(Update: The original clip I linked to has been withdrawn due to a copyright claim, and the full debate now hides behind a paywall; apparently the generous Christians at Prestonwood are now charging for Hitchens’ atheist view. Perhaps they’re not feeling so magnanimous now that the consensus is that their side was trounced? For the moment, other versions still exist on YouTube, including this one. I’ve transcribed it below, although it’s worth clicking through to hear Hitchens’ always-impressive delivery.)
Here are Christopher Hitchens’ closing remarks in a debate with William Dembski on the question “Does a Good God Exist?”:
I’ll close on the implied question that Bill asked me earlier: Why don’t you accept this wonderful offer? Why wouldn’t you like to meet Shakespeare, for example?
I don’t know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled, and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It’s not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology, and I have to say that it sounds like a complete fairy tale to me. The only reason I’d want to meet Shakespeare, or might even want to, is because I can meet him, any time, because he is immortal in the works he’s left behind. If you’ve read those, meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment.
But when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations, and for blasphemy for challenging the gods of the city — and he accepted his death — he did say, well, if we are lucky, perhaps I’ll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters too. In other words the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, and what is true could always go on.
Why is that important, why would I like to do that? Because that’s the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don’t know. But I do know that that’s the conversation I want to have while I’m still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer of something not worth having. I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don’t know anything like enough yet; that I haven’t understood enough; that I can’t know enough; that I’m always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And I’d urge you to look at… those people who tell you, at your age, that you’re dead till you believe as they do — what a terrible thing to be telling to children! And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority — don’t think of that as a gift. Think of it as a poisoned chalice. Push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.
The November 18 debate, which was sponsored by Prestonwood Christian Academy in Texas (and can be seen in its entirety here), took place before an audience of young Baptist students — some of whom, I hope, have taken to heart Hitchens’ exhortation to “take the risk of thinking for yourself.” If I’d heard such a speaker during my young and tender years at Jesuit school, perhaps I’d have gotten on the road to secular humanism a lot sooner. (I do think the Academy should be commended for being willing to let an atheist present his unfiltered views.)
It’s absolutely fascinating and inspiring to see Hitchens advocate for freethought and rationality more fiercely than ever, especially as he fights a (probably losing) battle with esophageal cancer and faces his own mortality. Here he candidly discusses his disease and his atheism with Anderson Cooper, rejecting the possibility of a deathbed conversion:
“Not while I’m lucid.” How many nonbelievers, in the face of personal annihilation, would remain as clear-eyed, as courageous, as confident of the hard-won view of reality that science and skepticism gives us? Religion, arguably, arose out of the need to answer the very question that Hitchens now confronts: how do we deal with the inevitable and implacable fact of death? Perhaps Hitchens’ experience shows us a way to face it without the easy consolation of myths.
(As an aside: Some years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a debate at the New York Public Library between Hitchens and Al Sharpton, which can be seen here. Hitchens’ erudition and wit were a marvel to see live; Sharpton I thought was rather out of his depth; and the appearance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali during the Q&A period was a nice surprise.)
What a tower of courageous, unsentimental intellect. Perhaps our consolation after his death — which will happen sooner or later, after all, to him and to all of us — will be the same consolation he finds in communing with Shakespeare through his works: that Hitchens’ own spoken and written words will remain with us, engaging us in the endless conversation about what is good, beautiful, noble, pure, and true, “the only conversation worth having.”
And it’s a conversation — it’s crucial to note — that he wants to have now, while he’s alive. This too is an expression of his humanism: that if there is no paradise waiting on the other side of death, then we must build what we can of that paradise here, now, on earth — not a Kingdom but a “Republic of Heaven,” as Philip Pullman has it. We can’t wait for our fairy tales to save us, or to validate our lives with rewards in the hereafter; we must figure out, in the time that we have, how to make good lives for ourselves and for others.
The time to live, to speak, to think, to challenge, to learn, to wonder, and to love — is now.
(Photo by Jamie James Medina for The Observer)