On December 15th 2011, the world bid farewell to one of the last true radicals of the 20th Century.Christopher Hitchens; author, essayist, literary critic, the enfant terrible of international journalism, Oxford graduate, atheist, political observer, polemicist, self-defined radical, former Marxist, alcoholic, smoker and debater extraordinaire. He finally succumbed to the esophageal cancer that he had been fighting against since 2010. He left behind an invaluable legacy of numerous books, countless essays and articles on a variety of subjects and late in his life a series of recorded debates mainly with religious leaders where he examined the lethal consequences of faith and religious belief to human progress and well-being.
My first contact with Hitchens' work was a rather belated one. Like most other people of my generation (late 20s - early 30s), I got to know Hitch mainly as one of the passionate champions of the 'New Atheism' movement, which gained popularity during the second half of the last decade partly as a result of the rise of religious fundamentalism in the United States and the horrors of Islamic Terrorism that characterised the first years of the 21st Century. He was probably the most passionate, outspoken and irreverent member of the 'Holy Trinity' of New Atheism, the other two being evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett. Personally, I was introduced to this new intellectual movement by reading Dawkins' infamous 'The God Delusion' back in 2006.
For as long as I can remember, I had never been a particularly religious person or at all concerned with the concept of God or the Divine. Coming from a country with deep religious traditions, Christianity was woven into the fabric of everyday life and the multitude of religious holidays and celebrations of the Church's Saints and Holy figures defined how people organised their life and work. During all that time, I guess I was mostly 'following the herd' without any particular conviction that any one of those rituals or stories were true or had any rational basis whatsoever. Nevertheless, after discovering Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest of the New Atheist thinkers, I finally had a scientific and rational basis for my unbelief; I could make my point in any argument that would be concise, researched and most of the times undisputed. That was liberating, and because I was finally an adult I would not have to 'follow the herd' ever again in my life.
As a consequence, my first Hitchens read was the seminal 'God is not Great', his scathing critique of religious belief that was published in 2007. From the first pages I was immediately hooked by the excellence of his prose and the clarity of his arguments. Even in such a narrow field as theology and religion, the reader could instantly recognise that he was in the hands of a master of language, a deeply knowledgeable person and a figure of unrivaled wit and humour. In order to justify and back up his usually impeccably expressed arguments, he would effortlessly employ references from resources as diverse as Church scholars, Enlightenment philosophers and famous authors. Needless to say that after this introduction I needed to learn more about Hitchens; the man and his work.
The second great revelation came through that most modern of mediums, the Internet, and in particular the miracle that is YouTube. Following the immediate and mostly unexpected success of his book, Hitchens embarked on a long tour which involved lectures, talks and most importantly live debates with religious leaders and apologists of all dogmas and denominations. These events took place mainly in the US and the UK and were held in a variety of venues from cosy, small town bookshops to large university auditoriums that could house thousands. Gradually the organisers started filming the events and putting them online for everyone to enjoy. And enjoy we did…
It turned out that the man could speak the way he wrote. Sharp, quick-witted, humorous, irreverent; I was watching in amazement at the brilliant manner in which he constructed his arguments and refuted his opponent's thesis. Always ready and open to the challenge; always willing to give the next 'Hitchslap' to some poor theologian, Catholic priest or Jewish rabbi who was struggling to make the audience accept that 'God is great' and 'Religion is the supreme human institution and the major force for good in the world'. Unfortunately, they soon realized they were dealing with a more powerful opponent than usual. His debates were addictive. People would often confess that they abandoned their faith after reading his book or attending his talks.
Then, suddenly, while at the height of his popularity disaster struck. A rapidly progressing form of cancer, probably a result of his chronic alcoholism and chain smoking habits. The enemies seemed to relish in the guilty pleasures of 'Schadenfreude'. Surely, they thought, he would soon be renouncing his godless views, and running back to the Eternal Father begging for salvation before the dreadful end arrived. Not Hitch. He kept going strong. He knew the end was near and he faced death with the calmness and dignity of a free man. Until the very last minute, he would get on the podium and speak his mind about politics, life, men and God. Frail, weak, with his voice almost gone, he was still going strong. He never gave up, he never apologized, he NEVER renounced. That is to me the definition of true Greatness.
Though his voice was silenced he can still be heard through his talks and verbal combats with the establishment figures he so much detested all his life. Though his fingers will never caress the keys of a typewriter or computer any more, his words will still be read through his countless articles, essays and books. And his spirit will live on through the millions of men and women all over the world who by losing their Faith, they found their Freedom.