Christian reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens’ death last night of complications due to cancer have certainly been mixed. Tweets jovially poking fun at the New Atheist read “ ‘Hitchens doesn’t exist anymore’—God.” Many more conservative Christians vindictively celebrate the death of someone whom they probably felt had backed them into a corner along with the other three (self-titled) Horsemen of New Atheism (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.) Now one is gone. Just as they celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, so they celebrate Hitchens’ untimely demise. Chalk one more up for us. It’s been a good year.
Then there are the more progressive Christians, mostly academics that I know, who are posting about how much Christopher Hitchens’ improved their faith. After all, we were all decrying belief in the same god—the god of fundamentalism, violence, and empire that is clearly not the God of the Israelites, of the Bible, of the universe. I have to agree with them. While I didn’t grow up in an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist home, I understand why my friends who did are grateful to Hitchens and the other New Atheists for exposing the flaws in a Christianity that has its grip on so many American Christians. The hermeneutics of suspicion can be quite powerful. And Hitchens, et al. are not the first to bring such glad tidings to Christians looking for a better way than the idols of their past. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Heidegger—many 19th and 20th century philosophers preceded the Horsemen pointing out many of the same flaws in believing in a god who would condone the violence perpetrated by fundamentalist religion. Of course, none of these philosophers nor the New Atheists believe that they’re freeing the religious from their own dogma so that they may experience a better, more robust faith. That’s beside the point here, however.
I hesitate in participating in either strand of response. The first for obvious reasons. It isn’t so much hesitation as refusal: Christians should never celebrate the death of another human being. And while I identify with friends who’d rather celebrate Hitchens’ life, in some ways seeming like a back-handed way of saying to atheists, “You have no idea what actual Christianity entails, let alone actual religion,” I have trouble celebrating the life of a man who made a career out of spitting venom at others. If he had been a Christian doing this to atheists or Muslims or anyone else, we would have been appalled. I recognize that Christianity abides in the sort of humiliation Hitchens and others seek to pile on to us—that above all, our call is to humility to the point of death (Matt. 16:24-25). But Hitchens’ vitriol went beyond just trying to prove how dumb religious people are.
The man hated Mother Teresa. He thought she was a complete fraud. On top of that, he ironically supported the Iraq War—because it was leading to the death of Islamic fundamentalists. What’s that saying about strange bedfellows? Fundamentalist Christianity could link arms with Hitchens and sing some songs together over that point. What we need to be careful of is not caving too quickly to the pressure of expectations. Atheists expect Christians to be celebrating, so those of us who do not identify with that group of Christians desire to distance ourselves quickly by talking about what a tragedy it is to lose someone so brilliant. It is certainly tragic to see someone die before his time, especially someone who did contribute fruitfully in some ways to the demolition of religious fundamentalism. I’m on his side in that. But I can’t ignore the rest. He was extremely misguided, not only in his account of history but in his responses to some important contemporary issues as well. I won’t celebrate that part of his life.
by Joel Harrison