RIP Christopher Hitchens

Dec 16, 2011 Comments Off by

People are sometimes asked where they were when a tragic event happened or when they first heard of it. The answers are often pretty unimpressive (e.g. I learned of the 9/11 attacks when I met someone off a bus coming home from school). In my opinion, the best way to learn of them is in contexts where you weren’t looking for any news of the kind, if only because it can cause you to admire the effort. For example, I learned of the death of Christopher Hitchens when I read this morning’s SMBC comic; its “votey”, a bonus panel seen by hovering over the red button below the main comic, read simply, “In Memoriam, Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011″. (What joke might have otherwise been in that spot we’ll never know.) It is, incidentally, a comic Hitchens would appreciate for its criticism of a common line of religious reasoning, namely that of attributing medical recoveries following our best treatment to a deity whose involvement was nowhere to be seen. Here‘s a permanent link to it.

Another thing that happens when someone dies is we start talking about what that person would have wanted. Would he have wanted SMBC fans to learn of his death this way? To be honest, a better question is why we consider things like this. Indeed, for those of us who are unconvinced of an afterlife, the question is irrelevant – the dead have no needs. Another common thing we do is to be much more positive about people; moments before their deaths they may have been thought of less than fondly by any number of people who will dishonestly offer platitudes afterwards. Whether his political and religious enemies will do that remains to be seen. One of the things I admired about Hitchens was he knew not to fall into that trap; when Jerry Falwell, who said any recently deceased person he hated would go to Hell, in turn died Hitchens was scathing on the subject of Falwell. Bill Maher was too, saying the “don’t speak ill of the dead” rule could be disobeyed with Falwell because doing that was “his hobby”.

The truth is we’re upset when Hitchens died because he had so many rare qualities, which means perhaps the best thing to do is to make sure those qualities last into the future in others – hopefully many, many others. Imagine, for example, how different the political landscape would look if people didn’t almost all neatly fit onto a 1-dimensional left-right spectrum, but instead chose their positions by thinking about it. We might vote for politicians with good ideas then. Richard Dawkins decried last month how unique to Hitchens this is. So I’ll end with a list of ways Hitchens deserves to be copied – reasons he will be sorely missed, if you like, but that’s in a way the more defeatist attitude, the one that doesn’t motivate us to improve ourselves in his image. He thought through every issue on its own merits, and he was ruthlessly committed to never allowing totalitarian forces to quelch anyone’s ability to do the same, and he never kept his mouth shut because the important criticisms he had in mind might be “offensive”, and he was never afraid to be the first person to make a critical point (an example follows below), and he set his gaze in many directions, finding errors to eviscerate in many places. I’m sure others can think of more virtues of him to add to this list.

Mother Theresa is often remembered in unduly positive terms. Hitchens refuted this characterisation of her in his The Missionary Position. When I say he refuted it, I mean no-one has ever even tried to explain what was wrong with his arguments against her. He looked at the facts, saw an unspoken truth no-one wanted to speak, then espoused it at book length with watertight arguments. I won’t try to summarise his efforts here, because reading it if you haven’t already might be a great way to show a tribute to him.

Articles, Christopher Hitchens, Humanities, News, People, Politics, UK, US

About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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