It was just a few weeks ago that I was wondering how I would feel when the greatest thinker of our time died.
I knew that I would lament that the world had lost a man who, in my opinion, has contributed more to the evolution of human thought, the progression of humans as a species, than any other in the past several centuries, perhaps the most influential since Socrates.
I didn’t realise just how much it would effect me when I read the news this morning, how upset I would become, as a result of the death of a man that I cannot even claim to have been within several hundred kilometres of, let alone known.
The impact of his death on me has been profound, it has devastated me – not because a human life has been lost, but because the world has lost so much with his passing, because the collective human intelligence has been significantly reduced.
Stephen Fry put it brilliantly:
“He was one of very, very few people on earth whom I would have missed just as much had I never had the pleasure and fortune of knowing him. He lit fires in people’s minds. He was an educator.”
I have been an atheist now for around 30 years. I have never wavered in my lack of belief in a god or the supernatural, but I have, at times, wavered in my prosecution of the evils of theism.
Hitchens was responsible for me reawakening and the rekindling the fires within me with regards to my tacit acceptance of both the intellectual sloth of the passively religious and the evils of the aggressively religious.
It was more than that though. Hitchens did, to paraphrase Fry, light a fire in my mind, and bring me out of an intellectual reverie of my own.
Whereas Dawkins made me angry, Hitchens made me think. He made a lot of people think, and I am sure, in death, will continue to do so.
Hitchens summed up my distaste for the intellectual laziness that some call faith quite brilliantly:
“People always demand respect for their faith, you’ve noticed this happening. Why should I respect someone who makes enormous claims on no evidence, and, when confronted with that fact says ‘well, I don’t need any evidence, I’ve got faith’?
I think extraordinary claims, such as they know not just that there is a god, but that they know his mind, they know his instructions, they’ve had revealed truth from him… claims like that demand extraordinary evidence. Instead of which, they say ‘how about no evidence at all and just take me on faith?’
Why am I supposed to respect that? I don’t respect it, I suspect it”
Hitchens respected thought, the human capacity to think and analyse, the ability to reason, to take responsibility and not abdicate reason, and he lead by example:
The same cannot be said those who call themselves religious leaders.
A heavy drinker and smoker, upon diagnosis of his cancer, Hitchens accepted that it was of his own doing, and would lead to his death.
He drank “because it makes other people less boring. I have a great terror of being bored”
He relished the attacks made by others as a result of his lifestyle ‘because I always think it’s a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem.’
He made no apologies, he had always known that he was a mortal man and this was his one shot, and so he enjoyed life as he saw fit, seeing no evil in doing so, so long as he didn’t hurt others.
It is somewhat ironic that a man so loathed and detested by so many of theistic bent, would carry himself to his death with a dignity that they could only hope to achieve.
He put it more eloquently than I could ever have hoped to when he wrote, upon diagnosis:
In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair:
I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason.
Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste.
I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again?
To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger?
But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.
Valé, Hitch, you will be sorely missed, but the lessons you taught us will be learned by many a generation to come.