The outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens died Thursday, December 15, at the age of 63, after battling esophageal cancer. Humanist groups and atheist activists around the world are paying tribute to the life and work of the prolific writer.
An atheist since a young age, in 2007 Hitchens contributed to a boom of best-selling atheist books when he wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He became known as one of “The Four Horsemen” of the “New Atheism” alongside fellow authors Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.
Hitchens held dual citizenship of the UK and US, and was connected with many Humanist and atheist groups in those countries. He was an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, a British member organization of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and a long-time columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, a US member organization of IHEU. He was a keynote speaker at the 2008 World Humanist Congress in Washington, DC, held by IHEU in conjunction with the American Humanist Association (AHA).
“Humanity has lost a powerful stalwart for atheism,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “Christopher Hitchens changed the discussion about religion and non-belief by championing public criticism of theology. Hitchens’ mastery of a logical argument along with his confident demeanor gave many the courage to come out of the atheist closet,” Speckhardt said.
“We have lost a valued colleague and a formidable champion. He’ll be impossible to replace,” said the National Secular Society.
Hitchens was a prolific debater on the subject of religion and atheism. Towards the end of his life became almost as well-known for his dazzling debating skills, and his contributions as a TV pundit, combining erudite learning with excoriating critiques. Richard Dawkins described him as the “finest orator of our time” and a “valiant fighter against all tyrants including God”.
Hitchens’ long-time friend Sir Salman Rushdie expressed his loss on Twitter: “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops.”
Even the British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg joined the tributes, saying Hitchens was “everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious.”
Clegg had worked as an intern for Hitchens many years ago. “My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopaedic mind it was the easiest job I’ve ever done,” said Clegg. “He will be massively missed by everyone who values strong opinions and great writing”.
In Letters to a Young Contrarian, published in 2001, Hitchens identified himself as “not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist,” adding, “the effect of religious belief is positively harmful.”
In an interview published in 2010 with Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell, Hitchens explained that Humanism should be seen as worthy of producing a desirable set of moral values. “…show me what there is, ethically, in any religion that can’t be duplicated by Humanism,” he declared, adding later, “…any good action by a religious person could be duplicated or matched, if not surpassed, by someone who didn’t believe in god.”
Hitchens worked as a journalist at The New Statesman, The Nation, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate, as well as Free Inquiry. His wide-ranging cultural and political criticism often targeted popular public figures, including the Dalai Lama, Michael Moore, Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell. He even wrote a book, The Missionary Position, criticizing Mother Teresa. But he also wrote about people he admired, including books on Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell.
Hitchens announced in 2010 that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Some predicted Hitchens would abandon his atheism after his diagnosis, but, to the contrary, he reiterated that his illness did not alter his critical views on religion and his positive views on life. He was still writing articles during his final days in hospital, where he died from pneumonia related to his cancer.