“It can be good to start with a shipwreck. Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
—Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
This article is about a shipwreck, particularly my shipwreck, which to this day I am still grateful for. But more importantly, this article is about the man who caused my ideological ship to wreck.
The first time I ever heard the name “Christopher Hitchens” was from the announcement of his death. The headline simply read: “Christopher Hitchens, Atheist, Dies at Sixty-Two.” Incidentally, I see no purpose in putting “atheist” in the title of a person’s obituary, even if they were well-known as such, seeing as how I’ve never seen an obituary that read “Bobby-Jo Smith, baptist, Dies at Eighty-One” or “Sumeet Chabra, Hindu, Dies at Seventy.” Nevertheless, being a twenty-year-old newly enlisted soldier stationed at Fort Hood (with no intellectual stimulation in my day-to-day life) and a Christian, I couldn’t take my mind off this question: What makes a man unafraid of God even as he lies dying? After awhile, however, my interest in this question—and the headline that spurred it—ceased.
Fast forward two years later, I was no longer a soldier stationed at Fort Hood but a student at university triple-majoring in biology, psychology, and philosophy. At this point I had not completely forgotten about the man named Christopher Hitchens, but needless to say he was not at the forefront of my mind. This all changed one morning when I received a phone call at 2 a.m. informing me that I had lost someone I was terribly close to in a car accident. I don’t wish to dwell on this tragedy, only to say that this individual’s death ultimately caused me to wonder if a higher being really was in control, and if so, why hadn’t this god stopped this person from being killed?
A week of pondering went by, until I at last remembered the headline I read only two years previously: “Christopher Hitchens, Atheist, Dies at Sixty-Two.”
Except now I began to think of that headline in a slightly different way than before. Rather than ask, “What makes a man unafraid of God even as he lies dying?” I began to ask, “How could someone die so confident that there isn’t a god at all?” Answering this seemed to be of infinite importance to me, as the deceased was of the Jewish faith and believed in a god who had no intention of stopping a man from getting absolutely hammered at the local bar and driving on the wrong side of the highway that fateful morning.
So I looked up this Christopher Hitchens. It turned out he was a very well-respected intellectual and journalist, had enjoyed quite an adventurous life, and possessed a voice of authority that hearkened back to the days of Victorian gentlemen. As if all of those things weren’t enough, his wit and skill at debating were unparalleled by any other “public thinker” I had ever seen. He was much more than just an atheist. Hitchens was a true Renaissance man.
Godless Renaissance man that he was, and I discovered that Hitchens had written a book on the subject titled God Is Not Great. Perhaps it was mere curiosity, perhaps it was intellectual masochism, or more likely perhaps it was grief, but whatever my motivation was, I went to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy. And it was excellent. Even with the religious conviction I had started God Is Not Great with, it could not be denied as I journeyed through the book—becoming more and more devastated and intrigued with each passing chapter—that my lifelong faith was tumbling down like Jericho. I read the whole thing in two days.
It was Hitchens who pulled me from the foundering of my previous existence. It was Hitchens who caused my shipwreck.
For the next few years I would admittedly waffle back-and-forth on the question of God, before eventually becoming an “agnostic atheist” (a person who feels like no one can really know if a god exists, but also thinks that the probability of a god existing is more low than high). Meanwhile, through these years of ping-ponging on the God question, I read Hitchens’ other books. Love, Poverty, & War, a collection of essays, taught me that “a man’s life is incomplete until he has tasted the three.” No One Left To Lie To and The Missionary Position were both devastating exposés on why Mother Teresa was no saint and why the Clintons weren’t even decent. And Letters to a Young Contrarian sought to instruct young adults on how best to be radical, freethinking dissenters—without being morons.
In the end Hitchens wasn’t only responsible for my transition from belief to nonbelief, but he was also in many ways responsible for my shift from libertarianism to anti-totalitarian leftism. His books Why Orwell Matters, A Long Short War, and On Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man forced me to confront that if we truly value democracy, secular governance, gender equality, and the triumph of reason over superstition, then we do, in fact, have an obligation to the world and to ourselves.
But while all of these books pleaded their various cases remarkably, and while they all had a tremendous impact on my own life, none of them I noticed were about Hitchens himself. Who was Christopher Hitchens beyond his public persona? What was the story of his life that led him to such towering public intellectualism? For this I had to read his autobiography, Hitch-22, wherein I learned about an English boy shipped off to a strict—one could even say totalitarian—religious boarding school at the age of eight, a boy who would later rebel as a young adult against the pious, brutal (and in Hitchens’ telling homoerotic) teachers and schoolmasters of his adolescent past by attending Oxford and becoming involved with the radical Left in the 1960s. I learned about how this young adult and activist, while enduring the suicide of his mother, became a writer and a journalist, and how this writer and journalist traveled all over the world, from Sudan to Cyprus, Uganda to Greece, Cuba to Iraq, Chad to Bosnia, along with dozens of other countries, and charmed his readers while at times shocking them with the subjects he detailed. Most importantly, I learned that not even a man who travels the world and gains fame and admiration enjoys a complete life unless he also has love. But to read about the life of Christopher Eric Hitchens in Hitch-22 is to gain an excellent snapshot, not only of the man himself, but also of the latter-half of the twentieth century and the beginning decade of the twenty-first. It should be considered as much a history book as an autobiography.
Arguably, however, it was Mortality—Hitchens’ last book detailing his battle with esophageal cancer (published posthumously)—that was his masterpiece. I won’t soon forget a line in the very first chapter where Hitchens muses on his condition: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?'” It goes without saying that devoted readers of Hitchens picked up their copy of Mortality with a lot more appreciation than they did his other works. After all, these were the reflections of a man “living dyingly.” Such devotion to the craft of writing, even in one’s darkest and most dreadful hour, is a reflection of just how much Hitchens was dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge.
Lest you be tempted to doubt if Hitch was really as fascinating as I proclaim, ask yourself if there is anyone else in the world who would have had as attendees at their memorial service both Sean Penn and Paul Wolfowitz. Ask yourself if there is anyone else who could elicit such outrage at a Tory dinner party that he would be spanked and called a “naughty boy” by an angry Margaret Thatcher. Ask yourself how many people there are in existence who could count among their friends pundits on the right, pundits on the left, celebrities, dissidents, genuine theists, genuine antitheists, and writers, and could count among their enemies religious charlatans of all faiths, sleazy politicians both conservative and liberal, ideological hypocrites, and dictators from South America to the Middle East.
Christopher Hitchens, atheist, died at sixty-two. But on the fifth anniversary of his death this eccentric, marvelous, courageous, kick-ass contrarian still lives on, and will continue to live on, in the hearts and minds of present and future writers and travelers all over the world. The burden falls on us to fill, as best we can, the void his passing has wrought.