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For Hitchens, In Life And Death, An Unaware Cosmos

Christopher Hitchens, shown here in 2010, began a lifelong battle with a God he didn't believe in when he was just 9 years old.
David Levenson
Getty Images
Christopher Hitchens, shown here in 2010, began a lifelong battle with a God he didn't believe in when he was just 9 years old.

Writer Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday from complications of cancer at the age of 62, leaves behind some 18 books and countless essays on politics and public figures. But his most lasting legacy may be his atheism and his long-running duel with what he considered the world's most dangerous threat: religion.

It was not trauma or disillusion that propelled Christopher Hitchens into a life of unbelief. It was Mrs. Jean Watts, who taught nature class at Hitchens' boarding school when he was 9 years old. The pivotal moment, he recalled, occurred when Mrs. Watts explained that God had made the grass and the leaves green as a gift to mankind.

"She says, 'This is an excellent thing and proof of the glory of God, because he could have made vegetation orange or red, something that would clash with our eyes, whereas green is the most restful color for our eyes!' " Hitchens told C-SPAN. "And I sat there in my little corduroy shorts, and I thought, that's absolute nonsense."

From that moment, Hitchens began a lifelong battle with a God he did not believe in.

"I think deep down he understood that this was the most crucial question," says Hitchens' younger brother, Peter. "Is man the creation of a benevolent God in an ordered universe, or is he entirely on his own — and all the things that flow from that? And he'd spotted it as being the fundamental question and decided to pursue it."

Over the next few years, Hitchens discovered that, as he put it, "words could function as weapons." He honed his skills in Oxford and later in the U.S. as a writer and debater. His antipathy toward religion became intensely personal in 1989, after the Ayatollah Khomeini decreed Salman Rushdie should be killed because of his book The Satanic Verses. Rushdie was a close friend, and Hitchens said that fatwa persuaded him that Islamic fundamentalism was an urgent menace.

It was "money offered in public by a theocratic leader to suborn the murder of a novelist," he recounted to NPR. "Pretty extreme challenge to all the things that I like from all the things that I hate."

It was not merely Islamic fundamentalism that worried Hitchens. He viewed all believers as deluded at best and fanatical at worst, even the saints. And so in typical Hitchens fashion, his next target was an icon: Mother Teresa.

He produced a documentary about Mother Teresa called Hell's Angel and a book in 1995, The Missionary Position, both of which reviled the diminutive nun as an ambitious self-promoter who took money from dictators and criminals.

"Mother Teresa is a very important figure, it seemed to me, to expose," he told NPR shortly after her death. "She was a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud. She was someone whose net effect was to make more people more poor and more miserable and more wretched."

"You know, a lot of us were like, 'It's Mother Teresa, leave her alone, what are you gonna do?' " Jeffrey Goldberg, a close friend of Hitchens and writer for The Atlantic, says with a laugh. "When that Mother Teresa book came out, I thought, 'Who next? The Dalai Lama? Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? God?' "

'The Most Well-Known Atheist In America'

Yes, God. With his 2007 book, God Is Not Great, Hitchens became a voice for a growing atheist movement. He delighted crowds at debates and book signings, ridiculing believers for rejoicing in an omniscient, omnipotent God. He compared the reign of this "supposed God" to North Korea — "an absolutely impermeable dictatorship that couldn't even be criticized, let alone overthrown, that went on forever, that supervised and invigilated your every waking moment and would not stop torturing you even after you were dead," he told a crowd at a book signing in Washington, D.C. "To wish this to be true is to wish to be a slave."

God Is Not Great became an instant best-seller and catapulted Hitchens from a highly regarded intellectual to an international sensation.

"I would say that Hitchens became the most well-known atheist in America," says Dinesh D'Souza, president of the evangelical King's College in New York.

D'Souza was one of a few religious believers who dared to debate Hitchens. By all accounts, Hitchens was a devastating debater, seizing on logical weaknesses and often dominating the conversation with his words and his Oxford accent. At one exchange at the University of Colorado in 2009, D'Souza was trying to explain the difference between Christian and Islamic views of morality. As D'Souza unfolded his argument, Hitchens bellowed: "Thought crime. Thought crime. Totalitarianism again. Thought crime. We know what you're thinking, and we can punish you for it. Totalitarianism defined!"

The crowed loved it.

"He was sort of a bomb thrower, and he relied in a sense on shoot-from-the-hip type of arguments," D'Souza says. But, he says, he's debated a lot of atheists, and Hitchens was his favorite.

"His joie de vivre made him stand out among atheists," D'Souza says. "He was a happy atheist. So he was able somehow to communicate both that effervescence and at the same time to convey a certain depth that, underneath it all, he was a serious man."

'The Land Of Malady'

But soon, Hitchens' energy would begin to ebb. In June 2010, he awakened one morning barely able to breathe. Thus began his journey "across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady," he wrote.

As he chronicled his cancer on the pages of Vanity Fair, Hitchens received thousands of letters and emails. Many said they were praying for him — that he would recover, or that he would accept God. He said he was flattered, even though he thought the prayers were silly.

"In the soft form it's offered to me — you pray either that you get better or that you see the light — what's the harm?" he told TV interviewer Charlie Rose. "It's like holy water. Can't burn you."

The disease marked a new stage in Hitchens' public atheism, with religious believers fervently hoping the cancer would convert him, and Hitchens insisting that he was unwilling — no, incapable — of believing in the supernatural.

"Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin," he said. "Nothing could persuade me that that was true — or moral, by the way. It's white noise to me."

Goldberg says that as Hitchens' health failed, he made a pre-emptive strike against those who might claim he had a deathbed conversion.

"One of the things he said to me and other people was, 'If I lose my faculties, defend my reputation as an atheist.' Basically, he said: 'If, God forbid, I say something about believing in God, will you please go out there and say: This is the medication, this is dementia, this is not the Hitchens that we know.' "

The Hitchens he knew, Goldberg says, loved wine and friendship and debating the existential questions. As to his early death, Hitchens told NPR he had been "dealt a pretty good hand by the cosmos, which doesn't know I'm here and won't know when I'm gone."

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.