted away long before I had finished, disappointed by the anticlimax and the pettiness of the thing. Thunder did not mutter.

It would be many years before I would feel a slight shiver of unease about my act of desecration. Did I then have any idea of the forces I was trifling with?

In truth, it was not much of a Bible. It was bound in shiny pale blue boards with twiddly writing on the cover, a gift from my parents and until that moment treated with proper reverence, and some tenderness.

But this was my Year Zero. I was engaged in a full, perfect and complete rebellion against everything I had been brought up to believe.

As I had been raised to be an English gentleman, this was quite an involved process. It included behaving like a juvenile delinquent, using as much foul language as I could find excuse for, mocking the weak (there was a wheelchair-bound boy in my year, who provided a specially shameful target for this impulse), insulting my elders, and eventually breaking the law.

The full details would be tedious for most people, and unwelcome to my family. Let us just say they include some political brawling with the police, some unhinged dabbling with illegal drugs, an arrest – richly merited by my past behaviour but actually wrongful – for having an offensive weapon and nearly killing someone, and incidentally myself, through criminal irresponsibility while riding a motorcycle.

There were also numberless acts of minor or major betrayal, ingratitude, disloyalty, dishonour, failure to keep promises and meet obligations, oath-breaking, cowardice, spite or pure selfishness. Nothing I could now do or say could possibly atone for them.

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Brothers in debate. Image Credit: Daily Mail.

I talk about my own life at more length than I would normally think right because I need to explain that I have passed through the same atheist revelation that most self-confident British members of my generation – I was born in 1951 –have experienced.

We were sure that we, and our civilisation, had grown out of the nursery myths of God, angels and Heaven. We had modern medicine, penicillin, jet engines, the Welfare State, the United Nations and ‘ science’, which explained everything that needed to be explained.

The Britain that gave me this self-confidence was an extraordinarily safe place, or at least so it felt to me as a child. Of our many homes, I was fondest of a modest house in the village of Alverstoke, just across the crowded water from Portsmouth.

It is almost impossible now to express the ordered peace which lingered about the quiet shaded gardens and the roads without traffic, where my parents let me and my brother Christopher wander unsupervised.

Dark green buses with conductors wearing peaked caps would bear us past a favourite toyshop to the Gosport ferry, from which we could view the still substantial Navy in which my father had served.

Then we made our way to the department store where my mother took me and Christopher, neatly brushed and tamed, for tea, eclairs and cream horns served by frilly waitresses.

There was nothing, however, peaceful about my relationship with Christopher. Some brothers get on; some do not. We were the sort that just didn’t. Who knows why?

At one stage – I was about nine, he nearly 12 – my poor gentle father actually persuaded us to sign a peace treaty in the hope of halting our feud. I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall.

To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. In a way, the treaty has remained broken ever since. Our rivalry was to last 50 years, and religion was one of its later causes.

My own, slow return to faith began when I was 30, in 1981. By this time, I was doing well in my chosen trade, journalism. I could afford pleasant holidays with my girlfriend, whom I should nowadays call my ‘partner’ since we were not then married, on the European continent.

I no longer avoided churches. I recognised in the great English cathedrals, and in many small parish churches, the old unsettling messages.

One was the inevitability of my own death, the other the undoubted fact that my despised forebears were neither crude nor ignorant, but men and women of great skill and engineering genius, a genius not contradicted or blocked by faith, but enhanced by it.

I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head.

I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.

At around the same time I rediscovered Christmas, which I had pretended to dislike for many years. I slipped into a carol service on a winter evening, diffident and anxious not to be seen.

I knew perfectly well that I was enjoying it, although I was unwilling to admit it. I also knew I was losing my faith in politics and my trust in ambition, and was urgently in need of something else on which to build the rest of my life.

I am not exactly clear now how this led in a few months to my strong desire – unexpected by me or by my friends, but encouraged by my then unbelieving future wife – to be married in church.

But I can certainly recall the way the words of the Church of England’s marriage service, at St Bride’s in London, awakened thoughts in me that I had long suppressed. I was entering into my inheritance, as a Christian Englishman, as a man, and as a human being. It was the first properly grown-up thing that I had ever done.

The swearing of great oaths concentrates the mind. So did the baptisms first of my daughter and then of my wife who, raised as a Marxist atheist, trod another rather different path to the same place.

Word spread around my trade that I was somehow mixed up in church matters. It was embarrassing. I remember a distinguished foreign correspondent, with a look of mingled pity and horror on his face, asking: ‘How can you do that?’

I talked to few people about it, and was diffident about mentioning it in anything I wrote. I think it true to say that for many years I was more or less ashamed of confessing to any religious faith at all, except when I felt safe to do so.

It is a strange and welcome side effect of the growing attack on Christianity in British society that I have now overcome this.

Being Christian is one thing. Fighting for a cause is another, and much easier to acknowledge – for in recent times it has grown clear that the Christian religion is threatened with a dangerous defeat by secular forces which have never been so confident.

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Image Credit: Canon Press, YouTube, 2013.

Why is there such a fury against religion now? Because religion is the one reliable force that stands in the way of the power of the strong over the weak. The one reliable force that forms the foundation of the concept of the rule of law.

The one reliable force that restrains the hand of the man of power. In an age of powerworship, the Christian religion has become the principal obstacle to the desire of earthly utopians for absolute power.

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher’s passion against God grew more virulent and confident.

As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.

Christopher and I are separate people who, like many siblings, have lived entirely different lives since our childhood.

But since it is obvious much of what I say arises out of my attempt to debate religion with him, it would be absurd to pretend that much of what I say here is not intended to counter or undermine arguments he presented in his book, God Is Not Great, published in 2007.

I do not loathe atheists, as Christopher claims to loathe believers. I am not angered by their failure to see what appears obvious to me. I understand that they see differently. I do think that they have reasons for their belief, as I have reasons for mine, which are the real foundations of this argument.

It is my belief that passions as strong as his are more likely to be countered by the unexpected force of poetry, which can ambush the human heart at any time.

It is also my view that, as with all atheists, he is his own chief opponent. As long as he can convince himself, nobody else will persuade him. His arguments are to some extent internally coherent and are a sort of explanation – if not the best explanation – of the world and the universe.

He often assumes that moral truths are self-evident, attributing purpose to the universe and swerving dangerously round the problem of conscience – which surely cannot be conscience if he is right since the idea of conscience depends on it being implanted by God. If there is no God then your moral qualms might just as easily be the result of indigestion.

Yet Christopher is astonishingly unable to grasp that these assumptions are problems for his argument. This inability closes his mind to a great part of the debate, and so makes his atheist faith insuperable for as long as he himself chooses to accept it.

One of the problems atheists have is the unbelievers’ assertion that it is possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God. They have a fundamental inability to concede that to be effectively absolute a moral code needs to be beyond human power to alter.

On this misunderstanding is based my brother Christopher’s supposed conundrum about whether there is any good deed that could be done only by a religious person, and not done by a Godless one. Like all such questions, this contains another question: what is good, and who is to decide what is good?

Left to himself, Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.

I have heard people who believe themselves to be good, defend all these things, and convince themselves as well as others. Quite often the same people will condemn similar actions committed by different countries, often with great vigour.

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a non-human source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.

Its most powerful expression is summed up in the words ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.

The huge differences which can be observed between Christian societies and all others, even in the twilit afterglow of Christianity, originate in this specific injunction.

It is striking that in his dismissal of a need for absolute theistic morality, Christopher says in his book that ‘the order to “love thy neighbour as thyself” is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed’. Humans, he says, are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves.

This is demonstrably untrue, and can be shown to be untrue, through the unshakable devotion of mothers to their children; in the uncounted cases of husbands caring for sick, incontinent and demented wives (and vice versa) at their lives’ ends; through the heartrending deeds of courage on the battlefield.

I am also baffled and frustrated by the strange insistence of my anti-theist brother that the cruelty of Communist anti-theist regimes does not reflect badly on his case and on his cause. It unquestionably does.

Soviet Communism is organically linked to atheism, materialist rationalism and most of the other causes the new atheists support. It used the same language, treasured the same hopes and appealed to the same constituency as atheism does today.

When its crimes were still unknown, or concealed, it attracted the support of the liberal intelligentsia who were then, and are even more now, opposed to religion.

Another favourite argument of the irreligious is that conflicts fought in the name of religion are necessarily conflicts about religion. By saying this they hope to establish that religion is of itself a cause of conflict.

This is a crude factual misunderstanding. The only general lesson that can be drawn is that Man is inclined to make war on Man when he thinks it will gain him power, wealth or land.

I tried to present these arguments to Christopher in April 2008, at a debate on the existence of God and the goodness of religion before a large audience in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Normally, I love to argue in front of audiences and we had been in public debates before. We had had the occasional clash on TV or radio. We had debated the legacy of the Sixties, in a more evenly matched encounter than Grand Rapids, 11 years ago in London.

Not long after that, there had been a long, unrewarding fallingout over something I had said about politics. Both of us were urged by others to end this quarrel, and eventuallyif rather tentatively, did so.

When I attacked his book against God some people seemed almost to hope that our personal squabble would begin again in public. No doubt they would have been pleased or entertained if we had pelted each other with slime in Grand Rapids. But despite one or two low blows exchanged in the heat of the moment, I do not think we did much to satisfy them. I hope not.

Somehow on that Thursday night in Grand Rapids, our old quarrels were, as far as I am concerned, finished for good. Just at the point where many might have expected –and some might have hoped – that we would rend and tear at each other, we did not.

Both of us, I suspect, recoiled from such an exhibition, which might have been amusing for others, because we were brothers –but would have been wrong, because we are brothers.

At the end I concluded that, while the audience perhaps had not noticed, we had ended the evening on better terms than either of us might have expected. This was, and remains, more important to me than the debate itself.

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Image Credit:

I have resolved that I will not hold any more such debates with him, because of the danger that they might turn into gladiatorial combat in which nothing would be resolved and enmity could be created.

I am 58. He is 60. We do not necessarily have time for another brothers’ war.

Here is another thing. When our Grand Rapids hosts chose the date of April 3 for this debate, they had no way of knowing that it was the 63rd anniversary of our parents’ wedding: an optimistic, happy day in the last weeks of what had been for both of them a fairly grim war.

Not all the optimism was justified, and with the blessed hindsight of parenthood, I cannot imagine that our long fraternal squabble did much for their later happiness.

They are, alas, long gone but my brother and I had both independently become a little concerned at how we should conduct ourselves on such a day. We had each reached the conclusion, unbidden, that we did not want this to turn into a regular travelling circus, becoming steadily more phoney as it progressed.

Something far more important than a debate had happened a few days before, when Christopher and I had met in his Washington DC apartment. If he despised and loathed me for my Christian beliefs, he wasn’t showing it.

We were more than civil, treating each other as equals, and as brothers with a common childhood, even recalling bicycle rides we used to take together on summer days unimaginably long ago, which I did not even realise he still remembered.

To my astonishment, Christopher cooked supper, a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it. He had even given up smoking.

I am not hoping for a late conversion because he has won the battle against cigarettes. He has bricked himself up high in his atheist tower, with slits instead of windows from which to shoot arrows at the faithful, and would find it rather hard to climb down out of it.

I have, however, the more modest hope 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.

Beyond that, I can only add that those who choose to argue in prose, even if it is very good prose, are unlikely to be receptive to a case which is most effectively couched in poetry.

My brother and I agree on this: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so. Oddly enough this leads us, in many things, to be far closer than most people think we are on some questions; closer, sometimes, than we would particularly wish to be.

The same paradox sometimes also makes us arrive at different conclusions from very similar arguments, which is easier than it might appear. This will not make us close friends at this stage. We are two utterly different men approaching the ends of two intensely separate lives.

Let us not be sentimental here, nor rashly over-optimistic. But I was astonished, on that spring evening by the Grand River, to find that the longest quarrel of my life seemed unexpectedly to be over, so many years and so many thousands of miles after it had started, in our quiet homes and our first beginnings in an England now impossibly remote from us.

It may actually be true, as I have long hoped that it would be, in the words of T. S. Eliot, that ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’.”


  1. “For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a non-human source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself.”

    Excellent argument!

      • Actually, there is no foundation for objective morality as within the natural world. That is not an opinion, that is logic. Without an external reference point, morality is ultimately relative being merely the product of chemical reactions—therefore meaningless. It is true that one may amalgamate (evolve) a standard code of ethics, but it is meaningless in regards to others in the higher context. This, I suspect, was what he was generally referring to.

      • But you are just asserting your claim without supported evidence. Your opinion matters little. Really, try learning what proper argumentation is all about before posting anything. Otherwise, you will look rather foolish as you did here.

  2. Hmm, what about the moral code for slavery? It isn’t that long ago since the bible was used to reinforce ones right to keep slaves.

    • Craig, what you mean is it isn’t that long ago since the Bible was MISUSED to reinforce ones right to keep slaves. Have you not read verses such as this?

      “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” Exodus 21:16

      Or this?

      “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31

      Those are proper Biblical teachings, which Christians used to help abolish slavery. In other words, when one MISUSES the Bible, injustice results. When one PROPERLY uses the Bible, decency results.

      This is why Western (traditionally Christian) nations not only abolished their own slave-trading, they put pressure on the Muslim world to abolish slavery. While the Christian world could find reason to abolish slavery, the Muslim world needed the Christian world to put pressure on it for slavery in Muslim countries to be abolished, with Saudi Arabia abolishing slavery in 1962 under Western pressure. Of course, since slavery, including sexual slavery, is absolutely Islamic, slavery is still rampant in the Muslim world, just not on the record since officially slavery was abolished in the Muslim world.

    • Thanks for pointing out to me what I really meant to say. 🙄

      Actually I am familiar with Exodus 21:16 but I am still a little confused why it was ok to buy slaves according to Leviticus 25:44-46. Have you read Exodus 21:20-21? Apparently it was ok to beat slaves as long as you didn’t kill them since they were property. And according to Proverbs 29:19 servants couldn’t be corrected verbally – what alternative do you think this verse implied? I’m sure slave owners were very careful though to avoid the slave’s face during their beatings, otherwise they might have incurred a financial loss due to Exodus 21:26-27.

      I wonder if it ever occurred to the slaves to mutilate themselves (a tooth or an eye) with the hope of freedom. Isn’t it strange that no other injures are mentioned? The list of possible injuries and tortures (or accidental deaths) is only limited by the slave owners imagination. But isn’t it a good thing though that God provided the absolutely true moral code for slavery back then, and that it is no longer absolutely true today?

      P.S. While I was tempted, I’ll let a Muslim reader respond to your comment: “Of course, since slavery, including sexual slavery, is absolutely Islamic, slavery is still rampant in the Muslim world, just not on the record since officially slavery was abolished in the Muslim world.

      • Craig, why don’t you try to use the slavery argument with the new testament. True God did not condemn slavery, but you pointed out that He set boundaries. However it does not mean that God wanted it or liked it. He allowed divorce also, yet it’s made clear by Christ that it’s not something God is pleased with. As Christians we are to follow Christ and He had no slaves. He commanded us to love one another. He commanded us to love others as we love ourselves. Stop trying to argue that God wants slavery. When Abraham Lincoln set out to abolish slavery in the U.S. He did so because God created all men equal. He said that he always wanted to be on God’s side because God was always right and that the Bible is the greatest thing that God gave us. If Abraham Lincoln saw what you claim everyone sees in the Bible about slavery, he wouldn’t have bothered even with the idea of abolishing slavery.

        • *Bull$hit* . . cough. LOL. This is just another example of the countless contradictions found in the bible. Christians work hard to rectify them, but when forcing it to make sense requires you to engage in mental gymnastics and pretend you understand the mind of a space deity, then it’s time to give up 🙂

          The reason the book is so riddled with absurdities and opposing viewpoints is that it was written by many, many men who all had their own reasons for believing saying whatever it is they believed and said. if you were a slaver, you’d be for slavery; if you weren’t then you weren’t. Only a delusional maniac would try to force it all to work harmoniously.

          If god didn’t like slavery, then he could have stopped it. If he couldn’t, then he isn’t omnipotent. Sorry Christian apologists! 🙂

          The idea that a man in space used mental telepathy to dictate these fables and morals so random Middle Eastern desert nomads would write a book is just plain hysterical!

          • Tommy you stated that: “If god didn’t like slavery, then he could have stopped it. If he couldn’t, then he isn’t omnipotent.”

            From our post enlightenment vantage point we could be angry at the way the ancient near east cultures operated. And without understanding the context we can easily chunk rhetorical grenades in hopes to demolish any debate without giving the scriptures a fair review. I’ve read a response by Paul Copan in his book, “Is God a Moral Monster?” He says:
            “the Mosaic law was temporary and, as a whole, isn’t universal and binding upon all humans or all cultures. Second, Mosaic times were indeed “crude” and “uncultured” in many ways. So Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions.

            Given certain fixed assumptions in the ancient Near East, God didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for. He moved incrementally. As stated repeatedly in the Old Testament and reinforced in the New Testament, the law of Moses was far from ideal. Being the practical God he is, Yahweh (the Old Testament title for the covenant-making God) met his people where they were, but he didn’t want to leave them there. God didn’t banish all fallen, flawed, ingrained social structures when Israel wasn’t ready to handle the ideals. Taking into account the actual, God encoded more feasible laws, though he directed his people toward moral improvement. He condescended by giving Israel a jumping-off place, pointing them to a better path.

            In fact, Israel’s laws reveal dramatic moral improvements over the practices of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples. God’s act of incrementally “humanizing” ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.

            So rather than looking at Scripture from a post-Enlightenment critique we can observe that Scripture itself acknowledges the inferiority of certain Old Testament standards. (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). The Old Testament offers national Israel various resources to guide them regarding what is morally ideal. God’s legislation is given to a less morally mature culture that has imbibed the morally inferior attitudes and sinful practices of the ancient Near East.

            In regards to trying to understand the mind of a “space deity”, for the Christian theist, we can’t know for certain why God “would” do anything the way that he did or continues to do throughout history. We can merely postulate, from a brief standpoint in time, giving our best or worst rendering of what scripture, history, and science does reveal about reality, origins, and the human heart etc.

            • Coming late to the table here but on the subject of the alleged Biblical (which I gather some interpret as Christian) support of slavery – I have pasted below a rather well laid out exegesis from Andrew Schmidt (published in The Briefing – Matthias Media). FYI – Our modern concept of dehumanising slavery was not what biblical slavery referred to – it was more of an indentured servitude and the nation of Israel was known to be more humane than other cultures of the time were to their slaves. Furthermore, women and children were in most other cultures considered property but in Israel women were allowed to inherit if there were no male heirs – Numbers 27:1-7. This right is reaffirmed in Numbers 36:1-11 and is unprecedented in the ancient world. In more recent times it has been the Christians who led the charge to reform prisons and mental hospitals, to end slavery and to make sure women were persons by law and that children were protected. There weren’t a lot of professing atheists in those days that stood up for any of these folks. While no one today can reasonably argue in favour of slavery, our enlightened attitude is very recent and has come to us through the suffering and perseverance of very brave people who went before us.

              From Schmidt’s article at :

              “…many non-Christians are appalled that the Bible does not abolish slavery as simply and cleanly as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights does:

              Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

              Why can’t the Bible be just as unequivocal?

              The first verse to notice is Exodus 21:16: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death”. Paul alludes in 1 Timothy 1:10 to this verse when he says that God’s law opposes slave traders. It shows that God’s word was always against the white people who captured Africans to work on American plantations, even though tragically those white people took centuries to realize it. One of the early rumblings of the movement to end the slave trade was a pamphlet published in 1700 called The Selling of Joseph, drawing attention to Exodus 21:16.

              Israelite slaves

              Of course, being captured and sold has never been the only way to become a slave. The Bible also contemplates that slavery might result from poverty (Exod 21:7; Lev 25:39) or from stealing (Exod 22:3). Some of our contemporaries might say that even these sorts of slavery are unacceptable, and write the Bible off as barbaric because it fails to share our society’s zero-tolerance attitude to slavery. However, such people ought to suspend judgement until they have learned how slaves were to be treated in Israel.

              Most importantly, any slavery of Israelites was not for life, but only for six years (Exod 21:2). And masters were instructed:

              And when you let [your slave] go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. (Deut 15:13-14)

  3. The skeptic proclaims from ignorance, “The reason the book [the Bible] is so riddled with absurdities and opposing viewpoints is that it was written by many, many men who all had their own reasons for believing saying whatever it is they believed and said.”

    I guess the skeptic forgot that textbooks in school that teach evolution are also written by man. But we if we say the exact same thing about these textbooks, we are labeled ignorant and biased. See how self-refuting that pathetic argument is.

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