The first chapter of Peter Hitchens’ book is entitled “The Generation Who Were Too Clever to Believe.” He begins with his own story, how he burned his Bible as a fifteen-year-old in full revolt against everything he had been brought up to believe (p. 17).
“At that moment I knew — absolutely knew — that it was the enemy’s book, the keystone of the arch I wished to bring down” (p. 18).
But dismantling an arch is far easier than building one, particularly if the arch is the kind that points toward Heaven.
“I know now that proper virtue is easier to lose, and harder to find, than I thought it was then. I rather think I imagined this was a tremendously original thing to do and a shrewd blow at the dull believer who needed to be scared or bribed into goodness” (p. 19).
Peter begins here by giving us his testimony, and he diligently walks a fine line — he is specific enough, but is careful to do it without falling into the lamentable practice of “over-sharing.”
“That is pretty much as far as my personal confessions will go. My sins are unoriginal. The full details would be tedious for most people, unwelcome to my family (who have enough to put up with anyway), and upsetting for those directly affected by my very worst behavior” (p. 21).
He simply lets us know that his rejection of a belief in God had ethical consequences which did not bother him at all at the time, but which he now recognizes as
devastating lie. “I believe that nothing I could now do or say could possibly atone for [the sins committed]” (p. 21).
“I should be careful here. Confession can easily turn into showing off one’s wickedness” (p. 22).
And lest anyone think that he is simply giving himself a backhanded compliment for how virtuous he is now, Peter settles that point.
“I would add, for those who mistakenly think that religious persons imagine they are better than the rest, that my misbehavior did not stop when I crept stealthily into the pew behind the pillar at the back of the church . . . It merely lost its organized, deliberate character. I do not claim to be ‘saved’ by my own declarations or by my attendance at the Lord’s Supper. That is up to other authorities, which know my inward heart, to decide” (p. 22).
He is very specific in this chapter. Nothing he could ever do could atone for how he behaved in the course of his unbelief, and nothing he is doing now is in any way manipulating the levers that control his own personal salvation. He is simply surrendering the point to God. Salvation is all of grace.
The value of Peter’s testimony here is that it pinpoints exactly where the unbelief of a generation arose. It arose from the hearts of the individual members of that generation. That generation did not follow Christ because, to speak bluntly, they did not feel like it.
“This blatant truth that we hold opinions because we wish to, and reject them because we wish to, is so obvious that it is too seldom mentioned” (p. 24).
But why did he not wish to believe? At the time, Peter was entranced by the “crooked smiles,” the “knowing worldliness” of the erudite unbelievers serving as his examples and mentors.
“It did not then cross my mind that they, like religious apologists, might have any personal reasons for holding to this disbelief. It certainly did not cross my mind that I had any low motives for it. Unlike Christians, atheists have a high opinion of their own virtue” (p. 25).
And so we come to headwaters of modern atheism — coddled and pampered vanity.
“I had, like so many other young men and women of my age, been encouraged by parents and teachers (made soft by their own hard childhoods) to believe that I was clever, and so better than my fellows. Such vanity seeks company. If I could become one of them — the clever, dry ones — I could escape . . . coventionally dull, commonplace people” (p. 25).
And so it was that Peter assumed his place in the clever generation, a generation who were too clever to believe. Too clever by half.