The Immortal Atheist: A Tribute to Christopher Hitchens
By Daniel Thomas Moran
It is another one of those sad occasions where the anticipated has given way to the inevitable. Those of us who admired and celebrated Christopher Hitchens knew that the great man had been pitted against a foe over whom he could not prevail. The cancer which claimed his life may well have found its source in the life he had embraced years ago, a life of hard drinking, heavy smoking and late nights in animated conversation. Like the many great warriors we have witnessed through history, he ultimately found his demise in the banal, the commonplace, at the hand of a foe which consumed him from the inside and which he, in his finality, could not coerce or face down.
Christopher Hitchens, whom I have often to refer to as “God’s gift to atheists,” was among the rarest of men; not because of his intellect, not because of his skill at prose, and not because of his extraordinary knowledge of the manners and matters of the world. There are many who are similarly gifted and accomplished. It was, rather, because of his inestimable courage, his demand to be heard, his facing down of hypocrites and charlatans, and his being a champion for reason. In doing so, he gave a voice to people who have been shut out by society and history since the dawn of recorded time, the most disparaged among us, those who refuse to believe in servitude to the whim and dictates of fantastical divinities and those who arrogantly claim to speak for them. In his battles he took no prisoners and left no phony standing steady or unscathed. His criticisms were stinging and direct and wholly democratic.
In my lifetime, it was not long ago that one could not declare openly that one did not believe, that one was not in need of such nonsense and superstition. We just nodded and held our tongues in the face of untruths, outrageous claims, bigotry and outright lies. With the arrival of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, things began to change. In recent years, many of us have become more comfortable saying, in mixed company, that we are not among the religious; that we are without a god as a guiding focus in our living. In more recent years, some of us have actually felt empowered by people like Hitchens to point out that religion and superstition, and their totalitarian ideals have been the source of much of the miseries of the world; war, intolerance, bigotry, nationalism and their resulting death and disease and suffering so often seeming to have arisen from a common wellspring.
Christopher Hitchens was willing and prepared to stand face to face with every manner of religious peddler and apologist and say, in the most unrepentant way that they were not only wrongheaded, but that they had done enormous harm to all of us, that we were not going to stay silent about it any longer. And he did it with a rhetorical dazzle rarely seen in public figures who, typically, are given to talking much and saying little. Every word of his was carefully considered and spoken with a nimbleness and precision associated with the best who have ever written a rational thought. His style was enormously engaging and, no matter the subject, he drew you in with the mind of a scientist and philosopher, and the pen of a poet. He was Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell and H.L Mencken, but to a greater effect, for he had at his disposal the reach and immediacy of our mass communications. Even those who despised him could not help but admire him. To those who saw him as someone to be feared really had only to fear their own false premises and self-defeating attitudes and beliefs. To those who attempted to chastise and chasten and reform him, they soon found they were in over their heads. Some might say that they would not enter into a battle of wits against an unarmed man. Christopher Hitchens placed no such limitations on himself.
At a recent debate he was asked, by a young girl in the audience, if he could recommend some books she might read. After what must have been an exhausting couple of hours locked in mortal combat with his adversary that evening, and fatally ailing with his disease, he took the young girl backstage with her mother and spent several minutes making a list for her of books he thought were important for her to read in her life. I am sure she will know someday that she was the better for having met Christopher Hitchens one evening. I think those of us who have heard him speak and those of us who have read his words can only feel the same.
The world is a little less without the likes of Christopher Hitchens in it, but he leaves much for us to ponder and reflect upon—and much more for us to do. One of his favorite poems to quote was this one by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night;
But ah my foes and oh my friends-
It gives such a lovely light.
Daniel Thomas Moran served as Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, New York from 2005 to 2007. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Forum, and the Poetry Salzburg Review. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University’s School of Dental Medicine. His website is www.danielthomasmoran.net.