Yes, Virginia, Christopher Hitchens is dead.
It doesn’t come as a huge shock since we knew it would happen sooner or later, but it did come as an unpleasant surprise this evening to open my Twitter feed to see the bevy of #GodIsNotGreat hashtags and “Christopher Hitchens is dead!” posts. That put a damper on the rest of an otherwise pleasant evening.
Not surprisingly, major news outlets have published obits touting his career and many accomplishments (one of the best, in my opinion, has been The Guardian’s). No doubt they’ve had pieces ready to go since his diagnosis of terminal cancer. Also not surprisingly, many fundamentalist Christians have been expressing their glee at the passing of someone who they considered a mortal enemy. We’ll be hearing sentiments like, “Wherever he’s going, he’s there now!” And, “Boy, doesn’t he feel stupid!”
To be honest, I haven’t read much Hitchens’. I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed for his column on Slate.com, and have enjoyed reading his views on everything from religion to politics to the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, but have always felt a tad… overwhelmed by his intellect. I’ve fallen victim somewhat to the Systematic American Intellectual Laziness (S.A.I.L., for short) that plagues this land and its people, content with a few clever sound bites or quotes, or a summary in layman’s terms of what he’s saying instead of doing it myself.
What is probably most unfortunate is that the thing he will probably be most remembered for is his polemics on religion when he had polemics on just about everything else. Right up until the end of his life (the last article of his published on Slate was dated Nov. 28, 2011), Hitchens was still using the scalpel of a mind that he had to go after Republican presidential candidates. It’s inspiring.
As I was driving home from Starbucks tonight, I was musing over this and some of what I’d read tonight, particularly the negative reactions from the religious community. Hitchens was proud of this, taking every opportunity to attack religion in scathingly brilliant diatribes and essays, gathering scores of enemies along the way.
When I first came out as an atheist, the only role models I had were the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, two of the more prominent and vocal members of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Their vehemence at organized religion fueled and sharpened my own hatred of the Church and of God, which I’m not sure was the healthiest thing at that point since there were a lot of issues I was dealing with by not dealing with them and taking up arms instead. To be sure, I’m as staunchly opposed to organized religion—and to Christianity in particular—as ever.
But as I thought about the work that Dawkins and Hitchens have done, the books they’ve written and the rancor they’ve stirred up, I found myself wondering if that’s the kind of world I want to live in—a world of ideological trench warfare, where atheists are constantly on the attack and saying nasty things about theists, and vice versa; and where there is no hope for conversation or dialogue in the midst of the flying vitriolic projectiles and snares.
For the first time in history, atheists and non-theists of all varieties are free to come out and be vocal about their views. Not too long ago it was unpopular, even dangerous, to not believe in God and say so in public. In the 1950s you could be labeled a Communist. In earlier periods it could get you jailed, tortured, interrogated, and even murdered. There are still places where that’s the case, in particular countries where radical and extremist Islam are the dominant religions. But in the Western world, people are largely free to be atheists, agnostics and skeptics. We may still face discrimination, prejudice and abuse from religious bigots (and I’m using the dictionary definition of “bigot” here, not just as a slur), but non-theism seems to be rapidly growing in popularity and acceptance.
What comes to mind is the gay rights movement and the attempts for gays and lesbians, and now bisexuals and transgendered persons, to gain acceptance in society. Homosexuals, like atheists, have always been around but have lived underground for fear of persecution for being who they are. (I’m certainly not equating homosexuality and atheism, though in my own experience you can’t force yourself to believe any more than you can change your sexual orientation.) In order to gain visibility and start the proverbial ball rolling, the founding members of the modern gay rights movement had to be loud, controversial, counter-cultural and polemic. As Harvey Milk said, “You must come out.” After all, people can’t understand what they don’t know about or never come into personal contact with.
In a similar way, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been the pioneers of neo-atheism in a world dominated by religion and religious factions. “We’re mad as hell as we won’t take it anymore!” Sundry flavors of Christianity dot the American landscape like radioactive Skittles; and we can’t stop hearing about ethnic violence in the Middle East between sects of Islam, between Sunnis and Shias, but also with the little-talked-about marginalization of the Zoroastrians (which still sounds to me like the name of some alien race on one of the Star Trek series).
Thanks to them and the flak that they’ve taken, countless atheists have had the courage to come out and identify as atheists and skeptics. Dawkins has stated that this was the purpose of his book The God Delusion; that while his wildest hope was that he might de-convert some of the “faithful,” his true intent was to help those who were privately non-believers find the confidence to no longer hide in the closet. His aim succeeded with me, for after hearing him interviewed on MPR I began my own quest for understanding that ultimately led to my letting go of God. But, looking back on my life, I was already there. All Dawkins did was open the door and show me at least one person who’d gone through it.
That said, just as most gays aren’t lisping drag queens or uber-butch lesbians, most of us aren’t as angry or acerbic as many of the prominent atheists. Or, at least I’m coming to realize that we shouldn’t be.
As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, flamboyant drag queens and butch dykes paved the way for gays like me to live out in the open—often with their own blood. But as important as those early days for the movement were, the gay community is experiencing somewhat of a convergence as we enter the mainstream. We’re doing away with sequins and feather boas (think the denizens of Queer as Folk) and getting down to the business of figuring out how to actually live our lives. (And, so long as a Republican isn’t elected President in 2012, one of these days we’ll be able to legally marry too.)
Neo-atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins paved the way for atheists to be out and proud, but I’m wondering if it’s time we set the vitriol aside and get down to the business of trying to figure out how to live together without killing each other. Sure, theists constitute a majority in the world today, and they tend to flex their ideological (and political) muscles a lot, and we need to fight that; but religion or belief in God isn’t going away for a long time—and neither are atheists. So do I want to alienate all of my friends who still believe in God by constantly attacking and belittling their beliefs (a là Dawkins)? Do I want to be the atheist in the Dane Cook sketch who takes offense when someone says, “God bless you”?
Is that really productive?
This is part one of a two-part entry that conveniently precedes my hundredth entry on this blog, wherein I want to flesh out how exactly I came to atheism and what I believe now. It’s as much an exercise for me as it is for others to read.
Here’s where I’ll leave this today: As much as I admired Christopher Hitchens, his intellect and his uncompromising articulation of his views, I don’t want to pick fights with every ecclesiastical windmill on the road. Nor do I want to waste another year of my life jabbing at the ghosts of my religious past.
It’s time to start moving beyond religion.
It’s time for post-theism.