Christopher Hitchens first appeared in the pages of Free Inquiry in Fall 1996 as the subject of an interview—rather lengthy at six pages—that focused on his investigation of Mother Teresa, that icon of religious sacrifice. His book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (Verso) had come out the year before. His goal was to examine her operation in India and her motives, scrutiny that he thought the media, especially in the United States, was reluctant to apply to her and other religious figures.
His findings? Her “care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do. . . . Very rightly it is said that she tends to the dying, because if you were doing anything but dying she hasn’t really got much to offer.”
Hitchens found that the spartan medicine Mother Teresa practiced was not due to lack of money. A former staffer told him there had been $50 million in one bank account alone when she worked for the nun. The sisters were told they couldn’t use the money to help the neighborhoods in which they lived, so what was the money used for? Mother Teresa had opened convents and nunneries in 120 countries: “The money simply has been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic religious institutions,” Hitchens said.
If the spending of the funds was suspect, so was their origin. Hitchens found that Mother Teresa had no qualms about associating with a Caribbean dictator or an American banking criminal if it got her support.
Still, she ministered to the poor sick who no one else would help. Hitchens said he considered withholding his most shocking discovery, that Mother Teresa “has said that the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful and the world is being very much helped by the nobility of this example of misery and suffering.” However, when she fell ill, “she checks herself into some of the costliest and finest clinics in the West.”
In that same interview Hitchens commented on religion, “I am an atheist. I’m not neutral to it, I’m hostile to it. I think it is positively a bad idea, not just a false one. And I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself.”
Hitchens became a regular columnist for Free Inquiry in 2000, and he continued to pull no punches. In one of his first op-eds, he reported on a debate he had with William Donohue, then head of the Catholic League, and found him a “bilious thug.” In 2001 he noted that American Atheists in the final days of Madalyn Murray O’Hair “had something of the cultish about it.” He castigated Western liberals and leftists for not rallying to criticize Islam when Salman Rushdie feared for his life because of the fatwas issued against him by Muslim clerics or when Islamic terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.
His career as a book author, journalist, essayist, and speaker on religion, politics, and literature for various publications, websites, and other forums is well known. In 2007, with the publication of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve/Hatchette), Hitchens joined Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris in the ranks of the “new atheists” who were helping to explain and popularize unbelief to the public.
In life, Hitchens received numerous awards, including being voted one of the top intellectuals in the United States in 2005. He had just recently had Asteroid 57901 named after him. The tributes since his death are evidence of the respect and admiration many others in his profession had for him. He died on December 15, 2011, at the age of sixty-two. He had been under treatment for esophageal cancer for some time, and the complications from that disease claimed him. He was unique, indefatigable, and a pleasure to work with—right up to the end. Our national discourse will be the poorer for his absence. His final column for Free Inquiry follows.