Christopher Hitchens died with friends at his side at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston Thursday 15th December. These words and similar headlines circled the globe in an expanding electronic wave, carrying news that the inevitable had happened. This death amongst the many thousands who died that day had special meaning for an ever-growing demographic of like-thinkers.
Strangely, the inescapable reality that Christopher Hitchens was terminally ill with stage four oesophageal cancer still deeply affected all who were aware of his plight. Death was not the direct result of cancer; instead, pneumonia, a complication of oesophageal cancer, dealt the final blow.
Thus died a person of note, removing forever from existence a gigantic intellect and one many felt greatly honoured in being alive at the same time as him. Even knowing these details, there followed shock and feelings of intense sadness, which enveloped admirers and possibly a scattering of disparagers. It is some consolation that though his physical presence is forever removed from existence, his writings and message lives on.
Christopher often pointed out to interviewers that even though his eventual death could be classified as premature, they also would go down the same path. It is a mental protection mechanism of humanity to look upon the impending or actual death of others as a them-and-us situation. A healthy mind does not wish for its own extinction. This powerful influence is a driving factor in many aspects of human life.
'Hitch', as he was affectionately known, would have had the same fears and aspirations as us all. The one and big difference is that his atheism did not allow these fantasies to overpower his thinking to the point of surrendering to the comfort of popular myths. Hitch died an atheist, having no imaginary expectations clouding his last moments.
The life of Christopher Hitchens was indeed one that should be celebrated, dare I say revered. His prolific written and verbal battle against human-made systems of a totalitarian, fascist or dictatorial nature places him amongst other enlightenment empowering characters such as Paine, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Hume.
Everyone, and that includes many of Hitch's most fervent admirers, did not agree with everything he had to say. Indeed, many disagreed quite aggressively to the point where he fell out of favour with old friends. This brings us to the point of asking: was Christopher Hitchens always right and others misguided with that being his rightful claim to fame?
That question is of course so subjective that it cannot be answered satisfactorily but it is the crux of the title of this essay. It is the great protection afforded civilisation by atheism. It is the underpinning of a method of thought that recognises no human concept or reliance on tradition can provide absolute answers. Hitch understood this perfectly well and that was a part of his greatness. It was not so much that many of his thoughts tied up with ideas held in common or the brilliant delivery of resounding argument; rather it was his ability to use logical progression to arrive at rational conclusions.
As pointed out, other atheists use 'logical progression to arrive at rational conclusions' as well, but they can be at variance to those of Christopher Hitchens. Having said that, most of the ideas held passionately by Christopher would also be agreed with by the majority of atheists. Those ideas are not accepted because 'Hitch' enunciated them; they are accepted because atheists in general came to the same conclusion by following the evidence. This is unlike other systems where revealed writings or traditions are unchangeable and unchallengeable (in the short term) and are 'believed' to be correct even when the evidence shows them not to be.
Revering the works and words of Christopher Hitchens is really giving acclaim to an outstanding proponent of reason and clear thinking processes. He had the remarkable ability to place shared concepts, ideas and thoughts in an order not easily achievable by others. His outstanding written and oral delivery provided a basis for his colleagues, friends and admirers to build their own repertoires into more workable condition.
We can expect detractors to exit from the woodwork over the next months. There will be half-true and untrue rumours and stories of a hateful nature, which will only go to reinforce the greatness of this one human who once trod the earth in a dignified manner. The intensity of his life and bravery to the end were examples of the finest of human qualities. If but everyone could emulate them.
The death of Christopher Hitchens has special significance for the Atheist Foundation of Australia. He was booked to appear at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention – 'A Celebration of Reason' in April next year along with the other acclaimed Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Christopher knew, as did we, that this was a gamble with time. If pneumonia had not stepped into the scene, the Four Horsemen would have been together at a public forum for the first time.
I know I can speak for the audience and everyone involved with this convention in saying that we are all deeply and profoundly sad that one of the four chairs on centre stage will be empty.
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