Humanists Mourn Christopher Hitchens: Stalwart for Atheism

By Brian Magee

Humanists and atheists are saddened by the death of the prolific writer and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday, December 15 at the age of 62 after battling esophageal cancer.

“Humanity has lost a powerful stalwart for atheism,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Christopher Hitchens changed the discussion about religion and non-belief by championing public criticism of theology.”

One of a group that became known as The Four Horsemen (which also includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), he held a dual US-UK citizenship and was connected with several secular groups in the U.S., including the American Humanist Association—he was the keynote speaker at the 2008 World Humanist Congress in Washington, DC.

Hitchens became a prolific debater on the subject of religion and atheism especially since his God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007, developing into someone as well-known for those appearances as for his writing. His debating opponents included Tony Blair, David Wolpe, and Chris Hedges.

His blunt and forthright reputation in promoting atheism got another widespread boost after the publication of The Portable Atheist, which also came out in 2007, where he comments on the works of a many of the world’s best thinkers.

“Hitchens’ mastery of a logical argument along with his confident demeanor gave many the courage to come out of the atheist closet,” Speckhardt said.

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, published in 2001, Hitchens identifies himself as “not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist,” adding, “the effect of religious belief is positively harmful.”

In an interview published in 2010 with Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell, Hitchens explained that humanism should be seen as worthy of producing a desirable set of moral values. “…show me what there is, ethically, in any religion that can’t be duplicated by Humanism,” he declared, adding later, “…any good action by a religious person could be duplicated or matched, if not surpassed, by someone who didn’t believe in god.”

Hitchens’ writing career included wide-ranging cultural and political criticisms at places like Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate. His work included many figures not usually targets of critics, including the Dalai Lama, Michael Moore, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell. His rational and sharp wit affected all who encountered it, including the overall culture.

Examples of his famous and resolute condemnations of religion include these passages from God is Not Great:

If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.

Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.

Hitchens announced in 2010 that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Some predicted Hitchens would abandon his non-belief after his diagnosis, but, instead, he reiterated that his illness did not alter his critical views on religion and his positive views on life.

Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.