Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Published by under General
Comments: 30

News of the death of Christopher Hitchens has by now worked its way around the internet and around the world. I first heard of it from a fellow skeptic in Australia. Hitchens was a great intellectual light in this world and it is always sad to see such a light go out.

I have been reading his column for years. Every Monday I eagerly read his take on world news or modern culture. He was an exceptional investigative journalist. You did not have to agree with his point of view to gain insight into the issues he covered. In fact he was one of those rare writers who was more useful and provocative when you did disagree with him – because he challenged your views with overlooked facts and interesting analysis. I am really not aware of anyone writing today who will fill the niche he occupied in my weekly reading.

I also admired Hitchens for being an outspoken unapologetic atheist. There too he filled an important role – exposing the intellectual shenanigans of many religious leaders and helping to mainstream non-belief.  Whether or not you hold any particular religious belief, you should still be able to appreciate the force of his arguments. Criticizing religion and certain religious figures has been taboo in many cultures, and Hitchens  calmly and fearlessly exposed folly in the name of religion without concern for such taboos. In doing so he made a larger point – intellectual honesty and free inquiry demands that there are no taboos. Our thoughts and arguments should be free to go wherever logic and evidence leads, and it is the job of a journalist, in particular, to go there.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him once (available here, and an extended and uncensored version is available here), during which he stated that he did not get his news from newspapers or other journalists. He had a healthy skepticism for any second hand information, and a general disrespect for the average journalist. He would gather his own news from sources as close to primary as possible.

Hitchens announced in the Spring of 2010 that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It was clear from the beginning that his cancer was bad, not curable and likely to be rapidly fatal. He underwent chemotherapy, but no surgery. We therefore knew this day was coming. During the past year and a half, however, Hitchens continued to investigate, write, and live – although he was candid about the changes in his life. He wrote many articles about the impact of cancer on his life, all worth reading. Here is one such passage:

Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of “life” when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask … It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.

Hitchens faced his cancer exactly as I imagined he would (if his public writing is any guide) – fearless, intellectually honest and unapologetic. He blamed nothing and no one but himself for his condition – he said it was an almost boringly predictable consequence of his habits. And he was honest about the materialist world view when it comes to facing mortality.

His fellow materialists have to face this reality as well. Hitchens is gone. His brain – which was everything he thought, felt, remembered, and all the insight he had to offer the world – no longer functions, and never will function again. The same fate awaits us all. Without regret, Hitchens seemed to understand the flip side of this reality – we are the lucky few who get to live.  So make the most of it while you can.

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30 responses so far

30 Responses to “Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011”

  1. unigolynon 16 Dec 2011 at 8:11 am

    Someone said this earlier today, and it sums up my feelings today:

    I was alive when Christopher Hitchens was alive.

  2. Nikolaon 16 Dec 2011 at 9:41 am

    Farewell, you foul-mouthed bastard. You will be missed.

  3. CrookedTimberon 16 Dec 2011 at 9:43 am

    Just got the news this morning. Very sad day. I greatly enjoyed Hitchens writing on everything from the weighty matters of religion and world affairs to his opinions on poetry and literature. We have lost an engaging writer and one of our fiercest defenders of the freethinking cause. His enemies must be relieved that they will no longer have to face him on the debate circuit.

  4. nybgruson 16 Dec 2011 at 9:49 am

    I woke up extra early today so that I could read through my usual articles and blogs before doing a comprehensive review of neurology for my USMLE Step 1.

    I did not expect to read that Hitch had died. I also did not expect to be hit with such a wall of emotion. I discovered Hitch through a friend of mine rather late in the game. I’ve only read one of his books (Letters to a Young Contrarian). But I have watched almost every one of his debates and read many of his articles.

    In addition to his fierce opposition for anything that denigrates humanity – which became focused on religion over the last decade or so – I thoroughly admired his incredibly and entirely unmatched eloquence. Reading him, even on the most mundane of topics, became a mental challenge. One worth stepping up to.

    But what really amazed me is that he managed to maintain this eloquence and sally forth his incredibly vast and deep knowledge of history and the world at a moment’s notice in live speech. It’s one thing to write incredibly well – at least then you have time to ponder, edit, and finesse your work. It is another to speak it. And it is yet another to do it off the cuff as Hitch often did.

    I truly feel like the world is a lesser place for his loss and I too admire him for the way he faced his death.

  5. tmac57on 16 Dec 2011 at 10:32 am

    Like,Steve,one of the things that I liked about Hitchens,was some of the challenging positions that he took,and then defended with a kind of clarity,that forced you to think a little deeper than you might otherwise.
    I found him to be brilliant,contrary,exasperating,and funny,all at the same time.His was a unique voice in journalism that will be missed.

  6. juanroon 16 Dec 2011 at 11:46 am

    Like you Steve I always looked forward to reading his newest column on Mondays over at Slate and watch whatever youtube clip I could find where he lectured or debated. I also agree with you that it’s hard to think about any other writer/thinker that comes close to touching what Hitchens did, but maybe it’s because of his celebrity or my prophet-like awe of him that make me think this way. Either way, he made life more interesting by just trying to keep up with his reading lists and general knowledge of history and current matters. It’s hard to be coherent now recognizing just how strong his influence was over me.

  7. ConspicuousCarlon 16 Dec 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I hate to think of the future crackpots and charlatans who will not be subject to Hitchens’ interrogation. He dealt with issues which require ongoing resistance and are not permanently settled by the event of exposure. Even after Hitchens gave William Lane Craig a beating, that bastard started to claim that atheists were afraid of him. And that was before Hitchens was dead.

  8. mat alfordon 16 Dec 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Our movement (for want of a better phrase) has lost a true intellectual heavyweight.

  9. Kobraon 16 Dec 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Hitchens, a straightshooter and a logical gunslinger on the philosophical frontier. His rational exposés could penetrate the minds of many and blossom a resistance against the god-fearing. He will be missed.

  10. vezelay 1146on 16 Dec 2011 at 4:32 pm

    I learned of his death at 5 am today then went in to work a long saddened day. I will toast him tonight with friends. I’m sure that’s what he would have wanted. His was a life well lived with wit and wisdom well said. Good night Hitch.

  11. chionactison 16 Dec 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for this blog post. I think it is a good summary of the reasons for so many of us being drawn to Hitchens. I too found myself challenged by his substantive and articulate arguments against certain viewpoints I held — mainly political. He always strove for intellectual honesty and helped me to confront my own naivete in some ways. He was also pretty damn entertaining.

  12. grayraceon 16 Dec 2011 at 6:41 pm

    “His fellow materialists have to face this reality as well. Hitchens is gone. His brain – which was everything he thought, felt, remembered, and all the insight he had to offer the world – no longer functions, and never will function again. The same fate awaits us all.”

    One of the most poetic expressions of death I’ve heard. It disturbs and enlightens as all good commentary should. No one can replace Hitchenson or any other person. But your writing is there to continue the good skeptical argument.

  13. larchon 16 Dec 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I got home this evening and, of course, I have only cheap scotch, which I, briefly, considered re-branding 20-year old Glenlivet single malt, but realized that would be, to quote Nixon, “wrong”. So I will drink the swill and hold the glass a bit higher. Hitch was often maddening but always encouraged engagement (unless you were a female comic, where he was so so wrong).

  14. Legionon 16 Dec 2011 at 11:24 pm

    Uhm, I just tried to listen to the uncensored interview with Hitch.

    You couldn’t take this one of off premium in honor of his passing?

    Cheapo…

    p.s. I’m just trying to be funny.

  15. jtpiatton 17 Dec 2011 at 2:40 am

    Probably one of the best posts I’ve read on the subject of his passing today. Thank you.

  16. JurijDon 17 Dec 2011 at 8:21 am

    Criticizing religion and certain religious figures has been taboo in many cultures, and Hitchens calmly and fearlessly exposed folly in the name of religion without concern for such taboos. In doing so he made a larger point – intellectual honesty and free inquiry demands that there are no taboos.

    and just a few lines down


    I had the pleasure of interviewing him once (available here, and an extended and uncensored
    version is available here
    ),

    I find the irony remarkable ;) You say that there should be no taboos in the free expression of ideas but then you lock away such “taboos” behind a paywal. “Strong language” is one such taboo the SGU holds dear (probably only publicly and purely for “political” / PR reasons) but you still uphold it nevertheless. Now don’t misunderstand – I have absolutely no objection to you charging for extra content, none whatsoever, since you do tremendous work with you podcast and you offer it freely. However we all know that a significant part of the reason for that paywall is also to “isolate” the taboo in a neat and tidy place so it won’t harm your listeners with words ;) Perhaps you should then acknowledge the “strong” language taboo you go along with in a more direct and public way.

    Whatever language you use on your show is of course your own personal choice but when you sequester certain parts of someone else’s free speech in an automatic way because you’re following the general “taboo” of strong language, you should at least flinch a bit when you say there needs to be no “sacred” taboos in skepticism ;)

  17. nybgruson 17 Dec 2011 at 10:53 am

    last night we all raised a glass of Johnny Black in front of the fire in recognition.

  18. PhysiPhileon 17 Dec 2011 at 10:56 am

    I haven’t cried in years, and I cried twice yesterday. First when I heard the news and second when I explained to my girlfriend why I was so upset.

    The piece of meat that uniquely assimilates and disperses idea’s is gone, but Hitchens is not dead. He has transfered his process (his brand of skepticism) into the synapses of thousands. Hitchens is not dead, he is just less dense in space.

  19. Ericon 17 Dec 2011 at 12:24 pm

    *Hitting the like button*

  20. rfhickeyon 17 Dec 2011 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for that Steve.

    Whenever Hitchens is mentioned for some reason I always remember this quip:

    Heckled from the gallery by the journalist Christopher Hitchens, Gorgeous flung back that Hitchens was: “A drink-sodden, ex-Trotskyist popinjay and useful idiot.”

    To which the ever-emollient Hitch only countered: “Some of [this] was true.”

    Thanks for bringing a candle into the darkness Mr. Hitchens.

  21. pious fraudon 17 Dec 2011 at 5:17 pm

    I strongly suggest to anyone who hasn’t listened to the full un-edited version, go and download it now. I would have loved to have held a conversation with that glorious man! Yes he was gripping, persuasive and had big courageous balls – but he was also damn funny!

    Mutato Nomine De Te Fabula Narratur

    I love you, Christopher!

    …and thank you for your excellent post, Steven.

  22. Nikolaon 17 Dec 2011 at 6:18 pm

    @pious fraud

    Yep, I definitely would listen to it if I had a Credit Card. I’ve wanted to ever since hearing the aired version…

    @PhysiPhile

    Less dense in space… Hah, good one.

  23. BillyJoe7on 17 Dec 2011 at 11:37 pm

    Unfortunately, I never knew of Christopher Hitchens until I read his book “God is Not Great” only last year. I’ve watched many of his videos and debates since. As some said, he speaks not in sentences but in cleverly crafted paragraphs. It is a pleasure to hear him speak. He does have some odd views on women (which I know are not true) and on Islam (which I hope aren’t true).

  24. Nikolaon 18 Dec 2011 at 6:18 am

    Aye, his debate with Tony Blair gave me great pleasure when I saw it earlier this year.

  25. buffalodavidon 18 Dec 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Some people have the “flying dream” . I have the dream where I’m in a debate against Hitch, and I’m holding my own.

    I’m going to miss him.

  26. pious fraudon 18 Dec 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Leave it to, The Onion, to properly frame the current landscape on this topic:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/fumbling-inarticulate-obituary-writer-somehow-losi,26890/

  27. Richardg837on 18 Dec 2011 at 9:53 pm

    I’m from England and I have just watched an interview of Christopher Hitchens on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman. It was so refreshing to watch an intelligent interview that didn’t talk down to the viewer. Paxman pulled no punches with his questioning and Hitchens answered in his usual forthright way even though he was obviously going through some horrific treatment and was very unwell.

    Most of the world doesn’t realise what a loss he is to us all, he was one of very few voices of reason in the media, we all need voices like his to be heard to control the idiocy that seems to be taking over the world.

    Thankyou Steven for making me aware of this hero of reason a few years ago on the skeptics guide, I am big fan of you and the rogues, I shed a tear when we all lost Perry and I shed a tear over this news also.

    I don’t have a link for the BBC show but I’m sure someone will upload it to youtube.

  28. Nikolaon 19 Dec 2011 at 11:40 am

    @Richardg837 – this is probably the interview you’re talking about? I shall definitely watch it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-s9AyNQyCw

  29. Richardg837on 27 Dec 2011 at 9:35 am

    @Nikola
    Thanks, that’s the one.

  30. pip010on 04 Jan 2012 at 9:57 am

    R.I.P.

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