16.12.11: Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Bugger.
Unlike the deaths of John Peel or Douglas Adams, it didn’t come as a shock: it was no secret that Hitchens had cancer and that it was terminal, but it’s a kick in the bollocks all the same. Militant atheists like myself have lost our most persuasive, eloquent and impassioned voice.
Richard Dawkins is a great author and a great explainer of science (The Ancestor’s Tale is one of the best books I’ve ever read), but I can see how he rubs people up the wrong way. He often loses his patience with his opponents and gets frustrated far too easily in debates. Dawkins is a clever man, I sure he’s aware of these shortcomings, so it’s no wonder that he said he regarded Hitchens as a (sort of) mentor.
With a glass of whiskey in one hand and cigarette in the other, Hitchens always came across as measured and diplomatic: even when coming out with the least measured and least diplomatic Hitch-Slap against his opponents. His genius was not necessary what he said, but like a great cricketer, it was all in the delivery. With a calm demeanour and a clever turn of phrase he could steamroller his adversaries into a corner and tie their argument in knots.
And, lets face it: he was cool. Given the choice of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Pat Condell or Christopher Hitchens, I know which one I would rather spend a night out on the lash with.
I’ve been flicking through the obituaries and its difficult to come up with something original to say about Hitchens, other than he was a one off. One thing that is relative to this blog is that Hitchens had travelled extensively in his lifetime, usually to places reserved for peace-keeping troops and journalists in bullet-proof vests. This was something about Hitchens that was picked up by the travel section of the LA Times, whose otherwise gossamer-light article threw in a couple of pieces Hitchens had written about England and Bombay. They ended the article with the words ‘There’s much more, of course, to be gleaned from his works for those who don’t mind their travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion.’ This made me chuckle.
Most people hate it when travel writers actually have an solid opinion on a place or go off on some mad rant about the abuses they encounter while in countries other than their own. Seems to be the way of the world these days: don’t ruffle feathers, don’t speak your mind (unless you do it anonymously on a Yahoo news page), please keep off the grass, thank you. When Lonely Planet dropped a link to this site on their Facebook page earlier this year, after the first few positive comments, I got a some shock horror reactions from people who were mighty offended by negative things I’d written during The Odyssey Expedition about their countries (which was one of the reasons I wrote “10 Things I Hate About U(K)”).
Apparently what I should have said about Pakistan is that it’s a wonderful place, very neat and tidy. A place where they treat people with dignity and respect, human life is sacrosanct and has really, when you think about it, been nothing but a gift to the world. But if I wrote that I’d be a sycophant or worse, a liar. If you want goofy ‘OMG! Everywhere is just, like, you know, so AMAZING!’ then you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion, then I’m more than happy to pick up where Hitchens left off.
Sadly, picking up where Hitchens left off in terms of his militant (yet eloquent) atheism is going to be somewhat more of a challenge. Getting atheists together is often (accurately) described as being a lot like herding cats. We lack the charismatic charlatans that are part and parcel of religion (there’s little money to be made out of them thar atheists), and now more than ever we need competent public speakers who can show in word and deed that it’s possible to be a good person without believing in the sky fairies of yore. We need more brave souls willing to publicly rage against the injustices perpetrated by the tyrannical (or tragically misguided) followers of fanciful, not to mention moralistically flawed, Bronze-Age texts.
The death of Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly a huge blow to the forces massing against the monolithic and despotic religions that afflict our otherwise beautiful little planet. But the good news is that the damage is done. Over the last ten years, atheists, sick and tired of the atrocities perpetrated by the True Believers of the world, have started coming out of the closet like never before. On this journey, I’ve met atheists from Panama to Palestine, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia, from Kerala to Kentucky.
Atheist books sit on the New York Times bestseller list for months. The Irish government has openly criticised the Vatican. The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the issue of gay priests. The revolutions in the Middle East this year were overwhelmingly secular. People are turning to atheism in record numbers: which is why the Pope has been so vocal against us in the last couple of years (more vocal than he’s been about the paedophile priests he willingly enabled). Perhaps he fears the coffers that line his palace (and his clothes) with gold are going to start to dry up.
But that shows we’re winning. The dam has been breached and no amount of Polyfilla is going to plug the gap. In a recent study in the USA, it was found that atheists knew more about religion than people who regarded themselves as religious. This is no co-incidence. Like a vampire dining on the blood of the poor, religion feeds off ignorance, fear and poverty. The more educated we become, the more empowered we become. We’re sick and tired of the undeserved privileges afforded religions, the barefaced hypocrisy of so-called ‘holy men’ and the arcane and barbaric laws that they support.
Of course, 9/11 was a major catalyst for this sea change in attitudes. On that day the world was slapped awake and many saw for the first time the ugly vomit speckled face of religion at its most murderous and vile. Religion has survived several onslaughts over the years, but this was different: in one masterstroke, the architects of 9/11 proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what atheists like myself had been saying for years: that the world would be better off without religion.
And what would a world without religion look like? Well, we have a case study: at the end of World War II, in order to achieve a peace with Japan, the USA forced Emperor Hirohito (after a nuclear bomb or two) to renounce his divinity. Do you see what they did there? They robbed every mad-as-a-bag-of-cut-snakes Kamikaze pilot and every Japanese soldier willing to fight to the death… of their religion.
What happened? Did the world end? Did the sky fall in? No. The Japanese put down their weapons and started making cars and PlayStations instead. Today, Japan is one of the least religious countries on Earth… thanks to the USA, one of the most religious countries on Earth. I wonder if Alanis Morrissette would think that ironic.
Compare Japan and the USA over murder rates, crime rates, poverty statistics, productivity, happiness, longevity, infant mortality, education… you name it, Japan comes out on the good side, usually by quite a long way. Hell of a case study eh?
If Sam Harris started the fire with his book The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins fanned the flames with The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens turned up to the party with a billycan full of petrol. Hitch may be gone, but the fire he helped set is going to blaze for decades yet.
One day, the last stone from the last church will fall on the last priest, that vast hollow musical brocade of lies, subterfuge, hypocrisy and corruption will wither and die, the relentless pounding of the boot of religion on the face of humanity will cease and desist. It’s as inevitable as the tide.
It’s a shame that Christopher Hitchens won’t be around to see it.
But if you want to be around to see it yourself, for the sake of all that’s unholy, pack in those bastard cigarettes.