I first came to know about the late Christopher Hitchens during the “New Atheist” publishing boom, after Sam Harris’ book “The End of Faith” led to Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell.” His was the last of the so-called “Four Horsemen” to hit the bookstands, and I can recall viewing with delight the rows upon rows of yellow-jacketed hardback copies of his book that enjoyed prominent placement in the new release stacks of my neighborhood Barnes & Noble.
“God is Not Great,” they proclaimed, as hundreds of North Texans passed by.
To read Hitchens is to know that of which human intellect is capable. Whether one agreed or disagreed with him on any position, it was not wise to question the power of his arguments. As a former believer, I stumbled under the weight of his attack on religion as a wholly negative enterprise, and yet could not mount a sufficient defense on behalf of my supernaturally-inclined friends and colleagues, nor even of my own autobiography.
I first met him in person at the Christian Book Expo, a (financially) disastrous event held in Dallas, approximately one year before Hitchens’ diagnosis of esophageal cancer. He was on hand to promote the documentary “Collision,” which featured himself with Reformed Christian pastor Douglas Wilson. Both were also engaged in a debate along with local pastor Jim Denison, journalist-turned-author Lee Strobel, and the philosopher William Lane Craig. Anticipation was in the air for an impending formal debate between Hitchens and Craig, and the debate room was packed with local believers, atheists, and various luminaries of the Christian apologetical world.
The evening before, Hitchens had been on hand for a screening of the documentary, and given the mostly Christian audience, I had a unique opportunity to speak with him at length, and buy several copies of his book (which I have been pleased to give away to friends since that time). He was pleased with the success of the book, and with the ability to debate ideas that he took rather seriously, and also for the opportunity to showcase his immense wit. And I of course thanked him for his writing, and for the fire that he and others had managed to light under a complacent American Christianity. And after the debate, when he visited me and my colleague Kevin Harris at our impromptu podcasting booth, I thanked him for sharing more of his time with us.
But as much as Hitchens appreciated the gratitude, he appreciated iconoclasm even more. And so the greatest memorial I can offer to the fallen man is an post-mortem criticism of one point during his debate.
Stan Guthrie, editor of Christianity Today, had asked him what atheism could offer the weak among us, both physically and emotionally. In his response, Hitchens took the opportunity to attack Christianity (again) and dispute the very notion of a compassionate deity. But he didn’t answer the question, at least not directly. Which is a shame, because I think there is much indeed to be said for the compassion of a humanistic and naturalistic worldview. For myself, a world without gods is a world in which I require the assistance and friendship of my fellow humans on a daily basis. Strong or weak, we are all subject to the whims of the Universe’s power, and none of us can stand confidently on our own two feet without the support of humanity’s billions in past and present. The tools that we make help more than just our own families, and the contributions to our knowledge benefit our entire species. Nature is no less terrifying if there is some divine entity pulling the strings, and our dependence on each other is not diminished even if prayers are answered.
I’ve wondered if Hitchens’ response to that question in the months before his death would be a different one. His final essay for Vanity Fair presents him as grappling intimately with the weakness that Guthrie was inquiring about. His response there indicates by example how an atheist, though weak, can celebrate the tenuousness and preciousness of life.