One of the things that many people wonder about atheists is how strong their belief actually is. When struck with a debilitating illness, does an atheist immediately abandon the shallow, cynical facade and embrace God as a saviour? Can a belief which states that there is nothing after death be of any comfort to somebody soon to face the end of their life?
Obviously, not having died recently, I can’t speak to the deathbed experience, but it’s not difficult to find examples of those secure enough in their beliefs to hold on to them to their last breath. In discussing this, though, I’ve been placed in a position where the perfect example to discuss is that of a public figure that died very recently. While it seems crass to take advantage of such misfortune to make a point, the timing is too perfect to pass up. Besides, I’m sure the man would approve were he still around.
Christopher Hitchens was, and remains, a controversial figure of our time. English by birth, he made the United States his home for the second half of his life, where he worked as a columnist and literary critic for a variety of magazines, including Salon, The Nation, and Vanity Fair. Although he defined himself as a Trotskyite and a radical, he also took up more unpopular positions such as a fierce advocacy of the Iraq War, as well as vitriolic attacks on “fascism with an Islamic face” and the toleration of religious extremism in the name of multiculturalism.
Publishing books with names like God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hitchens was well known within atheist circles. His was the face that, more than anything, defined the camp known as “anti-theism:” a deep, principled opposition to the collective delusion that he felt defined God and religion. His aggressive attacks on the institution alienated some and bolstered others, so when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, reactions were mixed.
Where Hitchens was uncompromising while he was living, he was even more so while he was dying. At a debate at the American Jewish University he was asked whether the sickness had caused him to revisit his views on the afterlife. “I would say it fractionally increases my contempt for the false consolation element of religion and my dislike for the dictatorial and totalitarian part of it,” was his reply. “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know but who are unbelievers and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind?’ That is considered almost a polite question.” There was no desperate appeal for divine clemency at the last minute for Hitchens; he remained an atheist to the end.
I don’t know what Christopher Hitchens’ last words were. His last public appearance was at the Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, where he took audience questions with Richard Dawkins for about an hour. Slightly more than a month from death, he appeared sickly and pale, his head completely bald due to chemotherapy and his eyes sunken into their sockets. Yet he spoke clearly and with good humour and was, as always, unwavering. “I’m not going to quit until absolutely I have to,” he told the audience of over a thousand. And he didn’t.
One Less God is a twice-monthly column on atheist communities and philosophy. Harmon Moon is a U2 History student and VP External of the McGill Freethought Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Robert Koeze for fact-checking.