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A courageous writer who questioned everything – except his atheism

Christopher Hitchens was a magnanimous man who had many Christian friends

By on Monday, 19 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, who died last week PETER FOLEY/LANDOV/Press Association Images

Christopher Hitchens, who died last week PETER FOLEY/LANDOV/Press Association Images

The second blog I ever wrote, in June last year, was about Christopher Hitchens who died on Friday. Being new to the blogosphere in those days, I was a little intimidated by the furious response it received from Hitchens’ fellow-atheists, who denounced me for stating I would pray for him (he had just been diagnosed with the cancer which was to kill him) and for suggesting that the disease might be a ‘wake-up call’ for the incorrigible essayist and contrarian, as Hitchens liked to describe himself.

In the face of a slow and painful death, met with his customary clear-sightedness and lack of self-pity, all this atheist rage – and indeed, Hitchens’ own famous denunciations of religion – seems irrelevant. As the US blogger Sheila Liaugminas wrote in her blog on Friday, “[He] now knows the truth of it…A year and a half ago, when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, I wrote that even if he thought it was stupid, I was praying for him. I still am.” So am I; and indeed, although Hitchens was dismissive and derisory of ‘religion’, he was too imaginative and magnanimous a man not to be touched by the evidence of concern for his health among his Christian friends. These included Dr Francis Collins, a well-known Christian, as well as the scientist who masterminded the Genome Project. Collins has spoken movingly about his friendship with Hitchens, a friendship which transcended the divergence of their beliefs.

Yet the response to his death which stirred me most was that of his brother, Peter, also an author and journalist, who wrote in his Mail blog that “the one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’…I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it”. On reading his autobiographical memoir, Hitch-22, last year, I noted the same quality; I also felt that Hitchens was a larger and more generous-hearted man than his prejudices and spleen would suggest. He had a kind of fierce intellectual integrity that led him to question most things – including, notoriously, his own Left-wing political views after 9/11 – although not, alas, his stance on faith. He was never afraid to make enemies and never tempted to make peace with them at the expense of a certain defiant honesty.

An anecdote related by his friend Francis Wheen in Saturday’s Telegraph illustrates an aspect of Hitchens that I had intuited from his writings, especially his response to literature in his reviews collected in his last book, Arguably. Although refusing to recognise that “Beauty” might be an aspect of God, he was deeply responsive to what one might describe as “kairos moments” – those moments when a cerebral response is forced to cede to a deeper level of consciousness. As Wheen narrates, “Staying in his apartment once, I played ‘Abide With Me’ on the piano – and looked up to see tears rolling down his cheeks.” I don’t think this was merely nostalgia or sentimentality.

My colleague, Jack Carrigan, who by coincidence reviewed Arguably in the Herald this last weekend, concluded that Hitchens would not survive for posterity in the same way as George Orwell, one of his heroes. I agree. He was a very good writer, clear, engaged, ironic and knowledgeable, but he lacked the sustained moral vision to produce a corpus of work that would last. Touchingly, in his acknowledgments in that book, Hitchens himself reflected that his now adult children (whom he has admitted to neglecting when they were young) represented “all that I can ever hope to claim by way of futurity”.

When I was in primary school we had to learn a poem by heart every week (that shows you how old I am); once we had to recite a rousing ballad by Charles Kingsley, called “The Knight’s Leap: A Legend of Altenar.” It related the story of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting knight, cornered at last by his enemies, who chose to ride his horse over a gorge in a reckless attempt to escape. The last stanza runs: “They found him next morning below in the glen/with never a bone in him whole/ But Heaven may yet have more mercy than men/on such a bold rider’s soul.” Thinking of “Hitch”, this stanza comes irresistibly to mind.

  • Anonymous

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  • Acleron

    He had a kind of fierce intellectual integrity that led him to question most things – including, notoriously, his own Left-wing political views after 9/11 – although not, alas, his stance on faith.’

    Of course he questioned his stance, how could he not when writing about religion?

    ‘He was a very good writer, clear, engaged, ironic and knowledgeable, but he lacked the sustained moral vision to produce a corpus of work that would last.


    I’ve no idea whether his ideas will last or his books be read in a hundred years or more although I would guess he has a better chance than most. But to try to conflate this with his morals is just nonsense.

  • David Lindsay

    Christopher Hitchens and Václav Havel are both being canonised by media acclaim. Neither deserves to be.
    There is a Good Left, and there is a Bad Left. There is a Good Right, and there is a Bad Right. Both Hitchens brothers started out on the Bad Left. But Christopher moved to the Bad Right, whereas Peter moved to the Good Right.
    Both in The Broken Compass (reissued as The Cameron Delusion), and in numerous newspaper columns and blog posts, Peter Hitchens has intimated that he sees the Labour Party of Ed Miliband and Maurice Glasman as potentially the vehicle for patriotism and social conservatism. If it can rid itself once and for all of the Blairite poison that is now the only thing remaining in the Conservative Party. He is right.
    Whereas Christopher Hitchens stopped being a Socialist but never stopped being a Marxist. He continued to hold that “the materialist conception of history is valid”. He merely changed the ending so that victory belonged to the bourgeoisie, and thus to the most bourgeois of countries. To which, thus conceived, he duly transferred his allegiance. How “courageous” was he being when he supported the Iraq War while he was seeking American citizenship?
    That wildly ahistorical vision of the American Republic simply took over where the Soviet Union had left off, spreading the dictatorship of the victorious class throughout the world, including by force of arms. The vanguard elites elsewhere owed allegiance to Washington, as once to Moscow. But Hitchens was really a Trotskyist, so the entryism and the permanent revolution also remained.
    Peter Hitchens’s column, which reaches an otherwise untouched section of opinion and which contributes very considerably to the Mail on Sunday’s market lead, probably cost the Conservative Party a hung Parliament in 2005, and as certainly as we can ever know cost that party an overall majority in 2010. What did Christopher Hitchens ever do that had anything remotely approaching that sort of influence?
    Eastern Europe went through a phase of gangster capitalism after the Wall came down. Hardly what those Polish priests and East German pastors had had in mind. But Havel contributed significantly to it. Far too many of the dissidents went on to be flag-wavers for neoconservatism. Havel was one such.
    Opposition to Stalinism only proved what they were against, not what they were for. Edward Norman had warned about that all the way back in his Reith Lectures in 1978. Richard Nixon took the same view. Havel proved their point. The same was largely true of South Africa. The same was true of Iraq. The same was true of Libya. The same is true of Iran. The same is true of Syria. The same is true of China.
    And just how good are Havel’s plays, really? I may be wrong, but I suspect a Beyond the Fringe effect making anything appear earth-shattering if it is a little bit daring for its time and place, and a bit clever-clever in that well-heeled, male, undergraduate way.

  • Acleron

    How “courageous” was he being when he supported the Iraq War while he was seeking American citizenship?

    At the same time he was vocally proclaiming his atheism. Pretty courageous to do that in the USA.

    What effect did he have? The many quite foam flecked and virulent eulogies from  theists are evidence enough that the answer is quite a lot.

  • Emmett Leonard

    Christopher Hitchens, may you rest in peace, after all your mental, emotional, spiritual
    and physic contortions.

    I always suspected your demeanor as one continuos, convulsed, contrivance engaged with pride
    and dismissal of any and all who look and search for veracity.  God is Not Great? Mr Hitchens, but
    You Are? and an impossible egotist to boot.

    Say hello to Mother Theresa “the fraud” if you happen to bump into her; I’m sure she will be able to
    shed some light on your condition of confusion and maybe introduce you to the Creator who allowed
    and listened to the freedom of your drivel.  Imposition is not one of His attributes but He does finally judge and with Mercy! 

     I picture you as you must be now, in the position of the beggar; something you dismissed as beneath your dignity this side of heaven while you barked, bothered and bitched on the nastiness of life and its injustice.  Well, Christopher, plead now your case before the tribunal of the heavens and you might yet
    be able to sneak through the breach in the gate and enjoy all your desires with eyes and mind focused
    on the TRUTH!!!  This is what makes the battle worthwhile and I suspect you knew it all along.

    Requiescat in pace!!         

  • Oconnord

    You really have no sense of irony, right before your vitriol someone posted:

    “What effect did he have? The many quite foam flecked and virulent eulogies from  theists are evidence enough that the answer is quite a lot.”

    You go on to prove the point by gleefully imagining his eternal torment and by uttering the lie that you wish him to rest in peace. How very christian of you!

  • BTyler

    I’m not sure proclaiming his atheism was that courageous, given the circles he moved in. Courage is sticking to your beliefs despite oppression – I’m thinking here of Christians in China and North Korea (the atheist paradise), or Iraq. I cannot think of a place where atheists are actually oppressed – thrown in prison, terrorised or executed.

    Sure, there have been some unpleasant comments from the lunatic fringe of Christianity but this is the blogosphere after all – similarly ‘foam flecked and virulent’ commentary can be found every day on Dawkin’s website or similar.

  • Peter

    How can a Catholic newpaper praise a man who demonised Mother Teresa?

  • jcb

    For the views of an old colleague of Hitchens: see Alexander Cockburn’s comments in counterpunch

  • Acleron

    Risking your life for something is very brave, shame it has to be done for such a poor reason in your examples. Losing the approbation of your peers by your actions is also brave, but of course of a much reduced degree. He did this when he supported the Iraqi invasion. Declaring that you have no belief in any god can be quite dangerous in certain religious dictatorships (hmm… I think that is a tautology, but never mind), e.g. Iran. But not lets swap which area is most dangerous to whom.
    As to the commentaries I mentioned, they are interesting. They certainly demonstrate my point that Hitchens had an effect. They also demonstrate something that Hitchens discussed many times. The wish that he ends in hell, a christian’s worst place, sounds a very christian thing to do.

  • Emmett Leonard

    Read my post again; no mention of eternal torment anywhere; I am just happy
    he’s no longer tormenting us!  Thanks to jcb’s post, I rest my case.

  • Anonymous

    I think I feel the same way. Although I only agree with some of the things he said, it was always hard not to at least respect the crushing logic and intellect that supported what he said.

    I don’t think you could find many people smart enough to take him on, and I find that very impressive. What impressed me more however, was his conviction in what he believed, and his ability to be willing to challenge his own longstanding beliefs. 

    Hitch 22 has just become Christmas reading, thanks for the recommendation.

  • BTyler

    I think the thing about Hitchens was how incredibly conservative he became. Supporting Bush and the invasion of Iraq was just a small part of this. His contrarianism only avoided becoming Clarkson-esque because he was such a brilliant, gifted writer.

    Having said that, I’m sorry he’s not around, and I’m sorry that he suffered. As a Christian I believe in love and forgiveness, especially toward those I disagree with, and who disagree with me.

  • Vince

    “de mortuis aut bene aut nihil.” Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’ would be the perfect obituary for an atheist.

  • SkyDancer

    Thanks for this understanding and compassionate article.

  • whytheworldisending

    A friend is someone who shares your attitudes and values and has your interests at heart. A proselytizing atheist who would try to convert a believing Christian into an atheist like themselves does not share your attitudes or values and acts contrary to your interests. They do not act in their own interests and if they do not listen, then the kindest thing to do for them is to shake the dust from your shoes as a sign. The trouble with being “friends” with incorrigible atheists, is that you fail to give them the wake up call they need – you pretend everything is alright, when it isn’t – is it?

  • whytheworldisending

    It is difficult to find the balance between saving by warning while doing so out of charity, but we do need to warn other people, while reminding them of God’s mercy, since outside of mercy there is ultimately justice – that is the consequences of doing what is right and doing what is wrong.

  • RRobinson

    “Courage is sticking to your beliefs despite oppression. … I cannot think of a place where atheists are actually oppressed –
    thrown in prison, terrorised or executed.”

    Atheists are surely oppressed in the face of death. Hitchens showed his courage there.

  • Jennyeroche

    Very nice article. I enjoyed reading it and consider the insights profound. The quoted stanza from Charles Kingsley is very a propos. Jennifer Roche

  • Rosa

    This story moved me, it shows how our Father shows Himself in even those that denounce Him, yet, for an avowed atheist as Hitchens and an arrogant demonizer of all that is good like Mother Theresa, yet he cried at the words of “Abide with Me” which is a very moving hymn of suffering and one of the lines is “On the close, oh Lord, abide with me”…

    Did Hitchens have a change of heart at the last few minutes or seconds of his life…?