I wasn’t going to write a eulogy to Christopher Hitchens, and I still won’t. After all there are some excellent eulogies on the internet by far better writers than me. But I am intrigued at the world-wide reaction to his death. So, in instead of a respectful eulogy here’s my thoughts on those reactions.
Hitchens’ death was expected. However, when it came I certainly experienced a shock. A strong feeling of disappointment and loss. And I think that must have been a common reaction judging from the widespread and immediate reactions on social networking sites.
There seem to be four common reactions to that sad news:
1: Respect for the person despite beliefs
I personally disagreed with some of Hitchens’ ideas and approaches but admired his literary skills, his principled nature, courage and forthrightness. Sure, he was often confident about some things he shouldn’t have been (I am thinking here of some of his comments on scientific issues) and I don’t particularly admire debaters for that skill which is often far from concerned with truth. Having said that, I think Hitchens’ destruction of his five opponents (four Christian apologists (including self-pronounced expert debater WL Craig) and the chairman, who intervened on their side at the Christian Book Expo in Texas two years ago, is a classic. Rather like a tag wrestling match. If you haven’t watched it see Hitchens in the lions’ den. I also remember his mischievous, but I think honest, remark in a discussion that he did not actually wish to see the end of religion because he would miss the debates.
Most people disagreed with Hitchens’ support for the US invasion of Iraq. This was a common comment in these eulogies.
I thought I was being mature in having an objectively favourable impression of Christopher Hitchens, despite my disagreements with some of his positions. But I find that most people who have written eulogies and opinion pieces in the last few days have also exhibited that maturity. That is heartening.
Of course, that mature attitude was also one of Hitchens’ endearing features. He also had personal friendships with people despite differences in belief. Despite his atheism he had religious friends, for example. He was the sort of person who respected people – not beliefs. And that is how it should be.
2: A man of principle
We urgently need more principled people and that is one strong reason for the loss many of us felt. It’s not accidental that one of the first to bring Hitchens’ death to the world’s notice, and to write so positively about his life was Salman Rushdie. Clearly he appreciated Hitchens’ principled support when he had to go into hiding because of the fatwa, the death threat, placed on him by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran. And this was a time when so many others instead displayed cowardice and lack of principle by blaming Rushdie for this position!
Hitchens’ principled support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she had to go into hiding for similar reasons is another example. And she also faced cowardly criticism for her situation.
These principles not only enabled Hitchens to stand up and be counted on important issues relating to life and freedom like this. It also enabled him to fight against hypocrisy in his writings and speeches. Recently I read his The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice – it’s a short book and I recommend it to any who have not yet read it. In it Hitchen’s expertly exposes the hypocrisy of Mother Teresa‘s “charity” work, her alignment with, and support for, some of the most evil people and her lack of any real compassion for the people she “helped.” Hitchens also spoke about similar sorts of hypocrisy exhibited by religion everywhere. In doing so he was taking on a sacred cow, breaking a cultural taboo, which gives religion a free pass – freedom from criticism. Again a valuable example to us all.
3: Changing people’s lives
This was a common comment in recent days. That Hitchens has changed many people’s lives. Many commenters are referring to his literary skills – the beauty and strength of his writing. But for most this is about his courage and ability to stand on principles. And to express the beliefs that many had but felt unable to freely express because of their real or perceived unpopularity.
Particularly in the USA Hitchens book tours and debates provided the experience for non-believers, for the first time in their lives, of seeing their beliefs expressed forcefully, eloquently and authoritatively by a leading intellectual – in public! This encouraged many non-believers to “come out.” To publicly acknowledge their own beliefs. This was a liberating, life-changing experience for many of these people.
I think this has been an important feature of the so-called “new atheist” (gnus) phenomenon. One can sit back and criticise these people for calling a spade a spade, but the public activity of people like Hitchens. Dawkins, Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stenger and Dennett has played a huge role in consciousness raising – and in permitting people to be open about their beliefs.
On the other had, this reaction has shocked others. Who would have thought that the book tours by Hitchens and Dawkins through the Southern “bible belt” of the USA would have drawn such huge crowns and such approval? Some people just cannot forgive Hitchens and the other gnus for this harsh lesson.
4: Confirmation that “religion poisons everything.”
That subtitle “Religion poisons everything” really did upset some. While Hitchens was always keen to argue the point he of course acknowledged that a book title or slogan should not be taken as the literal truth.
Certainly I think the subtitle is incorrect – it should read “ideology poisons everything” – lets not give a free pass to other ideologies by limiting our criticisms to religion.
But what intrigued me is that some of the reactions to Hitchens death did provide confirmation for this slogan. The Twitter response to the news was huge – so great that some of the tags used trended worldwide. One tag trending was #godisnotgreat – the subtitle in question. And the reaction by some Christians to this tag confirmed the slogan.
Presumably those offended by the tag did not realise either that it was a book title or possible even knew who Hitchens was, let alone that he had died. Their reaction was simply to threaten death because the subtitle upset them!
BussFeed shows some of the Christian responses in the post 25 Ridiculous Reactions To #GodIsNotGreat. Responses like:
Vanity Fair, the magazine for which Mr. Hitchens worked, confirmed his death.
Mr. Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.
And then there were a few (very, very few) like the New Zealand blogger* who (unwisely) allowed his obvious hatred full reign using words like:
“prat, pretending, smug, arrogant, ignorant, belligerent.”
Presumably he was unable to see the irony in writing an arrogant, ignorant and belligerent post to accuse someone of being belligerent!
He is of course of the Christian apologist puersuasion and obviously really upset because of Christopher’s critique of religion. But how can you be so far out of step with reality to say of Hitchens:
“He lived as a fool, played to the lowest common denominator, encouraged a generation of sloppy, angry argument makers and committed his career and a good chunk of his life to hostility towards his maker. His life was one of genuine tragedy.”
I guess there are none so blind . .
* I must admit an interest here having just been banned (for the third time) from commenting on this blog. This blogger apparently just can’t tolerate real debate.