I woke up around 3 AM this morning, not unusual for me as I grow older and sleep less. When I do, invariably I resort to my iPad, usually tapping on the BBC news. I was saddened at the banner headline announcing the death of Christopher Hitchens from pneumonia as a complication of esophageal cancer. He was just 62.
I came upon Hitchens late, starting to read him, hit and miss, about 10-years ago. I never read any of his columns in Vanity Fair where he wrote monthly. I did, however, read several of his books, and I presently have his just published Arguably, a collection of many of his essays. An Oxford grad, he wrote 17 books, notably among them, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Articulate and fearless, he proved a formidable debater with short patience for proponents of the irrational such as religionists, whom he held were an inveterate threat to freedom and intellectual integrity and “the world’s main source of hate.”
In politics, he aroused the fury of the Left in his embrace of the Iraq war. Saddam was a menace worth getting rid of. He hadn’t started out this way, being very much a part of the 1960s ferment in opposing the Vietnam war. It turned him off when the liberal establishment manifested its tepid response to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for the death of writer Salman Rushdie.
One of my delights in reading Hitchens was his unabashed willingness to take on all comers rather than follow engrained opinion. Among those he excoriated were Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, and Hillary and Bill Clinton.
I was also drawn to him because we frequently shared the same heroes; for example, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and Orwell.
Several years ago I concluded I could no longer accept the religious framework of my earlier years and embraced atheism. It made sense and has given me an abiding peace. Vanished are the mental squabbles concerning good and evil. We live in a world not of Mind, but of cosmic dice. Hitchens never failed to render my own dissonance into eloquence. He not only gave me comfort, but more importantly, courage. It’s just as difficult for Atheists to come out as it is for gays, perhaps more so, as lately gays have more traction in the mainstream.
One day, like a lightning bolt, it suddenly flashed upon me that I was a child of that remarkable phenomenon in history known as the Enlightenment. In its embrace, I found new heroes, among them Hitchens, bold devotees of rationality in a world governed largely by impulse and indulgence, to its own peril.
As Hitchens bravely noted in his final weeks, our lives are rationed. It follows then that we should measure out appropriately our individual portion wisely. In this, Hitchens was our exemplar as a fervent warrior for humanity’s potential secured by Reason and bold excoriator of hypocrisy and cant.
Just moments after his death, Salmon Rushdie movingly tweeted, “Good-bye my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops.”
A candle has, indeed, gone out, but its spark remains to light yet other candles.