When meeting Peter Hitchens, you learn one thing; you are not the smartest person in the room. This is a man whose breadth of knowledge is certainly impressive, and you can’t help but be impressed by his eloquence and reasoning. But nevertheless, there are times when you can’t help but raise an eyebrow.
Questions have been asked about Hitchens’ more traditionalistic views, such as on gay marriage and abortion, but I wanted to understand more about his views on the state of Britain.
Identity in modern Britain today was a question I felt was important to start off with when talking to Hitchens, as I thought it could help me understand why Hitchens believes what he does. But even the simple question of the importance of identity in British politics proved too simple for Hitchens, as he questioned what I meant by ‘identity.’
When delving into the importance of identifying with a culture or ethnicity, Hitchens talked about his distaste of division and spoke passionately about “one race: the human race.” But as an idea; is this feasible? The modern multicultural Britain is bound to have questions on what identity people should attach themselves to: that of their host country or their individual tribe?
When asked this, Hitchens responded that it is “perfectly reasonable” to ask immigrants or those from a minority to “follow the rules of the country.” While that may seem perfectly reasonable, difficulties arise when these rules clash. Hitchens states that immigration, with its different identities, cultures and religions creates the difficulty of people in large numbers not being able to integrate into a society and adjust to its rules.
But what of British identity? Hitchens is very clear on his idea of British culture being linked with Christianity and the protestant religion having an immense effect on music, language, politics and behaviour. However, I questioned Hitchens on whether we can call Britain a truly, ethnically Christian country. Many of our institutions in our culture are from other non-Christian parts of the world. Democracy is found in Greece, the idea of a civic society is found in Ancient Rome and ideas of respect between peoples are found in Confucianism.
Hitchens however, claims that just because you take on these ideas does not mean you take it on in its original form; using the lack of voting rights for women and slaves in Ancient Athenian democracy as examples. Instead, according to Hitchens, such institutions and ideas become anglicised, and the Christian ethical base is internalised.
However, despite Hitchens’ affection for Christian ethics, when asked whether he would like to see the church of England play a role in politics today, he remained staunchly against the idea. “It’s not it’s job.” This proved interesting, how could a man who upholds the teachings of the church so highly be against its involvement in the day to day running of a country? Hitchens argued that the Church seems to have very little to do with religion at all at the moment. This seemed to me confusing. Perhaps, for Hitchens the church has turned away from its conservative roots, and thus for him is no longer a voice for Christianity.
But surely this is an appropriate evolution for the church? Nevertheless, for Hitchens the church of today is no longer a moral voice in society.
When talking about the church in society today, I wanted to understand Hitchens’ opinion on the power of the Russian orthodox church within Russia. The church in Russia has helped shape the country’s opinions on women’s rights, gay rights and multiculturalism - so what would Hitchens think of this ultra-conservative, religious outlook. Hitchens admitted that it is a good thing that Christianity has been revived in Russia after the Soviet Union, and that it has had a strong influence in the how the country operates. But had little to say surrounding the controversies of the Russian church and its outlooks, likely because of the international negative perception on Russia's conservative social policies.
Hitchens is famous for his views on religion and its importance in society, so I was interested in how he sells religion today. In a 2017 survey by NatCen, over half of Britons polled stated that they are not religious. So, how does Hitchens sells religion? Particularly to young people in such a climate. What’s interesting in this regard was how Hitchens argued against the idea of trying to persuade people to join Christianity, “I wouldn’t dream of it” he told me. But what of the rise of atheism, surly Hitchens would see this as a negative force in society? Hitchens asserted that atheism is “the consequence of the death of Christianity” and that the “absence of belief doesn’t have any positive force.” For Hitchens’ atheism is not a creed or a religion, but a simple rejection of God, it is an “absence,” and because of this it has no positive force in society.
But why is atheism a negative force? Hitchens states that in Christianity, “man is made in the image of God” and this is an unchanging fact, but atheist societies in the past, such as the Soviet Union or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, have rejected this idea and believe that “man can change man.” This often leads to terrible results. Of course, Hitchens admits that Christianity has not always been a force for good. But what is interesting is that Hitchens seems to imply that atheism leads to a belief that man is not at all special, despite the fact that some of the most influential documents on human rights are based on principles of human decency and separate religious conventions.
It is clear that Hitchens is pessimistic about the future of Britain. The UK is “finished” with our educational system being a “national disgrace,” high debt and delusions of grandeur. We are unable to face the new world with countries such as China reaping the rewards. Hitchens truly believes that this country has no hope, and while I may believe that this country is going through a transformation, Hitchens sees this as a sign that the Great Britain, is no longer so great.