Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Life and Death and Then What?

Christopher Hitchens died last Friday. He was 62. Though it’s too early to say with surety, it seems he died as he lived - convinced that as the title of his last book declared: “God is Not Great,” and further convinced there was no such thing as God. Many of us wondered whether he would have a change of mind and/or heart after being diagnosed with terminal cancer of the esophagus but, so far, there are no reports that he did.

Unlikely as it would seem, Hitchens interested me as he did other conservatives. Unlikely because he was an apologist for communism, an admirer of Leon Trotsky who, with Lenin and Stalin, led the Russian Revolution, and he was a bitter critic of Mother Teresa. He was a darling of the left because he was an intelligent, articulate, atheist socialist.

He was a champion for the principles of leftist orthodoxy until he came out in support of President Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s. The left was in shock. Then he wrote a book about the Clintons called “No One Left to Lie to: the Values of the Worst Family.” That was heresy for a “progressive.” Next came the September 11th attack on the United States which, among other things, made him decide to become a US citizen. Following that, he exposed the left’s myopia in its refusal to condemn radical Islam in spite of its treatment of women, homosexuals, its denial of free speech, freedom of religion, and its willingness to use violence wherever and whenever to impose sharia on everyone. The final straw occurred when in 2003, he supported the US invasion of Iraq.

Hitchens pursued truth as he perceived it. He had heart and he had integrity. That’s more than I can say about most of the people I encounter on life’s journey. We perceived the world differently but I trusted the man in some intuitive way. He seemed to put the search for truth above himself, and I’ve discovered that I can relate only to people who do that. I’ve come to believe that Truth has a capital T but Hitchens denied that to his death.In his last essay for Vanity Fair Hitchens wrote:

Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that "Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger."
He was referring to the debilitating effects of chemotherapy on his body.

That last quote is, ironically, attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche - author of the famous phrase “God is Dead” that has become the mantra of 20th century secular nihilism and championed by Hitchens during his lifetime. Nietzsche, however, predicted that the post-Christian 20th century would cause a decline in civility, indeed of western civilization itself, because Christianity has been responsible for the rise of those cherished western values including individual freedom and equality. As frequent Hitchens’s debate opponent Dinesh D’Sousa put it: “Unfortunately for the critics of Christianity, even values they care about will, according to Nietzsche, eventually collapse.” Nietzsche, Hitchens and millions of others like them believed the universe, our world, and those of us in it just happened by chance, and our existence doesn’t mean anything. That’s the essence of nihilism, which has which has become the ruling ethic - if you can call it that - of our age. Ironically, Christopher Hitchens had a brother, Peter Hitchens, also a writer, who is both a Christian and a political conservative. Evidently they were never close, even in childhood, but they were civil to each other most of the time. Often they debated God publicly and politely. After his brother’s death, Peter Hitchens wrote:

While I was making my gradual, hesitant way back to the altar-rail, my brother Christopher's passion against God grew more virulent and confident. As he has become more certain about the non-existence of God, I have become more convinced we cannot know such a thing in the way we know anything else, and so must choose whether to believe or not. I think it better by far to believe.

So it seems Peter Hitchens’ belief in Christianity is informed more by Pascal’s Wager than by intrinsic faith. During one of his debates with brother Christopher he said: “I think both the atheist and the Christian fear there is a God, but the Christian also hopes there is one.”
Christopher Hitchens believed fervently that his body would turn to dust and that would be it - lights out. I wonder what he’s thinking now.


Paul in Raleigh said...

Yes, I also found Hitchens to be a facinating character for two reasons. One, his skills at being able to precisely communicate verbally and by the written word his opinions were unmatched by any current pundent. Second, as you say, his views of people and politics were uninfluenced by anything other than the truth. He was critical of everything and everybody, yet in an unemotional way. He bore allegence to no one, including himself, but only to the truth. I trust, however, that he now readily admits the error of his views on the afterlife.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Paul, but I would not be so arrogant as to think Mr Hitchens would admit to an error in his views on anything.

Alex said...

I appreciate this respectful reflection on Hitchens. I know better than to take internet commenters seriously, but there has been some truly hateful things said online by people who uphold a religion of "tolerance." As an atheist, I disagree with Chris' brother. If an atheist fears that there is a God, he is not a true atheist. That's akin to saying that little children fear monsters under their bed. Any reasonable adult recognizes that, true, you can't "disprove" the existence of invisible monsters. However, that same adult probably doesn't fear those monsters.

Also, Paul, if you turn out to be right, I agree that Hitchens would admit the error of his views. I know I certainly would. That's the main difference between "truth" from faith and "truth" from logic and reason. If an atheist is confronted with obvious evidence of an afterlife, he/she will probably accept it. If a religious person is confronted with evidence against God, that evidence is easily supposed to be "God's work/will."

Anonymous said...

The monsters under my bed were more real than any God, why didn't he take them away? Seriously though, why do an after life and this God have to be dependent on the others existence.

Anonymous said...

One thing then, where did 'nothing' come from?

Please don't rebuttal by asking where God came from, that's answering a question with a question.

Anonymous said...

On the day of our death, which side will wish the other side is right?

Live life now in preparation for the answer to that question unless you have never been wrong before.

Tom McLaughlin said...

Lots of thoughtful comments here.

If nothing else, Hitchens prompted lots of such discussions by firmly and consistently arguing the negative on creation, God, afterlife, etc.

These concepts are embedded in our culture. Some may say BCE "Before Common Era" now in place of BC "Before Christ," but we still observe a seven-day week and you get overtime if you work Sunday. Growing up Roman Catholic, I accepted the whole package. Then I rejected it. Then I accepted it again, and that's where I am now. Creation, life, death, and afterlife connected because they're the Christian myths of our culture, and by myth, I don't mean fairy tales. I mean deeply-held archetypes.

Just as Mother Teresa had doubts about her theism, thoughtful atheists have doubts about their atheism. I've never disbelieved in God in my heart, but I allowed myself to seriously consider the arguments against His existence in my brain. I don't know if Hitchens ever said he had doubts, but his brother did, and adjusted his life.

Various Anonymouses:

Maybe God did get rid of those monsters under your bed.

Nothing came from nowhere.

Looks like the last one clicked on the "Pascal's Wager" link.

victoria said...

Great article - thanks -

Ol' Hickory said...

A debate between Chris hedges and Christopher hitchens from 2007 in Berkeley. Both had just published books. Interesting

Chris hedges on hitchens:

And finally, if you have never seen zeitgeist and you own a computer with an Internet connection than you should be embarrassed. Watch zeitgeist. An interesting take on religion and our current state of affairs. The first part on religion is interesting and eye opening.

pinko said...

Dead is dead. A good thing too. The God of McLaughlin's dreams would cast him out for being a bigot.

Alex said...


You sound like someone who didn't pass second grade english.

Just joking. All ad hominem arguments aside though, you may have a point. There are obviously shades of atheism, just as there are for religion. However, I do believe that a traditional "atheist" accepts the high improbability of a deity's existence. If substantial evidence emerges, I would gladly change my views. I ask you, do you believe in monsters under the bed? You can't prove that there are not, but you probably accept the high unlikelyhood that there are. So true, I guess I believe in some tiny chance that there is a God. But it is not high enough to fear him.

This all depends on your definition of atheism. I think you may be thinking of agnostics, who believe that we cannot determine if there is or is not a God.

Also, if you have any actual points or arguments to make, feel free to make them.