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Missing Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens died on Friday from a tumour on the oesophagus. He once wrote of the paradox: 'Nothing is more predictable and more certain than death, and nothing is less predictable and less certain.'

In one of his last interviews with his dear friend Tony Jones from the ABC he recalled the injunction of the Cuban writer Jose Marti that a man has three duties: to write a book, to plant a tree and to have a son. He was well satisfied that he had fulfilled the injunction thirty years previously:

I remember the year my first son was born was the year I published my first real full-length book. And I had a book party for it and for him, Alexander my son, and I planted a tree, a weeping willow, and felt pretty good for the age of, what, I think 32 or something.

He never made 62. His writings and media interviews survive, as do his three children, and the tree he planted.

He came from the left and from the UK. Publishing a thousand words a day on all manner of subjects, he ended up as a US citizen regarding Bill Clinton as 'a despicable figure' and George W. Bush's Iraq War as justified.

He introduced a 2004 anthology quoting an antique saying that 'a man's life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty and war'. As a journalist and essayist he tasted love and war in spades. He experienced little by way of poverty and he regarded religion as the most toxic of foes, 'the most base and contemptible of the forms assumed by human egotism and stupidity'.

He reserved a special hatred for Mother Teresa, the contemporary religious icon for service of the poor, publishing a short book irreverently titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, followed by a documentary entitled Hell's Angel. To be fair, he said the TV network that broadcast the documentary chose the title 'very much against my will'.

The Vatican even interviewed him in opposition to the canonisation of Mother Teresa. He said he had 'walked around Calcutta in her company and formed the conclusion that she was not so much a friend of the poor as a friend of poverty. She praised poverty and disease and suffering as gifts from on high, and told people to accept these gifts joyfully.'

His intellectual equal, Pierre Ryckmans retorted, 'Mother Teresa is not a philanthropist. She is a Christian. A philanthropist is a person who has a fondness for anthropoids. A Christian is a person who loves Christ.'

Mother Teresa and her sisters have probably done more for the poor slum dwellers of the world's cities like Calcutta than Hitchens and all his disciples, and the sisters probably would not persevere in that mission but for their religious faith.

Then again religious people like Mother Teresa do well to face the searing scrutiny of one like Hitchens who was asked by the Vatican inquisitors if he thought her guilty of hypocrisy.

He observed that in the same year that Mother Teresa had intervened in the Irish referendum on divorce, she gave an interview to Ladies' Home Journal saying she was glad to hear that her friend Princess Diana was getting divorced, since the royal marriage was so obviously unhappy.

He told the Vatican officials, 'I hoped this was hypocrisy, since otherwise it would look like the medieval church, preaching strict morals to the poor and offering indulgences to the rich'.

He did admit to a sneaking regard for Pope John Paul II: 'He may be very conservative on doctrinal matters, but he was a real man when it came to the struggle for his native Poland, and he has almost single-handedly changed the posture of the church on the filthy practice of the death penalty.'

Having attended a US execution for reporting purposes, he later wrote, 'I don't know that I shall ever quite excuse myself, even as a reporter and writer who's supposed to scrutinise everything, for my share in the proceedings. But I am clear on one thing. Death requires no advocates. It is superfluous to volunteer for its service.'

Two years ago, I appeared on Tony Jones' Q&A with Hitchens. At the end of the program, a member of the audience asked: 'Many non-believers facing death change their minds about religion. Is that fear or comfort?' I answered simply, 'It's often both.' Hitchens said:

When Voltaire was dying the priest came and said, 'You should renounce the devil,' and he said, 'This is not time to be making enemies.' It's a religious falsification that people like myself scream for a priest at the end. David Hume very famously didn't and was witnessed by James Boswell not doing so. Most of us go to our ends with dignity. If we don't and if it is the wish for fear or comfort, then both of these things are equally delusory, as religion is itself.

On Saturday, I attended the funeral of a religious sister, aged 89, whose tumour was in the brain. When dying she told her bishop, 'I've never done this before.' At her funeral one of her religious sisters delivered a eulogy and invited us to 'the table of the Eucharist where we hold all this altogether as best we can'.

Hitchens always conceded that 'religious faith is ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.'

He always saw a place for conscience, 'whatever it is that makes us behave well when nobody is looking'. For him, 'Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it.' Some of us do find that we can form and inform our conscience even better when we believe that a loving God is accompanying us in the lonely chambers of decision.

Some of us stand tallest when we submit and surrender to death, darkness and the other with dignity, and love, surrounded by a religious community.

Hitchens could sure write, and he was a man of deep intellectual conviction, always seeking truth. But he sure had a lifelong block about religion, especially when it came to religious folk seeking to help their fellow man, true to their religious convictions. No doubt all hostilities between him and Mother Teresa are now at an end, but how they are at an end remains a mystery.

We will all miss his searing intellectual rigour, self-deprecating humour, unpredictable political perspectives, unforgiving character evaluations of his fellow anthropoids, and iconoclastic appetite for scrutiny and transparency — even those of us appalled by his vicious and discriminatory anti-religious bigotry. 

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. 

Topic tags: Frank Brennan, Christopher Hitchens



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Existing comments

Hitch did not just attack Mother Teresa, he attacked Princess Diana and for the same reason. They were hypocrites. I cannot remember a single pronouncement from Sister Agnes regarding the single most effective measure in the eradication of poverty - raising the status of women. Her attitude seem very odd to me considering the personality cult that surrounded her order. Mother Teresa was a lot of things. She was most definitely not humble.

Kevin V Russell | 20 December 2011  

As always, Father Brennan's commentary is worth reading. Christopher Hitchens' contributions to humanity, too, are always worth consideration for the perspective they often provide - especially amongst those of us frequently subject to the appalling bigotry of organised religion.

Michelle Goldsmith | 20 December 2011  

Come now Frank, one priest's perception of 'religious bigotry' could be another man's 'incisive truth', so speak for yourself and leave others out, please. The Christian Church is indeed pleased every time there is conflict and poverty around the place because without that there would be no imagined purpose for the army of priestly meddlers, like Mother T. Instead of focusing on 'the deserving poor' your mob should spend time on the 'undeserving wealthy' to change their habits and aims but that might be too close to the bone, eh? Gross wealth is a sign of the Vatican, even as it sponges ever more from the poor it pretends to care about. I see in Italy the Vatican escapes with 3 billion Euro of state granted tax rorts. Typical! But still quite modest by Australian standards where the collective religionists cream off some $30 billion out of the taxable income system. It's not just Mother T who can be charged with being a hypocrite, is it?

Harry Wilson | 20 December 2011  

You quoted Pierre Ryckmans. I quote the same writer: 'The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human nature.' Hitchens was very well endowed with that urge. I will not miss his support for George W Bush's wars, his betrayal of friends, his ignorance - he attributed (NYRB 21/9/2000) to Lord Alfred Douglas the old anti-Semitic doggerel 'How odd of God etc...' (It was written by William Ewer (1885-1976)) When thinking of Hitchens I recall a Yiddish response to that doggerel: 'Not odd/ of God/ Goyim/ Annoy im.'

John Nicholson | 20 December 2011  

Hitchens was an enemy of hypocrisy and cant. There is a lack of candour and honesty in religon which thinkers like Hitchens can spot a mile. I am not sure if he was always very profound but he certainly could call a spade a spade.

val wake | 20 December 2011  

Hitchens was essentially a tireless self-destructive self-promoter. What moral or cultural virtue did he ever demonstrate? Never mind that Hitchens was instrumental in helping to create the situation described in the book Erasing Iraq http://erasingiraq.com Strange too that after Sept 11 he became closely associated with the Hoover Institute and other USA right-wing think tanks which effectively provided the ideological justifications for the systematic Erasing of Iraq and the related exercises in applied USA foreign politics as described in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Even stranger is the fact that the Hoover Institute is the home base for some very heavy weight right-wing Christians - the very kind of self-righteous Christian that Hitchens quite rightly loathed. And contributing to the bogus notion of a never ending "war on terror" - whatever that could possibly be? That phrase is pure Orwellian double-speak and can be used to justify state violence by whichever state chooses to use it, more often than not against their own people. It is even more tragically and darkly ironic because Orwell was supposedly one of Hitchens' heroes.

John | 20 December 2011  

I have a problem: my imaginary friend has been inviting me, over many years, to be honest and face the realities of life. My imaginary friend has also been 'stepping in', when asked and required, to forgive and heal me in ways that I do not seem to manufacture. My imaginary friend has also been gently alerting me to the ways in which broken religion has come between me and my imagined friend. I cannot shake off, I do not want to shake off, my imaginary friend. Hitchens and co would call me delusional, brainwashed, complicit in one of the world's infamous and longest running lies. Why does my delusion, my imaginary friend, encourage me to live a human life honestly? It seems that, to follow the example of Hitchens, I must shake off the great delusion of my life before I can walk with integrity and full human dignity into a noble death. My imaginary friend must put 'his' hand up and say 'I don't actually exist. All that you believe I have done, I have not. Let me go so that you may at least die knowing the truth.' My delusion is real. I cannot, I will not let the Love of my life go. Maybe I am just too weak minded to embrace the absence of what many a secular mind does not seem to experience.

Andrew | 20 December 2011  

Great article with measured analysis and criticism, especially considering the hardline attacks against Christianity by the subject. Harry Wilson - "another man's incisive truth" - not religious bigotry? When religion is purged from the world, let me know when the humanist utopia begins.

Ben Davies | 20 December 2011  

Once an uncritical admirer of Hitchens - seduced like many others by his absolute mastery of language and his instant and challenging opinions - I have since been forced to reflect on his endorsement of not just the Iraq war but war as a mechanism for the exertion of power. His comments on the efficacy of cluster bombs for dealing with what he called "Islamofascists" are nothing short of abhorrent. This doesn't mean a total reversal but I'm glad in my seventies that I can still revise my opinions.

Bill Hampel | 20 December 2011  

I must say I agreed with everything I ever heard Christopher Hitchens say - but none of it had anything to do with my exoerience of spirituality, or even religion for that matter. No disrespect intended... you need a listening heart to "get" God or spirituality and he was a damn good talker - lets face it.

Valery | 20 December 2011  

Two thought experiments and one observation for Harry Wilson. 1. You are a dying beggar in the street (religious or atheist, it doesn’t much matter for this experiment). Would you prefer that Mother Teresa or Christopher Hitchens stumbles upon you? 2. One of Mother Teresa’s sisters and one of Christopher’s disciples are walking down the street. Which of them would prefer to stumble upon a dying beggar? The observation: whatever of the debates about how best to alleviate global poverty, the world is a better place for having people who dedicate their lives to the immediate material (and dare I say, spiritual) needs of the dying beggars on the streets of the cosmos. We can all agree on that whether we think God is great or not.

Frank Brennan SJ | 20 December 2011  

Ben Davies, with every modest retreat from the ignorance of previous ages the Christian religion adopts ever more the humanist views to survive, as a political tool of oppression for the acolytes and unearned wealth for the leaders. Some religions persist with their particular brand of unwelcome darkness of course, making 'religion' overall a very dangerous past time. I doubt it will ever vanish, there are simple-minded folk everywhere who grasp on to myth and fable as fact, as well as hard-nosed power mongers who see the ease with which religion drives whole populations to the brink of disaster, which, of course, is what Christians really seek, in order for their Master to return and sweep them all up into paradise. Now, will there be endless pokies up there, is my burning question?

Harry Wilson | 20 December 2011  

I read once, years ago, perhaps in Eureka Street, a priest's observation that in the contemporary world there is a plethora of choice in relation to belief and non belief. Because of this certainty of belief becomes difficult but people can choose to believe, knowing there is a possibility they may be wrong. I can understand that people, such as Hitchens, who are satisfied with their life and feel they have been successful, can face their death, which they believe is annihilation, with equanimity. What, though, of those millions of millions of people who have lived, are living now and who will live in the future, whose life, for many their entire life, is dominated by powerlessness, tragedy and suffering? For the majority, there is little or no justice in this world, while Divine justice, if it exists, offers the only true, real, genuine, authentic justice, delivered by an infinite God who loves each and every one of us. Doesn't that make it worth choosing to believe in?

Maureen Strazzari | 20 December 2011  

self promotion is never attractive or life enhancing.

graham patison | 21 December 2011  

Christopher Hitchens' passing is a sad loss to a world that is in dire need of bright and, indeed, rich minds like his. But like everything else, his contribution to the world of thinkers may descend into demagoguery unless we can see clearly that even Hitchens was not immune to the flaws of self-idolatory. May he shake up the Heaven that he did not believe in.

Alex Njoo | 21 December 2011  

On Fr Brennan's thought experiment: It looks to me that your twin scenarii are anticipated by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In which case the resolution maybe should be be not in dualist terms - which (one) do we prefer- but in terms of who (one OR both) is going to respond to Jesus as He lives in the needy, i.e. any of us?

Fred Green | 21 December 2011  

As to your question, if I was a dying beggar on the street I certainly wouldn't want to be found by Mother Teresa - she would require that I lay down on a crude stretcher and spend my time, without any treatment, giving thanks to God for the gift of poverty! If there was one person in the world I would love to have met it would have been Christopher Hitchens. He was unique and quite simply, irreplaceable. The world is a lesser place now that he is no longer in it. Watch for the magnitude of people from all walks of life who turn out for his funeral - very few will ever inspire so many.

Ruth Gill | 21 December 2011  

I appreciated Frank Brennan's article on the passing of Christopher Hitchens. It was a very respectful and honest view of the man I have heard and admired many times on TV. I will miss most his fearlessness, which is I think one of the great wisdoms given to us all in the story of Jesus "BE NOT AFRAID". I have reached a greater age than Christopher, but I find more than ever we need our fearless speakers, even when we may not agree. We need their strength for our spirit. I will miss his "inconvenient truths". Thanks!

gina louis | 22 December 2011  

Re: Frank Brennan's "thought experiments" - surely the parable of "the Good Samaritan" warns us against making assumptions about what the actions and motivations of another human being will be, based solely upon a (carefully crafted) public persona in any given circumstance.

Michelle Goldsmith | 22 December 2011  

My only knowledge of Christopher Hitchens is from the media - TV, radio and print. I have read none of his books, only reviews of them - some positive, some negative. I found myself agreeing with a lot of his criticism of organised religion, religious leaders and religious followers. In public debate I cringed at the pathetic performances of churchmen of all ranks who resorted to dogmatism on so many issues and were exposed as shallow thinkers by Hitchens. Hitchens himself was brilliant at setting up straw men and demolishing them with ease but when churchmen set themselves up as Aunt Sallies Hitchens wit and penetrating logic won every prize. He was a polemicist, a showman, a warrior who fought against humbug and cant and who took no prisoners. Unlike Socrates Hitchens made a lot of money out of being a guestioner, a gadfly on the rump of society. It seems Christopher missed out on the joy of being creative with his talents and being helpful to the less fortunate among us. He had his flaws but he surpassed many of us in the courage of his convictions. May the Mercy of God be a gratifying revelation to him.

Uncle Pat | 22 December 2011  

HEY UNCLE PAT, how much mettle is requisite to run with chic ATHEISM/SCEPTICISM/AGNOSTICISM OF TODAY-It takes mammoth courage to swim against the corked materialist mind-set of today? Even the London buses were articulating the atheist infallible dogmas.

Father John Michael George | 24 December 2011  

Interesting article. However, one correction: Christopher Hitchens DID make it to 62; he celebrated his 62nd birthday this past April 13 (he was born on April 13, 1949). Personally, I wish he had lived long enough for me to meet him, as I sadly did not pay much attention to him until a couple of years ago. I've become a big fan of his since then. I am a spiritual person, but I have no objection to his having been a nonbeliever, and speaking his own mind. This world of ours would be rather dull if we were all monolithically one way or another...

Karen Olsen | 25 December 2011  

Well, I won't miss him in the least. He was no less fundamentalist and extremist than the ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel who are currently in the news because they want to restrict the lives of others who don't agree with them; likewise the Taliban and Wahhabi Muslims and their ilk for whom non-muslims are viewed as less than human and even their own women have little if any rights. Militant atheists with whom the likes of Hitchens associated seek to take away the rights of others to live in the ways that they believe God intends. This is demonstrated in Australia by the strong push to take away government funding for religious schools, despite the fact that they have been proven more efficient than state schools, and despite the fact that parents by paying fees relieve the state of a large part of the cost of their children's education.

Frank S | 29 December 2011  

Yet again congratulations to Fr Brennan for another well reasoned, compassionate and outstanding article. His tribute to Christopher Hitchens is outstanding as well as fair, informed and insightful

Jenny Cullen | 03 January 2012  

Sir, To the conclusion "even those of us appalled by his vicious and discriminatory anti-religious bigotry.", I respond suggesting you may consider editing it to read 'those of us with a personal and communally vested interest in keeping our selected mythology alive despite clear and fundamental arguments by non-religious proponents seeking to dispense with religion as a sufficient or necessary condition of existence." You may freely do so without acknowledgement, if your chosen spirit moves you in that direction. Sincerely, -MQ

Michael Quallet | 13 September 2014  

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