Hitchens was not a philosopher in the proper sense, nor was he a religious scholar, though he skillfully used the broad landscapes of both these disciplines at will and with great effect to make his sometimes-ferocious arguments against belief systems he saw as deeply hazardous to humanity. A literary scholar, humanist and raconteur, Hitchens made the public square the locus of his redounding and pugnacious challenges to the status quo of religiosity in America. British by birth, he made America his home, not as a resident, but as a genuine citizen. In fact, he was a nationalist in the most precise definition of that word and made it his business to argue on behalf of the country he believed represented the greatest human potential in history, much like Thomas Paine, a man he greatly admired. To some, he could be at once brilliant and in a turn exasperatingly over the edge and dissolute as he was to this writer when he lent his disputatious support to the invasion of Iraq.
“Hitch” would certainly relish a contretemps to make his atheist position against the rabbi, theologian or preacher, something he was famous for, but his particular lines of argument were not new and represented well-worn positions from the old quarrel made by others as far back as David Hume. One could respect his ability to quickly identify inconsistencies and paradoxes in the faith position, but at the end of it all, at least in one view, the God or no God propositions remained in qualitative limbo for the audience.
Where Hitch was most devastating, was in his critiques of particular faith traditions - or, more correctly in his world-view - of organized religions. He went to work like an engineer, identifying the clear fault lines and demanding, on purely moral and ethical grounds, that these institutions be held to account for what he saw as their undue and harmful influence in American civil life and throughout the world. Whether it was acutely identifying circumcision as genital mutilation and therefore abject torture of infants, or shining a light on pervasive and unchecked sexual abuse of children by clergy on a massively disturbing scale, he so dominated these debates that his opponents seemed unable to make the case for the goodness possessed by their respective traditions. To openly criticize Mother Theresa is an act so audacious as to make one wonder, what kind of meanness the critic was imprisoned by. But to actually attack a woman, esteemed throughout the world as the essence of Christian virtue, is to engage in the bizarre. But this he did and he did it relentlessly.
And as it turns out, Hitch had his facts straight.
On a trip to Vietnam in 2001, I met a woman from the International Mission of Hope who had worked with Mother Theresa for a short time in Calcutta. She recounted to me some of her disturbing experiences. Among these was the fact that sick patients and dying patients (often mixed together despite the presence of communicable disease) were not allowed access to doctors or to pain medications. Only “presence and prayer” were allowed, despite the fact that some patients were in a great deal of pain, while medical help was available via aid worker organizations. The credo of Mother Theresa and her nuns seemed to be that physical suffering was a gift that would bring people closer to Christ. Pray over them and let them writhe in pain. The aid worker and her colleagues were so disturbed by what they saw as the willful irrationality and obstinacy of the nuns that they had to withdraw, lest they become complicit in what was becoming increasingly like purposeful torture. No doubt these laboring souls had good motives, but they must have been blind to the sadistic nature of their ministrations.
It was Hitch who brought these and other disturbing facts to the fore. But he also used this and other examples to make his more general argument against religion: that supernatural belief systems are inherently irrational, yet play a central role in moral reasoning and ethics in modern societies, despite the fact that their premises are based on a Bronze Age world view. Furthermore, he argued, some of these ethics enable and often justify inhuman behavior. How persuasive his arguments were or will be with the general public is not clear, but his presence in making them made all of the difference. Despite long odds he appeared to relish the fight and he grasped the essence of America’s First Amendment, as a right with responsibility attached to it, better than most American-born citizens.
While Hitch will certainly be remembered as the mischievous raconteur and colorful personality that he was, his lasting legacy might be that he forged a stronger position for Humanism in America, so that others may take the conversation further and deeper into our culture. Who the next Hitch will be is probably the wrong question. To this writer at least, it is clear that Christopher Eric Hitchens, like Thomas Paine, may not be replaceable. Clearly Hitch would be in full agreement with H.L. Mencken who said, “The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected.” Touché.
It is not in the agreeing or disagreeing that we find progress, but in the rethinking of our own strongly held or wrongly held views. Hitch wanted to move us out of our comfort zones and bring sacred hypocrisies in to the light of day. And in this I think he succeeded.
December 18th, 2011