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111216 Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Today Humanists mourn the death of one of our leading Western public figures, journalist Christopher Hitchens. I must confess up front that I only began paying attention to him about a year ago around the time of his cancer diagnosis, but once I did, I eagerly began working through the tens of hours of his presentations, debates, and interviews memorialized on YouTube. His death—which he publicly believed would constitute the end of his existence in this or any other dimension—is surely a loss.
My hope, however, is that we do not incur a second loss by remembering him incorrectly. Perhaps he is now most known as one of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse, the group of four recent authors who most prominently advocated New Atheism. However, he deserves recognition in another and perhaps even more important way: he represented diversity within Humanism and an expansion far beyond the fairly narrow demographic sliver to which Humanism seems largely stuck.
As I have bemoaned on other occasions, Humanists and Humanist institutions—at least in the United States—too often reduce themselves to pawns of the political left. An inordinate amount of our energy goes into mobilizing votes and money for the Democratic Party in exchange for—well, I do not even know what. Perhaps more so than any other American Humanist, however, Hitchens stood against this.
When he died, he was one of the most vocal and articulate supporters of the U.S.’s 2003 Iraq invasion even as most of its other early supporters have quietly disappeared. He could also fairly be called pro-life based on public statements like the followings:
I do, as a Humanist, believe that the concept ‘unborn child’ is a real one, and I think the concept is… underlined by all the recent findings of embryology. … I feel a responsibility to consider the occupant of the… womb as a candidate member of society in the future and thus to say that it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it. It’s a social question and an ethical and a moral one, and I say this as someone who has no supernatural belief….
He was also a remarkably passionate critic of Bill Clinton and once dismissed him—in Hitchens’s beloved style—as “cheep and nasty and cynical and brutish and vulgar and crass and coarse, crude, nasty, mendacious….”
Perhaps most importantly, he believed in American Exceptionalism in that phrase’s truest meaning: he thought that the Founding Fathers, at a fundamental level, got it right. Thus he spoke regularly about how dark life is outside of social contract-based society and described in vivid detail (sometimes for firsthand experience) the moral bankruptcy of dictatorial states like North Korea, Iran and—prior to the war—Iraq. As a man who was himself an immigrant, he made his audiences proud to be American.

None of this particularly comports with the Democrats’ instructions to Humanists, and Hitchens simply did not care. He was a genuinely independent man and would not let alliances or allegiances hinder his conscience or act on its behalf. That was the great lesson of Hitchens: freethinking is for everyone, and applies to all areas of life—not just theology. We should honor his memory by living up to that standard.