“Christopher Hitchens, a symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism…”

by SF

Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has died aged 62 (AP)

Richard Dawkins: Illness made Christopher Hitchens a symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism

On 7 October, I recorded a long conversation with Christopher Hitchens in Houston, Texas, for the Christmas edition of New Statesman which I was guest-editing.

He looked frail, and his voice was no longer the familiar Richard Burton boom; but, though his body had clearly been diminished by the brutality of cancer, his mind and spirit had not. Just two months before his death, he was still shining his relentless light on uncomfortable truths, still speaking the unspeakable (“The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word ‘fascist’, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with ‘extreme-right Catholic party'”), still leading the charge for human freedom and dignity (“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously.

The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do”) and still encouraging others to stand up fearlessly for truth and reason (“Stridency is the least you should muster … It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements’.”).

The following day, I presented him with an award in my name at the Atheist Alliance International convention, and I can today derive a little comfort from having been able to tell him during the presentation that day how much he meant to those of us who shared his goals.

I told him that he was a man whose name would be joined, in the history of the atheist/secular movement, with those of Bertrand Russell, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, David Hume. What follows is based on my speech, now sadly turned into the past tense.

Christopher Hitchens was a writer and an orator with a matchless style, commanding a vocabulary and a range of literary and historical allusion far wider than anybody I know. He was a reader whose breadth of reading was simultaneously so deep and comprehensive as to deserve the slightly stuffy word “learned” – except that Christopher was the least stuffy learned person you could ever meet.

He was a debater who would kick the stuffing out of a hapless victim, yet did it with a grace that disarmed his opponent while simultaneously eviscerating him. He was emphatically not of the school that thinks the winner of a debate is he who shouts loudest. His opponents might have shouted and shrieked. Indeed they did. But Hitch didn’t need to shout, for he could rely instead on his words, his polymathic store of facts and allusions, his commanding generalship of the field of discourse, and the forked lightning of his wit.

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