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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The public square has a gaping hole this morning, as the brilliant Christopher Hitchens has died. Here is a brief obituary in Vanity Fair that links to some of his most recent columns and essays, several of which reflect on the cancer that took his life. David Gibson excerpted one of them in this space about seven months ago:

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk? That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Dont say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, its very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Hitchens's voice was, it should go without saying, one of the best of his generation, and we are all poorer for its absence. (David Castronovo reviewed his memoir in the magazine last year.) But it would be unfair to Hitchens, because out of the spirit of his own combative nature, not to mention how wrong that voice often was when it came to matters of religion. From Eugene McCarraher's lengthy review of his bestseller, God is Not Great, again in the pages of Commonweal:

All Hitchens claims to ask of his deluded religious friends is that they leave me alone. But for a public intellectual, what this innocent-seeming wish really implies is the privatization of religion, its eradication as a form of public discourse. Like the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, Hitchens turns to high culture as the new symposium of moral tutelageand specifically to literature. Well within the compass of the average person, the study of literature and poetry, he proposes, should now depose the scrutiny of sacred texts as the basis of ethical reflection. Of course, the arts and letters have long been modernitys citadel for paradise, a safehouse for idiosyncrasy, brotherly love, transcendence, and other utopian ideals battered by the power of the state and the market. Reminiscent of the democratic humanism espoused by his late friend Edward W. Said, Hitchenss expansive vision of cultural democracy should appeal to anyone serious about the moral imagination. But his insistence that we uncouple high culture from the sacred has its own insuperable problems. Aside from assigning a covert clerical status to writers and literary criticsthe divine literatus, as Whitman put itsupplanting sacred texts with literature would require the bowdlerization of at least nine-tenths of our literary canon. Our high culture simply owes too much to religion, Christian or otherwise, for anyone to suggest intelligibly that the two should be separated.

In any case, what we get from Hitchens in the end isnt culture but a gooey compound of boosterish bromides and liberal nationalism. Like so many disappointed radicals, Hitchens has elsewhere declared capitalism the only remaining revolutionary force, and for all his bad-boy press, he is a stalwart guardian of the bourgeois virtues, harrumphing like a sullen Rotarian at Christs injunction to take no thought for the morrow. Such gospel nonsense, Hitchens tells us, implies that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time. This former Trotskyite turns out to be a metropolitan burgher at heart, as well as a technological visionary, rhapsodizing over undreamed-of vistas, unfettered scientific inquiry, and the accessibility of scientific knowledge to masses of people by easy electronic meansall of which will revolutionize our concepts of research and development. Its a Brave New World, brought to you by Merck. Cue the studio orchestra.

In the end, Hitchens's brilliance as a journalist and rhetorician is inseparable from his shallowness as a critic of religion, not to mention the gross error of his support for the Iraq War. As Ross Douthat noted a while back, however, Hitchens took no offense at the thought of being prayed for by those who possessed the faith he lacked, and surely it's a good time to do that.

Update: Somehow I failed to link to Terry Eagleton's essay on "Culture and Barbarism" from March 2009, where he takes on Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The essay was excerpted from Eagleton's Terry Lectures, published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Yale University Press. Matt Boudway noted Stanley Fish's sympathetic discussion of Eagleton's argument later on that year.

About the Author

John Schwenkler is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.



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R.I.P. Though I was never as much an admirer as were many, I do admire the courage with which he faced his end.

Ill add my R.I.P., as every Christian should do, but the following reader comment to the NYTs obit pretty much captures my view about Mr. Hitchenss present state of consciousness: Blaise Pascal's Great Wager came due. If Hitchens was correct, he does not have the satisfaction of knowing it. If incorrect, he has experienced ego deflation in depth. My personal bet is that God not only exists but that He is merciful and, accordingly, Hitchens rests in peace.As Eugene McCarraher and others (e.g., Terry Eagleton, John Haught) have argued, Hitchens, a skilled polemicist and rhetorician, knew little about theology. While I hope that he is with his Maker, I fear that his facile attacks on religion have influenced many who are even more uneducated about the substance of religion and theology than Hitchens was, and, in that regard at least, he has left a bitter legacy. Last year the U.K. Daily Mail had an article by Peter Hitchens, the younger brother of Christopher, that related Peters re-discovery of Christianity. The article details Peters journey in some depth, and it also sheds light on the oft-strained relationship between the two brothers, including their differences about religion. Worth a read:

Christopher Hitchens was a witty and arrogant provocateur. He made people mad. But he made people think. Ironically, my mother's love of Hitchens and the articles she carefully exacto-knifed out of various magazines and sent to me with post-it notes saying, "What do you say about THAT?!!" allowed us to have some fairly good discussions about the nuances of what Catholics actually believe.Hitchens--who would be horrified to hear it--strengthened the faith of many of us by making us think, and gave us the opportunity to approach the teachings of the Church in a more faceted way. Perhaps he now stands among the rest of God's beloved devil's advocates.

Thanks to William Collier for the link to Peter Hitchens' article. As he said: well worth a read.

Bishop Sheen used to say that everyone pursues the absolute and finds it in one's preferred way. Hitchens seemed to find it in capitalism. His approval of the Iraq war was apparently because he saw Muslims as a threat to capitalism. It is hard to not conclude that his forays into opposite circles often on the same day was pure opportunism. His questioning of religion was surely not original. Many of us have the same problem with Christian leaders. It might be a plausible conclusion, therefore, that he might be more contrarian than a thoughtful critic. He did know how to write and was a person of letters. In making the literary realm almost a religion he does have company with many leaders in religion who make culture more important than the gospel.

"Perhaps he now stands among the rest of God's beloved devil's advocates."I dunno, Jean. I think "perhaps" is the operative word, especially after the hatchet job he did on Mother Teresa.To wit: From Hitchens in a 2003 Slate piece on the beatification of Mother Teresa:[W]e witnessed the elevation and consecration of extreme dogmatism, blinkered faith, and the cult of a mediocre human personality. Many more people are poor and sick because of the life of MT: Even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed. She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud, and a church that officially protects those who violate the innocent has given us another clear sign of where it truly stands on moral and ethical questions. tells me that the legacy of that "mediocre human personality" and "fraud" will endure long beyond Mr. Hitchens's impact on the world.

I'm very familiar with that article, it having been one of those lovingly exacto-knifed by Mom. In any case, our experiences with and about Hitchens are very different. And I think it's better to consider that God has a place for all his beloved children, of which Hitchens was one whether he liked it or not--and whether we like it or not.Happy Xmas.

Hitchen's literary career and writings demonstrate that an active mind should never be confused with an accurate mind. He was about as helpful to society in solving moral and ethical questions as entertainers Lady GAGA and Madonna. Much bluster but little truth, and a complete deficiency of logic in his argumentation.

I have just sent this article and link to the comments to 4 friends who are atheists. I can't WAIT for their reactions, predicatably to be harshly negative.His disciples tend to go for the jugular rather than the intellect.

Wow, other than Jean, has anyone actually read any of his work?

I've read some of his essays, the latest one at Vanity Fair just last night ....

I think Fr. Martin had the right take over at Amrica and some of us in our disgust with him would like to sub our judgement for Him who really jusges.

I think that Fr. Martin, kindly and cheerful man that he is, doesn't understand atheists like Hitchens, I mean the kind of atheists who are scandalized by the suffering of innocent creatures and who end up thinking that a God in the ordinary Western sense of the term isn't even possible. They do not reject believing in God for trivial reasons, out of a desire, say, to lead a wild or selfish life. For some people the argument against God's existence is overwhelming. There are many philosophers who are atheists for this reason. When they hate cruelty, as, apparently, did Hitchens, they can be passionate about it.So there is no question of people like Hitchens rejecting a loving father for the simple reason they think that there isn't any loving Father in the first place. Hitchens and those like him have the same problem as Job -- the apparent great injustices of God who claims to love His creatures. So I think that judging such people negatively makes no sense. They have not had the advantage of finding counter-evidence of God's existence. And unlike Dawkins (who is incredibly ignorant for such a smart man), apparently Hitchens did a great deal of serious thinking about the subject and came up an atheist. I

I suppose that it is a sin against charity as well as bseing impolite to speak ill of the dead. Not that, that stopped Hitchens. So here i go exhibiting poor Christian restraint. I am not a fan of sloppy hagiography. There was more critical analysis of a far more deserving man in Steve Jobs than in Hitchens whose contribution I don't think is really all that stellar. Hard smoking, cynical, alcoholics are rarely charming in real life. And even if he was, he did not have a Mattie Ross who could guide him in clarity of purpose and justice in his life to play off his Rooster Cogburn persona. Sad.

Looking at Hitchens' collection "Arguably" I see plenty of charm and brilliance. But I do not see much deep thought. Yes, no harm to dint the Mother Teresa myth, but why go over the top? Yes, religion has a mucky record, but why be so completely ignorant of its deepest power and truth? Yes, Islamic terrorists are a threat, but why go for hate speech about Islamo-fascism and warmongering at the expense of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis (never acknowledged by the smug Hitchens)?

I don't defend most of Hitchens' views, and though he seemed a very serious man, I don't think his thinking was very deep. Still, he was willing to debate all-comers, which is more than a lot of "intellectuals" will do, and it seems that those who debated him often ended up admiring his honesty and, yes, sometimes his kindness. So I admire his unblinking honesty about most everything including himself. It's a rare quality. This led to his sometimes taking a contrary view from those he generally agreed with -- even highly contrary views. For instance, he held that the fetus was a human being from conception, a most unpopular view among his friends, though he still maintained that choice was the only thing that would lead the poor out of poverty. And, yes, he had a great concern for the poor.Very contradictory man. Here's Christianity Today's reprint of his CT-sponsored debate with Doug Wilson for those who are unfamiliar with him..

RIP to an adept, eloquent contrarian.I pray he has joy in his heart at the outset of the O antiphons. What a gift to "hear" the praises of joy from all creation during this season!O Wisdom, O Holy Word of GodO Sacred Lord of ancient IsraelO Flower of Jesse's stemO Key of David, O royal Power of IsraelO Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justiceO King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heartO Emmanuel, king and lawgiverGod have mercy on Hitch and on us all!In Christ

Here's a bit of HItchens at his anti=fundamentalist, anti-anti-science best. It's from a transcription of a YouTube thing."If you havent noticed. Attack science to make yourself feel better about your unsubstantiated beliefs [i.e. religious belliefs] and I will explain thoroughly what I think about it and why. I think using such arguments is an incredibly petty act of desperation. If your belief is so convincing you need to rely on deriding other incredibly well substantiated ideas, your in trouble. And then the person is shocked when I firmly disagree. Really? And I must respect your anti-intellectual ideas as well? No thank you! I respect the person not the crazy idea he is presenting. To me respect is being honest, so I will be honest and say it how I see it." I dont think this is unreasonable. How would you like it if when you asked me a scientific question my answer was "well the bible isnt right!" Its a stupid argument, right? So try to see it the other way around too" think Hitchens' defense of science was extremely important. It has been noticed that recently an anti-science bent has become a part of the bundle of fundamentalist prinicples. It's apparent in their irrational rejection of the consensus among the world's greatest scientists that global warming is a threat to mankind's continued existence on Earth.. Also otice how frequently the radical political right, which so often aligns itself with the anti-science radicals, reject out of hand the notion that the future of man on Earth is threatened by global warming. The "debates" of the Republican would-be candidates is full of such thinking.What I'm saying is that Hitchens wasn't just an anti-theist. He was anti- a lot of irrational nonsense that is important for our culture to look at.

He was anti- a lot of irrational nonsense that is important for our culture to look at.Well, except for all the irrational nonsense that led us to war in Iraq and whatnot. Oops!

I note lots of verbiage spiled at america about Fr. Martin's post . Seems he really roused the CCCers.It's clear to me that Hitchens had a simplistic view of religion (confabulated with fundamentalism.)I too think we need to beware of making judgements about the scientiists who see little in our faith and rely on their empirical world.America has another item on the web that global warming is a faith issue.

When you have close family members who think like Hitchens, it's harder to consign what seems on the outside like half-baked criticism, iconoclasm, and inebriation to the flames. Some people are hard to love, carry a lot of despair around, and try to self-medicate it away. In some ways, I see their constant punching at religion is an attempt to find a hole inside, where things make sense. So the whole "rest in peace, Hitchens, after I spit on your grave" tone of some of these posts I find very very sad. I thank God I had no such comforters as these after Dad died.Thanks, Ann Olivier (12/16, 8:50 p.m.), for your insight and kindness. You get another milagro! And thank you Laura for the heartfelt Antiphons. Who needs them more than Hitch?

Some posters at America are really mad at Christopher for not believing what no one can prove. But, as one poster (Vince K.) pointed out, no one seems to be able to rebut Christopher Hitchens' opinion of Mother Teresa. Plenty of people dislike the fact that he failed to join the chorus of adulation, but as to specific proof that he was wrong, they're unable to provide it.Someone sent me a copy of a book by an ex-nun who had been in Mother Teresa's order. I read a little of it, but had to stop. Too gruesome.

Last night Anderson Cooper played a long interview with hitchens on his cancer anmd atheism.Cooper tried not to tip his hand on his own beliefs, but I think he was quite sympathetic.Again. I agree with Jean et al.What's relevant IMO is that we can opeate with lots of strong feelings about our own faith but hav ewe done a good job of really conveyiong the message to the broad community (see Cathy K."s recent threads.)

It's not surprising that the death of a man with outsized faults and virtues should elicit out-sized reactions. But fairness requires that his virtues not be confused with his vices. He excoriated with all the great power of his invective the irrationality of radical fundamentalists whether Christian or Islamist or whatever. Given then that radical fundamentalists *are* often irrational (that's why we call them radical) it is unfair to call his accusations simply mean-spirited tantrums. Perhaps they were tantrums, but, as with many angry adolescents, his criticisms were true and just. (Yes, I think he was a particularly angry adolescent with extraordinary verbal abilities. And now the psychologizing begins.)But it is more complicated than that. As an article in Salon points out, he not only faulted the irrationality of others, he also left no room for their simply being mistaken. For Hitchens (at least in public),"His enemies were not just wrong, they were stupid or mean or small-minded or liars or cheats or children or cowards."That characterizes the sometimes great unfairness of Hitchens. But he was not alone. Just look at the posts on most blogs -- accusations of meanness, small-mindedness, lying, cheating and childishness are the order of the day almost everywhere. So while we are casting stones at Hitchens we should lob a few our own way.

OOps -- that should have been "many of his criticisms were true and just".

Most. if not all posters here, used the Hitchens subject to foster their own theology of the church and salvation. So we sink back into arguing among ourselves without regard to what Hitchens shows us he believed in his own words. Whether he was right or wrong on Mother Theresa is not the point either. We all seem to agree that only God can judge Hitchens. At the same time there are some points where we can perhaps all agree. Hitchens clearly is contemptuous of believers and the God they believe in. I don't see how all of us cannot have problems with what Hitchens wrote. Hitchens certainly flies in the face of a statement we all make in the Our Father: "Hallowed be your name"Whether through invincible ignorance or not we can all agree that Hitchens outwardly did not revere the name of God. Whatever our differences we all agree on this mandate. On this point, on at least what we know of Hitchens, I don't see how any of us can support or agree with him. It is God who judges him. We can only comment on what Hitchens expressly told us.

So, what, holding the right view about Hitchens is now the Catholic litmus test? Guess I fail that one, too.Enough outta me. I'm repeating myself.

No litmus test. But some things are sacred.

Christopher Hitchens on liturgical changes after Vatican II:"... well I say in my book that I think it was a great loss to the Church, I rather sympathize with Evelyn Waugh on this point...the abandonment, particular of the Latin Mass, the so-called Tridentine Mass, was an enormous blow to the morale of the Church, and the subsequent rituals appear to be extremely banal."

Hitchens, the mouth piece of the so-called new Atheism, embraced a belief system as intolerant, chauvinist and bigoted as Christian and Muslim Fundamentalists, only his proposed route to salvation and moral advancement was through science and reason. His utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, which he thinly cloaked as himself, called for the eradication of certain elements of human beings (i.e. through war on Arab states), who rejected his non-reality based world of self-exaltation, and an unquestioned acceptance of his form of American values. In Hitchens utopia, all humans have to become like him, a spiritless reasonoid holding his values, think as he did, or be banished from civilized (read that as western capitalist) society. All other values, which he never bothered to investigate more than superficially, were dismissed as those held by ignorant, superstitious people. He argued that one day, with enough belief in the god of reason, one can have all that is desired.Hitch (as his admirers loved to refer to hima slight to the true genius, Alfred Hitchcock) tended to turn his particular vision of good into an inflexible standard. His polemics proved blind to his own evil concepts as actually being for the common good; his greatest evil being the inability to separate the religious person from the religious institution. That would have been a commitment to too much actual intellectualism on which to base his prose. His ideas always seemed to come from the same boring starting point of dividing the world into superior and inferior beings: those enlightened by reason and knowledge (himself) and those guided by irrational beliefs, usually the religious. His tracts against theists tended to use language as racist, crude and intolerant against Muslims as the (un)Christian ravings of Pat Robertson and his cadre. Simply put, Hitchens was a secular version of the religio-political right wingnuts he condemned. Like them, he continually misused his sacred text, the writings of Charles Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the (un)Christian and (un)Moslem Fundamentalists misuse the Bible and Koran, respectively. Like his Fundamental counterparts, Hitchens eschewed dialog with knowledgeable counterparts---he would never argue his position face-to-face with theologians of any faith; instead he only pontificated to television cameras, where the spineless host would not challenge the intellectual 800 pound gorilla, or write from the privacy of his computer.Hitchens sold a belief system in service of his career, which was centered on his ego, money and power. Ultimately Hitchens dismissed God because He stood in the way of Hitchens sense of his own god-like essence. He laughingly dismissed the ritual and symbols of religion, imposing his owna cigarette and a glass of whiskey in lieu of bread and wine for Christians, and eating five meals a day in lieu of prayer time for Moslems. Hitchens offered an old and dangerous faith seen last in the pre-Christian Roman Empire, where achievement of personal pleasures would be considered holy.

I don't disagree with Christopher Wood's assessment of Hitchens ideas in the main. But I think Mr. Wood paints a picture of an unhappy man badly in need of God's love, which, in my view, is the "Catholic thing" missing from all the nicely written rants against Hitchens that have been posted here.Can one sad little alcoholic bring down Christ's Church?

Hitchens was verbally pugnacious against Christianity, which endeared him to liberals and atheists. However, the shallowness of his thought and logic ensured that the effect of his presence in this world was extremely modest.

What has God got to do with religion? There have breen religions right through history that dispensed with the concept, from Greek monolotry to Buddhist religious atheism. Furthermore, many people claim to believe in God, but do not practise a religion. The monotheistic idea in the wider western world, appeared first among Greek philosophers who considered it a highly tendentious, "difficult" concept that would be securely beyond most people. They used it to explain such tendentious questions as the relation between the many and the One. (This last did not of itself refer to a being, but rather, in a world understood to be populated by rational causes and effects, some first principle that escaped them and therefore would not need to be caused. The more recent idea of a "First Cause" is indirectly thence derived).The modern idea of "God" has little to do with this notion, and still less with the tribal YHVH who broods over Genesis. This Jewish concept is abandoned, or rather, perhaps, situated by the Jews in that masterpiece of human thought, Kabbalah, in favour of a more powerful "Creator God." The Mayans and Aztecs possessed extremely exalted ideas of deity that are only very questionably comparable to Occidental ones.Meanwhile, Einstein, that modern Jewish master-teacher, believed in "the Old One and his fires", a religious concept enthusiastically endorsed by Dawkins in The God Delusion.The ancient Chinese believed in God. They called Him "the animic consciousness of Heaven" but felt no need to personify Him. Personification is clearly not a product of special revelation. It is an idiosyncracy of Western culture. Those who say that Orientals, Mayas and others need to acquire it, are therefore, by definition, cultural imperialists.The point is, that "God" belongs to the history of ideas. Furthermore, He is not a particularly brilliant one, even of His kind. Homo Sapiens' history is constantly being pushed back into deeper temporal roots, but the species has been around for at least 200,000 years. Being exceptionally generous, and ignoring much scholarship on the integration of biblical concepts in the creative process of the texts, "God" has been around for about 4000 years. Do it as a fraction. It's not a significant idea.I find it worrying that people insist so hard on the universal validity of their own pet ideas. Not only "God", but also capital, privilege, testable intelligence and a whole bunch of other things which we know damn well don't work and yet realize we will be judged if we question. I think it's totally wrong to judge beliefs, provided they are not directly hamful to others. I certainly wouldn't belittle anyone for believing in any of the things I've just said don't work. But my tolerance there quickly collapses, when those believers try to impose their pet beliefs on me. Such "invitations" are certainly an act of violence.The New Atheists make the same mistake as the Christians. They attach enormous importance to whether someone says they believe in "God" or not. It's not important. Objectively, the idea is not a significant one. Humanity evolved, survived and built civilization without it.

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