On December 15th 2011 Christopher Hitchens took his last breath on this planet, and I’m sure if he exists in an afterlife he would (apart from being pleasantly surprised albeit simultaneously exasperated) lament that he did not have one last chance to remind the society he lived in of the dangers of blind faith and the importance of questioning the established quo. I got into Hitchens late, meaning that I discovered the man and his work near the end of his life. I count it among my many mistakes. I became aware of Christopher Hitchens via The Daily Show where he subtly announced his stage four cancer that would later rob him of life. Curious as to this character of this eloquent man I purchased a copy of his memoir Hitch-22. This first book is nowhere near the importance in my mind of two of his other works: god is not Great and letters to a young contrarian. I have elected to explain Hitchens through these two books, for more often than not human beings take shape in my mind through their written works.
Let us begin with the most controversial idea and therefore we must begin for me with letters to a young contrarian. You may question this as an obvious move to make you laugh at my sense of wit, but I assure this is not the case(I’ve never possessed any iota of wit, just ask my wife). You see Hitchens carefully and eloquently as always, presented to me through this work how radical a position it can be to be a contrarian. Through this small book Hitchens demonstrated to me the importance of the individual to develop not just an intolerance of ignorance and dangerous majority will, but to be ready to question yourself. He says:
“I repeat: what really matters is not what one thinks but how one thinks.”
This is a simple quote but in this sentence Hitchens dramatically altered my perception of belief and learning in my mind. I began to question whether or not I accepted many things in this world just because I had always believed them or if they had been taught to me. Hitchens statement led me to question whether or not we members of contemporary society are really encouraged to think; whether we are taught to critically perceive the reality around us. The individual mind is marked because it is individual. It perceives fault and does not falter from acknowledging fault which, and here’s the tragedy, is often perceived as a threat. Hitchens was often a source of public squabble (that’s a polite word for the debates he often participated in) because he was unflinching to attack hypocrisy where he saw it whether it be dictators, despots, politicians, religious officials, and even the divine. His insistence to speak often presented itself as him simply trying to “rock the boat” or “be an asshole,” but what his critics often neglected (carefully I might add) was that his critiques were ladened with truth. Letters to a young contrarian carefully guided me to the belief that if we are to live in this world, it is without compromising our integrity or sense of justice, for often the path of evil asks us to temporarily and then completely abandon both. I conclude with a line from the book when he says,
“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions […], then I suggest you learn to recognize and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”
I did not feel comfortable calling myself an atheist until concluding letters and then the second work of Hitchens: god is not Great. I will admit that reading this book depressed me, for at that time I was still clinging to the battered and tattered remnants of my faith in god. Whether it was out of a sense of familial devotion or existential angst I cannot be quite sure, but whatever the case Hitchens provided me, not with a biased rant against organized faith and ideology, but instead a rational critique for the foundation of religion within the minds of man. I will cite two sources that I feel made the most impact upon me. He says,
“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that is wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result of and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”
Rather than submit to pathetic arguments Hitchens employs logos and carefully attacks the inconsistencies and corruptions that are derived from obsessive religious devotion. Hitchens could have turned his book into an emotional rant against organized religion, but instead he chose an intellectual argument. He wanted to create a conversation that would ask everyone to challenge their faith and lack-there-of, and in my mind that will always be the hallmark of virtue. We as human beings should always attempt to talk first before submitting to emotions that cloud our judgment. This of course leads me to the second quote for he says,
“And here is the point about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
As a young man I had always been uncomfortable with hypocrisy and blind devotion that never questioned itself, and in a few sentences Hitchens had stated clearly what had always troubled me about religion. He illustrated what exactly I wanted to be: an independent mind. Hitchens was openly atheistic but he never went so far as to argue that atheism should become the predominate ideology of humanity; instead what he was arguing for was independent thought. Hitchens attacked the divine because it is the ultimate source of assurance for many people, in that they accept it’s presence without bothering to question it’s foundation, its negative side effects, and the violence it seems to inspire. What he shows us throughout god is not Great, is that if an ideology is not questioned or challenged reasonably then it is never given the opportunity to prove faulty or given the chance to reform and fix its weaknesses.
Hopefully I have illustrated thus far that what Hitchens was preaching (I use that word loosely because, in Hitchens’ own words, the English language is often poor to provide us better verbs) throughout his entire life was questioning the totalitarian will power of the “assured” masses. He saw as many before him did, that the individual will often come under the scrutiny of those who feel a part of a larger system that they do not question, and therefore the individual must be prepared to defend themselves. Hitchens was not afraid to call bullshit. In that I mean he was undaunted in the face of conflict and was not afraid to be challenged when he spoke out against bigotry, intolerance, and ignorance. That bravery and strength of will is something I have always aspired to and I regret terribly I will never get the chance to meet Mr. Hitchens and thank him for such inspiration.