It is said that a man does not truly die until his name fades from the lips of those who still live.
Christopher Hitchens passed away from pneumonia that arose as a result of his oesophageal cancer.
We remember Hitchens as the wolverine of atheism. Completely unapologetic, completely tough and utterly willing to fight against entities of spirituality and faith the majority of atheists wouldn’t dream of touching. It was Hitchens who took on Mother Theresa, pointing out that despite the millions her charity received (and the exchange rate which means that back then you could do a lot with a dollar in India) her Home for the Dying was still a grim pit of suffering while her sisters built more convents and more private schools and that her attitudes towards contraception was entirely laughable. It was Hitchens who pointed out that Gandhian philosophy’s Luddite nature that was so impressive in creating a credible defence against the British Raj would also doom India to be forever a village economy. Even if we ignore Hitch’s atheism, we can safely say that he brought a healthy dose of reality to figures we automatically deify and reminded us that at their core, people are people. They are filled with little flaws and foibles and mistakes, and that we should bear that in mind. He also made us realise how truly great some of these achievements were. Say what you want about Mother Theresa’s faith but the woman was willing to work in TB wards and with Lepers at a time when most people would have run screaming from such diseases. Say what you want about Martin Luther King’s faith but the man fought for black freedom. Say what you want about Gandhi’s Hinduism but the man put himself on the line too. The fact that these people did these acts, out of pure human ability rather than the powers of the divine is a testament to what humans can achieve.
People say that atheism doesn’t deal with grief and death in a productive way. We are all different; we all want different things from grief. Some of us are happy to think that our personality and memories live on as a soul in some paradise. To me that is false comfort. It is the equivalent of telling a child that a dead dog has gone off to live on a farm. Some of us are happy that we have a life well lived (a luxury most of us cannot enjoy). I feel that what would please me most in life is that Hitchens lived his life well and enjoyed it. Lest we forget that sometimes life is its own reward.
There is life after death, just not in the way we think about it. We don’t persist but our body does. The elements and compounds that make up our intelligent reaction do not falter and will not falter till the very heat death of our universe. To me the line that gives me most peace is from The Amber Spyglass.
“Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We will be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we will be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was”
Our mortality is almost guaranteed, our life is however ours to live. We can chose to do what we wish with it. Hitch lived his to make us think, to make us question ourselves and to make us grow as people because we question our own beliefs.
You don’t have to agree with what other atheists say. We are a group of people bound by the ability to not agree with anyone and that includes each other. The writings of major atheists are equally subject to honest critique, they aren’t gospel. I and Hitchens sorely differ on our attitudes to the war on terror and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact his support for the Iraq and Afghan wars is counter to what I consider as a sane solution. I understand Islam sucks but no religion accepts change at the barrel of a gun, least of all Islam. That tarring the entirety of Islam with the Wahabbist brush or the Iranian theocratic brush threatens to harm our own movement as it is intellectually bankrupt. It’s the reason I don’t like the work of Pat Condell, who treats muslims as a single entity and who simplifies the issues facing muslims without realising underlying issues.
Hitchen’s misogyny was also well known and quite honestly? I don’t think the cigarettes, cigars and heavy boozing did him any favours. One can squarely point a finger at the cigars (a known causative of throat and oesophageal cancer).
But that’s the point. Hitchens is not immune to criticism on points that he was wrong on. Nor would he have wanted to be immune to such criticism. His entire message was that no man should be free of criticism if it is honest and true (otherwise it’s just slander).
Hitchens doesn’t just live on as the molecules that make up our word. A man is more than just the molecules he is made up of. Hitchens lives on his writing. I don’t think we should treat his writings as a bible, but we should certainly keep reading and critiquing his works for many of us grew as atheists because of them and atheists to come can learn from his work. It can inspire us to leave works of our own. The world is all we have and it is our responsibility to do what we can. To leave the world slightly better for our children and those who come after us. To leave them stories of real people and real achievements rather than the tired rules and morality of those who came before us. We need to build on that.
“That is why we need our full lives; we wouldn’t be able to build it. No one could if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind curious and patient and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds and then we’ll build… The Republic of Heaven”
The world has lost a marvellous human being.