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Peter Hitchens

The following is a transcription of Peter Hitchens’s brilliant response to the question: Can civilization survive without God?


Thank you. The question, first of all, is what civilization might be. I doubt whether we can agree on that very quickly, since we probably can’t even agree on how to spell it on either side of the Atlantic. I would really like to start by explaining what it isn’t and to recount some experiences of mine in places where it had ceased to be.

The first one, picture me, if you will, in a blue suit and polished leather shoes sitting on top of a pile of cargo in a retired Soviet aircraft — rather, Soviet aircraft which ought to have been retired — landing at Mogadishu Airport one winter’s afternoon shortly before sunset. I won’t explain quite how stupid I had been to get myself into this position, but I was working at that time for a daily newspaper which had accepted a suggestion of mine, unexpectedly, that I should go to Mogadishu just before the U.S. Marines arrived, as they thought, to rescue the Somalis from famine and chaos.

Arriving at Mogadishu Airport is an experience some of you may have had and some of you may not. What I can tell you is this: There is no passport control. There is no baggage reclaim. In fact, as you land, sitting on top of the baggage, it slides the length of the aircraft as the brakes go on, which has made me take aircraft safety precautions with a total lack of seriousness ever since. It’s rather enjoyable, actually, when the baggage slides down the whole length of the plane.

You’re met at the end of the runway by a man from The Associated Press who is collecting all the water and supplies for his bureau, and by about 15 young men with AK-47s, who approach you and say, do you want a bodyguard? And you turn to the man from The Associated Press and you say, do I want a bodyguard? And he says, yes you do. If you don’t have a bodyguard, you’ll be dead and stripped by morning.

So we hire, myself and my colleague, John Downing, we hire one of these — in fact, two of these bodyguards — and a car with no upholstery, and we drive into Mogadishu just in time to see the departing ranks of the gangs and tribal formations which are supposed to be driven away by the arrival of the U.S. Marines. They are, in fact, going. They’re going into the sunset with their machine guns and their bandannas — they look like heavily armed rock stars — because they know that there is no point in being there when the Marines arrive, and they intend to come back later and do whatever it is they do.

We circle around, looking for some time for somewhere to spend the night. And only by great good fortune, because departing around a corner, my colleague sees somebody he knows from Sarajevo, do we find anywhere to spend the night. We are allowed into a compound which has been rented by some German television people, who share with us their camel stew and allow us to sleep on their concrete floor. I go to sleep listening that evening to the cries of dying people and the chatter of gunfire outside and hearing, in effect, what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found my way into the German compound.

The following day I find people to take me round; we’re nearly murdered on one occasion because my interpreter is from the wrong tribe. I see a scene of complete desolation. Every building has bullet holes, or indeed, shell holes in it. The main street is completely stripped bare of every feature of modern civilization. It’s just a stretch of mud with potholes in it with loping persons on it carrying weapons and no guarantee that they won’t use them on you. All the physical features of civilization and all the, as it were, intangible features of civilization — civility, safety, the ability to rely on your neighbor, the passing person, for any kind of kindness or consideration — have gone.

Eventually, with great relief, I got out of Mogadishu and I got home and was shown a few weeks afterwards a photograph of the same street which I had seen on that evening and on the following morning. Mogadishu having been an Italian colony, the street scene was actually rather Roman: pleasantly dressed people strolling along well-kept sidewalks, expensive cars gliding up and down a smooth road, telephone kiosks, pavement cafes.

The distance between that and what I saw was approximately 20 years, and it came to me and it has stayed with me ever since, whenever I walk down a pleasant street in Oxford, where I live, or indeed roam around Dupont Circle here in Washington, D.C. or any major civilized city, this is not permanent. This is not here automatically. It is not in the air we breathe or the water we drink. It is as a result of certain unusual conditions which do not always exist and which have come about only for a very short period of time in a very limited number of places, and which even having been established, can come to an end.

This experience came on top of two years living in what, when I arrived, was the capital city of the Soviet Union and what, when I left, was the capital city of the Russian Federation. And there I also saw a very curious civilization which was not a civilization. That is to say, there was very little civility on the street between people. I was always struck by this. I would go down into what we’re always told in the tourist manuals is the magnificent Moscow Metro.

Because of the horrendously ruthless climate, the stations are guarded by very heavy wooden swing doors, or were in those days, and I would hold them open for people as they came into the stations behind me, and they would step back with a look of mistrust on their faces, as if I was playing a sort of joke on them. They were completely unused to the idea that anyone might do this. There wasn’t even that level of consideration. Nobody in any kind of public dealing would trust you. Almost everything had to be obtained through whispered threats and bribes…

How has this decline in civilization come about? Well, I think it has come about at least partly — and I’m not a single-cause person — but at least partly because there is no longer in the hearts of the English people the restraint of the Christian religion, which used to prevent this sort of behavior.

I think it would be completely idle to imagine that the two things were unconnected. I haven’t come here to say that civilization’s impossible without religion or indeed without Christianity. There are non-Christian civilizations. There are civilized countries which aren’t really based upon religion at all, such as Japan, which I think any visitor there will agree is an intensely civilized place.

But the extraordinary combination, which you in this country and I in mine used to enjoy and may for some time continue to, of liberty and order seems to me only to occur where people take into their hearts the very, very powerful messages of self-restraint without mutual advantage, which is central to the Christian religion…

Peter Hitchens in Giza


Read the rest of Peter’s answer as well as the entire discussion at the Pew Forum on the motion Can Civilization Survive Without God?.