Remembering Christopher Hitchens
On Dec. 15, 2011, one of the greatest essayists in the English language was lost. Christopher Eric Hitchens was a British American author and journalist whose career spanned more than four decades, in which he wrote for such publications as The Atlantic, Free Inquiry, Slate and Vanity Fair. For the freethinking community, he was seen as one of the champions of the so-called “New Atheism” of the early 21st century, which describes a recent influx in popularity for books on atheism and skepticism towards religion. Hitchens lent his support to this enterprise with such works as The Portable Atheist and God is not great: how religion poisons everything. Compared to his other prominent irreverent counterparts, Hitchens maintained an approach of polemical and righteous indignation which he applied to much of his writings and debates.
Along with his fame (and infamy) for writing unabashed criticisms of both organized religion and traditional theism, Hitchens was also known for voicing contrarian opinions towards a host of other contentious subjects, such as the moral character of Mother Theresa in his book The Missionary Position. Years before rising to greater status as a public intellectual on matters of religion, Hitchens was already well known for taking unpopular stances on major world issues. In fact, his support for interventionist policies and the Iraq war as a strategy to combat so-called “Islamofacism” caused a great deal of discord with his traditional colleagues from the liberal left, so much that he was even at times branded a neoconservative despite a continual rejection of the label.
Although Hitchens’s political views were the cause of some polarization between popular figures of the skeptical community, his core ethical and humanistic beliefs were what drew so many to admire the way he espoused his anti-theistic stance. Hitchens was a tireless supporter of Enlightenment values, stemming from the works of Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill, continuing this tradition of valuing human solidarity and reason up into the 20th century with writers such as George Orwell in Why Orwell Matters. From the totalitarianism seen in 1984, to real experiences in North Korea, Hitchens remained a steadfast opponent of literal and spiritual tyranny. This was the essence of his anti-theism – not content with simply lacking belief in God and wishing it were true, he saw most forms of theism to be synonymous with real-world examples of totalitarianism and an altogether affront to human freedom.
Two years before his death, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, his personal battle both physically and mentally preserved through his writings for Slate and especially Vanity Fair. Throughout his final years, Hitchens provided an incredible level of insight into just how unbelievers come to terms with personal mortality. Even in the face of death, Hitchens refused to give up on his writing or those principles that encouraged him, which is a major reason why the continues to inspire an ever-increasing readership as more people become aware of his work.
For me, the life and ideas of Christopher Hitchens have been instrumental on a personal level, as one of my strongest inspirations for public writing. Above all I can identify with his lending of support for the pursuit of reason and truth for its own sake and to not censor one’s opinions for fear of causing offence. From his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens offers his advice to would-be opinionated writers everywhere:
“Beware the irrational, however
seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and
all who invite you to subordinate or
annihilate yourself. Distrust
compassion; prefer dignity for
yourself and others. Don’t be afraid
to be thought arrogant or selfish.
Picture all experts as if they were
mammals. Never be a spectator of
unfairness or stupidity. Seek out
argument and disputation for their own
sake; the grave will supply plenty of
time for silence.”
Those words outline some of the key principles by which Christopher Hitchens lived and wrote. For opinion writers, journalists and all essayists around the world, the arena of public intellectual discourse has experienced the loss of a mind unrivalled in its eloquence and erudition. I hope that this memorial will justly serve the life and works of Christopher Hitchens, whose contributions to the freethinking community will be sorely missed, and whose talent and effectiveness cannot be replaced.