An Atheist’s Mystery Revealed

by M-Gillies

Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, these are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but put them in the same room with the iconoclastic, masterful rhetorician and incomparable critic Christopher Hitchens, and these four mythical entities wouldn’t stand a Hitch-slap chance when it comes to mincing words.

Wavy-haired, brooding and aflame with wit and righteous anger, as a writer, journalist and contrarian, Hitchens carved a reputation for barbed repartee, scathing critiques of public figures and a fierce intelligence. For a man radicalized by the 60s and jaded by the flawed, corrupt and almost fascistic 70s, Hitchens positioned himself as a Trotskyist becoming a correspondent for the Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialism magazine. Drawn to the political left and fuelled by his anger over the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, racism and oligarchy, he soon found an affinity toward the politically charged countercultural and protest moments of the 60s and 70s.

Even as he attended Oxford university, Hitchens confessed to leading a “double life” as both an “ally of the working class” and a guest at cocktail parties where he could meet “near-legendary members of the establishment’s firmament on nearly equal terms.”

However, it wasn’t until after his graduation in 1970 that Hitchens quickly gained a reputation as a pugnacious leftwing commentator, and a fierce left-winger who aggressively narrowed his crosshairs at the Roman Church, the Vietnam war and Henry Kissinger in essays, news reports and book reviews.

In 1973, Hitchens received shocking news when he learnt his mother had committed suicide in Athens in a suicide pact with her lover. Flying alone to recover his mother’s body, Hitchens arrived during a time when Greece was in a constitutional crisis of the military junta. It was during this time that he took it upon himself to report on the event, which in turn became his first leading article for the New Statesman.

It was also, during this time that Hitchens made a resolution to himself to spend time, at least once a year, in “a country less fortunate than (his) own”. From that day forward, Hitchens had made expeditions to Romania, Nicaragua, Malaysia and beyond, often at his own expense. His travels would eventually see him visit post-war Iraq in 2006, Uganda in 2007, and Venezuela in 2008.

After immigrating to the United States in the 80s, Hitchens began writing for The Nation and further became a Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair. In friendlier times, Gore Vidal was quoted as citing Hitchens a worthy heir to his satirical throne. However, Hitchens, intolerant of nonsense, had a falling out with Vidal after 9/11.

Following the September 11 attacks, Hitchens found his views shifting away from the left. With his views becoming increasingly critical toward the left with what he called “excuse making” former allies soon became foes. Arguments soon developed with Noam Chomsky and others who suggested that US foreign policy was to blame. As a supporter of the Iraq war and backing George W. Bush for re-election in 2004, Hitchens scathed at left’s reluctance to confront enemies or friends.

While he had defended the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy, he criticized the actions of US troops and the government’s use of water-boarding, and further joined with four individuals as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program.

However, it was in 2007 that Hitchens became a major celebrity in his adopted homeland of the United States, and further became the leading voice of secularism with the publication of his anti-religious polemic God is Not Great.

Not only was he a man known for his prodigious literary output, he also was well known for his love of cigarettes and alcohol. In 2005, while on a trip in Aspen, Colorado, Hitchens wrote of an experience he had while stepping off a ski lift, “I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition. What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. ‘Sir, that would be inappropriate.’ In what respect? ‘At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.’ In that case, I said, make it a double.”

In 2010, shortly after writing his memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer. For a man who spent a lifetime “burning the candle of both ends” he described his illness as “something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”

Maintaining his devout atheistic stance to claims that cancer might persuade him to change his position, Hitchens said to ditch principles “held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute” would be a “hucksterish choice” and further urged those who had taken it upon themselves to pray for him not to “trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. However, he further stated, “No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises.”

While undergoing treatment for cancer, Hitchens continued to travel around for debates and continued writing for Vanity Fair going so far as contributing articles about his experiences undergoing chemotherapy and dealing with cancer.

On December 15, 2011, Hitchens died from esophageal cancer at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. During his time receiving treatment for his illness Hitchens said, “I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“He was fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair said. “There was no belief he held that he did not advocate with passion, commitment and brilliance.”

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