Hitchens’ address to American Atheists

Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to appear at the American Atheist convention, but had to cancel because of his illness. He sent this letter instead.

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

    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.


Christopher Hitchens


  1. strange gods before me ॐ says

    Strange gods, get off the grand inquisitor complex.

    Why, has somebody come to expect it?

    You sound like a pious fucking zealot.

    The same could reasonably be said of comments like “I don’t know what I’ll do with myself when Hitch is no more”, or many of the first 150 comments here. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And I have complimented Hitchens in this thread and elsewhere. I suppose if I still come off a pious fucking zealot then I’ve no problem with it.

    You act as if Hitchens is somehow beyond chance of redemption

    What on Earth could this possibly mean, Amelia? There is no god to forgive and redeem us. Each person bears responsibility for their behavior. I suppose people will think less about him and his effects later, but there’s no reason to do that yet (so good on you for bringing him up again).

    because he supported the Iraq war along with the majority of Americans,

    Argumentum ad populum? (or I owe more condemnation to others? maybe but there’s only so much time in a day.)

    and asked a question (*clutches pearls*) about the one drop rule.

    No, if he’d asked ‘And why is a man with seven white great-grandparents considered to be “black,” anyway? Is it for this that we fought so hard to get over Plessy v. Ferguson?’ — then that would be a question about the one drop rule.

    Instead he asked why we should acknowledge that people who appear to be African American face different challenges in our society? For this he congratulated himself unironically—’The more that people claim Obama’s mere identity to be a “breakthrough,” the more they demonstrate that they have failed to emancipate themselves from the original categories of identity that acted as a fetter upon clear thought’—a rationalization that belongs in a Stephen Colbert skit on colorblindness.

    As if it were a skit, he then complimented Obama on ‘acting white’: “Obama’s decision to be light-hearted—and perhaps light-skinned—about this was a milestone in itself.”

    I realize that Hitchens is still a communist sympathizer, and as such, sincerely desires an end to all racism. But we still have to criticize him when he’s doing it wrong. He makes racially dubious remarks which cannot be excused by his sympathies.

    And get your fucking facts right. Collateral damage has been nothing like a million Iraqi casualties.

    This can be true because murder’s euphemism, “collateral damage”, is generally constrained to refer only to the immediate results of an officially-ordered military action. So for instance the rape and murder of a 14-year-old is not collateral damage, because that particular military action wasn’t officially ordered.

    You’ll note I have thusly avoided distractions such as “collateral damage”, and you’ll be unable to quote me saying that collateral damage has been a million Iraqi deaths.

    What’s accurate is: here is a peer-reviewed study showing that a million Iraqis have died in the US-led invasion, who would not have died if we had not invaded. The invasion is responsible for killing them, because they would be alive today if the invasion had not occurred.

    The overwhelming majority of dead Iraqis WERE KILLED BY OTHER IRAQIS.

    As KG points out, this is wrong. The overwhelming majority of dead Iraqis are dead because of the destruction of the infrastructure that once made Iraq a working state. But as for those Iraqis who were killed by other Iraqis, no matter how high that percentage it would not be a counterpoint.

    Armed clans were not able to slaughter other Iraqis to this degree under Saddam’s regime. One of the results of states’ holding the “exclusive right to the use of force” is that other violence can be suppressed. When the Iraqi government was beheaded by outsiders, it was not unexpected that this would result in civil war.

    that blood libel

    Blood libel still has a meaning, and it isn’t “asking people to think twice about murder by powerful regimes like the United States government.” Please don’t dilute its actual meaning.

    Saddam waged war on neighboring states, carried out genocide, tortured his own people, violated numerous UN resolutions, had a history of harboring terrorists, and deployed chemical weapons. How was he any better than Colonel Gaddafi?

    I don’t see anyone claiming that he was better than Gaddafi.

    Is it really that unthinkable that someone would support replacing Saddam’s evil Ba’ath Party with an democracy?

    The road to Abu Ghraib is paved with good intentions. I haven’t questioned Hitchens’s motives, but other problems remain. Is starting a war a good way to promote democracy? If ever so, then is any price in lost lives too high; might a million deaths be not worth the outcome?

    And we have no reason to believe that the Coalition wanted to precipitate this social collapse.

    So what? Consequences matter, and can’t be dismissed by appeal to intentions.

    In fact the WHOLE POINT of the Coalition’s continued presence in Iraq, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives, was to minimize the chaos.

    That has been one of the points, yes, although you should not presume that it’s for the sake of minimizing the chaos.

    The United States may want to keep a long-term military presence in Iraq to bolster moderates against extremists in the region and protect the flow of oil, the Army general overseeing U.S. military operations in Iraq[, John Abizaid,] said … “Ultimately it comes down to the free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our own nation and everybody else in the world depend”

    Yet to accuse Hitchens of “supporting murder”, just because he supported a regime change

    You seem to believe that this false dichotomy is not false. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. He did support regime change. And he also knowingly supported murder.

    Either way, the truth is greatly more nuanced than “Hitchens supported murder”.

    Granted. There is nuance to the Hitchens’s support of murder. But it doesn’t mean that he therefore did not support murder. He definitely did support murder, lots of it.

    That he might find the “gamble”, as you call it (by the way, Hitchens himself has not to my knowledge been so dishonest as to pretend that he didn’t know for absolutely certain that mass murder would result, so I don’t expect he would call it any sort of gamble), to be a worthwhile one does not mean he didn’t support murder.

    You agree that he supported murder, Amelia. But for some reason you think we shouldn’t call it murder if you can think of some reason why murder might be okay.