It's been said that Christopher Hitchens did not suffer fools, so I doubt he and I would have got along all that well, but I admired him anyway. I came to learn about him late in his life as one of the modern champions of atheism. He was, of course, more than that. Mainly, and by his own description, he was a contrarion. State an opinion on virtually any issue however major or minor, and not only had you better be able to justify it, but if he disagreed, you had better really be able to justify it. Odds are it wouldn't help you as he could typically argue his point of view better than most.
Which is why I liked him.
He challenged lazy thinking and most of us, let's be honest now, are lazy thinkers. We humans feel more than we think, and while there's nothing wrong with feeling, it alone is a proven poor way to govern our selves and our society. I never read his athiest manifesto, God is Not Great, but plan to. At one time I feared it, thinking it might challenge my already less than stalwart faith, but reading Richard Dawkins' entry into the fray eliminated that fear entirely.
Like Dawkins, Hitchens latter career saw him delivering some well-deserved shots at religion. I think that's important. Most believers have never really had to articulate their faith and supporting rationale. They are raised in their faith, attend services with the like-hearted, and never venture forth into the larger conversation of why we're here. Having never undertaken a personal quest for the truth, they rarely give credit to the role their upbringing played in what faith they do possess and can't understand why anyone would question the existence of God or His authorship of a collection of documents, thousands of years old, and originally set down in languages that scholars, even now, do not fully comprehend. Yet Christianity, if it contains the truth, ought to be able to stand on its own. Hitchens was among the best at forcing such debate, and I believe he did a great service in that regard.
I was saddened to learn about his cancer, a particularly aggressive one, when it was revealed in 2010 and often googled after news on the progress of his treatment. But he was active in writing and speaking until the end, and though updated images of him showed a progressively weaker presence, there is nothing unusual about that in battling cancer. So I had hopes the he would recover and was shocked to learn of his death this week.
In contemplating his end, many believers hoped Hitchens would make a death bed conversion to faith; he heartened his atheist adherents by refuting such a possibility. Such an act would be cowardice in the minds of many of them, no doubt. And, no doubt, the rumor mill will soon begin asserting that he did. I wouldn't blame him - all talk and intellectual firepower aside death is a frightening prospect. For my own part, I'm glad we don't know - his death would otherwise become a public playground fight, robbed of any dignity and any conversion, tarnished.
Hitchens' life was not error-free (no one gets one of those), but it was fully lived, his intellect generally used to try to improve the human condition, and in my opinion, worth while. He will be missed.
"Never say you know the last words about any human heart!" - Henry James