Christopher Hitchens, one of the leaders of the New Atheism and who died on Dec. 15, 2011, at 62 after a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, was an intellectual provocateur who would not hesitate to offend or disturb if it stood in the way of what he thought was correct. To be shocked upon hearing some of what he said—see below—is commonplace, but leaving it at that would fail to appreciate the intellect behind his utterances.
Christopher Hitchens was one of the world’s most influential intellectuals. Sam Harris, another of the so-called Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, wrote that “Hitch produced more fine work, read more books, met more interesting people, and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries.” Hitchens’ debates against people such as former prime minister Tony Blair or Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza are on YouTube. Watching one of these debates can give one a feel for Hitchens’ fluid and effortless debating style.
His stance against religion was uncompromising. His book Missionary Position characterized Mother Teresa, who is otherwise nearly the contemporary definition of selflessness and saintliness, as a religious zealot who “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty,” not interested in alleviating suffering but in religious proselytizing at the expense of actual medical care. Such a contrary view against such a strong consensus about Mother Teresa perfectly illustrates Hitchens’ approach. Few other people would have dared to write such a book.
Some atheists think he went too far in his criticism of religion, and some of his strongest supporters on the left strongly disagreed with his support of the war in Iraq, which he called “A War to Be Proud of.” But Hitchens marshaled considerable intellectual firepower to support his iconoclastic views. One measure of his dedication to the truth occurred when he changed his mind about whether waterboarding was torture after he volunteered himself to be waterboarded. His conclusion was simply stated in the title of his article that described the experience: “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”
Hitchens’ political and theological positions were largely driven by opposition to dictatorship and totalitarianism, and by a love of freedom. One of his most remarkable statements compared the basics of monotheistic theology with totalitarianism:
“When I say, as in the subtitle of my book [God Is Not Great], that I think ‘Religion Poisons Everything,’ I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity. It says we can’t be moral without Big Brother, without totalitarian permission. It means we can’t be good to one other without this. We must be afraid. We must also be forced to love someone [God] who we fear, the essence of sado-masochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship.”
As shocking as the comparison of religious theology to totalitarian dictatorship might be, Hitchens brought a certain logic to this position, even if one might ultimately not agree with him in the end.
Hitchens’ demise was probably hastened by his excessive smoking and drinking. When he wrote that his daily intake of alcohol was enough “to kill or stun the average mule,” his humor was on display despite the contribution of these habits to his illness.
As he reported it, he was diagnosed with “stage four cancer, and there is no stage five.” Some religionists hoped for a deathbed conversion from Hitchens, but he forestalled that: “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 remark.” He also talked about “a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption, and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before.”
There is a time and a place to temper one’s words out of concern for others’ feelings, and there is a time and a place to be ruthless in demanding clear thinking and logic—as far as one can do so—no matter where it leads or who it offends. That Hitchens was less interested in the former does not in any way detract from how exceedingly well he did the latter.
Hitchens was an inspiration to many atheists because he stood up for atheism at a time (only a few years ago) when hardly anyone else dared to. Hitchens, along with the other Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (Dr. Daniel Dennet, Dr. Sam Harris, and Dr. Richard Dawkins), played a major role in getting atheism out of the closet.
Whatever his flaws were—and he surely had them, as we all do—they do not detract from his unapologetic demand that logic and evidence be applied to the claims of religion and politics, and let the chips fall where they may.
Paul Rinzler is a member of the Board of Directors of Atheists United of SLO and is a professor of music at Cal Poly. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.