Christopher Hitchens passed away this week after a battle with esophageal cancer. A gifted essayist and prominent atheist, it might seem odd that some of us had a discussion after church this morning as to whether he should have been mentioned in the 'prayers of the people', where we ask for grace and peace for those in need, including the friends and families of the recently departed.
I opened the discussion by saying that a couple of obituaries had included some variation on the idea that the writer would ask that Christopher Hitchens rest in peace, but that a) he didn't believe in any sort of afterlife, b) given his predilection to effectively argue unpopular positions, he probably wouldn't like to rest in peace anyhow. Do you undermine the man's opposition to organized religion by asking for peace and grace for his loved ones at a time of grief, or do you compromise your own professed values by not doing so? Do you risk alienating attending the service those who felt Hitchens was unnecessarily provocative and combative? Later on I asked our minster, James, if it would have been appropriate to mention Hitchens' passing, and he certainly thought so, but hadn't considered it while putting the prayer together. Others have struggled with the best way to recognize his passing, and none have expressed it so eloquently as fake newspaper The Onion with their headline, "Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate to Christopher Hitchens."
For my two cents worth, I was grateful to Christopher Hitchens for forcing people like myself to examine their faith critically, and from the perspective of an insightful outsider. In his book God is Not Great, he suggests that Christians in particular have nothing to support their beliefs but faith itself, and calls on them to be brave enough to admit it. Despite being diametrically opposed on the question of spiritual faith, we both shared an opposition to superstition, persecution and intolerance. Even when I disagreed with his viewpoint, there was no denying the articulation and conviction of his arguments.
More important to me than his potentially ironic standing as an atheist icon was his dedication to the values my faith group tries to share, such as truth, and justice, and most importantly his fearlessness in doing so. He walked in lock step with the Bush administration's actions in the Middle East following 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq, and debated that act with British M.P. George Galloway, asserting his position despite the boos from the audience. Despite supporting the invasion, he allowed himself to be waterboarded, dismissing that same administration's assertions that this was an 'enhanced interrogation technique' in a Vanity Fair article famously entitled, "Believe Me, It's Torture".
There are people of faith who believe Hitchens is perhaps now surprised to find himself experiencing the afterlife he did not believe in. Perhaps he is, but this 'eternal reward' is not the pole I build my tent of belief around. The only assertion I can make is that the world we live in can use more articulate, passionate and rational people who are dedicated to that most elusive of goals, the truth, regardless of their beliefs.