The tragedy of Christopher Hitchens
By: Robert E. Meyer
A local writer wrote a recent column praising the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, who passed away last December 15th. In reading a number of the writer’s columns over the past few years, it’s apparent that Hitchens has greatly influenced her worldview, and they were of a kindred spirit.
It’s indisputable that Hitchens was a writer of enormous talent and wit, appreciable by anyone venerating style over specific substance. But, I know less of Mr. Hitchens from his magazine contributions, than from his crusade against religious belief, particularly Christianity, as articulated from the various debates with Christian theists in which he participated. On the basis of that specific substance I critique him.
Hitchens was among the fraternity known as “The Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” which asserts that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” I find that an intriguing philosophical posture, considering a chief criticism of religion is it lacks tolerance for differing perspectives–a defect supposedly avoided in non-theistic humanism. In addition, such an assertion begs the question by assuming without proof New Atheists have cornered the market on rational discourse.
The writer asserts “In truth, Hitchens defined himself as an antitheist, asserting that an atheist doesn’t believe but wishes he were wrong, while an antitheist, in his own words, ‘”is relieved that there is no evidence for such an assertion.”‘
This quotation says it all, and it comports well with a companion quotation from professor Thomas Nagel from his 1997 book The Last Word.
“…I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and naturally, hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” The antitheist is captivated by his own wishful thinking.
The term ‘antitheist’ is apropos, because often objections to the existence of God aren’t intellectual objections, so much as they are volitional ones. That’s apparent while listening to debates where Hitchens was a participant. An observation made by one of his opponents(Dr. Frank Turek)was that Hitchens seemed more intent on cleverly articulating a litany of complaints, then debating. It is unlikely a person of such a mindset would yield to evidence contrary to his perspective. Hitchens epitomizes the oxymoronic slogan that “There is no God and I hate him.”
How different and disingenuous is this perspective in contrast to the late Anthony Flew, a renowned atheist turned theist, who vowed to go wherever the evidence took him.
The writer comments on the behaviors that contributed to Hitchens death. “With smoking and drinking habits as uncompromising as his writing, he developed the same disease that claimed his father — esophageal cancer.” I don’t believe in piling on here, but I find it ironic that someone as intelligent and enlightened as Hitchens–enough so that he could critique God himself–couldn’t muster the common sense and discipline to moderate the habits that were destroying him physically, even after seeing what happened to his father.
A theme common among those who experience a religious conversion, particularly in the Christian tradition, is a record of testimony referencing deliverance from destructive habits. In addition, it is expected that as one renews their heart and mind, that one will reshuffle their priorities to suppress hedonistic appetites. It seems that among humanists there is no similar expectation of internal regulation and temperance.
The columnist was correct that many Christians were praying for an 11th hour statement of contrition from Hitchens. But when Hitchens died there weren’t any back flips, ticker-tape parades among Christians, laden with gleeful singing of the alleluia chorus, or any other such gloating. The attitude was generally somber, if not respectful. That was because they believed Hitchens had irrevocably lost the opportunity to change the bottom line on his spiritual ledger, leaving nothing to celebrate.
The writer expressed admiration for Hitchens’ uncompromising disposition. She says that unrepentant vigor beats hypocrisy any day. Perhaps so, but why are those the only two choices we’re accorded? In Hitchens’ own words “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my —.”
What is this really, but a contemporary rendition of Frank Sinatra’s anthem to the caprice of vanity and individuality I Did It My Way. Is such a response a thoughtful examination of one’s life, or merely the ultimate salvo of defiance?
Our Mothers warned us never to say anything about a person, unless we could say something good. Call me judgmental, but I say Hitchens’ callous bravado is not worthy of adulation despite his elegant gifts of communication. As a distinct and substantive alternative, I recommend the writing of the late Christian philosopher Frances Schaeffer. Those who appreciate his contribution, just celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth on January 30th.