Published December 16, 2011
Christopher Hitchens is dead and it’s a loss. As a believer in both God and religion, it may come as a surprise to some that I mourn the loss of a man who not only wrote a book called "God Is Not Great," but sub-titled it, "How Religion Poisons Everything." But that book, as wrong as it is about many things, is just one small part of a fascinating life from which all people can take a measure of inspiration and religious folk especially could learn.
Author and writer Christopher Buckley describes Hitchens as having a soul. I would agree, but Hitchens would likely cringe at that claim and deny its truth. But whether he had a soul or not, he clearly had soul, and faith too.
By soul, I mean that Christopher Hitchens brimmed with life force, with intensity and with passion – sometimes fueled by scotch, but it was always there in whatever he wrote or said.
That’s the passion which so many people seek and find in religion. Perhaps that Hitchens found his passion without religion, is really what angered so many religious people the most.
Find the passion where you can and when you can, the rest is commentary, as long as your passion leads you to care and concern for others beyond yourself.
But it wasn’t just soul which Hitchens had, it was faith – and not just any faith, but the faith of a true believer. Or in his case, a true dis-believer.
Christopher Hitchens never found an idea he liked which wasn’t worth total belief. When he was a leftist, as he was in his early years, he was a communist, and people like Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley were not simple wrong, they were the enemy. And when it came to religion, as it did in his later years, it wasn’t simply that religion could do bad things, it “poisoned everything”.
Perhaps what Hitch saw in religion was his own propensity for extremism, for passionate faith which knows no bounds and fails to distinguish between wrong and evil. Perhaps the reason he hated religion so deeply is because he recognized himself in that which he hated, and that is always the stuff which provokes the strongest responses in all of us.
Whatever the reason, Hitchens was often the fundamentalist he claimed to loath, especially when it came to religion.
Conversation became disputation and both reasonable atheism and humble faith were tossed out the window in favor of radical absolutist atheism and arrogant faith. Those were the choices in Hitchens' theological world, and you had to pick a side.
Hitchens often did to religion what much of religion has done, and too often still does, to atheism or any other form of what it deems to be non-religious – compare the best of one tradition to the worst of another which is hardly a fair comparison. But in doing so, Hitchens raised many important questions about fanaticism, ethno-centrism, and the real abuses which faith fuels.
If they make the faithful uncomfortable, it is because as it did for Hitchens, what hurts most is the part which comes closest to the truth.
Hitch had style, wit, humor and wisdom – all of which will be missed. He was needlessly provocative, occasionally obnoxious, and wickedly disdainful of that with which he did not agree – not to be missed as much.
Ultimately though, Hitchens held up a mirror to himself and to the world which forced us to ask important questions about the ideas and institutions to which we are most committed, and that is not something only to be missed, but actually a sacred skill whose loss is to be mourned.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.