When he eulogized famous religious figures, Christopher Hitchens contemptuously brushed aside conventional sensibilities, unleashing his Oxford-bred, wickedly witty disdain on the departed, often, it seemed, before the body had became cold.
Of the Moral Majority founder he wrote in 2007: “The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled ‘credulous idiot.’” He closed the piece lamenting it’s “a shame that there is no hell for Falwell to go to.”
Among his tamer descriptions of Mother Theresa, whose order said it would pray for Hitchens’ soul after his death Thursday, was: “A fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”
How does one explain, then, the outpouring of appreciation and respect from people of religious faith for this uniquely talented British-born American journalist – a leading figure in the “new atheist” movement and the author of “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” – who died at the age of 62 after an openly reflective 18-month battle with esophageal cancer?
Douglas Wilson, one of many evangelical Christians who debated Hitchens and developed a fondness for him, recalls in an obituary published by Christianity Today telling a debate audience “that if Christopher and I were not careful, we were in danger of becoming friends.”
Wilson, a pastor, theologian and faculty member at New Saint Andrews College in Idaho, said that while Hitchens rejected his arguments, the two share something significant.
“Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him,” Wilson writes.
“Militant atheists,” he notes, “are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be ‘surrender slowly.’”
It seems that for all his personal and intellectual contradictions, this “anti-theist,” Trotskyist, counter-cultural thinker of unmatched journalistic prose who famously defended the Iraq war and offered conservatives some of their best defenses on other issues, displayed a virtue lacking in many who profess religious faith.
Though his critics included atheist intellectuals as well as religious believers, the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Hitchens inspired a passion for pursuing truth, displaying a fierce determination that cut through the intellectual accommodations of a jaded prevailing culture.
I came face-to-face three years ago with Hitchens’ fervor, which manifest itself in a way quite familiar to evangelical Christians.
After a fascinating hour at a Las Vegas hotel bar discussing the existence of God, he made his pitch personal.
As we walked toward the exit, he professed a complete inability to comprehend how someone could say, “I know Jesus as my savior.”
Christopher Hitchens debating Dinesh D’Souza, right at a July 2008 conference in Las Vegas (WND photo)
He then paused at the door as a pretend Beatles band next door nearly drowned his words.
“Give it up,” he said, earnestly, of my Christian faith.
“You’ll be happier,” he insisted.” Maybe not at first, but you will be.”
Earlier, Hitchens had debated Christian author and scholar Dinesh D’Sousa on the question of whether religion is the solution or the problem regarding the current geopolitical crisis. Though he scorned Christianity (It’s a “plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay of a hearsay, of an illusion of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents.”), Hitchens’ self-deprecation and deft, deadpan humor proved irresistible, prompting frequent outbursts of laughter and applause from a crowd of 1,000 at a libertarian conference with a mixture of skeptics and religious believers.
But it was believers in the audience like Islam specialist Robert Spencer, a speaker at the conference, who proved Hitchens’ magnetic power.
“I’m not an atheist, but Hitchens would almost make me one,” Spencer, a Catholic, told me at the time.
After that faceoff at Bally’s in Las Vegas, I had expected only a brief stand-up interview with Hitchens, but he suggested we find a place to sit down.
We found the hotel bar, which seemed appropriate, serving as it does as American secular culture’s sacred space. Hitchens clearly was familiar with the liturgy: “I’m going to have a Johnny Walker Black Label, please. Straight, with an express cup server on the side. No ice in the server.”
He briefly told of his two-year-old collaboration with an informal group of prominent “new atheists” who prefer to call themselves anti-theists. Along with Hitchens, the “Four Horsemen,” as they are called, are biologist Richard Dawkins, and philosophers Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.
He insisted his motivation for dedicating himself to the gospel of anti-theism was straightforward and he had no hidden agenda.
“I do it because I think the essential argument that underlies all other arguments is the one between belief in the supernatural and repudiation of that,” he said. “It cuts across all the left-right, libertarian-statist arguments.”
He had no time for atheists who say they wish they could have faith, but “they just can’t find it with themselves to believe this stuff.”
“I say I can’t understand why anyone would want it to be true,” he said.
Unlike many who won’t let others below the surface of their intellectual arguments, Hitchens admitted that he didn’t want there to be a god, because he didn’t want to be “under the permanent control and supervision of an unalterable celestial dictator.”
It’s the “servile” and “masochistic” part of the human personality, he said, that wants to be “kicked around,” controlled and “told what to do.”
“It’s an unappetizing side of the human personality,” he told me. “I have contempt for it.”
Hitchens touched on the theme in a debate in August with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a converted Catholic, arguing that once a creator is assumed, it forces people to submit to a “cruel experiment.”
“And over us to supervise this, is a celestial dictatorship. A kind of divine North Korea,” he said. “Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical praise from dawn til dusk, and swift to punish the original sins with which is so tenderly gifted us in the first place.”
Noting that Christian evangelists say they are motivated by a desire to please God, I asked Hitchens – pointing to his “zeal” for his message – what motivates him.
“Well, intellectual scorn, really. Frankly,” he said. “A sense of superiority, arrogance.”
He quickly made it clear that he was speaking for himself.
Christopher Hitchens chats with conference attendee in Las Vegas in 2008 (WND photo)
“It’s a feeling of just intense irritation that people are allowed to say that they are people of faith. They feel that by making this statement they have added to the argument,” he said. “By announcing they believe something for no reason at all, without any evidence, they don’t contribute to the discussion.”
He said he wanted to change that and make the word “faith” a “much less positive one – maybe even a pejorative.”
Hitchens said he was suspicious of my use of the word “zeal,” because he was wary of “the idea of a moral or intellectual equivalence between myself and someone who is a person of faith.”
He insisted that unlike “faith positions,” the materialistic atheist announces in advance what it would take to “overthrow” his stance.
“Show me rabbit bones in the Pleistocene rock and I’ll give up,” he said. “I will. I will tell you in advance. You find that, and come to me with it. I’m done. I surrender.”
He said, however, that being the witness of a miracle, such as a resurrection or an instant cure of leprosy or blindness, “wouldn’t persuade me that the supernatural exists.”
Hitchens explained that in such a case, it’s much more likely that he would be “suffering from a delusion” rather than witnessing a suspension of the laws of nature.
A fellow writer with The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, recently wrote that Hitchens was afraid hopeful Christians would look hard for signs of a “death bed” conversion.
Hitchens, Goldberg wrote, said that “if information emerged that he had, at some late stage, made a statement of faith, or a religious confession, including but not limited to, ‘I accept Jesus as my lord and savior,’ or, ‘Muhammad, peace be unto him, is the messenger of God,’ or, ‘the Lubavitcher rebbe is the true messiah and currently living in Brooklyn,’ that his friends were to make it known that it was not the true Hitchens doing the confessing.”
Hitchens told Goldberg: “The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark. But no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a ridiculous remark.”
‘I still think like a Marxist’
Born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949, Hitchens was educated at the independent Leys School, in Cambridge, and at Balliol College, Oxford.
In the 1960s, he joined a sect of followers of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky who espoused what they called an anti-Stalinist socialism. He said in a 2001 interview with Reason magazine that he was no longer a socialist, because it had ceased to offer a positive alternative to capitalism. But in a June 2010 interview with the New York Times, he said: “I still think like a Marxist in many ways. I think the materialist conception of history is valid.”
After the 9/11 attacks, however, he shocked many of his colleagues by declaring he was no longer of the left, though he didn’t want to be identified as a conservative. Jarred by the threat of Islamic jihad, he made a strong defense for the Iraq war, which gained him a wider readership.
One of the most significant moments in his life occurred in 1973, when he made a trip by himself to Athens to recover the body of his mother, who had killed herself in a suicide pact with her lover, a former clergyman.
Hitchens was working as a journalist in Cyprus when he met his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot. They had two children, Alexander and Sophia, before they divorced.
In 1989, he met and later married California writer Carol Blue, with whom he had a daughter, Antonia.
He was a columnist and literary critic at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, World Affairs, The Nation and Free Inquiry. In September 2008, he became a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.
His brother, Peter Hitchens, is an award-winning British columnist and author, who also was an atheist but now is a member of the Church of England. He’s the author of “The Rage Against God,” which, in part, is a response to his brother’s “God is not Great.”
‘I enjoyed my Scripture lessons’
Christopher Hitchens insisted to me that his viewpoint was in no way influenced by any upsetting or emotionally damaging experience with religion in his past.
“I wasn’t like so many millions of children tortured or abused by faith,” he said. “I wasn’t.”
He said that while he experienced some “unpleasant things” in an Anglican boarding school growing up and witnessed hypocrisy, he was “spared.”
“I enjoyed my Scripture lessons,” he declared.
But he said one of his “big quarrels with the Anglican church, the one in which I was baptized, is that it got rid of the King James Bible for the most part and the old hymnbook.”
“They now sing and read these banal versions of [liturgy], which I used to enjoy,” he said.
“I now go to an Anglican or Episcopalian ceremony, and I’m just horrified by what they’ve lost,” he said, “what they threw away when it was unarguably a huge, aesthetic advantage.”
While he contends he was not a “religious victim” growing up, he said he became one as an adult.
“My life as a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the free world has been substantially ruined by monotheistic terrorism and stands to be, maybe, destroyed by it,” he said, referring to the strictures imposed by the threat of Islamic jihad since the 9/11 attacks.
“They’ve made travel, one of my favorite recreations, one of the things that’s helped me understand my fellow creatures in the rest of the world, into a nightmare, a bore, a tyranny,” he said. “Even in my own country,” he continued, referring to the U.K., “they have me treated as a suspect all the time – my own government.”
Hitchens said Muslim jihadists have “wrecked my life of all the things that made it worth living and they constantly threaten the lives of people I love.”
“I don’t want to die without avenging myself of it,” he said. “I’m determined to do it. They are amateurs in hatred, when it comes to it.”
When Hitchens’ debate opponents confronted him with the historical results of the practical implementation of atheistic beliefs in a society, they inevitably referenced the deadly tyrannical regimes of the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, along with China and North Korea.
But Hitchens, pointing to the communist cult figures of Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-sung, insisted these were “religious regimes.”
“They are based on the worship of an individual and the cult of personality,” he argued.
“These regimes, he said, are not a test of atheism,” he said. “The true test would be a society that has taught in its schools and inculcated in universities and civic life” the works of Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Voltaire, Bertrand Russell and David Hume.
No society has done that yet, he argued, though the modern U.S. “in many ways is the nearest we’ve ever come to it.”
“Even though there are many people who don’t agree with those great thinkers, there are not many who despise them, either, or who don’t think of them as important,” he said.
Because these figures have such a dominant influence in America’s universities, Hitchens said, “no one can say our society is going down the toilet.”
I asked him why he left England in 1981 for America – where he became a dual citizen in 2007 – which is a more religious and culturally Christian society.
“In England, when I was there, I was forced to pay taxes for the upkeep of the state church, the head of which was also the head of the state – a preposterous state of affairs,” he explained. “It would be unconstitutional to the highest degree in the United States. It would be unthinkable. Religion in the United States is a voluntary principle. It’s a community matter.”
After Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer in June 2010, Christians from America and around the globe immediately bombarded him with good wishes and prayers.
When an “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day” was organized in September 2010, Hitchens showed appreciation though he was convinced that it would do him no good.
“I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries,” he wrote. “Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”
He added: “What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.”
Wilson concludes his Christianity Today tribute pointing out that Christopher Hitchens was baptized in his infancy with a name that means “Christ-bearer.”
“This created an enormous burden that he tried to shake off his entire life,” Wilson says.
“No creature can ever succeed in doing this. But sometimes, in the kindness of God, such failures can have a gracious twist at the end. We therefore commend Christopher to the Judge of the whole earth, who will certainly do right. Christopher Eric Hitchens (1949-2011). R.I.P.”