Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

It may seem odd for a Pagan to pay tribute to someone who considered faith a personal weakness and religion a social malady. It is perhaps also unusual for a princess to pay tribute to this man, who was a vocal anti-monarchist.* I disagreed with Hitch, as he was known by his fans, on many points. But I found him provocative, informed, and honest. And drunk…he was often lit in public, but in a clever Ron White (with a British accent) sort of way, not a downward-spiral Charlie Sheen (with any accent) sort of way. Most importantly, Christopher Hitchens was a constant champion of human rights and independent thought, an admirable trait for any public figure. He was one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, leaders who took atheism from an “absence of faith” stance to a “presence of reason” mantra.

“What the New Atheists share is a belief that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”– The rise of the ‘New Atheists’ 2006

By all accounts, if Christopher Hitchens were to have met me, he would have scoffed at my spirituality and balked at my beliefs. Also, he would have argued fundamentally that I am not funny. He believed it was a biological imperative for men to have humor (to attract women), but there was no evolutionary cause for women to yuck it up — and so it wasn’t possible. I am so not joking — he really said (wrote) that. So why — as a practicing Pagan and a woman who (sometimes) thinks she’s funny — do I dig Hitch? I’m starting to wonder that myself.

Maybe I should back up a bit.

I came to Paganism by way of ambivalence → agnosticism → Wicca → ambivalence → Heathenry. I was never an atheist because there was always something deep down I couldn’t explain (still can’t) that pulls me towards the spiritual. All along this journey there were conversations with deeply religious people who tried to convince me I would forever be in the dark if I didn’t embrace their version of light. Sometimes these conversations were dispassionate and friendly. Other times, these conversations were highly emotional and ended with my companion filled with angst and genuine worry for my soul and with me filled with indignation and disappointment that I couldn’t articulate my position better. I felt like my companion(s) and I were completely demagnetized with one another when it came to the pull towards spirituality.

On this journey, there have also been conversations with deeply non-religious people. And as much as we disagreed on the topic of faith and its relationship to reason, I never left those conversations feeling judged, at least not in an “eternal damnation” sort of way. Strange as it sounds, I felt more of a magnetic pull towards these companions than towards people of faith. So, I have always lent my ear to atheist commentary – perhaps because I was seeking this old feeling of being challenged but not judged.

I did not find this feeling with Christopher Hitchens. He challenged me alright. But he judged me, too. But by the time I discovered Hitch, I was in a place where being judged for my faith didn’t rankle my feathers or muss my hair (or crown). I was in a place where I could listen to faith-oriented arguments (be they religious or non-religious) and cull value solely on my admiration for passionate, well-informed arguments that made me think critically about why I believe what I believe. I assign value to arguments that keep me honest in my faith, the motivations behind and the consequences of my faith-related choices. And on this, Christopher Hitchens delivered in spades.

He stood up to religious right fundamentalists and kicked the pants off of them in public debates (just ask the Oracle for “Christopher Hitchens debate” for a look see). [Here’s a brief video example. Warning: This will open with sound.] He called extremist religions out for what they are — dogma that legitimizes the marginalizing women’s rights, sexual freedom and the economic prospects of the poor and disempowered.** If you need an argument to defend equal (human) rights, policies that treat gays equally, or free speech you can look to Hitch. [Warning: These links are video links that will open with sound.] One of the things I admired most about Hitchens was that he wasn’t afraid to criticize any public or cherished figure, alive or not. Here is an example…and it’s a doozy.

“MT [Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” — Christopher Hitchens 2003

I don’t know, maybe I still have a thing for “bad boys” but I find this kind of irreverence captivating, even exhilarating.*** To me, this is highly provocative, even vitriolic, but highly thought-provoking nonetheless. I know Mother Teresa did everything she could within the confines of her faith to alleviate suffering and promote health. I think Hitch’s point is that Mother Teresa limited her actions to the confines of her faith; that she did not advocate for women’s control over their fertility because that was not aligned with the Catholic church. There is a good deal of research that links family size to persistent poverty.☨ Does he sound like an asshat? Yes. Do you have any doubts about his opinion on the matter? No. Could he have been more diplomatic? Yes. Could he have been more clear? No.

The true value of this quote for me is not about Catholicism or what Mother Teresa did or didn’t do for the poor. The true value lies in Hitchens’ unabashed questioning of actions based on faith. I don’t want to lose that perspective in my own practice. I don’t ever want to value doctrine over the human condition. I chose Paganism as my spiritual compass, not as a written map for my decisions and actions.

I remain torn, though. Like I said, Hitch would pretty much call me an idiot and laugh at my lifestyle. But I don’t value his personal opinion of me or of my faith. I value his willingness to stand up to doctrine against a tide of complacency. I value his dedication to identifying injustice and pointing to the culprit no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. [Even if the culprit is me and my faith. Heck, especially if the culprit is me and my faith!] Obviously, this critical bravery is not unique to Hitchens or to atheists in general but can be found in people of almost any faith. It just so happens that atheists see faith as a “tide of complacency.” Obviously, I disagree with this view of faith. But I don’t fully dissent. with this view. I think it is very easy for people of faith to let go of reason in favor of doctrine. I don’t want to be one of those people. It’s not a very Pagan thing to do. And it’s not a very Princess thing to do. And I thank Christopher Hitchens for reminding me I need be a vigilant free thinker.

What do you think readers? Was Christopher Hitchens a beacon for free thought? Or a black hole of contempt? Do these things have to be mutually exclusive?

* But I see myself as a benign royal, so I don’t think Hitch would mind my regal leanings. Also, I am not a “real” princess — more a figurative head than a figure head, if you will.

** To be fair, Hitch did not see a difference between “extremist” religion and “not extremist” religion. As I understand it, he really just saw religion of any kind as a festering social wound.

*** I don’t. Have a thing for bad boys. Not for a long time.

☨This site (from the ABDI Institute) provides a good, evidenced-based overview of the relationship between poverty and family size.

+ Featured image, Christopher Hitchens in Las Vegas, 2007.