In a letter to the National Convention of American Atheists, Christopher Hitchens writes what sounds, sadly and suspiciously, like a farewell:
Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.
That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.
Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations.
As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.
This comes via PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, where a conversation in the comments section makes it clear that Hitchens doesn’t hold admirable positions in all areas: he cheered on the invasion of Iraq and has said some decidedly unenlightened things about women. And it’s even possible — as Kenan Malik explains in his excellent book From Fatwa to Jihad — that critics like Hitchens and Sam Harris misattribute to religion some outrages for which the blame, more properly, lies with political schemers more concerned with power than with metaphysics.
What’s clear from this is that Hitchens is not God (an idea he’d be utterly revolted by), and his own political and cultural opinions shouldn’t be exempted from the critical, objective inquiry that he champions. But the truth of a message is in no way diminished by an imperfect messenger, and Hitchens’ forceful defense of reason, humanism, and Enlightenment values is still very badly needed today. His eloquence, his sardonic wit, his fearless questioning, and his restless, uncompromising intellect will be very sorely missed.
It appears that his close friend the novelist Martin Amis has also written an advanced eulogy of sorts, one worth reading in full.
Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.
(Photo by Christian Witkin)