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What if notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens, bestselling author of God Is Not Great, had a Christian brother? He does. Peter Hitchens details a very personal. THE RAGE AGAINST GOD This page intentionally left blank The Rage Against God PETER HITCHENS Published by the Cont. BOOK REVIEW. Peter Hitchens. The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to. Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, pp. Hdbk. ISBN.
I have more or less recovered. I think he had suspected something of the kind was fermenting inside me, since I was in many ways the tolerated and indulged school troublemaker, expending his subversive energies on complaining about the food and remodelling the school newspaper I am told it took years to recover. It was sombre and rather uplifting to live in this noble austerity. Retrieved 3 April It looks like you are located in Australia or New Zealand Close. Safely back in London, I was shown old pictures of Mogadishu as it had been a few years before.
Our school was in those days very emphatically naval. Every one of the chilly dormitory chambers in which we wept silently for our far-off homes, before surrendering to sleep on our hard, iron-framed beds, was named after a great warrior on the seas.
Two of my teachers were known by their naval and military rank, one a Commander, one a Captain of Marines. We all assumed that the ingeniously sarcastic man in charge of our physical education had been a sergeantmajor in the army. My school, it was clear, would never name a dormitory after me and I would not, after all, be perishing nobly at my post in cold northern seas in some future war.
My old Wonder Book of the Navy, with its stiff pages and ancient illustrations of grinning bluejackets coaling dreadnoughts and ramming shells into the breeches of enormous guns, had specially inspired me with the story of sixteen-year-old Jackie Cornwell, Boy First Class aboard HMS Chester at the Battle of Jutland. Mortally wounded, he had dutifully stayed by his gun. His captain wrote to his mother: His gun would not bear on the enemy; all but two 22 The Rage Against God of the ten crew were killed or wounded, and he was the only one who was in such an exposed position.
In fact, I began to suspect that in my England he might even be jeered at for staying at his post when he should have been jostling for urgent treatment in the sick bay and perhaps saving his life. I had begun to wonder, with increasing urgency, what I might do instead.
It had been taken out of retirement for the occasion. After it was all over, the funeral train was brusquely towed back to the depot by a workaday diesel. There was to be no more picturesqueness of that sort. This was the moment when the ruling class that had failed morally and martially at Suez failed in another, equally morally important way, as they perched lubriciously around a country-house swimming pool. How odd it all seemed to me as I tried to decode the unhelpfully incomplete accounts of it in the newspapers.
I was more sexually innocent than it would nowadays be possible to be and had no idea what had got into all these characters. We used to practise target-shooting in a dusty loft — the smell of gun-oil and lead still brings it readily back to me — and I would imagine myself on the African Veldt or the Western front, a hidden sniper training his sights on the hated foe.
What — apart perhaps from driving a steam locomotive — could be more fun? Yet here was John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War a title now abolished in case it upsets people , a man with access to all the wonderful toys of war, from submarines to tanks, accused of spending his time with … girls who also dallied with Russian spies. It was incomprehensible when he had so many guns to play with. What could be wrong with the man? I was barely aware of what was going on — twelve-year-old schoolboys of my class were not then expected to understand what government ministers might have been doing with call girls, even if the headlines could not be kept from us completely.
As for osteopaths, Soho drinking clubs and West Indian gangsters, the other characters and locations in this seedy melodrama, who knew what to make of them? Certainly not I. I had no idea what a call girl was or an osteopath and, as I recall, very little curiosity about what they did. The mere idea of a Soho drinking club gave me a headache, as it still does. We were more interested in the fact that the girls had also been associating with Russian diplomats, presumably spies. Spies were easy to understand, 24 The Rage Against God though surely it should be our spies sharing women with Russian defence ministers, rather than the other way round?
What was a Minister of the Crown doing in such company? Why were the Russians even allowed to maintain such a person in London? So much for the glamour of spies. While we small boys in our knee-length shorts did not really understand what people such as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies were for, we knew that their presence in our national life was a bad sign.
We knew it had gone rotten, that what we had been taught to revere had lost its nerve and lost its virtue. How right we were. At that time there was only one boy at my school with divorced parents, a fact we whispered about with mingled smugness and horror. To give some idea of the change that has overtaken us, I should also record my reaction to hearing on a news bulletin that some pop star and his girlfriend were to have a baby out of wedlock. I found this unimaginable, impossible.
This was the natural order. I was convinced the baby would be physically abnormal and my mother had to talk me gently, if elliptically, out of my distress. Oddly enough, around the same time as the Profumo Affair, a miniature moral scandal exploded at my school. A popular as it turned out, too popular master suddenly disappeared. He had been in the habit of entertaining some of the better-looking twelve- and thirteen-year-olds in his room, playing jazz records and introducing them, perhaps a little early, to the joys of wine.
That, alas, was not all he introduced them to. Somebody talked, as someone always does. Justice — or at least retribution — descended swiftly and silently in the night. His name was not mentioned. The local newspaper was not in its wonted place on the table in the hall. It would not be mysterious for long. The change that followed was not slow or gradual, but catastrophic, like an avalanche.
Small children now know and use swearwords as punctuation mostly they know no other punctuation. Sexual acts are openly discussed on mainstream broadcasts and explained in British school classrooms with the aid of bananas and hockey-sticks and boys not much older than I was then are unsurprisingly fathering children. The astonishing swiftness of the change, like the crumbling of an Egyptian Mummy to dust as fresh air rushes into the long-sealed tomb chamber, has been one of the features of my life.
It suggests that our old morality was sustained only by custom and inertia, not by any deep attachment or understanding, and so had no ability to withstand the sneering assault of the modern age. What happened to me next was, as I shall contend, entirely normal and usual for a boy of my sort in any age or country.
But in this context of decay and collapse it was far more dangerous, and far more prevalent. I do not think I volunteered the declaration. I think he had suspected something of the kind was fermenting inside me, since I was in many ways the tolerated and indulged school troublemaker, expending his subversive energies on complaining about the food and remodelling the school newspaper I am told it took years to recover.
He asked the question expecting the answer he would get. No doubt he had heard it many times before from bumptious outsiders like me. He avoided argument and made a mild riposte about how the deaths of those I loved might later alter my view, which I scorned at the time but which I never forgot and later found to be accurate. In my early teens, he would sometimes stomp around his living room, where he liked to shave towards 27 28 The Rage Against God mid-day with bowl, brush and open razor, deriding my ignorance and mocking the made-up discipline of sociology, which I at one stage claimed to be studying.
I knew, alas, that he was quite right. This was no longer the age of faith, so my Bible knowledge was lamentable, when compared with that of boys of my class brought up 20 years before — let alone with that possessed by my Anglican aunt and my Calvinist uncle, both of whom knew the King James version more or less by heart and read and re-read it regularly.
Some of my older teachers, rigorously schooled in a more serious faith, did their best to instruct us as they had been taught. In modern Britain the young are taught about the religious beliefs of others, as if they were an anthropological peculiarity. While teachers are quite ready to be prescriptive about contraceptives good and illegal drugs acceptable if taken with care they are generally reluctant to urge Christian belief on any of their charges.
Some Roman Catholic schools take a stronger line, and Muslim schools certainly do, but those of the established Church of England cannot be relied upon in such things.
In a state-maintained Church of England elementary school close to my home, the religious education class recently consisted of instruction in how to draw a mosque. A private school known to me, strongly Anglican, devoted several classes for ten-year-olds to the functions of imams and rabbis, but none to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England.
By comparison with this, my Christian education was intensive, purposeful and single-minded. The rest is lost to me, but I am struck by the fact that the teacher involved expected us to know and remember such details of Holy Scripture, as a matter of course. We did, in my memory, much more sticking bits of paper in exercise books than reading, let alone learning.
But our general familiarity with the Bible would still be astonishing in a child of today. There can have been very little religion at home. I can hardly recall going to church during the school holidays. We were not a church-going family.
But since, in s and s Britain, this was quite normal for our class of person, it never struck me as odd and I never looked for an explanation. My father had most certainly had a Christian religious upbringing the boys were brought up Baptist, the girls in the more Protestant part of the Church of England. I do not think my father or my mother were actively hostile to faith.
I certainly was not withdrawn from Christian religious instruction, an absolute lawful right for any British child if the parents wish to exercise it. I suspect they just felt more comfortable for others to be doing this, given their own childhoods and lack of a common faith. But this lack of religion at home has had an odd but powerful effect on my attitude towards Christmas and, to a lesser extent, Easter.
Christmas at my West Country boarding school was a long festival of anticipation, pleasing to the senses of taste, hearing and sight. Once Remembrance Day was over we began to prepare for the still-distant feast. We rehearsed a great Carol Service. We were 30 The Rage Against God invited to stir the enormous school Christmas pudding, so large and deep that the smaller boys were in severe danger of falling into its rich mixture of dried fruits and spices. Term ended with various happy festivities, including an exhibition where we could show off the items often quite intricate we had spent the term making in woodwork classes, and a Christmas party of a wonderfully old-fashioned English kind, only really possible in a large country house, with games and cake until we were exhausted and sated with sugar.
This was always preceded by a long cold walk in the December gloom, while normally dour members of the school staff decorated the normally austere hall. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a few days later, were always an anti-climax after this. To this day, I prefer the anticipation of Advent to Christmas itself, and the season is strangely incomplete without a long train journey through a cold landscape. As for Easter, I had to teach myself to observe it when I returned to the faith years later.
Imagery of the Last Judgement was still powerful currency to us. As I shall explain later, its power would return one day to surprise me. One of my teachers — actually by far the best of them — would seek to frighten us into learning by warning us that we would suffer the fate of the Foolish Virgins when the time came for the decisive examinations we had to take at the age of For us, the Last Judgement was superseded by the fearsome, unyielding tests which would decide the outcomes or so we believed of our entire future lives.
Pass, and success and security would be ours. Fail, and we would be lost outsiders. I certainly believed it. There would, he predicted, be wailing and gnashing of teeth, and casting into the outer darkness, thanks to our idleness and sloth. Recently, as I studied the elaborate The seeds of atheism 31 carvings of the Wise and Foolish Virgins on the West Front of the Cathedral at Berne, I found myself thinking unbidden of French irregular verbs and Latin vocabulary.
Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers, whereas materialist, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding.
Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted. These days I know, with complete certainty, that there are a number of things about which I have no idea at all, and nor does anyone else.
Anything that had not yet been explained would no doubt soon be discovered. There were no mysteries. Because we could observe gravity in action, we somehow knew what it was. Nobody then mentioned that its operation, especially in empty space, simply cannot be explained. All was settled. Just learn the Table of Elements, your species, your elementary biology and your formulae, and that was that. Why and how were silently but inextricably confused.
Science, summed up as the belief that what could not be naturalistically or materialistically 32 The Rage Against God explained was not worth talking about, simply appropriated them. Why then should any reasoning, informed person need the idea of God? But I should stress that I was not actually taught these articles of the materialist faith, let alone the arguments which continue to rage around them.
I was simply given the impression by adults that these things were the case, and that this was all settled forever. It was the faith of a faithless age. I had no idea, then, quite why so many of the older generation had set their faces so hard against religious belief.
I was quite shocked when I later discovered the true state of affairs. They did not know half the things they claimed to know. Their faith in science was an attempt to replace the Christian faith, ruined by wars and disillusion, with a new all-embracing certainty. During my atheist period, I became an enthusiast for total rationality. I happily embraced the cold, sharp metric and decimal systems, discarding the polished-in-use, apparently irrational but human and friendly customary measures — which my generation was the last in England to learn.
In a similar desire for mental tidiness, I sought out and preferred buildings without dark corners or any hint of faith in their shape. I was comforted by the presence of modern cuboid structures, preferably of glass and concrete, in any town. I longed for a world of clean, squared-off structures, places where there was no darkness. They had marvellous spirits, and plenty of joys and triumphs; but they also had their hours of black gloom.
Their lives were like our weather — storm and sun. One thing they never feared — death. He walked too near them all their days to be a bogey. They were not concealed from me as they would be now. The English Parish Churches of those days had generally not cleared away their graves, altar tombs and gravestones and turned their churchyards into tactful gardens.
Many smelt sweetly of slow human decay. I had little doubt about what was going on beneath those mounds and stones. I had once found a dead mouse, buried it with a short funeral, and soon afterwards morbidly dug it up to see what had happened to the corpse. I have never forgotten the sheer purposeful energy of the fat, grey worms I found, and the ravenous speed with which they were working.
It was almost violent. I knew far more about death — as a process — than I knew about sex or swearwords, of which I was almost completely ignorant up to the age of Does this still continue? I doubt it. But we thought it all jolly and normal. The gravestones did indeed seem to possess characters.
I felt as if the author had intended to frighten me, personally. Strangely, as I entered my teens I no longer felt that close familiarity with death. On the contrary, I sought to ignore it. I perhaps made up for this later when I attended the burial of his oldest son, my uncle, also a rigorous Calvinist.
This took place amid a deluge of icy rain, under a typically black English summer sky, in a cemetery drearily overlooked by the walls of Portsmouth prison, and so waterlogged that the mouth of the grave had to be held open with metal props and planks lest it closed with a giant squelch before the service was over.
The hymns and prayers were pure gloom, calculated to spread despond among the living. There is no scriptural warrant for the existence of any other place. I do not think I could have stood it at all during my godless teens, but the fault would have been in me, not in the ceremony.
In the heat of adolescence, when immortality is most attractive, I actively loathed anything which suggested the existence or presence of death.
I rejoiced at the destruction or desecration or purging of structures with a religious character. They made me feel uncomfortable and resentful. I had a similar loathing for paintings, sculptures, music or poetry which used religious idioms. This attitude toward painting, in particular, was to end later in an unexpected way.
I regarded marriage as something to be avoided, abortion as a sensible necessity and safeguard, homosexuality as very nearly admirable. I renounced patriotism, too, so completely that I would one day shock myself and my fellowrevolutionaries with the chilly logical conclusion of this decision. In my last disastrous, obnoxious months at my Cambridge boarding school, I learned how to shock my teachers — from sitting up during chapel prayers, to putting my feet on the seat in front of me in the school theatre, to getting caught breaking into a government nuclear shelter.
At the end they were all — perhaps especially the best of them whom I had so completely disappointed — more than glad to see the last of me. At the time I had absolutely no idea that I might have been making any kind of mistake. I was in fact rather pleased with myself.
I have come to think that this readiness to live entirely in the present — in which we spare ourselves any self-reproach and fail completely to see ourselves as others see us — is a metaphor for the Godless state, in which we simultaneously ignore the experience and warnings of our past and the unknown, limitless dangers of our future.
I know it is purposeless, wrong and self-deceiving, since the past is irrecoverably gone. But no such door exists, and I assure myself that I do it for a serious purpose — to remind myself, over and over again, how utterly the world can change in a little time, and how readily we forget the good that has been thrown aside along with the bad.
None of us had died. We had won the war. It was the Germans who had died, and even then, surely not defenceless women and children in their homes.
This is what we thought. It was sombre and rather uplifting to live in this noble austerity. The predominant colours of urban Britain at that time were black and grey, under grey skies.
For me, it has never been so beautiful since.
Now it has all been cleaned, and is very pretty, but the severe grandeur and majesty has disappeared with the soot. It all gave the impression of restraint mixed with power. The people were serious, soberly and formally dressed. They spoke tersely in a serious fashion, a disciplined and contained language that was only allowed to show off in poetry or song.
The cityscapes were serious. The voices, of all classes, were serious. Understatement was so universal that it took me 20 years or more to understand fully some of the rebukes directed at me as a child.
We were frequently harshly spoken to by adults and expected to obey instructions. The Royal Navy: These were castles that could move, works of popular art and architecture, the very idea of power made visible.
George Orwell remarks in Homage to Catalonia how the sight of big guns mysteriously lifts the spirit. Their loss makes the heart sink. I still clearly recall the sultry afternoon in August when HMS Vanguard, our last battleship, was towed to the breakers, where she was to be turned into washing machines and razor blades.
I knew as I watched the slow, dreary occasion she ran aground as if in protest that it was a day of melancholy, loss and decline, however much the TV commercials of that unusually dishonest and tawdry era tried to tell me I was in a cheerful age of progress.
We had exchanged this real and valuable thing, with its beautiful engraving of St George slaying a dragon, for a paper promise. How could that be called progress? The word has made me suspicious ever since. Like most children in victorious great nations, I had a lively mental picture of how things would look and sound as the shells left the muzzles of our great guns. For we always won, did we not? Even now, the stench of fuel oil can summon back mental pictures of great dockyards full of such ships to my inward eye.
But I also make occasional pilgrimages to sad Portsmouth, generally to tend family graves, and pause on the top of Portsdown Hill to see the hulks of decommissioned destroyers anchored far up the creek, awaiting the blowtorch, and the emptiness of the dockyard which was once the principal arsenal of empire and is now a memorial to national feebleness and decline.
The protecting sea was at the end of every road. Abroad was impossibly different and chaotic, and to be avoided. I could not imagine myself having to do such a thing. The same encyclopaedia, charmingly dated, presented a picture of a distant world of great heat or great cold, uncomfortable, inconvenient and smelly, if picturesque, in which people lived rather worrying lives from which I was completely protected. But these only helped to emphasise the distance between there and here.
The Chinese, also, were creatures a million miles away, picturesque and improbably distant. I have always imagined Mr Lee in pigtails, trailing moustaches, mandarin robe and conical hat. Of all our many homes, as my father followed the Navy round the coast and when — beached at last — he sought something else The last battleships 41 to do, I was fondest of a modest house in the Admiral-infested village of Alverstoke, just across the crowded water from Portsmouth.
A small park separated us from the seashore, where I watched ocean liners, epitomising our wealth, and men of war, symbolising our power, hurrying in and out of Portsmouth and Southampton among brisk and lively waves. At night, or in thick fog, their enormous sirens moaned across the vast distance, the most evocative sound in the world. I have never, before or since, felt so perfectly secure. Even the money in our pockets, royalist, ornate, weighty pennies, sixpences, shillings and half-crowns with elaborate coats of arms and inscriptions in Latin, many of those coins older even than my grandfather, was reassuring.
My bicycles and my toys were robust machines made in England by English workers. The lingering trappings of imperial and industrial greatness For I lived at the very end of an era that is now as distant and gone as the Lost City of Atlantis.
There were modern things about it, but in general it was a very old civilisation. London in the s 42 The Rage Against God was modern in an old-fashioned way, really a city of the s and s full of smart electric gadgets and Art Deco design, a relic of the times when we had last been the centre of great world empire and a leader among nations.
The rest of the country was still more or less Edwardian, in many cases Victorian, shaped by the Industrial Revolution and full of soot and steam. Steam railway locomotives were things of great beauty, accidental works of art, deliberately built in a patriotic spirit, painted in sombre but delicious shades of green, panting like tired dragons, displaying their tremendous inward strength during pauses at junctions, as they released deafening hundred-foot high columns of steam.
I always stood back, almost afraid it might leap at me or bite. This was ours, our invention, our majesty on wheels. Seen at speed, passing through our soft, intimate landscape, surprisingly small yet packed with force and strength, these locomotives perfectly captured our image of ourselves as a country.
The engines that took me home from school in those days had resounding patriotic names — called after Royal Air Force squadrons that had fought in the Battle of Britain, or famous ships of the enormous Merchant Navy we then had.
This was one of the very few to survive the seemingly gleeful mass destruction — in the course of an extraordinarily short time The last battleships 43 — of all of these picturesque engines. The sudden disappearance of steam from British railways left the air of the cities much clearer and cleaner, and so allowed us to see more clearly how much we had declined.
No wonder we took refuge in the belief that our decay and diminished power had been the price of glory. On thousands of walls hung the reproduction of our national deity — the famous Yousef Karsh photograph of the truculent warrior glowering in a monochrome twilight. We all believed was it true? My Devon preparatory school displayed a different portrait, this time in colour, including the famous cigar, probably a lithograph of a once-famous painting of the Great Man by Arthur Pan, adorned with a quotation which well summed up the battle we thought we had just triumphantly won.
I knew more about his life than I knew about the life of Christ. He was our saviour. In fact, the generally radical and irreverent historian A.
We had won the war, with him at our head. Once again, we had no thought of what that might have been like for them, and resisted the idea that our own side had suffered losses of its own. What, us shot down? We won the war. I possessed a red volume called Men of Glory, a title that could not be published now, even ironically.
It contained several stories of astonishing but genuine heroism, including that of a man who fought on long after he ought to have been dead thanks to a Japanese sword-thrust and a particularly nerve-tightening account of the struggle to remove an unexploded bomb from a claustrophobic space in a submarine. I learned later that my future wife had at the same time been studying its female equivalent, called Women of Glory.
And it came to me with a shock of memory that there had been a time when we, in prosaic, understated Britain, had done exactly the same and had not thought there was anything odd about it. Here was another nation in hopeless decline, comforting itself with a long ago battle in which it claimed to have saved the world from evil. And then there was Sergeant Pilot Matt Braddock, the great Royal Air Force bomber ace, fervent democrat he refused a commission and all-round British hero. For many years, having encountered him in a book for boys called I Flew with Braddock, in which his adventures were recounted by his faithful and admiring navigator, George Bourne, I genuinely believed that this person actually lived.
He now has a Wikipedia entry, almost as if he had done, but I now know he never existed outside the pages of a weekly comic. I also had some extremely vague and confused ideas about the massacre of Jews by Germany, and may actually have thought that we went to war to save those Jews.
If so, I was not alone. In any case, I had no doubt at all that Matt Braddock and his fellow pilots were heroic warriors as they unloaded their bombs upon the evil Nazis. In this I was at least partly right, as I now know. I lost what little physical courage I ever had on the day I crashed my motorbike into a lorry carrying pork pies.
The collision entirely my own fault nearly removed my right foot. I simply do not know how bomber crews found the courage to climb into their aircraft, especially given the sort of deaths they had already seen so many of their comrades die. Its central ceremony was Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to 11th November. Rain hissed incessantly from misty skies, the far horizons of summer shrank to a small, murky circle around the school buildings.
Through foggy windows we could see only fog. Morning took hours to gain the upper hand over night. The afternoon light began to thicken into a cosy dusk soon after lunch. Feet squelched, puddles formed in doorways, heavy dark blue raincoats, never fully dry, hung in sodden, musty clumps in the corridors.
The normal daily smells, of fatty mutton and stodgy puddings, loitered in the brown-painted corridors all day. Christmas was too far off to illuminate the darkness. Wreaths fashioned from the same poppies were heaped on the monument. It was a deep evocation of everything we liked about ourselves, an indulgence in melancholy and proud self-restraint. No outsider could possibly have penetrated its English mystery, or imagined that we were in fact enjoying ourselves.
But we were. At that point in my life I still imagined that I, too, might meet my noble, painless imagined fate in a grey ship on grey seas in some cold northern place, preferably dying at the moment of victory, so helping to preserve this unfathomable society from harm. To this day, I cannot attend or watch this event — for it still continues — without a great wrench of the heart.
Great poets expressed it, usually — but not always — sentimentally. Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose — but young men think it is, and we were young. He wrote: Shrines— at home and abroad The great cult of noble, patriotic death has its shrines everywhere, thousands and thousands of them. Some are majestic, adorned with statues of soldiers, sailors and airmen with bowed heads standing at their corners.
Some are considerable works of art. The most evocative — a mud-encrusted infantryman forever reading a letter from home — stands on Platform One of Paddington Station in London. This is the work of the sculptor, Charles Sargeant Jagger, who also executed the astonishing Royal Artillery Memorial in the heart of London.
On either side of him are bronze machine-guns, recreated in careful detail, hung with large bronze wreaths. Once again, the structure is so eccentric, unChristian and odd that few ever examine it, though millions must pass by it every year. In the disturbing and melancholy memorial in the pretty garden city of Port Sunlight in the North of England, sculpted bronze children stand among the sculpted bronze soldiers — intended, I believe, to emphasise the belief that our armies were fighting to defend their homes and families.
Now, long afterwards, they just call to mind the uncomprehending, or half-comprehending childish grief which must have broken out in so many homes when fathers did not come home. Some shrines have powerfully moving inscriptions, especially that of the Metropolitan Railway memorial at Baker Street Station: Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten.
These for England died. All these temples of mourning were originally designed to commemorate one war, that of Towering cenotaphs, crowned with globes, look out to sea at the great naval ports. Colossal monuments at Thiepval and Ypres will continue to mark these cemeteries for hundreds of years to come, each bearing the names of thousands upon thousands of the lost.
British religious architecture, far from dying out, continues to exist in this empire of the dead, with its monumental gates, giant shrines, graceful colonnades and fountains. Not all the survivors approved. Siegfried Sassoon wrote furiously of the Menin Gate at Ypres: Was ever an immolation so belied As these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime. A few years later, the boy — now himself a soldier in the Second World War — uses the monument as an observation post in a battle with the Germans, who have no scruples about shooting at it and swiftly drive him to a safer vantage point. Almost all these memorials are more or less explicitly religious, but some very pointedly so. Splendid you passed, the great surrender made; Into the light that nevermore shall fade; Deep your contentment in that blest abode, Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still, Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill, While in the frailty of our human clay, Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way. There is an almost equally disturbing blurring of the boundaries between the eternal and the temporal in the patriotic poem written by Cecil Spring Rice, a British diplomat whose own brother was to die in the Great War.
I heard my country calling, away across the sea, Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me. Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head, And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead. I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns, I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
Most other countries do not have quite the same deep confusion of patriotism and faith. This is one of those songs that are so familiar that people pay little attention to the often startling words. There are of course many war memorials 54 The Rage Against God in the United States, but there are far fewer of them than in Britain, they are more equivocal, they do not tend to stand in such prominent places and they are not so universal.
The Vietnam monument breathes controversy about the aim and anger about the loss. The Korean War memorial seems resentful that the event has been so easily forgotten. The only American memorials comparable in emotional force to the British ones are those in Southern small towns, recalling the lost cause of the Confederacy. The sole sizeable monument to the dead of the — war that I have seen stands opposite Union Station in Kansas City, Missouri.
Americans who wish to begin to understand the extent of the British commemoration of war should imagine a Vietnam memorial in every town and city in the country, the centre of an annual ceremony and parade and for much of the year adorned with fresh wreaths. Some British war memorials in France — notably one at Boulogne — became focuses of anti-German demonstrations after , and were blown up by the occupiers.
The only country with a comparable cult of heroic death is Russia, or to be strictly accurate, the former Soviet Union. The Soviet War Memorial in Treptow Park in Berlin — built on the site of a mass grave — is plainly a mystical site, with its enormous image of a soldier, sword at rest, cradling a rescued child, approached through a ceremonial gate and along a funerary avenue lined with great blocks of stone-like sarcophagi, several of them featuring harrowing reliefs of civilians weeping over the loss of homes and breadwinners, and adorned with stern quotations from Stalin.
Equally numinous is the eternal flame in the Alexander Gardens under the Kremlin walls in Moscow, with its giant fallen flags and helmets of the dead. Can they be mortal? These words were actually written by a Russian Jewish journalist, Vasily Grossman, author of the long-suppressed novel of the war, Life and Fate. What is the thing that is being worshipped in these places?
It may counterfeit the majesty of great churches, and imitate their mystery and grandeur. But it is not God. It is an attempt to replace God, an attempt which failed. I also suppressed the fact that, from time to time anyway, we had to have allies. History does not support this glorious, inwardly glowing idea of a solitary, embattled island kept warm by bully beef sandwiches, strong sweet tea and its own valour.
There were always allies, even if we had to pay them for their trouble. We counted all too much on the help of alien hands even in But it was an essential part of the state religion which sustained us for so long.
I do not mean to be disrespectful. In fact, I am not disrespectful. I love Remembrance Day still. The more I know about the nature of war, the more I admire the individual courage of those who did indeed leave all that was dear to them, in the belief that principles did not apply themselves and that human hands and lives — theirs — were needed for the task.
The poetry they produced was born in the gap between what they hoped for and what they found. Those who came afterwards, illusions torn and hacked away, cannot really write poetry at all.
The Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and the making of great wars. Wars — which can only ever be won by ruthless violence — are seldom fought for good reasons, even if such reasons are invented for them afterwards. Civilised countries become less civilised when they go to war. And they hardly ever have good outcomes. In fact, I think it safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the twentieth century did more damage to Christianity in my own country than any other single force.
And I would add that, by all but destroying British Christianity, these wars may come to destroy the spirit of the country. Those who fought so hard to defend Britain against its material enemies did so at a terrible spiritual cost. The memory of the great slaughter of — was carried back into their daily lives by millions who had set out from quiet homes as gentle, innocent and kind, and returned cynical, brutalised and used to cruelty.
In this way, the pain and damage were passed on to new generations who had no hand in the killing. War does terrible harm to civilisation, to morals, to families and to innocence. It tramples on patience, gentleness, charity, constancy and honesty. How strange that we should make it the heart of a national cult. But there are even worse things than war, as so much of the world also knows. Why were they crying? I remember several scenes, the orderly queue of neatly dressed citizens dissolving into a yelling riot when word came down that the vodka ration for that week had been cancelled; the hideous prisoners, faces grotesque from habitual evil, being herded in sordid dungeons; the desolate cityscapes of concrete slabs under poisoned skies, the filthy yellow waste trickling from a crooked pipeline into a polluted sea, the excrement-smeared, desecrated ruins of what had once been churches, the corruption and the unending official lies.
Soviet citizens all knew life was like this. Fresh eggs were an event. I never saw a clean one. The elite had privileged access to good food, foreign travel and books, and the grovelling servility of the organs of the state, which oppressed the common people and extorted money from them. This society, promoted by its leaders as an egalitarian utopia, was in truth one of the most unequal societies on Earth. Its staircase did not stink, as those of normal blocks did, of urine and cabbage.
It exuded power. Because of the midnight hour, I had gone there in my car, a Volvo with special yellow licence plates which marked me out as a foreign correspondent. That night, the GAI cops tried to wave me down, yards from my building. I was doing nothing wrong and I ignored them, which sometimes worked because they were lazy as well as corrupt. Unusually diligent, they gave chase and followed me into the courtyard. They were angry and perhaps drunk.
I gave them to him. And what are you doing in here anyway? He stiffened and looked suddenly afraid. He picked up my papers. He looked again at my passport, with its residence permit for that address. He stepped back, saluted smartly, mumbled an apology for bothering me, and drove away without another word. This sort of privilege was unavailable at home in England, where even members of the Royal Family were pulled in for speeding. Yet here I was in a society devoted to equality, asserting real rank over an agent of the state.
I saw only the very end of it. Others have described the Soviet Paradise when it was at the midnight of its dark power — which was, interestingly, the time when it probably worked best.
If you are going to have a command economy, then it will function most effectively if there is plenty of fear. By the time I arrived in the Soviet capital in the summer of there was a shortage of fear — to match the shortages of shoes, furniture, gasoline, cigarettes and beer. It was still there in the background. People knew that the old monster could still lash out and destroy.
I describe this episode more fully in my book, The Broken Compass. This is now generally accepted by everyone as having been the case, but in Moscow when I was there we were only guessing at the extent of it. It had taken onto itself the responsibilities of God, and of believers in God.
But its commandments were very different from those of God. A smart and attractive middle-aged woman, who spoke perfect English, made herself agreeable to me on the long train journey from Ostend to Moscow, and hired herself to me as my assistant without trying very hard to conceal her real interest.
Years later, after Communism had collapsed, she reappeared in my life claiming that she had vanished in order to care for her dying lover, a KGB agent. Even so, the KGB continued to keep an eye on me. My phone periodically stopped working and I had to go round to the exchange and hammer on the door till laughing girls — who knew what was going on — leaned out of a high window to tell me it would be working again by the time I was home which it always was.
My travel outside the city was closely monitored, and even a picnic in the woods round Moscow was a nightmare of permissions and documents, since those innocent birch forests were crammed with missiles I was not supposed to see. You never knew who might be informing on you. You learned not to mind. Homo sovieticus 63 A harsh and dangerous life Mistrust and surveillance were not the only things that quickly struck me as different about this society. Soviet life, I learned speedily enough, was incredibly harsh and often dangerous.
My Russian acquaintances thought my wife and I were 10 years younger than we were. We thought they were 10 years older than they were. Life began with harshness.
Even for the married, the main form of family planning — in a society which had little room for big families — was abortion, legally unrestricted in the post-war USSR as the need for a vast conscript army receded. In , there were 6. You could spot a maternity hospital by the strings hanging from the windows, bearing pathetic messages of love or need from wives to husbands. Those husbands were forbidden for days to visit their wives or babies, and instead lurked, smoking glumly, on the weedy grass beneath the windows, waiting for a chance to catch sight of them.
Once the baby was home, married life quickly included the state as third parent, since salaries were carefully set so that it took two wages to pay for the basics of life. For the average citizen, it was a life lived at a dismally low level, materially, ethically and culturally.
The Soviet Union may have been a great power, but it was a great power that had diverted its resources into the hands of the state, with only the ruling elite spared the resulting dismal privations. Even the few available consumer goods were a risk to their owners. But there were also collapsing balconies — Russian friends would always tut noisily and urge me to come back inside if I ever dared step onto mine — and mysterious holes in the pavement into which the elderly might easily tumble and break bones.
Here we were, in the midst of real, existing socialism. You fed your coins into a vending machine and pale, acid beer dribbled intermittently out of a slimy pipe into your jar. There was no conversation. The alternative was to share a bottle of vodka which could not be resealed once opened in the street, a choice of evening that often led to the insensible drinkers freezing to death by the road.
Special patrols quartered Moscow on winter nights, rescuing such people rather roughly. Those who had been awarded the Order of Lenin a medal for major achievement were allowed to go home afterwards. I visited one of the special police stations which handled the drunks, and they showed me a dismal museum of the things Russians drank when they could not get vodka.
Cheap Soviet after-shave, apparently, was bearable and intoxicating, if drunk through cotton wool. A sandwich of black bread and toothpaste was mildly alcoholic if nothing else could be found. Compared with this desperate squalor, the meanest British public house and the most sordid American bar are temples of civilisation and intellectual conversation. A coarse and mannerless society There were several other features of life in Communist, atheist, humanist Moscow which impressed me, accustomed as I was to the Homo sovieticus 65 ordered consideration, general culture and good manners of a rich and stable Protestant Christian society.
He told me how shocked he was to hear and read the coarse, ugly, slang-infested and bureaucratic tongue that was now spoken in the city, even by educated professional people, and featured in its newspapers and on public notice boards.
It was, he said, plainly a descent. Many of my journeys took place on remote lines or on modern sections, quite without the ornate glamour of the stations the tourists see. Because of the ferocity of the winters, the entrances to the escalators were guarded by heavy, stiff swing doors which were supposed to keep some of the heat in. I noticed that nobody ever held these doors open for those behind. As the habit of holding doors open for others was ingrained in me, I tried to defy this trend.
Far from being delighted or impressed by my attempted courtesy, my Russian fellow passengers looked at me suspiciously, as if I were planning to play a trick on them. I often used this means of transport to get home or to voyage through the outer fringes of the capital. This was a civilised European city, not Africa, but at such moments it was hard to see the difference, apart from the temperature. Any wipers left in place while the car was parked would be stolen as a matter of course.
Petty theft of unsecured property was universal, and universally accepted as normal. It was not that they were coarse and mannerless themselves. I came to the conclusion, and nothing has since shifted it, that enormous and intrusive totalitarian state power, especially combined with militant egalitarianism, is an enemy of civility, consideration and even of enlightened self-interest. I also concluded that a high moral standard cannot be reached or maintained unless it is generally accepted and understood by an overwhelming number of people.
I have since concluded that a hitherto Christian society which was de-Christianised would also face such problems, because I have seen public discourtesy and incivility spreading rapidly in my own country as Christianity is forgotten.
The rapid vanishing of Christianity from public consciousness and life, as the last fully Christian generation ages and disappears, seems to me to be a major part of it. I do not think I would have been half so shocked by the squalor and rudeness of Moscow, if I had not come from a country where Christian forbearance was still well-established. If I had then been able to see the London of , I would have been equally shocked.
It was December I was sitting on a heap of cargo in a Russian-built, Russian-piloted transport plane on its way from Nairobi in Kenya to the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The load, mainly food, was intended for the bureau of a big international news agency.
I and my photographer colleague John Downing had hitched a ride. Mogadishu by this time was no longer a functioning capital. There were no commercial airports, no law, no police, no streetlights, no electricity, no normal telephones, no foreign embassies. The people of Mogadishu are Muslims, and my guess is that it would have been even worse if they were not. Their country has been cursed by the repeated interference of global superpowers, more interested in its strategic position than in its society.
It just showed me a vision of how fragile our civilisations are, which is why I think it worth mentioning. I saw no particular connection, at the time of my return to religion, between faith and the shape of society. I imagined it was a matter between me and God.
The atheist Soviet Union, where desecration and heroic survival were visible around me, began to alter that. Mogadishu accelerated the process. I thought I saw, in its blasted avenues, its private safety and public terror, and its lives ruled by the gun, a possible prophecy of where my own society was headed — though for very different reasons.
I still think this. As with so many of these occasions, I need only to close my eyes and I am there again. The plane banks over the Indian Ocean and sinks rapidly towards the ground.
There is the usual confused roar and bumping as we touch down, and powerful braking. The heap on which John and I are sitting, which had slid backwards during take-off, now slides rapidly forward This is actually rather enjoyable.
I have never been able to take airline safety videos seriously since. We come to a halt. The doors open onto a beautiful and golden late afternoon, with sunset clearly not all that far off. We clamber out, me in my polished black shoes and blue city suit — I have come here, at short 68 The Rage Against God notice and with no preparation, from an assignment in Jerusalem. A man from the news agency has arrived to meet his load. He is the only friendly face, and the only English-speaking person.
John and I hire two of the boy bodyguards, using the international sign language of dollar bills. This is a form of transport I have now grown quite used to, but which was new to me then.
He waves goodbye. I have the impression he is astonished that we should have come here so totally unprepared, perhaps because I am also astonished about this. My newspaper, I think, has delusions of grandeur. When, a few days ago in Tel Aviv, I had dutifully offered to go, it had been an offer made for the sake of form, expecting to be refused, which it was.
But someone has changed his mind, and here I am, trapped in Mogadishu by my own attempt to gain kudos without risk. There is going to be risk after all. We cram ourselves into the car, lurch and jolt past the ruined arrivals terminal and into the city. There are wide avenues made of mud. There seem to be no trees, no shop fronts, no windows.
There is a famine, and children not much younger than my bodyguards are dying, as I shall shortly see, in stinking huts and tents not far from me. There is still light, but it will not be for long.
Only desperation would persuade me to stay in one, but even though I am in fact desperate, I cannot. They are full or boarded up or commandeered by unfriendly militias. We turn into a major avenue and are there confronted by Homo sovieticus 69 one of the most fearsome things I have ever seen. Drawn up in line ahead, stretching for perhaps half a mile in the level, melancholy light of the setting sun, are dozens of pick-up trucks, each with a heavy machine gun mounted on it and with eccentrically dressed men, like nightmare rock musicians, some with spectacularly tangled hair, some with black berets, all with hard frightening faces, hunched behind the guns.
Luckily they are too busy or preoccupied, or perhaps have chewed too much khat the local intoxicating herb even to notice us, and they begin to roll away as we appear. They will be back in a few months, to mock the mighty power of the United States with their crude weapons and their limitless courage. They all know how to die, as we do not. But still we have nowhere to sleep, no shelter for the night. That modern western social democratic politics is a form of false religion in which people try to substitute a social conscience for an individual one.
That utopianism is actively dangerous. That liberty and law are attainable human objectives which are also the good by-products of Christian faith. Faith is the best antidote to utopianism, dismissing the dangerous idea of earthly perfection, discouraging people from acting as if they were God, encouraging people to act in the belief that there is a God and an ordered, purposeful universe, governed by an unalterable law.
Are Conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion? Are Atheist states not actually Atheist? Even those unconvinced or Even though the authors set the benchmark for sibling rivalry, their books prove there is something special about them. Both are restless romantics, enemies of cosy consensus, original minds - and products of an education system that wanted all children to be cultured and questioning.
Peter's book reads as if Cardinal Newman were reflecting on life after battle-scarred years as a foreign correspondent, while Christopher's book, if it were a thoroughbred horse, would be by George Orwell out of Kingsley Amis. I can think of no better pair of books for Christmas reflection. They feared the constraints of their parents' lifestyle - post-war rationing coupled to the limitations of life in the suburbs.
As we face the General Election, this is perhaps the most important reason for reading it. As Peter Hitchens observes, God offers authoritative moral laws, and judgement upon those who knowingly break them.