As has been widely announced today, Christopher Hitchens passed away today, after a protracted and courageous battle with cancer. I have read with interest a number of reflections on his life, but none have surpassed those of his brother Peter Hitchens.
In hearing the news, I feel sadness for the loss. I mightily disagreed with Christopher Hitchens on nearly everything religious, but I nevertheless enjoyed the disagreement. He made it fun, even as he was quite serious. His writing on religion sparkled with cleverness, righteous fury against all those who stood in the way of fairness and the future, and a remarkable ability to connect the dots in the most interesting of ways. He wrote with confidence, intelligence, and passion, with a style that jolted his reader awake to the importance of discussing religion in the public square. Can it be critiqued as overly caustic, biased, using ad hominem, and worse? Yes, definitely– but even in disagreement with much of his content and his tone, I still greatly respected his original, insightful, and trenchant observations.
As I’ve continued to reflect on Hitchens’ death, I realized there was an ironic and sobering possibility: that some Christians, contrary to the loving posture that Jesus taught us, could actually be celebrating his death. After all, it was only eighteen months ago when televangelist Pat Robertson claimed that a devastating earthquake in Haiti was a “blessing in disguise” because it so helpfully exposed the Haitians’ “pact with the devil.” Indeed, a few quick searches on google shows that while the overwhelming majority of commentators are expressing their grief, on at least a few bulletin boards, some people are apparently quite glad to hear of his death. This is really quite sad. Whatever our political or religious or personal differences with Hitchens were, death is not the time to settle scores or express satisfaction.
Rather, death is a reminder to us that the stakes are high. Our lives will end. What will we have lived for, what did we believe, what difference did our lives make? It is childish to turn such a solemn occasion into, say, a celebration for the “God team.” If anything, that’s the kind of irritating behavior which led Hitchens to write his bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. What an irony, that his death would be a cause for some religious people to act in a poisonous and hurtful manner.
I think Thomas Merton put it well when he wrote, in Seeds of Contemplation:
Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God: for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice and mediocrity and materialism and sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.