Christopher Hitchens: The Last Good American Atheist

I asked the middle-aged man across from me, “Who was the last good American president?”

It was the year 2000. As a 19-year old college journalist studying history and political science, I was eager to know my drinking partner’s response to this question. He had just finished railing against Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Bush '41. At this point, I was wondering if he liked any U.S. president at all.

To my surprise, I didn’t have long to wait for an answer. Without hesitation, Christopher Hitchens leaned across the table, looked me in the eye, and quipped with boozy conviction: “Eisenhower.” Then he sipped his whiskey, took a drag from his cigarette, and exhaled through his nose as he stared me in the eye, waiting for my reaction amidst the frivolity of our dingy student hangout.

Amused, I asked: Why Eisenhower?

“Because he was the last president who didn’t take a dump on the Constitution,” Hitchens shot back, taking another drag.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Hitchens, the British-born journalist who died at 62 on Dec. 15, 2011. He had a knack for punctuating discussions with playful one-liners. Some of his witticisms still come to mind whenever I go to a bookstore and see his books on atheism perched—ironically enough—on the religion and philosophy shelf.

When I shared that drink with him in March 2000, the self-described “conservative Marxist” had come to Wabash College in Indiana to debate Ronald Reagan’s legacy with the conservative Catholic political pundit Dinesh D’Souza. It was Reagan Appreciation Week at Wabash, where the student news magazine I edited had paid for these two men to cross swords. Hitchens is on my mind partly because, 10 years ago this summer, he wrote an article for on the Wabash debate that remains posted online here

At the time I saw him debate D'Souza, Hitchens was still a razor-sharp political writer for The Nation magazine, not the village atheist he later became. He was different in those days, more fun and less bitter. I, the future Jesuit, was not even Catholic when I met him.

Today I marvel at how God brought us together for that conversation after the debate. In my memory, the Hitchens who wrote leftist essays for The Nation 14 years ago was different from the Hitchens who made a public career out of atheism while dying from esophageal cancer. Sometimes I wonder whether they were even the same person.

When he visited Wabash 14 years ago, Hitchens had written little about God, and was too polite (“I don’t want to offend people,” he told me with sincerity) to broach the subject of religion in the debate. Although he was clearly a disillusioned idealist, he was not unpleasant toward people with whom he disagreed. He was charming, witty, and friendly to all of the students on our magazine staff. (By contrast, when Bill Maher did a stand-up comedy routine in the Wabash chapel in spring 2003, Maher went to great lengths to insult everyone in our small school.)

Despite his high-profile media presence as a writer and TV political pundit, Hitchens was also a more accessible person at the time, keeping his home number listed in the Washington, D.C., telephone book. While interning at The Washington Times national desk in 2002, I occasionally called him for comment or background information on a story. He always picked up the phone himself or—if he happened to be at his favorite bar—returned my call within a few hours.

In those days, neither of us knew Hitchens was speaking with a future Jesuit, and we never talked about religion. After he left The Nation in 2002, resigning in a feud with his editors over his support for invading Iraq, I never spoke with him again. That same year, I entered the Catholic Church and he testified against Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood, calling her a “fraud, fanatic, and a fundamentalist.”

As I moved closer to God, Hitchens moved further away. Frozen out of Beltway politics by both liberals and conservatives, he turned more intensely to atheism and the bottle at the same time that I was turning to the rosary and mass. Well-known around Washington, D.C., as a functional alcoholic, journalist friends told me that Hitchens sat at the same bar every day, drinking whiskey and nursing his grievances. I suspect it was there that he grew ever more hardened in his belief that God was the cause of all the world’s miseries. He advanced this theory in "God is Not Great," his 2007 bestselling book.

Over the last four years of his life, atheism became his calling card, as Hitchens allowed his battle with religion to overshadow the rest of his journalistic career. Indeed, he arguably erased his career as a non-sectarian political writer in the public eye, leaving only his legacy as a public atheist to posterity. If you ask Americans in 10 years about him, how many will recall that Hitchens spent most of his career as a political writer rather than as an atheist writer?

I eventually learned that Hitchens had started his career in Britain as an idealistic liberal writer who valued truth in politics, but who frequently ruffled his allies' feathers with his iconoclastic words. As a student radical in the 1960s, he fell out with the Labor Party in Britain over its compromise with the Vietnam War. Following his disillusionment with British politics, he moved to the United States, where he was a frequent voice on American talk shows by the mid-1990s.

But in the late 1990s, the Democratic Party abruptly disowned Hitchens when he turned against President Clinton, testifying in an impeachment hearing that Clinton advisor Sydney Blumenthal had told him about a White House campaign to discredit Monica Lewinsky as a “stalker.” It was the beginning of the end for Hitchens in mainstream politics. Yet he continued to maintain an uneasy connection with the American left until 2002, when his support of the Iraq war led to his departure from The Nation.

As his disaffection from liberal circles left him without friends in Washington, Hitchens embraced public atheism with a renewed fervor. He emerged in his last years as a popular atheist author for whom God-bashing was now a favorite sport. At the same time, his personal life declined rapidly.

His movement toward public atheism was a sea change in his career. Other than writing a book against Mother Teresa in 1995, Hitchens was simply a political writer when I first met him. He even professed humanitarian concerns in the Wabash debate, telling D’Souza the Reagan administration had funded the rape and torture of American nuns in El Salvador as part of a “campaign of lying and savagery.”

He was vain and particular in his habits, smoking mountains of strong Turkish cigarettes which I suspect were more immediately responsible for his esophageal cancer than God. "The air reeks of smokelessness," he quipped to us after arriving on the Wabash campus. He also joked about Indiana's blue-light liquor laws, which had somehow prevented him from ordering a second drink one Sunday night at the local Applebees while his first whiskey was still unfinished.

It’s hard to fathom how such a person meets the end of his life. I only know Hitchens suffered a lot in his final illness and I’m sorry he’s gone. When I think of him today, I still recall him as the quick-witted journalist I met at Wabash, rather than as the conflicted atheist he later became. But I also know they were the same person: a frustrated idealist who was filled with much bitterness despite also being a deeply compassionate man.

Sometimes, I even find myself praying for Christopher Hitchens to the God he said he never knew. Why Hitchens? I suppose I do it because he was the last good American atheist.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer 2014 intern serving at America.

David Tiffany
2 years 10 months ago
"There is no one who does good, not even one."
Bruce Snowden
2 years 10 months ago
Jesuit Scholastic Sean Salai in his essay on Christopher Hitchens showed poignant friendship, calling him, “The last good American Atheist.” Hitchens last years were increasing painful and towards the end his esophageal cancer must have been dreadfully agonizing. I hope somehow the good Jesus through the miraculous intricacies of his Mercy was able to apply Christopher's pain as “make up” to whatever was “lacking in the sufferings of Christ” uniting them to his own to create Christopher Hitchens’ chariot to eternal life. Of course nothing was lacking in Christ’s redemptive suffering and there was no need to make-up for any lack thereof. Thus St. Paul’s teaching focusing on the linkage between the sufferings of our resurrected corporality and Jesus’ salvific self-giving, decisively shows the intimate and inseparable bond between the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ , us, and the suffering Jesus, together one and the same. Interestigly and I think connectedly, St. Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy Messenger, in her Diary of Revelations says, Jesus told her that at the hour of death he comes to everyone offering one last chance to profess faith in God. As a private revelation one does not have to believe Faustina, but I choose to believe hoping that as death approached Hitchens, Christ offered a final opportunity for him to say “Yes, I believe!” If he accepted that offer, through Faith’s reflecting mirror I see him going over to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and with warm embrace saying to her, “Teresa, you were right and I was wrong!” Then, understanding better than ever the fallacy of his allegiance to the false gods of alcohol and tobacco abuse, and grasping for the first time the significance of his first name, “Christopher” Christ-Bearer, He bowed reverently before the Trinitarian God, amazed at Divine Mercy! On the contrary,d id Christopher Hitchens defiantly say “No!” to Jesus’ offer? If he did, God may have mercifully granted his wish sending him to “everlasting death” one of Scripture’s hyperbolic definitions of Hell. There he will remain without identity ,forever dead, as if he never existed, a true Hell, a man who let everlasting goodness pass him by. I really, really, hope not!
Gabriela Garver
2 years 10 months ago
Mr Snowden, as you say, nothing was lacking in Christ's sacrifice, yet I think He will accept our offering up our sufferings during life for causes such as (1) serving our time in purgatory (better now than later), and (2) other causes, which we can name. I offer up personal sufferings with a prayer "Please count this toward my time served, and if I'm "paid up," please use my sufferings for the benefit of XXX." Many causes come to mind here (suffering souls in purgatory, esp. friends and family members, good of the nation, good of the world, good of our troops, for the conversion of sinners, etc.). Why do I think Christ will take up our offering during this life, so to speak, to act on it or take as payment for other sins or sins of others? Because that is what Christ did Himself. The Father accepted Christ's willing and perfect suffering and obedience in lieu of payment by us for our sins--esp. original sin, which means that we have the innate ability to do harm and commit evil (as we all do). Also, at one point Jesus said (regarding the apostles query as to why they could not cure certain people) that certain type of sins require "prayer and fasting" to cure. So right there, He was indicating that voluntary mortification (combined with prayer), which involve "volunteering for suffering" move God to do things that He would not necessarily do based on prayer alone. Hitchens was heart-breaking, really. See my separate comments
Gabriela Garver
2 years 10 months ago
Christopher Hitchens was heart-breaking, from a Christian perspective. I could not for the life of me understand his virulent smear of Mother Teresa, of all people! Mother Teresa probably is one of the greatest saints of the 20th century. She was living the life of Christ, and we Christians will always be grateful for her example. So listening to Hitchens smear her was pure torture, and made me worry about the fate of his soul. Hitchens was also heart-breaking because one could see glimmers of good in him, but it was so twisted by the perversity of alcoholism, which wreaks everyone and everything in the end, that one wanted to applaud him at one turn and throttle him in another. "Good God, man, don't you see?" That's what one feels like saying to all the new atheists, but Hitchens is the most heart-breaking because one could see that he wasn't afraid to buck the tide and call a spade a spade and point out the hypocrisy and false piety of the left. Orwell was his hero because Orwell told the truth and also didn't care who's feelings or interests got trampled in that truth-telling. I pray for Hitchens as well (and for other atheists and agnostics). I think a lot of Christians do. Let's keep it up. Let's hope God in His infinite mercy blew and blows gently on the smoldering ember of love and truth that burnt in Christopher's soul, blows it gently into a bonfire of love for God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 10 months ago
Hi Gabriella, Thanks for taking time to respond to my post on Christopher Hitchens. I’ll touch on that in a while. You also mentioned salvific suffering. Yes, we as Church, that is, as Body of Christ, can unite our sufferings salvificly to Jesus’. St. Paul hindered by human words and looking for a way to say it, said we “make up” through our sufferings what was “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ, teaching as a result despite verbal limitations that we as Church are sinewed so inseparably to Christ, the Church, that we become ONE Body, he in us and we in him. This can be understood only through Faith and even then only dimly. In that way we do “make up” what was “lacking” in the sufferings of Jesus although there was nothing to make up nor was anything lacking. Catholic theology on suffering imparts a useful dignity, nowhere else understood. The Good Sisters had that “Catholic thing” right in their often repeated words, “Offer it up!” About Purgatory. Gabriella, I don’t use “measuring sticks” or “weights and balances” figuring out Purgatory. Our Father knows our earthly trip left us bruised and scarred, often through no fault of our own and sometimes through our fault, through our fault, through our most grevious fault! But because our Father is loving, indeed LOVE personified, he isn’t about to slap us down, but rather sends us to the repair shop, Purgatory, for a quick, final fix and polish. I think Purgatory is quick and intense, as intense as is needed to complete our growing in Unconditional Love, the only kind of love in heaven. For me living and dying is all about how well did I LOVE, not how many sins did I commit. “Grow in love,” Jesus said, trying to love the way he loved, namely unconditionally. Purgatory is the “repair shop” on the highway to heaven, the place we pay a quick visit to repairing our faulty transmission to love. Intensely and quickly we do there what we didn’t do fully on earth, namely, GROW IN UNCONDITIONAL LOVE. This happens in a flash, job done, mission completed and off we go on the highway to heaven to the Land of the Living. About Christopher Hitchens. I hope he made it to the Land of the Living, by accepting Jesus’ invitation to Faith at the end. I hope to see him there along with other atheists, considering how true the saying, “With great ease I am pagan and with great difficulty Christian!” It takes a special Grace to Believe. God fully understand the dilemma of Belief, so many reason why not to believe, so many reason why to believe. I personally doubt there is such a thing as a true atheist as somewhere along the way they must wonder if there is a God, at which point their prayer could be, “O my God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.” If Christopher chose not to accept Jesus’ invitation as he died, then the Merciful God who is Mercy Personified performed one last act of mercy for him – he entered into everlasting death, assuming a non-identity as if he had never lived – Oblivion – completely gone, a total Hell. I hope not!
Gabriela Garver
2 years 10 months ago
Mr. Snowden: Happy 4th. I disagree in a few major points on Purgatory. I don't think Purgatory is necessarily quick and intense; I think it is interactive between God and soul, meaning, the soul gets to choose how fast it ascends and advances, as we do on earth. Purgatory starts on earth, if we cooperate, and it is completed on the way to heaven. God is prepared to go as fast or slow as the soul consents to; God has ALL the time, eternity really, to help us fix ourselves with the essential help of His Grace. As St. Paul said "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God working it out in you." God does overwhelm our free will. He wants us to choose Him, to love him completely and freely. As CS Lewis said, if He wanted automatons, He would have made them. Lewis also said that sometimes it is really hard to figure out what part one played and what part God played in one's reform and conversion. That's part of the mystery of life: "Did I do that, or was that's God's grace?" Sometimes we just can't tell, sort of like a memory one is reaching for and asking "did that actually happen the way I'm remembering it, or was that in some half-forgotten dream of mine?" Also I don't think Purgatory is solely a rounding out and completion of the ability to love unconditionally--it includes that, buts there's more. God is love, but that is not all He is (He's also all knowing, all powerful, all wise, all loving, all merciful, all present, all just). There are sins of omission (failure to love, failure to perform the spiritual and corporal works of mercy) and sins of commission (indulging in the seven deadly sins comes to mind, among others--pride, anger, envy, gluttony, lust, sloth and greed). The spiritual works of mercy include things such as admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowing, bearing all wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and dead. Corporal works of mercy include things such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, burying the dead. To the extent I fail to do these, I've failed in unconditional love, as you say, but I can also participate in active sin--by, say, indulging the flesh (carnality, concupiscence), and I can give free rein to other the seven deadly sins other than lust. (BTW, lust or sexual sin is the devil's best-seller and is running rampant in America today, esp. in its most deadly form--internet porn.) The reader might be wondering here:"Where does addiction (a huge scourge in America today) fall in that seven-deadly sin line-up of yours?". Well, I'd say pill, drug and alcohol addiction both break the 5th commandment (thou shall not kill) and are a form of gluttony, meaning, overdo-ing the pursuit of fleshly pleasure )(other than lust, which is its own category of seven deadly sin). Addiction is also a form of idolatry, so it breaks the First Commandment "I am the Lord Thy God. Have no false gods ahead of me." Our post-Christian western world is falling into paganism (god in nature, I'm god myself), idolatry (false gods, including worship of self), hedonism (worship of pleasure, esp. sexual pleasure) and moral relativism (the rejection of the idea of absolute truths, universal morals and imperatives). Purgatory is custom-made reform school. So for some, it is fifty lashes with a wet noodle for, say, thinking that Holy Communion is only a symbol (but otherwise leading a perfect life). But for others, it's 1,000,000,000 years of hell fire. On what am I basing this idea of burning, eternal burning? Christ words. He said we'd be judged on our words and acts (sola fide (faith alone) is a wrong concept--St. Paul said "faith without works is dead"). Jesus said we'd be held accountable for even every word we uttered. He said some will wish they'd never been born (so great will be the punishment--Judas comes to mind, people who harm children come to mind). He said there would be burning in hell (you seem to think hell is a void, nothingness, stopped existence--well, those in hell wish they could stop existence, but it won't stop--Jesus said it won't stop, meaning there is such a thing as eternal damnation.) For brevity, I'm excluding biblical/scriptural references, but if you respond asking for them, I'll give you chapter and verse. One could see some of these godly truths all jumbled up and struggling in Hitchens' soul. He was extremely hard not to like--the way he would fearlessly and completely vanquish the left in word and print, hoisting them on their own petards. He would ingeniously and relentlessly nail the left for their abject phoniness and utter moral bankruptcy, at great personal and professional cost. But then he'd inexplicably turn that brilliant invective on saints like Mother Teresa, perhaps impeding her God-directed work on earth. So there, he was and is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, a jumble of contradictions on high display. I thank God for him--he was such a wonder to behold and listen to and read from--so smart, so brave! Then, why, Christopher, did you have to be so perverse, so stubborn and so drunk? He was hard-hearted toward the Almighty! Ah, Jesus, do not hold these sins against him, Lord, he knew not what he did. That was the bottle talking (and writing) a lot of the time, Lord. May he rest in peace, and God bless his family.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 10 months ago
Hi Gabriella, Once again I appreciate that you took time to respond to what I had to say. Respectfully, we have to agree to disagree. I must say your theology of God while profound, is also stern and austere, like the old time loving Daddy punishing his child until the child beaten into submission falls in line. Maybe you didn't mean it that way, but that's how it sounded. My theology of God on the other hand is gentler, like that of an all wise, understanding "Abba" who never threatens, but always teaches patiently and hopefully a better way if needed. I see myself as a redeemed lover who sometimes sins, not as a redeemed sinner who sometimes loves. I see God more concerned with love than with sin, the latter already pulverized in Passion and blown away like dust in the winds of Pentecost! In that light we live, aflame in gratitude for all that Daddy did, does and will always do for us, his "little ones!" Of course sin has consequences and that's what contrition within the Sacramental system of our Church handles. I once heard a formative story as follows. A sinner got to heaven and when he saw the Lord, he was very apologetic to Jesus for his sinful life. Jesus looked puzzled and said, "What sins?" Then the man remembered the words of Jesus earlier said, "Much has been forgiven her, because she loved much!" About Purgatory there's more than one theory about it and I choose to view it as earlier described. One of the great visionaries of our Church claimed that Pontius Pilate was saved, but in Purgatory until the end of time. When Pilate died "time" for him ended, so if he was to be in Purgatory until the end of time, how long was he in Purgatory since there is no "time" in eternity? Was his purgation immediate? We do not know. I've said enough about Christopher Hitchens, so let's hope he's resting in peace. Excuse me Gabriella, but I really don't want to keep posting endlessly on these topics. So, if it's O.K. with you let's conclude, unless you feel you must respond. Thanks!
Gabriela Garver
2 years 10 months ago
Hi Mr. Snowden: I think many Christians are turning God into a wuss and Jesus into some kind of effeminate Breck boy. They are also forgetting about sin and its consequences, wishing it away. People are forgetting that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus took up a whip and whipped people and overturned tables in the Temple when he became justifiably angry at the misuse of the Temple. He warned people as well. Is that His default position (anger, punishment)? No. But we're living in an age that tells us "all is well, all is well, all is well," when in fact all is not well and many many lives are being ruined in the West by false theology. I think of myself as a converted, reformed sinner who loves as much as I possibly can, but who is also at risk of really blowing it, as I see so many people blowing it around me. I see myself as a man who was about to go over Niagra Falls, but grabbed hold of a magnificent rock just at the fall's edge. To that rock I am clinging with all my strengh. On that rock is a book. I will cling to that rock, reading that book, loving that God my Rock, until my last breath. Meanwhile, friends and family rush by in the waters; I reach out my hand and yell "grab hold, grab hold, grab hold!" Some have grabbed hold, but some have gone over the Falls (some gone, some still alive, but really wrecking their own lives and the lives of their children). I would like to know what you make of the Old Testament--this is an area I am just turning to--the reconciliation of the God of the OT and NT. Just starting out on this study, so not prepared to write much here yet on that. One cannot be in Purgatory for eternity, by definition. I've also heard that Pontius Pilate was converted. It's perfectly credible to me. I enjoy sharing ideas with other Christians--how refreshing. I think we agree on more than we differ. It doesn't matter, we're splitting hairs here. If you are in Christ, and it sounds like you are, well, you are saved, which is all that matters. Hopefully, we are getting what matters most right. I'm signing off here as well.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 10 months ago
Hi Gabriella, I’m so irresolute, not really! But here I go reversing my suggestion to amicably end our multi-faceted postings, by responding to your latest contribution. It’s said if you want to know your sins, ask the person with whom you live! Well, my wife tells me I repeatedly commit the “sin” of “long-windedness” and she should know after 47 years together! So, I’ll try to be virtuously brief. Yes, there are some who would turn God into a Wus and Jesus into an effeminate Beck Boy, but not me. God as you know is unfathomable –“Who has known the mind of God?” Scripture says. Revelation OT and NT does give an inkling of who and what this God is. For one thing in NT we discover he likes to be called “Daddy” while hurling universes off his fingertips “even now.” Jesus said “My Father works even now” meaning of course first and foremost the “work” of salvific and redemptive “application” for want of a better word, which we may freely accept, or reject. But because Scripture has secondary and tertiary meanings along with its prime meaning, I see Jesus’ words “My father works even now,” having to do with the unfinished work of creation which astronomers say is still going on in the cosmos! What about “Daddy God?” Once the late, great, Bishop Patrick V. Ahearn, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of NY travelling in Palestine saw a toddler fall, scrape his knee and cry out to his father standing nearby, “Abba! Abba!” The Bishop asked the child’s Dad was he saying. The Dad responded, “He’s saying, Daddy! Daddy!” So then according to St. Paul who called God the Father, “Abba” in one of his Letters, is our DADDY! I can’t imagine anything more wonderful! Daddy God is the person I cling to expecting everything from him, who even lovingly kisses my “boo-boos” healingly (my sins) when I fall scraping the knees of my soul. That’s how I relate to our unfathomable God not with fear and trembling, but with wonder and awe, knowing he’s always there to give a hand when I hang onto the Niagra’s Rock. You see, Gabriella, I choose to be one of God’s “little ones,” childlike, impressed by the words of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus, who said, “Learn of me … I am gentle at heart.” Just for a laugh does it mean at 83 I’m in my “second childhood” because I choose to be childlike relating to Daddy? In a nutshell, life is complex too complicated for me to t ry to find all the answers, so I simply do my best, some days better than other days, trusting that God in his own way and in his own time will always pitch in to help. Yes, all is well! Good luck when you tackle the OT. Much of its mythos is hard to grasp, God speaking and treating humans as humans speak and treat one another, often nastily! Look for the message and don’t let the words frighten you, or even get you mad, as with Job and others! Thanks for putting up with my longwindedness! Finished. ?
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years 10 months ago

Thank you all for reading. I hope my affection and respect for Christopher Hitchens was evident in the piece. He and I weren't close, but I did know him as a journalism colleague and I do miss his presence in the public media. My titular line about the "last good American atheist" is really a gentle and playful -- but sincere -- pun on his line to me about "the last great American president" referenced at the start of the essay.

Sean Salai, S.J.

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