This is a time of celebration and sadness, of exultation and grief. We commemorate the life of Christopher Hitchens, our “Hitch.”
Atheism has lost a singularly eloquent voice—a fearless, groundbreaking intellectual giant who dared to challenge the most cherished notions of God and religion that still so thoroughly pervade human life. We have lost a leader who, now that his life is over, can be said to have taught us how to cultivate the courage to live and how to die.
Hitchens’s musings about his own impending death from cancer were a window into the mind of someone who could navigate profound emotions as well as intricate intellectual concepts. Still displaying his irrepressible ability to turn a phrase six months before he died, he wrote in the June 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.”
There is a raging debate over whether rigorous intellectual arguments can ever compete with unsubstantiated but popular emotional appeals. Of course, those of us who see supernatural beliefs as false fervently hope that intellectual rigor will ultimately prevail. We work toward the day when society reaches a level of maturity so that intellectual depth will, itself, be a basis for stirring the most heartfelt emotions in the direction of wherever the evidence leads.
Hitchens stood at the crossroads of this great debate. He was determined to allow nothing to obstruct his goal of securing a foothold for reason and evidence-based knowledge. He was determined to educate a world excessively bound by superstitious attitudes about the opportunities to escape from such benighted mythologies, available to everyone. He accurately dubbed the deity portrayed in the Bible and Qur’an as nothing more than the worst form of cosmic dictator.
Among his incredible contributions to the battle against blind-faith religious doctrines were his courageous criticisms of not just beliefs deemed too sacred to be challenged but also of religious figures whom overwhelming majorities of people placed on virtually untouchable pedestals. Our intrepid Hitch pioneered a new horizon in intellectual profiles in courage when he blazed a potentially dangerous and uncharted trail in exposing certain attitudes and actions of perhaps the most revered religious person of our time, Mother Teresa. He revealed her hypocrisy in her attempts to impose her religious views on entire nations. For example, she strongly opposed allowing legal divorce in Ireland yet was happy that her friend Princess Diana was able to escape from a miserable marriage. She claimed to devote her life to easing the suffering associated with poverty yet opposed all forms of modern contraception, thus perpetuating the very misery she claimed to be trying to alleviate.
In a society that is indefensibly prudish when it comes to unbridled wit and humor unleashed on its sacred cows, Hitchens was undaunted in pushing boundaries. The funny and irresistible title of his book about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, was just one example of his wit. Another example was his description of the Catholic hierarchy’s overall leniency toward its priests who abused children. In God Is Not Great, Hitch described that policy as “No child’s behind left.”
In order to take the cause of naturalism versus supernaturalism to society at large, secular humanists must present arguments that cover a wide array of disciplines. Biology, philosophy, and physics are among the areas of study that must be invoked in making the overall case that no supernatural force created or sustains our world. Hitchens appreciated this as he sought to discredit the argument that some benevolent all-powerful being was the author of the universe. He pointed out that the Andromeda galaxy is headed toward ours on a collision course. Even if the actual impact will not occur for five billion more years, such a span is insignificant in cosmic time. This inevitable collision of galaxies erodes the notion of fine-tuning.
Formal public debates on the existence of God are crucial to promoting the atheistic viewpoint, and Hitchens made valiant forays into this arena of verbal combat. His encounters drew much attention. As a result, atheist arguments received wider exposure than they would have otherwise achieved.
An integral component of the attempt to broaden the acceptance of the natural versus supernatural worldview is to till the soil of public opinion to be more receptive to hearing our arguments. We atheists have a double challenge. We not only have to make our arguments in public, we have to first persuade society that it is socially acceptable—and in some cases that it should even be legal—for us to publicly present them. Our society suffers from an unexamined default idea that religious claims should be the only beliefs that enjoy special exemption from critical examination, doubt, and ridicule. Hitch was a leader in providing nonstop reminders that the extent to which a belief is revered is irrelevant to the right of anyone to take a contrary position, even if in a bitingly, slashing manner.
It is unrealistic to think that religion is in the twilight of its power. Sadly, it’s still going strong. All one has to do is look at the ubiquitous religious fundamentalist pandering by major presidential candidates in the current election year to see that militantly religious Americans are still deemed to hold the balance of power in national elections. The voters these candidates seek to appease are not just the personally devout. They are voters who want assurances that their preferred presidential candidate will be eager to impose their pet religious doctrines on everyone through force of law. In January of this year, a top national news story for an entire day was about a group of some of the nation’s most extreme evangelical fundamentalist leaders endorsing their preferred candidate for president. Will any of us ever see a time when our country will be as focused on the endorsement of a presidential candidate by a group of atheist intellectuals as it is attentive to such an endorsement by arch-fundamentalists? This alone shows what a very long way we have to go in order to achieve any degree of social parity with religion.
Religious dogma is also burgeoning throughout the world. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel want women to be forced to sit in the back of public buses. Saudi Arabia recently beheaded a woman for supposedly practicing sorcery. Hitchens was unceasingly vigilant in recounting ongoing worldwide religious depredations. He kept us continuously apprised of incessant developments in theologically motivated tyranny.
We atheists know that death is the utter obliteration of each individual human being. The years after our deaths are no different than the years prior to our births. As realists, we know that Hitch is physically gone forever.
This is not the first time that a great orator against the bogus claims of religion has died. At the close of the nineteenth century, Robert Green Ingersoll breathed his last. There are some who keep Ingersoll’s memory and his work relevant to our contemporary efforts. The overwhelming majority of people, though, have never even heard of him; and if they did, most would be shocked by what he said.
Now, the task falls to those of us freethinkers who are still living. What will we do to make sure that Hitchens’s achievements, and those of people like Ingersoll, will become part of the building blocks of a greater expansion of (1) the rights and social respectability of nonbelievers and (2) the
dissemination throughout society of the arguments for the truth of naturalism over supernaturalism?
We begin by recognizing that we are a small and beleaguered group. In fact, we atheists are the most unjustly despised minority in the United States today. Only the Supreme Court—which still retains a majority of five members who will not allow any branch of government to openly discriminate against us—currently keeps us from being officially relegated to the status of second-class citizens.
Only a very few of us might ever attain the exposure for our ideas that Hitchens achieved for his, at least in the immediate future. We should all, then, assess our own talents so that everyone in our movement can identify what they can most capably contribute to the cause. Some of us can speak, debate, and write. Some of us possess organizational skills. Others are capable of giving money, raising it, or both. There will also be those who have the skills to assist us in utilizing the latest technology.
Our philosophers and scientists will continue to develop improved and sometimes even new arguments and theories to help discredit supernatural claims. We must be ready to assist in the dissemination of such work in a way that is technically competent and that can also be tailored for popular consumption.
What magnifies our grief over the loss of Hitchens is that there are so few people like him devoted to constructing effective challenges to belief in God. His enormous talents may not be easily duplicated in one person. We can’t, though, let this stymie our efforts. Perhaps many of us, in ever-increasing numbers, can pool our talents to confront religion with as formidable an arsenal of challenges as Hitchens did.
It is a daunting task to devote a substantial portion of one’s life to taking on the most powerfully entrenched source of societal control. Religion has solidified its domination of much of human life to a degree that can be demoralizing for those of us who recognize its true fraudulent nature. However, each of us must contribute in some way to the effort of dismantling the stranglehold that religion has on much of our world. Ultimately, we honor what Hitchens accomplished by our commitment to carry on his work.
In June of 1966, just two years before his own assassination, Senator Robert Kennedy said: “Few are willing to brave the disapproval of others, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than even bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.” It is hoped that there will always be those of us who will brave even the most egregious manifestations of bigotry in order to chip away at the monolithic power of religion.
Before his assassination, Senator Kennedy also said: “Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, will determine our destiny.”
We have it within our power to enlarge upon Hitchens’s work. Future generations will also have the ability to build upon what he and we started. Standing on the shoulders of this great man and his masterful use of language, we can continue the battle against the ancient dogmas that still thwart much of civilized progress.
Whether it will take decades or centuries, we celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens by embarking on an unrelenting effort to finally liberate humanity from the enslavement of superstitious beliefs and religious tyranny.