I woke up yesterday to a text message from a friend reading “Christopher Hitchens is dead!!” As the blog-o-sphere is already lighting up with this news, I thought this would be an appropriate time to take a moment and write a very brief reflection in memory of my favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens.
For those who don’t know him, Christopher Hitchens is, or rather was, one of the leading figures of a growing ‘secular revolution’, or what is often called the New Atheism. He is typically counted as one of the four horsemen of this New Atheism along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, and, of the four of them, he is the only one I really like. His singular ability to turn a phrase, his rhetorical erudition, brings with it a sort of irresistible charm which even his opponents must appreciate on pain of being apparently obtuse. His colourful character is fascinating to anyone who bothers to stop and take an honest look; he was, for instance impossible to classify along rigid political lines – as good an evidence as any that he truly was thinking freely. He moved for the abolition of religion, while defending the rights of unborn children, adamantly arguing that ‘unborn child’ is a real category of persons who deserve rights. He derided Mother Teressa as a terrible impudent fraudulent masochistic maniacal ‘medieval’ capricious women of the poorest quality of taste, while defending the American President G.W. Bush, under whose presidency the United States launched it’s so called war on terror, as one leaving behind a laudable legacy for just such a project. Though he clearly disdained, and vocally expressed as much, the particularly chauvinistic patriarchal flavor of many religions or religious communities, he also did not comfortably settle in with any naive feminist ideology. Indeed, in defending an article of his where he argues that men are funnier than women for good evolutionary reasons titled “why women aren’t funny” (where he noted in advance that there were successful female comedians of the first rank, and this did not challenge his argument as it was applied broadly over the human species) against a feminist attack noting all the very humorous female comedians he had himself mentioned, he had in mind to write a response titled “why some women apparently can’t even read.” When asked whether he thought women were better equipped to stay home and nurture children while men were better equipped to work and support the family, his unequivocal answer infuriated women supporting the feminist agenda.
His courage in the face of challenges, from being debated by the worthiest of opponents to staring death itself in the face, is beyond impugning. His intellectual honesty not only made up for the lack of intellectual dignity with which the New Atheist movement regularly comports itself, but provided an attraction and charm to this movement without which it would be significantly handicapped.
Christopher Hitchens took as his best friend Francis Collins, a Christian of noteworthy piety, maturity, and one whom Christopher was under the medical care of. His brother, Peter Hitchens, became an adamant Christian, writing a book “the Rage against God,” which apparently made for rather interesting family dinners, and invites us to realize that Hitchens’ entourage was more colourful than some are tempted to imagine. Most recently Peter Hitchens composed a beautiful reflection on his brother post-mortem. As for Hitchens’ children, he has explicitly said that he wishes for them to make up their own minds, and has not imposed all his views, such as atheism, on them. As to the suggestion of whether he had any last moment miraculous conversion to religion, he has said that it would not happen, and safeguarded himself by exclaiming that if he did begin to profess religion in his last moments then we would finally know that the cancer had gotten to his brain.
He made a point to unabashedly aim his attacks with precision towards anyone popularly revered by people of faith as examples of the best religion has had to offer. From attacking Pope Pius XII (my favorite pope) for being a little too friendly with Nazi Germany, to attacking Billy Graham, he was merciless, almost violent, in his criticisms. In fact, he was invited to play the role of the ‘devil’s advocate’ by the Vatican at the canonization process of mother Teresa, and did such a good arguing for how vicious she was and what violence she did to the human race that the pope abolished the office of devil’s advocate! Moreover he invited debate with the most able champions of religion and often offered such rhetorical responses that seldom could an opponent keep up with him, or win an audience away from him. The most memorable debates he participated in were his debate with Alister McGrath, his debates with Dinesh D’Souza, and of course, the greatest of all, his debate with William Lane Craig.
Christopher Hitchens gave me hope for the New Atheism which is being so forcefully pedaled by pushy pesky noisy clanging gongs preaching an enlightenment Soteriology of secular humanism, naive scientism, and the abolition of religion. He, I daresay, was the charismatic equivalent to G.K. Chesterton, and he will be remembered as such, I expect, in the annals of history. I think it was his candor and wit which afforded him such affection among Christians who, it is widely recognized, appreciated him more than they did any other of the leading figures of the New Atheism.
Upon receiving the Richard Dawkins award he gave a moving speech which in effect simply rehearsed his refined rhetorical response to religion. I, however, thought that his receiving the Richard Dawkins award was quite backwards; I felt as though it was Dawkins who should have been proud to receive a Hitchens award. He ought not to be remembered alongside Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris before being remembered alongside Clifford, Russell, and Hume, if not for his arguments then at least for his charisma.
He has expanded our vocabulary, not only by his marvelous ability to string together beautiful words and sentences, but also by providing us with new expressions, such as the “Hitch-slap”. He has posed the secular challenge to religion in the modern world in such a charming, engaging and serious way that it is thanks to him, in great part, that Christians both have been, and will continue to be, forced to take such a challenge more seriously, and to realize how important this ‘conversation’ really is. Hitchens represented, to my mind, a possibility for such conversation to be intellectually open, not constricted by predictable ideology reflective of naive intellectual custom. For example, it strikes me as very curious that Hitchens became perhaps more open to the existence of consciousness beyond death as he approached his own death, though he clearly thought that religious suggestions in this department weren’t worth rational consideration. Though in this case he did not make his mind up as strongly as he has on other issues, this still demonstrates that once again he is not afraid to entertain unpopular suggestions based on his unique intellectual convictions – an example I hope other atheists will follow. The litmus test of free thinking should be divergence of opinion on flexible issues given a worldview.
Obviously nothing I can write will do his character the justice it deserves, and I wouldn’t even try. Instead I offer this brief reflection only to express the respect, admiration and affection that I feel for him. He will be missed, perhaps more by Christians than by Atheists. He will be missed by me. He will be well remembered, and my sincerest regret that we have lost him in the ongoing cultural conversation is, I expect, shared in company with innumerable others. Though he so adamantly opposed anyone praying for him, I take it that we have a right to be bold enough as to do so now without any risk of offending him. May he rest in the peace of God ~ amen.
Mr. Christopher Hitchens; thank you, goodbye… and I dare say, God bless.