The Existence of Secular Comfort in Times of Grief: a response to Barry York, concerning Susan Jacoby’s “The Blessings of Atheism”

I just finished reading (and very much enjoyed) Susan Jacoby’s new book The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. A few days ago, while looking through blog posts tagged with her name, so see if anyone had written about her book, I came across Barry York’s open letter to Jacoby[1] concerning an article of hers called “The Blessings of Atheism”[2] that was published earlier this month. I started writing a comment in the comment section, but (as often happens) it became very lengthy. Not wanting to take up essay-length space in a comment section of someone else’s blog, and considering the fact that his letter addresses some topics I want to write about in any case, I decided to expand on what I was originally going to write and turn it into an essay.

It would, perhaps, be a good idea to start with Jacoby’s piece, since that is the piece under discussion here. Jacoby writes about a misapprehension that atheists don’t believe in anything positive and don’t have a source of comfort when their loved ones die, since they don’t believe in an afterlife. She also addresses theodicy, which is a vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil.[3] She writes that an atheist does not have to try to reconcile the horrors that happen in the world—including illnesses and murders—with a belief in a just God. In the second half of her article, she writes about Robert Ingersoll and how atheists can show that empathy is a cause of atheism, to disprove the idea that atheism is devoid of feeling or concern.

This issue of empathy resulting in atheism is relevant to the first of York’s points that I want to address. In response to Jacoby’s story about a childhood friend was stricken by polio, and how this caused her to ask why God would do such a thing, York writes,

The concern I would raise is that by your own admission it appears you came to your worldview through subjective feelings, not objective observations. With all due respect, may I point out that this seems to be inconsistent with the atheistic worldview which rather prides itself on being scientific-based and research-oriented?  Perhaps you have established your position in this manner, but after reading your article several times it was appeals to emotion that you used to justify your atheism, not science.

This is a common accusation against atheists whenever we write about a story from our own lives as part of a piece about atheism. The problem here is with the definition of God being used by many in the monotheistic religions; if we start with the concept that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, even one example of something bad happening contradicts that description of God. Jacoby’s point may not be based upon a scientific study, but it is indeed based on an observation: the observation that her friend had polio and the fact that this does not fit with the description of God that she had learned about. Yes, of course, she had an emotional reaction to the situation, since her friend was ill, but her observation is still accurate.

Related to this point are the explanations which are offered by religious leaders and others for why God would allow bad things to happen. Jacoby received an unsatisfying answer from her mother when she asked why God would allow such a thing to happen to a little boy; her mother said that while the priest might say that God has His reasons, she did not know what those reasons were. York asks, “As an author and researcher, have you ever looked carefully at the theodicy issue as presented not by unbelieving ‘Cinos’ (Christian-in-name-only) such as the childhood priest you mentioned, but by sincere teachers of the Bible?” Apart from the fact that this is yet another example of a person of a particular religious faith declaring that others in the faith are not “true” followers of that faith (a topic which could fill volumes by itself), there is also the fact that people have been attempting to address the problem of theodicy for quite a long while, and many of them are sincere, believing that their particular interpretation or answer is in accordance with scripture. The problem is not that certain people are sincere teachers while others are not; the problem is that, regardless of their sincerity, the various interpretations offered are not sufficient. They may offer explanations with some scriptural support, but the initial problem—that contradiction between the description of God and the existence of suffering—still persists.

What, then, does the Bible have to say about the subject? It says many things on the topic, but the one Biblical book that is particularly famous for addressing the topic is the Book of Job. York writes, “One whole book of the Bible, the Book of Job, is taken up with theodicy as one man struggles with horrible personal tragedy.   So it is a subject any true Christian has to wrestle through to find answers.   Honest Christians all admit our struggle with it as well, for theodicy has always been a difficult one for us.” I’ve mentioned before that Job is my favorite book of the Bible;[4] there are many wonderful passages, but the following seems rather apt for the discussion at hand.

Look, my eye has seen all this,

my ear has heard and understood it.

What you know, I also know;

I am not inferior to you.

But I would speak to the Almighty,

and I desire to argue my case with God. (Job 13:1-3)[5]

I find it rather odd the way that the Book of Job is automatically invoked against atheism and against those who question God’s justice in times of tragedy, given that it portrays God behaving rather indifferently towards his subjects. It also contains the words of a man who seems more human than many of the other characters in the Bible, as he struggles with the tragedies that have befallen him without a divine explanation. Both Christians and non-Christians struggle with the existence of tragedies in our imperfect world, and we hear explanations given by others that we may not find convincing; we attempt to understand what’s going on and why. The desire to argue one’s case with God (though not all would phrase it in that manner) is an understandable reaction to the horrible things which happen.

Lastly, there is the topic of finding comforting in the face of death and other tragedies. This is the part where, I must admit, I often not only disagree with religious apologists, but also feel a certain amount of frustration, due to the frequency with which people dismiss the feelings and experiences of people not of their faith. York writes,

I also must say to you, as one whose occupation means that I am often called on to comfort people in tragedy, that I do not think you can bring any true consolation to those who mourn.   Oh, you can offer personal concern, hugs, tears, a meal, etc.  But please realize that though your atheism may allow you to ignore the question of ‘Why?’ when other people are traveling through dark valleys, their pain will not let them.

York makes a mistake that I have noticed in the comments of other religious leaders as well; he makes a generalized statement about humanity based upon members of his particular faith. He is a Christian pastor, so I understand that his faith is important to him in times of grief, just as the faiths of many religious people are important to them in such times. People who are not religious find comfort in sources other than religion, whether it is in the presence of loved ones or in words of comfort or in knowing that we live in an imperfect world where bad things do happen. It shouldn’t be surprising that people who do not follow a particular religion would probably not find comfort in it. It’s also worth pointing out that the idea of an afterlife of a different religion isn’t going to offer much comfort to people if they not only don’t follow that particular religion but are also condemned by that religion to an afterlife that is filled with punishment for them for not believing in the correct god. In fact, there are people who feel the exact opposite of what York writes; they feel that it was their religious belief, or that of their family, which failed to offer them any meaningful comfort during difficult times.

It’s also important to mention, I think, that nonreligious sources of comfort are not only for nonreligious people. Minimizing the importance of nonreligious comfort that people take solace in during times of grief is insulting to both Christians and non-Christians who have found comfort in sources other than faith. There are people who, in difficult times, have been comforted by friends or relatives who are not of the same faith; while those relatives’ and friends’ faiths may not have been a comfort, their presence definitely was. York seems to present religion as real or better form of comfort, while relegating other forms to a secondary category. The secular forms of comfort mentioned by York are ones that people can have regardless of faith; they are not just a poor substitute or a halfway measure that is adopted by those who do not believe in god or in an afterlife.

Anyone, religious or not, who encounters tragedy—and most people do, in varying degrees—tries to find sources of comfort, to still the storm within, to find a way to continue living despite the reality of horrors in our world. While nonreligious people may ignore the question “Why would a just God allow such things to happen?” when not responding to claims made by religious people, since we don’t believe gods exist, we don’t ignore all the difficult question that are posed by death and destruction, by pain and misfortune, by terror and loss, by the terrifying lack of understanding about life that is a part of human existence. We think about the questions we have about the universe and why certain things happen the way they do.

Many of us also give thoughtful consideration to the nonexistence of justice in this life and the potential for justice in the future, not through divine intervention but through human morality. York writes, “Remember that the ‘dicey’ part of the word theodicy means ‘justice.’ Just because you choose to remove God from the equation does not mean you have answered the question.” In reality, neither including nor removing god in the equation means one has answered the question; including god simply means having to deal with yet another unknown variable in an equation that no human being on Earth fully understands. My secular worldview doesn’t offer a reason why the tragedies were just, and that’s just the point; they were not just, because the universe isn’t a just place. Religious worldviews don’t come up with a reason why those same tragedies were just, either; some try to, but doesn’t succeed. Human beings can and should aspire to be just, and to make our societies more just; however, when we ascribe justice to the universe, we will be disappointed and may become convinced to rationalize away any observations inconsistent with the description of a just universe.[6] It is better to acknowledge that we live in an uncaring universe that does not know we exist and try to make our societies more just than to claim that there is ultimate justice despite lack of good reasons for believing so.

The lack of justice in this world is often observed by people both religious and nonreligious, and one of the things we seek is some sense that there are others who understand what we are going through. One common religious argument is that God understand the trials faced by humans. In this vein, York writes,

We see there that God made himself known by becoming flesh and entering into the sufferings of this world, then showing by his resurrection from the dead his ability to conquer the awfulness of sin and death.  At the cross not only is comfort offered for those who grieve, but the promise of justice that mourning hearts also yearn for.  You see, God the Father understands heartache.  He watched his own Son die.

It would perhaps be advisable to keep in mind that, when addressing someone who does not share your religious beliefs, simply stating your beliefs is not going to be very convincing. As for the point about God understanding heartache, although I hesitate to be so blunt, it is worth pointing out that if you believe the common interpretation that Jesus’s death was God’s salvation plan for humanity, then God planned the death of his son and Jesus was reunited with his father after his death. To compare God’s experience of Jesus’s death with the experience of parents who, even if they are devout believers, cannot be absolutely certain of what lies beyond and grave and who will be separated from their children either for many years (if there is an afterlife and if they are send to the same place as their children after they die) or for eternity (if there is no afterlife or if they are send to a different afterlife than the one their children were sent to) is appalling to me. I know that there are believers who take comfort in the belief that God understands what they are going through and is there for them (as I also did, when I believed in a god), but the specific story of Jesus’s death is not likely to be very convincing to someone who doesn’t share your interpretation of that specific part of your faith.

Related to this point about not considering the perspective of the person being addressed, York states towards the end of his essay, “Ms. Jacoby, you said very confidently that ‘the dead do not suffer.’  Have you observed this?  By this statement you are making a claim about something that only God himself could know.  Think about that.  When people are truly hurting, adding false and empty solace to the pain creates more despair and confusion, not less.” The immediate observation one can make is that people who believe in the afterlife have not observed it, either, just as atheists have not seen for certain that the dead do not suffer. The second observation one can make is that if someone does not believe in an afterlife, then it’s the afterlife that is the false and empty solace. It’s true that all the secular comfort in the world cannot create an afterlife for someone who fears death, but that does not mean that other sources of solace will cause more despair and confusion; the complete negation of death through belief in a supernatural afterlife is not the only way to lessen the pain.

I have always feared death, and there are a great many books (some nonfiction books about religion and atheism, but mostly works of fiction) that have helped me in thinking about it. They do not offer an afterlife, but they do offer what I think is the commonality between religious and nonreligious forms of comfort in times of grief: the knowledge that we are not alone, that there are others who have tread this path and lived, and that there is still some good in the world.

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Recommended Reading

Back in December 2011, Susan Jacoby wrote her last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, titled “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious”.[7]

I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, in which he discusses the various answers that the different books of the Bible offer to the eternal problem of theodicy.[8]

Another relevant (and excellent) book is John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars.[9] (I reviewed the book in August of last year.)[10]

One of Greta Christina’s must-read essays “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” is about the difficulty of thinking about and dealing with death and how to find meaning and comfort in the face of it.[11] Interestingly, Greta has written in another blog entry that the first part of the “Comforting Thoughts” essay—in which she acknowledges that death can be terrifying to think about—has been quoted out of context by some pastors, who have left out the comforting thoughts about death, which (as one can tell from the title) are the point of the essay.[12]

Chapter Nine of Adam Lee’s book Daylight Atheism is titled “Stardust” and is about death.[13] (I reviewed the book in July of last year.)[14]


Referenes

[1] York, Barry. “An Open Letter to Susan Jacoby”. Posted on 10 January 2013 at Gentle Reformation. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://gentlereformation.org/2013/01/10/an-open-letter-to-susan-jacoby/.

[2] Jacoby, Susan. “The Blessings of Atheism”. Posted on 5 January 2013 at The New York Times. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/opinion/sunday/the-blessings-of-atheism.html.

[3] “theodicy”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 16 Jan. 2013. <Dictionary.com http://dictonary.reference.com/browse/theodicy&gt;

[4] Sharmin, Ani J. “Traversing the Bible: On the Experience of Reading the Good Book”. Posted on 28 August 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/traversing-the-bible/.

[5] New Revised Standard Version Bible with Apocrypha. Ed. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1989. Print.

[6] Lee, Adam. The Delusion of a Just World. Posted on 3 October 2011 at Daylight Atheism. Retrieved on 21 January 2013 from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2011/10/the-delusion-of-a-just-world/.

[7] Jacoby, Susan. “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious”. Posted on 28 December 2011 at The Spirited Atheist. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/spirited-atheist/post/american-atheists-must-define-themselves-not-be-defined-by-the-religious/2011/12/27/gIQAovELMP_blog.html.

[8] Ehrman, Bart. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.

[9] Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York, Penguin, 2012. Print.

[10] Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’”. Posted on 26 August 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/book-review-john-greens-the-fault-in-our-stars/.

[11] Christina, Greta. “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God”. Posted on 10 June 2007 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/06/10/comforting_thou/.

[12] Christina, Greta. “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor”. Posted on 12 December 2007 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/12/12/thou-shalt-not/.

[13] Lee, Adam. Chapter 9. “Stardust”. Daylight Atheism. Big Think, 2012, Ch 9. E-book.

[14] Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Adam Lee’s ‘Daylight Atheism’”. Posted on 16 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/1012/07/16/book-review-adam-lees-daylight-atheism/.

“But If It Had To Perish Twice”

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice

(Robet Frost, “Fire and Ice”)[1]

One is tempted, when hearing about the most recent iteration of the frequent apocalyptic predictions, to insist that humanity is more resilient than the universe gives us credit for, but when upon considering the fact that it is humans who have repeatedly predicted the end times with excitement at the prospect, doubt of our fate begins to flourish. Today is the most recent in a list of the many days which have been predicted by members of the human race to be the day when the world will end—the day it will perish.

This topic brings to mind Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, which is quoted in full at the beginning of this essay. When I included this poem in a high-school English project as one of my favorite poems, I did so because I found in it great insight into a topic that humans have written countless volumes on: the end of the world.  This poem addresses the end of the world by focusing, not on predictions of the date on which it will occur, but on the observation that it is human beings who will likely bring about the end of the world with the question of which of humanity’s characteristics will be the ultimate cause. Both human beings’ desire and hatred are capable of destroying the world, and the narrator thinks it is our desire that is more likely to be the cause, though our hatred would (no doubt) be sufficient for the task.

There are seven other planets in our solar system, and hundreds of extrasolar planets have been discovered so far—so many worlds— and, yet, when we talk about the end of the world, we obviously mean our world, the planet Earth. The destruction of a lifeless planet (or other astronomical object) is fascinating from a scientific and aesthetic viewpoint, but it would not affect life, would not be the end of a species or a society or a civilization. While we talk about the end of the world, the focus is often the end of humanity—the end of our world—and what will bring it about.

There is no dearth of hypotheses concerning the end of the world and the end of humanity. There are those who propose plausible scientific suggestions (such as plagues or the collision of an asteroid with Earth) for disasters that could occur and destroy the human race, based on events that have happened in the past. (Some of these would destroy the planet as well, but some would merely destroy us, with the potential for evolution to continue on the surviving species.) There are those who believe that contact with aliens from other planets will bring about, if not the destruction of humanity, then at least a great change in our world and societies. (There is the oft-stated observation that if the extraterrestrials have the technology to travel to Earth and arrive here at a time when we don’t have the technology to travel to their planet, they are probably more technologically advanced than we are, and would be able to conquer us easily.) There are those who believe that there will be a supernatural end that has been planned by a deity or deities that watch our actions. (These tend to come with inevitably-incorrect predictions containing specific dates.) There are many possible scenarios that could destroy us, and even when one subtracts out those which seem the most outlandish and unlikely, the planet still seems a dangerous place to live and the universe an unfeeling expanse that would not care if we ceased to exist.

There are a great many endings that can be imagined, as is evidenced by the great many stories that humans have already created. The end time narrative is forever being discussed, altered, imagined, and forecasted by a species which can imagine its own end and deals with that ability by telling stories about it. The same imagination that allows us to line our bookshelves with wonderful stories also allows us to bring about some of the great and terrible things we imagine in reality. We have added to our stories, ominously, the means to destroy ourselves. Our desires and our hatred, which define so much of who we are, combine with our abilities, skills, intelligence, and ignorance with results that show what we are capable of at our best and worst.

There will come a day when the world will end, when humanity no longer exists, whether because our descendants no longer exist or because our species has changed beyond anything we would recognize. The eternal question is, when that day comes, which one of the many possible causes will bring about our destruction. It may not be a great cataclysm, but a quiet end of for our species, though our ability to bring about our own end in such myriad ways is disturbing enough to make me wonder if there will indeed be some sadly ironic end reminiscent of a science fiction novel containing a (hopefully) thoughtful message about the dangerous of human folly. We are left with few certainties, but with an acknowledgement of a though that teaches us something about ourselves. The world will perish, and given our nature, it may be due to our devices.

And even if it had to perish twice, humans could no doubt still provide sufficient ammunition for the cause.


References

[1] Frost, Robert. “Fire and Ice” (1920). In: The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975, p. 220.

Book Review: John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”

“There will come a time,” I said, “when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this”—I gestured emcompassingly—“will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was a time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be a time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” (Hazel Grace Lancaster in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars)[1]

 Ignoring oblivion might seem a necessity for Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen -year-old cancer patient who recognizes the likelihood of her premature death, but this book isn’t about oblivion. It’s about the life that precedes it. Hazel writes, “Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with an evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”[2] The books which fall into either of these two special categories are wonderful indeed, and The Fault in Our Stars is one of them.

One may expect a book in which a patient with a terminal illness gains wonderful insight about the meaning of life to be predictable (one of the “cancer books” with which Hazel contrasts her favorite book Peter Van Houten’s An Imperial Affliction), but Hazel story is both relatable and remarkable, both ordinary and profound. She’s a girl who spends every moment hooded up to oxygen, due to the cancer metastases in her lungs, and one of her most fervent desires is to find out what happens in the story after her favorite novel ends. The questions of life that we all think about are more urgent for her, given her illness, and she worries about the effect her death will have on the people closest to her, especially her parents. She has experienced the harsh realities of life and her observations about life are serious, hilarious, and witty. Her personality and her remarks about life, her decisions and her reactions to the situations she faces (everything from hospital visits to reading books to meeting a boy she likes), all make her a character that readers will cheer for and love.

John Green’s writing in this novel is wonderful to read, and one can really imagine a person speaking the way that Hazel narrates the story. Green writes in a way that makes the reader feel that Hazel is a real person and her comments, both in narration and dialogue, can evoke laughter while reading one paragraph and tears while reading the next, and sometimes both at the same time. While writing this review, I couldn’t decide on just one quote to include in this review, which is why there are several. This is one book which readers will come away from wanting to quote the entire volume. It’s both well-written and very quick to read, the ease of its prose not to be mistaken for simplicity. As Hazel feels about An Imperial Affliction, we come to the end of the book and want the story to continue.

This book contains great depth and meaning. There is discussion of serious topics such as death, the inevitable pain that is a part of life, the unexpected and surprising situations that humans face, and the experience of living life while knowing that you’ve drawn — really, been given by chance, and for no discernible reason — an extremely difficult lot. There are myriad symbols and references to be analyzed in this book. There are references to Shakespeare (including the title); a great deal of symbolism involving (among many others) water, stars, and breathing; and some mentions of little things in life that hold a lot of meaning in the story. This is a book that I want to read again, because I know that there are more things I will find that I missed the first time through.

There is a passage in the book in which Hazel says, “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”[3] There is infinity in this book, waiting to be explored by readers who are eager for the journey.

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Recommended Listening

Melissa Anelli and Rosianna Halse Rojas of LeakyNews discussed John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in a podcast back in January.[4] It’s a really fun and nerdy conversation, and I really enjoyed it.


References

[1] Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Penguin, 2012, Ch 1, p. 13. Print.

[2] The Fault in Our Stars, Ch 2, p. 33.

[3] The Fault in Our Stars, Ch 20, p. 260.

[4] Anelli, Melissa. BookTalk: The Fault in Our Stars. Posted on 13 January 2012 at LeakyNews. Retrieved on 12 August 2012 from http://www.leakynews.com/booktalk-the-fault-in-our-stars/.

Christopher Hitchens, 13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011

Not all my views have been vindicated, even to me. I see that I write that “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.” I cannot quite sustain this jauntiness in the light of what I now know. Should the best efforts of my physician friends be unavailing, I possess a fairly clear idea of how Stage Four esophageal cancer harvests its victims. The terminal process doesn’t allow much in the way of “activity,” or even of composed farewells, let alone Stoic or Socratic departures. This is why I am so grateful to have had, already, a lucid interval of some length, and to have filled it with the same elements, of friendship and love, and literature and the dialectic, with which I hope some of this book is also animated. I wasn’t born to do any of the things I set down here, but I was born to die and this coda must be my attempt to assimilate the narrative to its conclusion. (Christopher Hitchens, 20 January 2011)[1]

The above passage is the final paragraph of the preface to the paperback re-edition of Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22: A Memoir. The book was written while the author was probably already ill, though he did not know it at the time, and the preface was written after he was diagnosed with cancer. The narrative of his life, unfortunately, concluded on 15 December 2011.[2]

He leaves behind countless reams of writing and hours of speaking. In addition to his family and friends who grieve him, many others who have never met him are thinking of him upon learning of his death. He wrote on a wide variety of topics — everything from how to make tea[3] to the importance of the King James Bible to our language and culture,[4] from book reviews (such as his review of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy)[5] to a confirmation that waterboarding is torture (after having undergone the procedure himself),[6] from the untruth and undesirability of religion[7] to defenses of war (especially the war in Iraq).[8] He wrote with great eloquence, drawing on history and literature, and managed to both inspire and infuriate readers.

After his diagnosis,[9] he wrote various essays about his experience with cancer: Tropic of
Cancer
,[10] Unanswerable Prayers,[11] Tumortown,[12] Miss Manners and the Big C,[13] Unspoken Truths,[14] and his latest, Trial of the Will.[15] He addressed the subject of his illness (and impending death) with his usual wit. Although Hitchens acknowledged that his illness might not allow him to “do death in the active and not the passive,” these essays displayed bravery and thoughtfulness in the face of death.

I never met the man, though like many, I enjoy his writing and speaking immensely. The first of his works I read was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything as part of an effort to read more about religion and atheism. At the time, I was already questioning the existence of God and beginning to consider myself an atheist, but his book (among others) inspired me to think more about the questionable morality of religion and especially about the questionable desirability of the afterlife, even Heaven. His now famous comparison of Heaven to a celestial dictatorship, though it may seem harsh to some, as well as his recent essays about cancer have helped me in the ongoing process of dealing with my fear of death.

I’ve read only a small fraction of his lengthy bibliography, though I plan to read more in the future. There are times when I cheer on the inside while reading what he wrote and hearing what he said, other times when I cringe inwardly, and still other times when I become absolutely infuriated. He could be moral and upstanding one moment and absolutely loathsome the next, inspiring both gratitude and anger. His death does not change this about his writing. (The admonishment to speak no ill of the dead is overrated and would be ironic if applied in this case anyway.) No matter whether I agree with him or not on the topic being discussed in a particular piece, his writing challenges me to read more about the topics he’s written on — to learn more and figure out if I think he’s right or not, because one should always seek to keep learning and make up one’s own mind. Disagreeing and debating with him is a challenge, as acknowledged by The Onion’s obituary,[16] but one should want an opponent like him to truly test one’s own views.

Yesterday morning, I had a momentary thought of toasting his memory with a drink (preferably Johnnie Walker Black), despite the fact that I don’t drink alcohol, but I won’t go through with it. Remember always to keep reading, keep thinking, and keep fighting on.

There is probably not God and probably no afterlife, but on the off chance that these do exist, may Hitchens speak on the side of the prosecution against the Almighty.


References

[1] Hitchens, Christopher. Preface. Hitch-22: A Memoir. New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2011. (Book originally published in 2010)

[2] Weiner, Juli. In Memoriam: Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011. Posted on 15 December 2011 at Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 16 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/12/In-Memoriam-Christopher-Hitchens-19492011.

[3] Hitchens, Christopher. How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea. Posted on 3 January 2011 at Slate. Retrieved on 16 December 2011 from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2011/01/how_to_make_a_decent_cup_of_tea.html.

[4] Hitchens, Christopher. When the King Saved God. Posted in the May 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 16 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/05/hitchens-201105.

[5] Hitchens, Christopher. Oxford’s Rebel Angel. Posted in the October 2002 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2002/10/hitchens200210.

[6] Hitchens, Christopher. Believe Me, It’s Torture. Posted in the August 2008 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/08/hitchens200808.

[7] Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2007.

[8] Hitchens, Christopher. In Defense of Endless War. Posted on 19 September 2011 in Slate. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2011/09/in_defense_of_endless_war.html.

[9] Hitchens, Christopher. An Update from Christopher Hitchens. Posted 30 June 2010 at Vanity Fair. Retrieved 16 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2010/06/an-update-from-christopher-hitchens.

[10] Hitchens, Christopher. Tropic of Cancer. Posted in the September 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/09/hitchens-201009.

[11] Hitchens, Christopher. Unanswerable Prayers. Posted in the October 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/10/hitchens-201010.

[12] Hitchens, Christopher. Tumortown. Posted in the November 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/11/hitchens-201011.

[13] Hitchens, Christopher. Miss Manners and the Big C. Posted in the December 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/12/hitchens-201012.

[14] Hitchens, Christopher. Unspoken Truths. Posted in the June 2011 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2011/06/christopher-hitchens-unspoken-truths-201106.

[15] Hitchens, Christopher. Trial of the Will. Posted in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/hitchens-201201.

[16] Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate To Christopher Hitchens. Posted on 16 December 2011 at The Onion. Retrieved on 17 December 2011 from http://www.theonion.com/articles/fumbling-inarticulate-obituary-writer-somehow-losi,26890/.