Renowned writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens has just died at age 62 of cancer-related pneumonia. The writer, controversialist and polemicist had a distinguished career in the literary field, and was a noted debater, journalist, essayist and columnist. He had a long writing career with publications such as The Nation, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, etc, and his many writings appeared in numerous outlets.
Hitchens, who had lived in the US for the past few decades, was born in England in 1949. He had studied politics, economics and philosophy, and was the author of numerous books, including a scathing denunciation of Mother Teresa in 1995.
If he did not work himself to death, he may well have smoked and drank himself to death. He was rough in his living and rough in his polemics. A brilliant man, he was one of the West’s leading intellectuals. His political leanings certainly shifted over the years.
He was well to the left in his early days, but moved away from his socialism to a rightward direction later in life, at least in certain areas. He became a keen supporter of the war on terror and the efforts to stop it in Afghanistan and Iraq. He became an outspoken critic of totalitarian Islam, and his many writings in this area are still very much worth reading.
But of course he may be most well known for his strident atheism, and along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, was part of the influential “new atheism” which swept the West during the past decade. Dawkins’ polemical work of misotheism, The God Delusion appeared in 2006, while Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything came out in 2007.
He was a fierce debater and took on the likes of William Lane Craig, Alister McGrath, William Dembski, Frank Turek, Dinesh D’Sousa, and Douglas Wilson. And he even recently debated his own brother Peter, who had renounced his atheism.
The story of how Peter left his atheism and became a public apologist for Christianity is told in his 2010 volume, The Rage Against God. I review that important book here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/14/a-review-of-the-rage-against-god-by-peter-hitchens/
It appears that Christopher did not renounce his militant atheism toward the end of his life. Of course no one can know for sure what went through his mind and spirit in his last minutes – only God knows that. But as one obituary put it, he seemed most resistant, even to the bitter end: “On Oct. 12, 2010, after the effects of Mr. Hitchens’s cancer were obvious, he faced his brother in a 90-minute debate in Washington about the existence of God. ‘Despite his clearly frail physical condition,’ The Washington Post reported, ‘Christopher’s acerbic tongue and quick wit seemed undiminished.’
“Mr. Hitchens was fully aware that some people believed his cancer was the result of divine retribution for his seeming apostasy. Others gathered to pray for his recovery and, in many cases, for his eventual conversion to the faith of their choice. He was grateful for their kind wishes, but he reserved special disgust for those who thought he might recant his atheistic beliefs in the face of cancer. ‘I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,’ Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in October 2010, ‘who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies’.”
So now the author of God is Not Great is standing before a great God, and will have to give an account of himself. He will be missed, and it is hoped that in the end he renounced his pride and admitted that he was not in fact the centre of the universe. One can only hope he made the right decision.
But we can still pray for the other atheists – both well known and not well known – that they will not die and face a Christless eternity. We can pray for Dawkins and others that they will see the light, as so many countless of millions of others have over the centuries.
Peter Hitchens wrote last year, “On this my brother and I agree: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so.” Peter has found the truth, for which we can all be thankful. Whether in the end Christopher did only God knows for certain.