Christopher Hitchens is dead at the age of 62. The world has lost one of the most effective and compelling questioners of the 21st century.
Hitchens was a famous atheist. Not agnostic. Atheist. I am neither famous nor atheist, and yet every time I crossed paths with Hitchens’ provocative arguments, I felt closer to a positive spiritual energy in the universe and farther away from the failures of mankind.
This would probably make Hitchens disgusted, but so be it.
My experience with his thinking was that he was more a fighter for what I think “God” is than some of the biggest name faith leaders of our time. He wanted people to be intelligent, and self-aware. He was passionate about the idea of truth, that it could be known and that people have an ethical obligation to strive to know it. He had an absolute eagle-eye for self-deception and cowardice masquerading as devotion. While he and I did not see eye to eye about life, I always felt like underneath the language that could divide our positions, he was fighting for higher standards and a better world with a tenacity that rivaled some saints.
I liked his style.
He was intolerant of people who were waiting for a supernatural power to save the world. He expected action towards that end here and now, and spoke often about humanity’s accountability for making the world a better place.
I can’t defend it, I just feel it. Christopher Hitchens was a member of a covert group of agents from another dimension (don’t make me say “angels”), getting stuff done and pushing the envelope and fighting like a mad man to challenge common assumptions about life’s most important questions.
Here is an interesting passage I found that represents some areas of overlap I had with his frustrations:
(I’m sending up a prayer for his well-earned eternal rest. I hope he’s not pissed.)
“About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?
Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don’t believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart’s content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.”
10 thoughts on “A Somewhat Unexpected Adoration of Christopher Hitchens”
And, oddly, my copy of “Arguably” arrived in the mail today. Spiritual, huh.
I am in no way on to any more verifiable interpretation of God or the universe than anyone else, but there is something to be said, I think, for the remarkable commonality of most religions, from Druids to Aussie Aborigines to Episcopalians and beyond. Hitchens might have blamed those commonalities on our common inabilities to see/think clearly – all those pre-scientific superstitions followed by being mired in our own traditions. Another possibility is that there really is something else out there that actually has been at least dimly discernible (and which we do NOT get to define [is that it is, and all that], despite all our best thinking adn hoping efforts) by individuals for millenia. If God exists, He/She/It exists independent of our little moralities and theologies, yet some of those theologies may actually provide ways to grasp just a little more clearly what’s really going on. It seems to boil down to being overwhelmed by grasping a bit of the enormity of the unknowable and concluding either that all we do grasp is an enormous coincidence (somethingness out of nothingness yet), or that there’s something more than coincidence going on. Once you allow for the latter, you’re no longer atheist, and it becomes a matter of which theology fits best for you. The former is just too fantastic for me to buy. Somethingness out of nothingness, as in the elegance of math out of no math, the seeimingly infinitely interrelated physics out of no physics? wow. Hitchens certainly didn’t take the easy way and he’s to be honored for that integrity . . . at least.
Well said! Thanks.
I was just reading what I suppose is his last article in Vanity Fair. I am going to miss him so much.
Interesting take on Hitchens. I’m not a big fan, but this makes his contrarian style a little more palatable to me.
“Since you don’t believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart’s content?” Do people who think like want to steal, lie, rape and kill but their belief in god stops them?
Kind of makes me hope they hold on to their religion.
Right? It’s a little unnerving when people say things like that. It makes me realize that they are sort of on the edge.
“I’m sending up a prayer for his well-earned eternal rest. I hope he’s not pissed.” Haha, this quote and this post are why I love your blog, Elizabeth! I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to read someone who appreciates people for the complex beings they are: usually not entirely good, nor bad, nor smart, nor stupid. I disagreed with Hitchens on plenty of things (Who didn’t? Hitchens disagreed with himself often enough over the decades.), but I agree with you: I liked his style and the sense of urgency with which he lived his life and advocated for action NOW to make THIS world a better place. Atheist though he was, he was filled with optimism (I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying that this is in fact far from a contradiction.).
You’re not in trouble with me! I suppose I have been fortunate enough to know many intelligent, ethical, optimistic people in my life, and whether or not they believed in a higher power just did not correlate to those qualities one way or the other.
I heard that apparently towards the end of his life, as his illness advanced and death became more clear, that he changed his mind about some things. Not giant things, but he had said originally that he wanted to embrace death full-on, to be wide awake and lucid when it came. He later took that back.
I admire his willingness to freely admit that new information often leads to a good reason to change our minds.
Thanks for the nice comment on the blog, my friend. Looking forward to reading more of your work in the new year.
I will miss him, and his intellect, vastly.