Tracie and I finished off the year with one final show last night. We had a lot of fun with this episode. In case anybody wanted to read it, I’ve copied what I said about Christopher Hitchens below the fold.
Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday at the age of 62. As the author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and an outspoken atheist debater, Hitchens was a well respected figure in the international atheist community. Of all the things people have written about him in the last few days, I think the most fitting tribute was a headline in the satirical newspaper “The Onion.” There was no article, just a headline, and it said: “Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate To Christopher Hitchens.”
When I watch people debate atheism, I am often left frustrated by their approach, and sometimes feel like they tried too hard to be nice, or didn’t hammer home a point that ought to have been made. Among the debates I’ve seen, I’ve always felt that Christopher Hitchens was the least frustrating and most confident speaker I’ve had the privilege of watching.
Hitchens lived with esophogeal cancer for about the last two years. As such, he had the luxury — or more accurately the burden — of knowing roughly when he would die. In April, Hitchens was unable to attend the American Atheist convention, so instead he sent along a letter, which many people saw as his own self-eulogy. I think it’s fitting that we should read it now.
Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.
That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.
Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.
As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.
At the same time that I express my admiration of Christopher Hitchens, I don’t want to whitewash the fact that he was a controversial figure even among atheists. He was a strong advocate of the Iraq War, and in 2007 he denounced the attendees at a meeting of the Freedom From Religion Foundation as being soft on Islam, and being too weak to commit to an all out clash of civilizations, and strongly recommended that we go on to declare war on Iraq. He called one questioner incredibly stupid for not understanding that every Muslim killed is a Muslim we don’t have to fight.
I bring this up not to denounce Hitchens, but only to point out that he was a complex individual with strong convictions, who never hesitated to piss off any person or group he spoke to. He was also, however, very open to changing his mind. While he was initially a supporter of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, in 2008 he set out to prove that it wasn’t torture, and so he submitted to being put through the process by a group of veterans. The followup article he wrote in Vanity Fair was titled, simply, “Believe Me, It’s Torture.”
One of the accusations we get all the time when we speak out as atheists is that atheism is just another religion; that instead of God, we worship money, or science, or ourselves; and our religious figures are people like Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin, and Christopher Hitchens. I think it’s important to remember that the atheist movement doesn’t have idols, only people who earn respect based on the quality of their ideas. I appreciated Hitchens for who he was. I think he would have sneered at the idea of being idolized, but we’ll miss him. He’s not in heaven, he’s not in hell, all that remains of him is in our memories now.
Of course, we all know that Christopher Hitchens was one of the lucky ones. This is the last episode of The Atheist Experience before the year 2012, which is really truly we mean it this time the end of the world. We’ll all go out in a blaze of Roland Emmerich-style special effects.
Hitch, here’s to ya. (Drink)