Dec 16 2011
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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