The death of Christopher Hitchens on December 15 was not unexpected, and that seemed only to add to the tragedy. His fight against cancer had been lived, like almost every other aspect of his colorful life, in full public view. He had told numerous interviewers that he wanted to die in an active, not a passive sense. Then again, there may never have been a truly passive moment in Christopher Hitchens’ life.
Long before he was known as one of the world’s most ardent atheists, he was known as a world-class essayist and a hard-driving public intellectual. Born in England, he had made his home in Washington, D.C. for three decades. His range of interests was almost unprecedented. He wrote books on subjects as varied as Thomas Paine and the Elgin Marbles. He was a predictable man of the Left when he began his journalistic career in Britain, and he remained a staunch defender of civil liberties throughout his life. Nevertheless, he broke with liberals in the United States and Britain when he affirmed the Bush Administration’s decision to wage war against terrorism in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He could write eloquent prose, but he could also write savagely. He was a self-described contrarian, even writing a book entitled, Letter to a Young Contrarian. In that book he described this contrarian stance as “a disposition against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion.” In practice, for Hitchens it seemed to mean the right to attack any idea, any place, any time, no matter who might hold it.
In 2007 he launched a full assault upon theism and belief in God. In God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens declared himself to be the implacable and determined foe of all religious belief. Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, he became part of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.