Religion & Liberty Online

“Saint Christopher”: Hitch at 75

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The vaunted polemicist Christopher Hitchens left behind not only many friends and admirers (and antagonists), but numerous open questions, too.

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He would, of course, have blanched—or barfed—if you had ever addressed him that way (probably the only blasphemy he’d refuse to utter). Yet is it really any more outlandish than the conversations we had about another adamantly avowed atheist? About our intellectual “secular saint” and fellow intellectual big brother? About the English patriot and incarnation of “decency” whom he cherished as his personal hero, “St. George” Orwell?

Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), skeptic and scoffer, would have roundly protested his posthumous canonization. No matter: the crusading legions of the Hitchens faithful these days do not, as they brandish his ever-quotable bon mots, binge-watch his pugilistic punditry (on YouTube segments numbering in the thousands), revisit his provocative essays (another collection, A Hitch in Time, was released in January), and surf the half-dozen websites honoring his memory.

And what memories he has left! Impossible to believe as it is, he would have turned 75 this Saturday (April 13), more than a dozen years since his premature exit in December 2011, the victim of esophageal cancer.

Again, no matter: however ironic it may seem, Christopher Hitchens is spoken about in some circles—professed atheists, fellow contrarians, aggressive anti-totalitarians, idiosyncratically independent leftists, pro-American interventionist conservatives, and more—in language nothing short of reverence.

If “secular” saintliness consists in a form of heroic virtue in speaking the truth, Hitchens indisputably possessed a militantly archangelic audacity to speak truth to power. As much as he admired many of the mid-Victorian figures, “Arnoldian balance” was a virtue he neither sought nor much honored. Passion and even excess were the nature he nurtured. The Apollonian tradition possessed little appeal; he paid tribute to the Dionysian gods. In vino caritas was his paternoster.

The tribute that the Dionysian gods exacted was exorbitant. I would call him a secular Calvinist. He was well aware that his father, “The Commander,” had died at 78 of esophageal cancer. Yet even on his deathbed, at the age of 61, the son expressed no regrets about his perilous choices and their preordained outcome.

I recall our last exchange. He took a moment to reply to an email of mine during what turned out to be his very last week. He had mentioned weeks earlier that it might be possible, if I were still in Austin, to pay him a visit at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was busy in his hospital room, pecking away at the computer or jotting notes, “still tilling away in the vineyard,” as he picturesquely phrased it. Although he was not quite sure how long he had left, he could hear that other tiller—the one with the scythe—pacing in the corridor.

He was up against another deadline. The time was nigh; his condition had taken a definitive turn for the worse. A final rendezvous on these shores, he wrote me, would not be possible.

That was the tone—and very nearly the phrasing. What a ruthless, chipper, indeed superhuman stoicism to the very end. And yet the comradely warmth, too—sentiment without a trace of sentimentality. To this day, just recalling that message brings back my confused mix of emotions —momentary tears of laughter followed by an uncontrollable outbreak of anguished crying and bottomless sadness. His awful fate! And with what consummate dignity it was borne, as readers of his posthumous memoir, Mortality, would soon discover.

Meeting “Christopher”

I first met Christopher (never “Chris”—a nickname he loathed and which exposed you as an ingratiating, presumptuous—and doubtless American—stranger) briefly in December 1999, and then for a full day in April 2002, when he was well known but had not yet emerged as the leading controversialist of the day. It was just six months before he burned his bridges with his old comrades and became the enfant terrible of the left, publicly breaking with his Nation colleagues (“So Long, Fellow Travelers,” he declared in the Washington Post) and soon thereafter supporting the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

We lunched together before appearing in an hour-long PBS special on George Orwell (“The Orwell Century”) in the runup to the Orwell centennial of 2003. Like me, Hitchens was finishing a book (Why Orwell Matters, 2003) about Orwell’s legacy. We later met at conferences, at his Washington apartment, and at his Palo Alto residence near the campus of Stanford University (where his father-in-law, Edwin Blue, a retired physicist, lived next door). Between our occasional meetings, we emailed (“Hope you are thriving!” ran his signature sendoff) and spoke every few months on the telephone. One call in 2005 lasted nearly two hours, when he was on deadline to complete an introduction to a reissue of Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s international bestseller The House of the Spirits. Implausible as it now seems to me, I was helping him that night: I’d published a couple of books about her and was faxing him some pages and answering questions.

A few years later, under surprisingly similar conditions, a call ran on even longer. Christopher was pulling an all-nighter for a deadline to complete the introduction to an omnibus edition of writings about his dearly departed friend and their favorite nonliterary activity: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis. “The Hitch” was in “high spirits” himself that night and shared fond memories of Britain’s most famous comic novelist, known to his friends as “Kingers,” a fellow world-class imbiber and the father of Christopher’s friend, the novelist Martin Amis. This trio had enjoyed many a round together, and Martin even wrote shortly before his own death in May 2023 that “Hitch, not me, was my father’s ideal reader.” I had written a long essay about Kingsley and his circle (Philip Larkin, Robert Conquest, et al.), which Christopher had found helpful for his introduction. “Very useful,” he granted. “Saved me the trouble of extra research.”                              

Not long thereafter, Christopher took me on a long, leisurely stroll through his Palo Alto neighborhood. Waving to neighbors, stopping to visit his father-in-law, Edwin, and pausing to point out “Condi’s house” (Condoleezza Rice, then-secretary of state and Stanford’s provost during the 1990s), Christopher was in an ebullient mood. He remarked that he had been on the wagon for the entire summer and never felt better.

Was this apparently casual remark really a veiled—if much delayed—response to my unanswered handwritten letter of years ago? After witnessing an especially indulgent late-night spree, I was alarmed; I gently reminded him that the tubercular Orwell folded his cards at 46 after jeopardizing his health by going to Spain to fight and residing in a remote spot in the Scottish Hebrides (where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four), located at least 48 hours from any hospital. “Do ease up on the smokes and drinks. Along with countless others, I’d like you to hang around as long as possible.” 

For the Sake of Argument?

“The world I live in is one where I can have five quarrels a day, each with somebody who really takes me on over something,” he wrote in Hitch-22, his autobiography. “And if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them. I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract it for its own sake rather than concede even on a small point.”

This was about a decade after his scathing denunciation of Mother Teresa (The Missionary Position, 1995), when he was at work on what might be described as its full-blast, comprehensive sequel, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). Regarding Mother Teresa, I asked him about his conversations with other members of her order (the Missionaries of Charity) and the Vatican’s invitation to speak at her beatification proceedings as an unofficial advocatus diaboli.

To his credit, Christopher paid me the respect of hearing me out and engaging me. Yet because his materialist stance completely denied the possibility of the supernatural, I readily admitted—as I would do so today—that I had no language whereby I might reach him.

I sometimes wondered why he listened respectfully to what I said. Was it some degree of credibility, transferred from my competence to discuss Orwell, that is, a secularized “halo effect” that he imputed to me? Or maybe just that we were fellow junior literary siblings of the Big O? Or was it something else? Or even just for “the sake of argument” (the title he gave to a 1993 collection of essays)?

Around this time, as he was writing God Is Not Great, Christopher had contacted a friend of mine, a Catholic convert, to find him an erudite priest or confessor skilled in dialectics and with giving instruction to receive converts into the Church. Someone to “really take him on”? To hone his arguments in the book? And on the debate tours? Perhaps.

Might he also have had a first-person Vanity Fair piece in mind—like his famous waterboarding story (“Believe Me, It’s Torture”)? Perhaps he imagined a deep-dive investigation of the “intellectual shallowness” of catechetical teachings, and an exposé of the vainglory of confessors less interested in the fate of Hitchens’ immortal soul than in the fantasized kudos from their bishops for “netting a big fish” like a world-famous atheist?

So far as I know, aside from collecting some names of potential confessors, Christopher did not pursue this idea further—because he did not want to deceive a priest into thinking he was serious? Or even because some part of him knew that, if the opposing arguments had proved convincing, he would have felt compelled to take the unthinkable step, à la that “contemptible sophist” C.S. Lewis? Perhaps.

Or not. Told in his final months that many people were praying for his conversion, he jotted this mot that was found among his deathbed notes: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist does.”

However I might divine those mysteries today, all of which the dialogue over Mother Teresa and the nature of her vocation raised, one thing is clear: the world mistakenly hailed Mother Teresa as a successor to heroines of humanitarian outreach such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Jane Addams, and Mary Baker Eddy. Yet her mission and her motivation were not theirs. Her “practice” was not social work but the social gospel (or, as Mother Teresa liked to term it, “the Gospel on Five Fingers”).

And that, quite definitively, was not Christopher’s mission.

A Fantasy

And yet, let us imagine a world in which Christopher’s socialist and Mother Teresa’s Christian visions converged in a social gospel: his vision of a socialist paradise meeting her vision of a divine one.

Yes, what might have happened if he had lived into the age of Pope Francis? Might he have perceived the possibility of an alliance with “the People’s Pope”—a “revolutionist” of the spirit who refused to live in the papal palace and thus practiced the social gospel he preached? Politics makes strange bedfellows. The practical side of Christopher was a capable shrewd tactician and battle-tested strategist from his Oxford days of Trotskyist sectarian warfare. That pragmatic side motivated him to bury his differences with the otherwise contemptible neocons at the Bush White House, those shameless born-again capitalists and smug corporate tycoons, on the venerable political principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” After all, reasoned Christopher, they, too, saw Saddam and Osama and “Islamofascism” as Enemy #1. (By 2008, Christopher’s pro-Bush Americanism had even gone so far that he renounced his British citizenship and became “one of us,” an American. His unlikely sponsor? None other than Paul Wolfowitz, the house intellectual of the Bush White House, Dick Cheney’s right-hand man.)

On this view, might the liberal church climate under Francis have come to appear to Christopher as a rare historical moment to erect a Popular Front against both Islamism and poverty? To appropriate the rhetoric of the “social gospel”—lending a secular accent to the “social” while letting Francis keep the “gospel”?

Christopher was well aware of the tradition of Christian socialism. Certainly he knew that great saints from the Middle Ages to our own lifetime—from St. Francis of Assisi to St. Dorothy Day—had championed the poor. He was much taken by the example of the Catholic Worker movement under Day. He was impressed by the “walk-the-talk” “Worker” side of the ex-Communist Dorothy Day, saw her as a broad ideological ally, and took note that one of his own heroes—Dwight Macdonald, a fellow ex-Trotskyist and lifelong heterodox radical—admired Day intensely. Unlike his claim about Mother Teresa—namely, that she was in love with “Poverty” and didn’t care about the poor—Day not only served the poor in her soup kitchens but lived alongside them in her “houses of hospitality.”

If Christopher had lived into the age of Francis and his liberal church—which began in March 2013, just 15 months after his reluctant passing—might he have seen an opportunity to promote the dawning of a new, quasi–Vatican III era? Might he have permitted himself to imagine a world in which otherworldly religiosity and secular socialism could join hands to feed souls as well as bodies? If so—putting aside momentarily that free-market capitalism is better equipped for such a task than any form of collectivism, and that a Catholic religious vocation is not incompatible with a market economy framework—might Christopher have embraced an unusual form of what we might term “religious tolerance”? If we grant that possibility, he might have cast a tolerant eye toward well-meaning believers who hoped intensely (i.e., “prayed”) not only for his physical health but also for his eternal salvation—however pointless and even absurd that still struck him as a nonbeliever.

What if he had survived and resolved to redirect his incomparable gifts for polemic and for debate? Redirect? How? Into a radical, innovative form of Christian-atheist dialogue. Or better: a big-tent dialogue that included Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism and Hinduism. A form of exchange that went, that is, well beyond a typical “interfaith” dialogue to an existential dialogue on all topics relevant to “Mortality” (remember: the title of his last, posthumously published book). I envision a scenario: a series of grand summit meetings, a parade of moveable feasts—from the Vatican to the U.N. to Mecca and beyond. There they all are: the Four Horsemen of Atheism (led by Ambassador Hitch, flanked by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and David Dennett), Francis, and assorted rabbis and imams and Eastern nuns and monks and women and men.

In this didactic fantasy of mine, the practical journalist and master of communication would have concluded that unbelievers and believers could come together to affirm a daring prospect: they could combine a hard-headed utopianism and a great-souled pragmatism, that they could become partners in a shared vision of political activism.

Could the adamant atheist have become, in Chesterton’s phrase, “a good agnostic,” promoting a “social gospel,” even though he parted ways with its ecclesiastical evangelists? Alas, we’ll never know.

John Rodden

John Rodden has recently written about such topics as "1984 Tops Bestseller List in Putin's Russia," "Russia vs. Ukraine: The Battle for Nikolai Gogol," and "Putin, Ukraine, and the Culture War." He can be reached at [email protected].