Thinking about Christopher Hitchens
By John M.
Author, essayist and journalist Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011. Ever the critic of religion and commonly linked with other popular writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett and Sam Harris as the “new atheists,” Hitchens attained almost guru status among like-minded secularists.
He was also known as an unapologetic heavy drinker and has often remarked that he drank to make other people less boring. (For a brief synopsis of his talent, style and his attitude toward alcohol, see the link here: The Fix.)
At times I thought that I should see him as a fellow traveler and be more appreciative of his gifts but there was a level of dogmatism behind his contrariness that always irked me.
Hitchens had courage no doubt (though perhaps enhanced by a little “liquid courage”), no more so than in calling one of his books, “God is Not Great.” After all, the title (he must have known) tempts the comparison title: Hitchens is Not Great. Many atheists and theists alike do not believe Hitchens’ status as a pop culture, anti-religious icon was much deserved when placed on a more thoughtful, penetrating and nuanced level. (If folks are interested, you will find more profound atheists out there like the current French writers Luc Ferry, Marcel Gauchet, Jean-Luc Nancy or the Slovenian, semi-pop icon Slavoj Zizek who truly engage the critique of religion at a level of sophistication Hitchens was either unwilling or unable to articulate.)
One of Hitchens’ debaters, “Truthdig” commentator Chris Hedges talked about his reaction to Hitchen’s death in a CBC radio interview: he combined the subjects of Hitchens’ bullying and heavy drinking with his assessment of Hitchens’ often remarkable skills, as well his inability to listen to a nuanced argument.
Frankly, I often felt that Hitchens was a bit of a bully but, as we say in recovery, “if you spot it, you got it!” And it is about my own likeness to this trait in Hitchens wherein I want to direct my comments.
One of the many (surprising!) revelations that came out of my 4th Step inventory a number of years ago came from the resentment regarding my conservative, born-again, evangelical Christian upbringing as a child, continuing into my early twenties. As is often typical of those raised in this environment, I felt the emotional scarring of someone who constantly felt afraid and resentful, guilty and ashamed. I slowly moved away from a God that I ultimately perceived as domineering and overbearing, strict and judgemental, wrathful and unforgiving, petty and jealous, bullying and contemptuous, narcissistic and egomaniacal.
No, this would not be the God I would worship and certainly not a God who was worthy of respect let alone worship.
A funny thing happened to me on the way to the 5th Step! In the final column of my 4th Step — “where was I to blame?”– I discovered that all these attributes that I resented about God turned out to be my defects of character. Yes, I had turned into the very thing that I hated and opposed.
So if I neither liked the God of my upbringing nor ultimately myself, I discovered that I needed a new conception of God or, as I would prefer, a new conception and priority of human values.
I have discovered these values in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous which, when the fellowship is at its best, reflects the spiritual values I have continued to explore and develop from sources beginning in German idealism, through to the American humanism of Emerson, Whitman, and Wallace Stevens up to the present day with the current French atheists (or “transcendental humanists” as some of these call themselves).
At its worst, AA can be like any organization or individual which manifests the very traits of a God that the 4th step revealed to me were like my own defects. Note the current debate in the Toronto AA Intergroup over the de-listing of two agnostic groups and by what the two ousted groups describe as judgemental bullying, intolerance and religious (spiritual?) bias.
Hitchens would, of course, be on the side of the two ousted groups but he would, perhaps, wonder why the two groups would want to be affiliated with a pseudo-religious organization like AA in the first place.
Hitchens would not, however, seem to be the kind of individual who could separate the spiritual from the religious in AA. Perhaps this kept him from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous? Perhaps AA is, when it keeps the anti-theistic, still suffering alcoholic out of its rooms with its abundant God-talk, itself in need of voices of reform and inclusivity that will carry it into the future. Hitchensian contrarianism, however, does not appear to be conducive with either reform and inclusivity nor with the nuances of spirituality.
Ultimately, the bully from within Christopher Hitchens seemed capable of only shouting louder than the bullies he spotted (with some justification) all around him.