December 15 marks a full decade since Christopher Hitchens’s death. In our decade of quite friendly acquaintance, it was always “Christopher,” never “Chris”—a nickname that he loathed. Nor did you call him “Hitch”: such intimacies were reserved for the inner circle.
Famously irreverent himself, Hitchens is still spoken about in some circles—professed atheists, fellow contrarians, aggressive anti-totalitarians, idiosyncratically independent leftists, pro-American interventionist conservatives, and others—with an almost pious reverence. But is that any more ironic than V. S. Pritchett’s famous description of George Orwell—Hitchens’s literary hero—as “a kind of saint”? Or the memorial tribute to Orwell by John Atkins, Orwell’s successor as Tribune literary editor, exalting him as a “secular saint”? If secular saintliness consists in the ability to speak the truth without fear or favor, in and out of season, Hitchens had it in abundance. But it was always his truth, and one could argue that he exhibited “honesty” yet lacked “integrity,” in the sense of really seeing things clear and whole.
I first met Hitchens in April 2002, when he was already well recognized in journalistic and Washington political circles but had not yet emerged as the leading controversialist of the day. It was just six months before he broke with his Nation colleagues—announcing his departure from that publication in a Washington Post op-ed titled “So Long, Fellow Travelers”—and not long after that he became famous, or infamous, for supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We lunched together before appearing in an hour-long PBS special marking the Orwell centennial of 2003. Like me, Hitchens was finishing a book about Orwell’s legacy (Why Orwell Matters). We later met at conferences, at his Washington apartment, and at his Palo Alto residence near the campus of Stanford University.
One visit in early 2007 stands out in memory. He was finishing his international bestseller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and reflecting further about “the Mother Teresa cult.” He had already published a philippic against the famous nun, The Missionary Position (1995), and presented a follow-up BBC documentary titled Hell’s Angel. He had even testified against her, as an official advocatus diaboli, in the Vatican’s beatification proceedings in 2002.
“Have you had any second thoughts about her and about the book?” I asked him.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said. A long pause. His voice softened; I anticipated a word of regret, or moderation. “Worse, much worse. She was much worse than I had realized. I didn’t know the half of it.” I stifled a laugh, but he was entirely serious.
He had found yet more examples of Mother Teresa’s photo ops with tyrants (like the Duvaliers of Haiti) or criminals (like former Sen. Charles Keating), more evidence of her taking millions of dollars from such people and still refusing to have her nurses properly trained or her hospices upgraded with modern medical equipment. He went down his long list of Mother Teresa’s alleged offenses: she had served as a cover for “an oppressive so-called theology,” for the subordination of women, for the mistreatment of the poor. And so on. (Informed about his book, which was published two years before she died in 1997, Mother Teresa responded: “God will forgive him.” When he heard this, Hitchens said, “I neither sought God’s forgiveness nor do I need it.”)
That was just the opener for what turned out to be a four-hour conversation—about God, faith, and more—as I waited one night in his Palo Alto living room for my 6 a.m. airport shuttle pickup. Perhaps “argument” is the better word. Whenever Hitchens scented an argument, he was relentless in pursuing it. “The world I live in is one where I can have five quarrels a day, each with somebody who really takes me on over something,” he wrote in Hitch-22, his autobiography. “And if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them. I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument I am often willing to protract it for its own sake rather than concede even on a small point.” That is what I discovered that night during our wide-ranging conversation about religion in general and Mother Teresa in particular. And there was another discovery: Christopher and I were speaking two different languages—and mine was alternately objectionable and incomprehensible to him.
On his own turf—the turf of the hard materialist—he was invincible. Nobody ever out-argued him on the history, politics, and social evils of religions of all sorts, not even scholars and theologians who were more knowledgeable than he was. If you doubt me, you can watch any of the dozens of his debates with religious believers available on YouTube. If an audience had been watching the two of us that night, I am sure they would all have agreed that Christopher easily outpointed me on matters of Church history and comparative religion. (Just weeks before his death, weak and visibly ill, he took part in a public debate on the value of religion with a master of parliamentary dueling, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Catholic convert. Hitchens won convincingly, with 68 percent of the audience vote.)
Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice is the subtitle of his book about the saint. Yet I find that Hitchens nowhere exhibits any clear understanding of Mother Teresa’s “theory”—that is, the beliefs that formed her practice. Christopher was “religiously unmusical,” as Max Weber once described himself: tone-deaf, as it were, to whatever was not measurable and definable in materialist terms. “The evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1)? That—along with the evidence of things unheard or untouched—was not “evidence.” The evidence of our five senses, and what science could infer from that, was all. That meant that Hitchens always spoke a partial truth—to which he was quite partial. Since only sensory experience was deemed admissible in the court of his judgment, all mysticism was just mystification, which had proven quite useful to tyrants throughout history.
He was a bit taken aback when I conceded in the main all the crimes of Christianity that he listed. Pedophile priests? Check. Venal anti-popes? Check. Indulgences and penitential “tariffs” for sale? Check. Crazed Crusaders? Check. Whether or not they are divinely inspired, the major religions are human organizations of human beings. You can find ample evidence in the five thousand years of human history that “religion poisons everything”—just as I can find countless examples that it purifies everything. Contaminant or cure? Human beings will use and abuse it to diverse ends.
Hitchens was right to be wary of zealots and fanatics. He was also right that “what is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Yet what about the “evidence of things unseen”? Because his materialist stance completely denied the possibility, I readily admitted that I had no language with which I might reach him. If you close your ears to the music, there is no music. Hitchens insisted that there was nothing distinctive about a “religious” experience; it was confused with aesthetic experience by people “of a certain temperament.” The sublimity of the Parthenon, he wrote, “exerts an effect on me of the numinous and the transcendent”—the same effect claimed for religious experience by mystics writhing in ecstasies and reporting visions of the divine.
If you view Mother Teresa in humanistic terms, according to secular reasoning, then you cannot but criticize, or even condemn, much of her “practice.” Yet “the theory” is, in its simplest terms, that we must all love one another, as Jesus Christ demonstrated by dying for each of us. To love and follow him was to “love Wisdom,” and Mother Teresa understood her work as simply her willed assent to his call (or “call within the call,” as she famously described her request to shift from teaching children to serving the poor). She served the poor not only because they needed her, but also because Jesus called—and she answered. She was obedient to God’s call. Her famous, or notorious, inattention to equipping her facilities with modern technology also reflected her faith. Prayer was her “technology,” and her care for the dying was about more than their bodies. She and the other Missionaries of Charity prayed for all those who came within their orbit. They investigated neither those who came to them for help nor those who offered donations. It was rumored that people came for food and medical supplies and then sold them in the streets. Likewise, numerous corrupt figures sought to gain a halo effect from their association with her. It was argued, by Hitchens and others, that they were trying to launder their reputations with their donations to Mother Teresa. But she did not solicit the donations. She accepted what was offered.
Let us remember that this was not a worldly woman. Agnes Bojaxhiu was a sheltered eighteen-year-old Albanian girl when she left her village for an Irish convent to learn English. Until the age of forty, Sr. Teresa taught girls in a small Catholic school in Calcutta. After taking up her mission to serve the poor in 1950, she labored largely in obscurity for the next dozen years. It was not until 1969, when she was nearing sixty, that a BBC crew filmed her work with the poor and she became known in the West. Are we to believe that she plotted and connived for decades in the slums of Calcutta, making do with worldly possessions that fit in a shoebox, only to gain the wherewithal, as Hitchens declared in a 1992 Nation column, to “prostitute herself for the worst” of the powerful and “perpetrate [an] extraordinary deception” on the world?
Of course, I could not out-debate him on any of this. Not at all. Here again, I simply believed, then as now, that there were more things in heaven and on earth than were dreamt of in Christopher’s philosophy. Mother Teresa could not be located, in either theory or practice, on the materialist’s map. That she was canonized as a saint does not mean she was perfect—no more, say, than Dorothy Day. The world mistakenly hailed Mother Teresa as a successor to heroines of social activism such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Jane Addams, and Mary Baker Eddy. Yet her motivation was not theirs; nor were her priorities.
Dozens of times over the years political friends as well as co-religionists have asked me how I could get along with Hitchens. What on earth did I see in him? How could I stomach such a bully and a blowhard? I can only reply that my interactions with Christopher were always decent, cordial, and warm. Was it our “Orwell connection”? Or did he give me a pass—my “idiotic” Catholicism notwithstanding—because of my working-class Irish background? I do not know. Whatever the reason, he always paid me the respect of hearing me out and engaging me fully. For the sake of argument (the title of a 1994 collection of essays and reviews)? Recall again that he was always in search of “somebody who really takes me on over something.” I have since wondered: Was that my role? To help him hone his arguments, on Orwell and Christianity?
The large company of Hitchens’s present-day admirers is not restricted to his fellow unbelievers. His reputation stands as high today as it ever did, perhaps higher. His move to the Right toward the end of his life and his pro-war, pro-American stance angered and confused many of his erstwhile comrades and fans, especially in Britain. For them, as for his former Nation colleagues, it overshadowed everything else—and continues to do so. On December 9 the Times of London ran an article under the headline “Ten Years After His Death, Polemical Journalist’s Lasting Legacy Is a Hate-Filled Style of Debate.” The caption added: “He lowered himself to the standard of shock jocks and televangelists.” Yet that is a minority view now—and the old acrimonious exchanges with the Left about Clinton, about Bush and Blair, about Afghanistan and Iraq mean less and less in the age of Trump, Big Tech, cancel culture, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has moved on.
And yet: if Hitchens had died just four years earlier, before the publication of God Is Not Great in May 2007 and—more importantly—before the endless rounds of televised debates and interviews on religion during the few remaining years granted to him, his public reputation today might well be in decline. Or in tatters. “Hitchens? Oh, yes, now I remember. Just another authoritarian propagandist of the Left who became a blowhard hack of the Right. Typical trajectory, don’t you know, of the aging ex-Trot.” That has not been his fate. Just the reverse. Astonishingly, his departure occasioned no extravagantly ungracious parting shots of the kind he had written at the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and many others. (Christopher would be decidedly displeased to learn that the villainous “war criminal” Henry Kissinger is still alive and kicking at the age of ninety-eight.)
Instead, Christopher’s passing elicited an outpouring of love and praise. And he continues to be read. His publishers recently reissued no fewer than a dozen of his titles. There is no one like him in contemporary Anglo-American letters—and the very questions that the PBS host asked us about George Orwell are now asked about Hitchens too: “If he were alive today, what would he say? Who is his successor?” Imitators emerge and vanish. No heir has appeared.
Will Hitchens himself be remembered one day as the successor to Orwell? I do not think so. Whatever their similarities—as outspoken unbelievers, as contrarians, as avowed enemies of totalitarianism, as brilliant essayists—the bon vivant, man-about-town, jet-setting “Hitch” possessed a Wildean side that placed him far apart from the ascetical, reserved “St. George.” A poor and reluctant public speaker—even before getting a bullet through his windpipe at the Catalonia front and losing his voice completely for months (it came back, weakened)—George Orwell was never the performer or raconteur that Hitchens was. Though flattered by it, Hitchens himself repeatedly disavowed the comparison. Although he did some reporting in his early days, Hitchens was also no Seymour Hersh or Bob Woodward; he broke no major stories. Ultimately, he will be best remembered as a critic and a public intellectual. But it remains unclear how much of his journalism will actually be read in another decade or two, despite all those new editions.
Ultimately, I think, Hitchens will be best remembered as an extraordinary orator, debater, rhetorician: a kind of performance artist. The columns, reviews, and essays served their purpose in catapulting him into prominence, but it was his remarkable abilities with the spoken word that kept him there: his resonant voice, quick wit, and prodigious memory (he could recite verse from heart for hours). Far more impressive than The Missionary Position or God Is Not Great are those hundreds of YouTube videos of Christopher’s debate tours, where we find him verbally scourging ministers and theologians. Those performances will endure: unlike even the biggest political events, religion is not an ephemeral issue. His arguments against religion were nothing new; they are as old as Lucretius. But no one presented them as mordantly and relentlessly as Hitchens did.
As the culture moves ever more away from print and toward pixels, the delicious irony of Hitchens’s only real chance at immortality coming from old video clips is one that he might have relished. (“Your favorite virtue?” he asked himself in Hitch-22. “An appreciation for irony.”) For all the millions of words he wrote in his political columns, for all the thousands of hours he poured into his stylish literary reviews and biting social critiques, it is instead the lightly tossed-off speeches, interviews, and debates that are likely to win him new generations of enthusiasts. No intellectual of his generation put on a better show.