Christopher Hitchens had been battling cancer and passed away this past Thursday, and he left the world as one of the world’s most prominent atheists. He was known for his piercing wit, eloquent British speech, and vicious criticism of anything he found objectionable–which, for the latter part of his life, was mostly religion, particularly Christianity. Despite my deep disagreement with the man, I found his passing sad, and I wish he had many more years to rankle us religious people with his polemics… and maybe hear the Gospel for the millionth time and repent, though the former was far more likely than the latter.
When I was first introduced to Hitchens and listened to him speak, I must confess that I was hardly impressed: As I have noted in my post here, this so-called New Atheist movement is less about argument as it is about appealing to people’s bitter emotions, which is ironic considering their proponents’ self-advertisement of being the towers of logic, and Hitchens was no exception. While he was witty and wrote and spoke well, he had largely a poor grasp of arguing with coherence and proved incapable of examining his own philosophical presuppositions. Such unpreparedness of real argument did not suit him well when he debated William Lane Craig, and he was clearly out of his league when it came to philosophical debate. It was yet another irony; Craig is accused by atheists of not being a real philosopher but just a “rhetorician,” largely because he has embarrassed many an atheist, yet this more accurately described someone like Hitchens. As a journalist, he could capture one’s attention with his skillful sentences, but when examined with any careful thinking, it mostly fell apart.
That said, I grew to have an appreciation for Hitchens for both his measured civility, his honesty, and his willingness to face those whom he blasted in debate. This is quite unlike Richard Dawkins, a man who is like a chihuahua and barks with a high pitched squeal from far away, never to actually engage those he is attacking. Hitchens seemed to have the admirable quality of not taking debate too personally despite strong disagreement, and when I saw him debate, he normally conducted himself with class. I may have found his arguments exceptionally weak, but at least he was willing to come out and face criticism without acting like a buffoon.
Furthermore, it was hard not to admire Hitchens’ candor. When he received word that Christians were praying for him during his fight with cancer, he didn’t react with petty rage or offense as many atheists do (even when that prayer is offered to someone not remotely connected to them); he appreciated the act, although he did not believe in its efficacy. He was also brutally honest about his own cancer; he understood he was paying the consequences for an unhealthy lifestyle heavy on smoking, drinking, and a lack of exercise, and he took full responsibility for it. He accepted his fate, even if he could not fully come to terms with it, and refused to sit idly feeling sorry for himself but continued many of his activities. At the least, there was something refreshingly transparent about him; while I certainly don’t pretend to know him well (and no one else should if they are not close to him), one at least got the feeling that what we saw in public forums was more or less a genuine aspect of himself.
It is unfortunate that Hitchens’ writings has influenced more and more atheists to be, frankly, ignorant about the actual arguments presented for religion and Christianity, but if more atheists were like him in civil discussion, this debate might be going better. Guys like Dawkins poison discourse; at least it was possible to have it with Hitchens. He was clearly a contemplative guy, and for that I’ll give him respect.