Christopher Hitchens died last month. He should have lived longer. Being nearly a decade older, I feel sad. I will miss his wit and wisdom when surfing the net for intellectual refreshment.
In his autobiography Hitchens had written : “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.” In his last days when cancer took over his entire torso, he wrote about his pain, fighting hospital boredom and waiting for the next analgesic jab. That was his last essay, written perhaps a week before his death. Hitchens listed his pet hates and loves : “. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.” He lived by those hates and loves.
He debated many – theologians in particular – about religion, specially Christian religion and the Bible; Judaism and the Torah; Islam and the Quran. His arguments were never truly rebutted, even by Alister McGrath, a theologian – scientist . McGrath had no answer to Hitchen’s questions – why, for instance, a merciful God should insist that little children’s genitalia be mutilated soon after birth? Instead, McGrath harangued how he was an atheist until Jesus showed him the light. (That argument was not too different from what the last street-side preacher told me: He was a Hindu until he read the Bible. I countered that I was planning to be a Christian but changed my mind after I read the Bible. He assured me that I would go to eternal Hell.
The controversial and outspoken Rabbi Shimuley Boteach (author of “Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy” – imagine such a book coming from the pen of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi – and a ‘friend and adviser of Michael Jackson (again, imagine!) who defended Jackson against accusations of pedophilia, called Hitchens a secular fundamentalist fanatic who displayed colossal close-mindedness. Nonetheless, Hitchens won the debate hands down.
Christopher Hitchens was equally contentious against Islam, Quran and the conduct of Islam in the contemporary world. A debate with soft-spoken Tariq Ramadan with modern and moderate Islamic views was ferociously incisive. Ramadan, a a professor of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Oriental Studies in Oxford University and a prolific writer with a million readership on his website gave in easily enough, pointing out that all Muslims do not hold out extremist views and that those in the Western countries are changing and adapting themselves to democracy and cultural tolerance. I wonder how our own Zakir Naik with his enormous capacity to read into Quran what is not written there would have fared against Hitchens.
Hitchens said that Torah, Bible and the Quran were works of fiction. He qualified Islam as a plagiarized version of the other two. His success as a polemicist in debates lay in his confidence, knowledge of scriptures, wit and the unassailable strength of his arguments. Hitchens was not averse to using expletives to emphasize a point. Those who argued with him resorted to questions that might have seemed conclusive to themselves, but foolish to others : How would you know what is good if there were no God? Hitchens had his own convincing reply, but I would have simply quoted Genesis 2.16-17 where God positively tried to prevent man from knowing what was good and what was evil ¨For every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”. Hitchens ferociously attacked Mother Teresa’ s idea of charity; he pointed out Mahatma Gandhi did nothing to help the South African natives and slept in the nude beside women, supposedly to check if he could control his erection.
Occasionally his political views confused his followers – from Trotskyism to supporting the attack on Iraq – and alienated quite a few. Nonetheless, he insisted till the end that he was a leftist. His indictment of Henry Kissinger was meant to read like a legal document, but seemed more like a literary piece that ultimately led to a script for a documentary on Kissinger’s misdeeds.
I have tried to watch every debate and interview of Christopher Hitchens on the ‘Net; I have read many of his essays and nearly all his quotations. I plan to order a copy of his memoir, “Hitch-22” although much of its contents is already well known. I will also buy the mischievously titled “Mother Teresa – the Missionary Position” and give it the shelf-space along side Naveen Chawla’s eulogy of the Mother. I didn’t need to buy “God is not Great” because I know the arguments. Nonetheless, I bought an audible version of the book. I would have titled it differently. “God is a Terrorist” maybe, alluding to the God of any and all religions.
Christopher’s younger brother, Peter Hitchens, was a religious man who fought and frequently debated with the former. After toying with atheism (as any Christian preacher would claim) he returned to his faith largely out of, as per his own admission, fear. A painting of the Last judgment by the celebrated (for his paintings for Church galleries) Flemish Artist, Rogier van der Weyden, drove Peter Hitchens right back to his faith. The painting depicted sinners – non-believers – being led, naked, to hell pits. I am reproducing a copy of this painting from Peter Hitchen’s own article; no plagiarism is intended. The moonheads at the top are those who accepted Jesus as their savior after committing heinous crimes; those below are those who might not have sinned as far as they knew (God knows best) but did not receive Jesus even as they were drawing their last breath.
You can’t blame Peter Hitchens. It’s fear that destroys reason and begets superstition, the mainstream branch of which is religion.
I wonder if Peter (who claims to have reconciled with Christopher after their debate three years ago, but continues to cherish his Christian faith) truly believes that his elder brother has been made to doff his clothes and shunted out mercilessly to one of Satan’s pits. Or if he agrees with some other pious men who said that the cancer that finally did him in was God’s revenge for blasphemy.
Digging in my small garden in the mild wintry sun, and still thinking of Hitchens this afternoon, I paused: “What did Christopher Hitchens achieve? Lot of money, I am sure. His ready wit and soft, yet forceful voice could not have come for free. He got to attend the best parties in England and the United States, imbibed lots of alcohol and smoked expensive cigarettes till cancer of the esophagus struck. He got to meet with famous personalities; wrote and spoke to put down Reagan, Kissinger Clinton, Bush and Tony Blair among others. He managed to raise anger with his book on Mother Teresa although no one in India cared to ask for banning his books for his views on Gandhi. Most saber-rattling Indians hadn’t possibly heard of Christopher Hitchens, nor really remember Mahatma Gandhi except at election times. Come to think of it, what effect did writers like Charvaka, Buddha, Epicurus, Laplace, Thomas Paine, George Orwell (true name Eric Blair (Bihar-born, if you didn’t know), Bertrand Russel, Bernard Shaw, CV Raman, Abraham Kovoor, Hafid Bouazza or Salman Rushdie have on Christian fanatics, Muslim jihadis or Hindu revivalists? None that I can think of. In a world where the business of superstition rules and operates like corporate houses, atheists and secularists fail as a tribe. Hitchens said only a godless, secular constitution like United States’ can succeed. His Jewish antagonist pointed out that much of America and none of its presidents are godless and rarely secular. Shimuley Boteach pointed out that the Presidents of the United States swore by God and not all Americans were secular. The Rabbi was right on that point. How can those who are explicitly partisan towards Israel and deny – or fail to use their enormous political clout to ensure – Palestinians their basic rights can be called secular?.
Hitchens scoffed at Pascal’s wager . Pascal was a genius who lived in the 17th century. He was a mathematician, physicist and inventor – you might have studied while in school his law on Hydraulics or read about the first calculator, syringe and his many other inventions. Pascal’s wager, however, deserves no honorable mention, really. It is not the kind of wager you’d engage in Formula 1 or a fixed cricket match. It’s the same as the innate wisdom (or the lack of it) which persuades many people go to church, temple or mosque. Simply put, it goes thus : There is no proof that there is a God who would answer your prayers, and there is no proof that there is no God. You wager that there is God, and that he would answer your prayers. If that be true, you gain by having your prayer answered and going to heaven. If there is no God, you lose nothing any way. So put your money on God in the hope that you might stand to win, but cannot lose even if you wagered wrong. Pascal was specific that his wager applied only to the Christian God. Ancient pagans have died out for being pagan, he said; Muslims and Hindus (the latter, who believe in multiple gods are pagans any way) do not count. Pascal’s wager is proof that even the best of scientific minds can be contaminated by religious superstition and bigotry. Hitchens argued that evolution, which culminated in man (which he believed to be an imperfect, though somewhat cleverer, mutation of the primates) needed no intervention from a third party called God.
Hichens supported – initially with much gusto – Iraq war. It would be foolish to assume that had Hitchens not supported Bush’s unprovoked attack on Iraq, that country would have been spared or that at least the attack would have been delayed. Yet there is no doubt that the US government were delighted by the intellectual support that came from Christopher Hitchens. Even his customary logic went astray when Hitchens tried to justify the war. He argued that Saddam was a terrible despot who killed his citizens, the UN sanction against Iraq had brought the country to the verge of extinction; so war was a good alternative. Hitchens was supposed to be a man of peace (which atheist isn’t? I am not counting communists, because communism is a religion by all counts.) – his support for an unprovoked and cowardly war on Iraq rankles.
Hitchens had once said : “ George W. Bush is lucky to be governor of Texas. He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things”. Yet George Bush must have been immensely pleased by Hitchen’s support for his international crime of waging war against a sovereign country for no reason; for the death of many more innocents than the victims of Saddam Husain’s despotic rule.
Hitchens once submitted himself to Dick Cheyney’s “I-have-no-regrets” water-boarding technique to find out what effect it has on one. He found it more frightening than painful as compared to some other forms of torture practised in Guantanamo Bay. Our own rationalist Sanal Edamaruku submitted was bolder; he himself to a ‘Tantrik killing” by “India’s most popular Tantrik” Pundit Surinder Sharma. The whole religious farce was on a Hindi television channel, India TV, that ran for hours on end. Sharma chanted “powerful” tantric mantras for hours on end, but Sanal, the son of Joseph Edamaruku who wrote a book titled “Neither Krishna nor Jesus ever lived”, refused to be intimidated and stood laughing till the ‘Pundit’ gave up with inane excuses. Did that shaming experience persuade the Pundit give up Tantra and to go back to some productive work ? I doubt it. Religion is the best business there is and priests, preachers Pundits and Babas know it. A couple of days before I wrote this blog, two men cut a seven-year old girl’s throat and sprinkled her blood in their fields hoping to get better crops. The men have been caught, not the Tantrik who prescribed the gruesome deed to the gullible farmers. Jihadis all over the world are practising the very essence of Gita – fratricide is no sin as long as you believe that killing is your duty. Allah, the most merciful, will be pleased. The Pope continues to reign over an empire while his priests have had fun sodomizing the pious young and getting away with it. In the painting given above you won’t find priests going with their sodomy-tools bared nude to the Satan’s Hell-pit – their Father, Jesus Christ, has already paid for their sins.
Many writers and ordinary readers, even his staunch opponents, paid glowing tributes to Hitchens when he died. But the one that stood out was from an anonymous writer : “Good riddance of bad rubbish”. The writer, I am sure, must have been a priest or a faithful reader of the Bible. Chapters and chapters of senseless, violently racist, hateful and murderous words of the Holy Bible can have that effect on any crude mind.
I suppose Christopher Hitchens couldn’t have cared less. “When I’m dead, I won’t be there to worry about it”, he had once said. His only regret would have been that he couldn’t read the morning newspaper. That shouldn’t matter, for Hitchens is in deep, peaceful sleep where, as Socrates said long ago, “eternity is one night”