The first time I ever saw Christopher Hitchens perform — and by perform, I mean speak, as there are few other people who could ever entertain so consistently simply by talking — was on Bill Maher’s show, the summer before my senior year of high school. I remember it clearly because of how enormously Hitchens raised the intellectual level of discourse on that show, which usually is only the perfect program to watch if you want to hear rappers and swimsuit models express their views on, say, the future of nuclear energy. Hitchens was always at the height of his powers defending provocative and unpopular positions, and that night’s tall order was for the increasingly disfavored Iraq War. Hitchens was brilliant, and when the audience booed him at one point, he actually flipped them off. I was dazzled by how he could transition from such intellectual cogency to such a well-merited if lowbrow dismissal of Maher’s audience, frivolous as that audience was and is. I began following Hitchens avidly after that, regularly reading his articles for Slate and Vanity Fair up until the present day. He still managed to publish a column in Vanity Fair only a week ago — one of the poignant meditations on dying, and on surrender and loss, which have been among the most fascinating (if totally crushing and saddening) pieces he’s written. I can’t recall having seen anyone, openly and in the public eye, face death with such courage and with a kind of grace.
Hitchens was a crucial inspiration — and, in a positive sense, a provocation — to me, as an opinion writer when I was in college. And he continues to be today. Many of the columns I wrote for the Daily Dartmouth were written out of an attempt to match Hitchens’ wit and his energy and aggression, while very much avoiding adopting his positions on religion and on some other issues (though I agreed with him on plenty.) Fortunately or not, the sensitive and humane (sometimes a little too sensitive and humane) editors at the D helped me avoid becoming totally incendiary. What impressed me about Hitchens wasn’t so much the rigor of his thinking, though it often did anyway — still, better anti-religious polemics have been written before — but the strength of his personality, his style and stance, his wit and charm. His persona was, on the one hand, real, very sincere and passionate, and, on the other, a brilliant artifice (old-school cynical bad-ass journalist with a bottle of booze perennially at hand.)
Of the so-called “New Atheists,” I liked Hitchens the best (while holding a fair amount of contempt for Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett — the latter of whom didn’t want to talk to me about qualia and their relation to the possibility of reality being fundamentally non-material after a lecture this one time.) The only “New Atheist” whom I actually agree with to a fair extent — because he’s not really an atheist, even — is Sam Harris. But Hitchens, as a personality, most inspired my affection. Whereas Richard Dawkins seems to me to have rejected God and any notion of spirit simply because he doesn’t like the idea that there might be something that thought cannot think — something that offends the reason — I liked the fact that Hitchens seemed to reject traditional ideas of God not, at bottom, because they disagreed with his reason — though they did — but because they offended his humanity. He always, and quite righteously, argued against the idea of a tyrant God presiding over heaven and earth as though they were, what he liked to call, “a celestial North Korea.”
This is wholly admirable and praiseworthy, because most of those conceptions of Deity should offend one’s humanity — the somehow loving Father who nonetheless will, paradoxically, fry you, a child of his, in hell for all eternity, simply because you did not believe that a discrete set of historical events occurred in Judea two thousand years ago or because you did not believe that an angel dictated a particular holy book to an Arab prophet less than fifteen hundred years ago. Hitchens had the brains to reject these ideas, but he seemed to me to too quickly dismiss any alternative, like Buddhism (the serious kind) or Gnosticism (though he was, as he wrote once, impressed by Gnosticism, back when the “Gospel of Judas” came out). Hitchens was in the British skeptical tradition — going back through Thomas Hardy and David Hume — and to have asked him to embrace an esoteric gnosis would’ve been too much. Yet Hitchens clearly believed in humanity — as he said, belief in the soul was a necessary fiction for life — and I believe that that belief is, above and beyond the belief in any supernatural tyrant along the lines of Blake’s “Nobodaddy” (the war-like figure worshipped by so many of the less-enlightened Christians, Muslims, and Jews), the really crucial belief. If “salvation” depends on anything, it depends on that love and that faith. I’d like to pay Hitchens the compliment that I think he would’ve most appreciated: he served human liberty.