“You must feel”, wrote Christopher Hitchens, on the subject of motivation for writing in his magnificent Letters to a Young Contrarian, “not that you want to but that you have to.” This admirable principle, it appears, has applied to Hitchens on an almost daily basis throughout his lifetime; I hope it is an appropriate, though certainly very small, testimonial to his consistently outstanding journalism that I feel as though Ihave to compose this article, in appreciation of a writer whose prolific output has so profoundly reinforced and influenced my own thinking in the short time since I was first introduced to it.
Martin Amis published an open letter on Hitchens in the Observer recently, which ended beautifully:
“We do know what will happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.”
Amis is right: Hitchens always stands out. In his recent memoir, Hitch-22, he recounts the phrase spoken by his mother Yvonne: “The one unforgivable sin is to be boring.” Living up to such a standard is an accomplishment in itself. That Hitchens should live up to it with such consistency, combining the qualities of being both compulsively engaging and incisively accurate, is to be admired and cherished: I suppose you don’t see too many of these figures in a lifetime.
Hitchens’ is a journalistic career festooned with arguments that have been, at once, both deservedly and undeservedly controversial: deserved in terms of the attention rightfully directed towards them; undeserved in terms of their accuracy and elementary common sense. Up there among his supposedly more ambitious arguments is his contention that the worldwide affection bestowed upon Mother Teresa was in simple error, for which he was, in 2001, invited to give evidence against her beatification by the Vatican:
“When asked if I knew anything about her work among the poor, and whether I had ever met her, I replied that I had walked around Calcutta in her company and formed the conclusion that she was not so much a friend of the poor as a friend of poverty. She praised poverty and disease and suffering as gifts from on high, and told people to accept these gifts joyfully. She was adamantly opposed to the only policy that has ever alleviated poverty in any country – that is, the empowerment of women, and the extension of their control over their own fertility.”
For all his capability in understanding, and contributing to, matters of global importance, it must be noted that the principles upon which Hitchens has built many of his most effective arguments are simple indeed: in his own words,
“The job of supposed intellectuals is to combat oversimplification… However, you must have noticed how often certain ‘complexities’ are introduced as a means of obfuscation.”
Here, Hitchens gives an excellent example:
“You would think, perhaps, that when Salman Rushdie was assaulted by a theocratic fatwah in 1989, his fellow authors would have rushed to his defence. Here was an open incitement to murder, accompanied by the offer of a bounty and directed at a writer of fiction was wasn’t even a citizen of the said theocracy. But you would have been astonished to see the amount of muttering and hanging back that went on. Had The Satanic Verses perhaps been ‘offensive’?…
“In public debates with those who worried about the blasphemous or profane element in the novel, or who said that they did, I would always begin by saying, look, let’s get one thing out of the way. May I assume that you are opposed without reservation to the suborning of the murder, for pay, of a literary figure?”
This necessity of recognising obfuscation, and clarifying the most essential principle, is not unique to the example of Salman Rushdie’s fatwah. In 2006, in the wake of extremist Muslims in various countries murdering innocent Danes in retaliation to cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet, Hitchens took a similar position, observing that:
“Unchecked violence against a small Scandinavian democracy was seen as something for which it was the Danes who should be apologising.”
It must also be added that Hitchens is correct in observing how often this obfuscation occurs, of issues that ought to be kept comparatively simple: notice it once, and you notice it again and again and again.
Hitchens’ applications of other simple principles have raised important points, too. His “disposition to resistance… against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion” has frequently proved valuable, in targeting popular misinformed ideas, from the “propaganda” of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 to calling for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI, on the grounds that:
“The institutionalised concealment of child rape is a crime under any law and demands not private ceremonies of repentance or church-funded payoffs, but justice and punishment.”
On these matters alone, I would contend that Christopher Hitchens’ journalism gleams and glitters with cogent arguments and admirable moral stances, and his work is to be celebrated as a triumph of free inquiry and firm principle. There is one greater achievement, though, for which millions of people have had cause to thank him: he has consolidated the atheist position to an extent that is comparable (at least) to his contemporary, Richard Dawkins. There are, in my judgement, two arguments that Hitchens holds, and which show up religious apologists who decline to take them seriously. The first is this:
“It may not be said that ‘there is no god’. It may be said that there is no reason to think that there is one.”
Hitchens has added to this that even if one did become convinced of some form of creative force behind the universe, there remains a chasm between this deistic position, which holds that ‘a deity exists’, and the theistic position, which holds that ‘a deity exists and cares’ – or, in Hitchens’ words,
“knows who you are, minds what you do, answers your prayers, cares which bits of your penis or your clitoris you have sawn away from you, minds who you go to bed with and in which positions, minds which holy day you observe and minds what you eat.”
Difficult questions indeed for the religious to deal with. Hitchens’ atheism goes one step further than this, however: from the lack of a compelling reason to think that god exists, he has gone on to write very eloquently and persuasively on the case for criticising religion:
“I do not wish, as some sentimental materialists affect to wish, that [the false claims of religion] were true. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale…
“There may be people who wish to live their lives under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.”
He concludes with the following magnificent observation:
“Our greatest resource is the mind, and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved.”
The strength of his book, god is not Great, lies in its predominant focus upon his first-hand experience of the political effects of religion. I have often heard it said that a good deal of the popularity, as well as the controversy, of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion can be credited to religious people who laugh off its weaker arguments. Having read it myself, I will acknowledge that it is open to one major criticism: any secularist attacking any faith’s metaphysical and philosophical religious assertions is bound to draw accusations of misunderstandings from one denomination or another. When I encounter sneering of this kind, I always point out that anyone who seriously regarded themselves as brave in this debate would criticise god is not Great. The God Delusion is a fine book, and has fulfilled its intentions well – but when it comes to religion’s manifold negative effects in societies worldwide, the worst behaviour has been observed by, and the best arguments have been written by, Christopher Hitchens. The one that I shall quote is – I think – the most memorable:
“I was to imagine myself [for the sake of a question in a debate] in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now – would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting?
“I was able to answer as if it were not hypothetical. ‘Just to stay within the letter B, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.’”
Those reasons are given in the book. In Belfast, murder and torture. In Beirut, massacre. In Bombay, street violence. In Belgrade, slaughter and deportation. In Bethlehem, conflict arising from the Hamas organisation. In Baghdad, genocide. All explicitly motivated by faith-based hatred.
It cannot be denied that Christopher Hitchens’ prodigious output has been of enormous benefit to each and every cause of which he has been a part. I began this article by mentioning that I felt not just a desire but a compulsion to write in praise of a man who has, in Martin Amis’ words, “blazed so very brightly”; I shall end it by wishing him all the very best, and hoping that he continue to blaze for a good while yet.