“In dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch-black night a blind man is the best guide; he knows the roads and paths better than a man who can see. When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind, old men as guides.”
― Heinrich Heine
Last December saw the death of Christopher Hitchens, a noted polemicist, writer, thinker, and as some would say a ‘contrarian’. There were many obituaries written about Hitchens, notably from Vanity Fair, New York Times and many other established publications and writers.
So why am I writing about Hitchens? I am writing this because I never had a chance to put down my feelings over this man’s death on paper and properly calcify my thoughts over his impact on my life.
Hitchens for me, was a modern day Cicero. An orator and a writer whose intellect, curiosity and honesty made him a true rara avis. A man who elevated the human experience to a higher level, both with action and words. He was above all an educator and a teacher, who dosed every one of his speeches and debates with bits of Greek and Roman classics, with philosophy from Plato to Lucretius to Kant to Marx, and wove these diverse ideas and concepts into a single and exemplary fabric of humanism. His impact on my world view is immeasurable.
I first saw Hitchens in a debate sometime around 2005. The debate as many of Hitchen’s debates went, was a debate over religion. I dont recall who the challenger was, but as I was watching this slightly chubby British fellow take the stage and lay down his case for a break with religion and faith, things started clicking in my head. It was as if a slow wave of illumination slowly washed over me, connecting the various ideas I’ve previously had about faith and religion and packaging them into a coherent, eloquent and logical argument. Hitchens took traditions and beliefs that were held sacred for millenia and smashed it to pieces. I couldn’t turn away.
One of the best examples of this was the case of Abraham, who was willing to kill his son on a rock simply because of his faith in a Bronze age God. This act has always been seen as virtue, as a sign of faith and humility of a man, and since my early days in a Yeshiva, this was lauded by every traditional commentary on the Bible. Yet Hitchens took this act and condemned it, flipping it on its head. What I now saw, was a religious zealot, willing to murder his own child based on a delusion of the highest order, and ordered to do so by a vicious Bronze Age deity. And once that image was uncovered for what it was, I began seeing many other rips in this fabric.
I started to understand that the accepted belief and assertion that religion is a pre-requisite to moral well-being or a necessary component of morality is absolute nonsense, that morals do not come from an invisible being, but are derived through social and biological necessity, from human interaction and our very own evolutionary history that shares so much of our behavior and DNA with other mammals. This was a momentous discovery in my life, as if I had been dreaming a dream, and now there was daylight. I had never been religious nor superstitious, but I have never really questioned the fundamentals life, of morality or of our origin. Now I was thirsty to find out more.
Perhaps what I most admired about Christopher was his willingness to be unpopular and alone with an unpopular opinion. He wrote an entire book called ‘Missionary Position’ which highly critiqued Mother Teresa and her Calcutta hospice for prolonging poverty and misery and as he frequently said, ‘she was not a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty’. It takes a strong conviction to take on someone as famous and ‘beloved’ as Mother Teresa, yet after reading Missionary Position, I was convinced that Hitchen’s viewpoint was indeed the correct one. He laid down a devastating list of charges against this ‘saint’ and her Church, which was rife with corruption, brutality and ‘benevolent’ crime – such as refusing proper medical care for her patients and instead offering prayers, which resulted in hundreds of deaths. Hitchen’s stance on the Iraq war in the name of liberating Iraq from a mafia family and his commitment to Kurdish independence is another clear example of his independent thinking.
But without a doubt, his most prolific and powerful strength was public debates. Simply watching Hitchens debate was an illumination in itself. Every one of his speeches was doused with momentous history and great literature. I began reading books I’ve never heard of before, ‘Apology’ by Plato, ‘Areopagitica’ by Milton, ‘De Rerum Natura’ by Lucretius and many many others. Books that have elevated man before and have done the same to myself.
Here is one example of his sheer brilliance in advocating rational thought, and the ability to critically think about a topic. He is speaking in front of Christian school students and his opponent asked him why Hitchens would refuse a Godly offer to be in heaven with the great minds of our history, like Shakespeare or Plato. His response will ring in my ears for ages:
On an ending note, perhaps Christopher’s greatest contribution to my life has been his insistence and deduction that life is short, that there is no afterlife. That we are responsible solely for this world, that there is no second chance. Its an outlook that demands that life be enjoyed, that reason, liberty and free speech are the only absolutes that really matter and that we are too old as a species to be using fairy tales as our moral compass.
Thank you Christopher for bringing daylight into a dark world. And here is a salut with a Johnny Walker Black.
The bird of life is singing in the sun,
Short is his song, nor only just begun,
A call, a trill, a rapture, then so soon!
A silence, and the song is done is done.
To all of us the thought of heaven is dear
Why not be sure of it and make it here?
No doubt there is a heaven yonder too,
But ’tis so far away and you are near.
Men talk of heaven,there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,
O love, there is no other life but here.
Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.
But here are wine and beautiful young girls,
Be wise and hide your sorrows in their curls,
Dive as you will in life’s mysterious sea,
You shall not bring us any better pearls.
Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?
The Koran! well, come put me to the test
Lovely old book in hideous error drest
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.
And do you think that unto such as you,
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
God gave the Secret, and denied it me?
Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.
– Omar Khayyam, The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam (Persia)