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Philosophy Lite: Atheist defiant in the face of death

May 27, 2011 at 12:27 a.m.


By Raymond Smith

Christopher Hitchens is one of the world's leading atheists today, but he may not be with us much longer. In a statement to the Christian Post dated April 27, he writes that he has now lost his voice to esophageal cancer, but his atheistic beliefs remain stronger than ever. The famous atheist shared that he is having long argument with the "specter of death," but as the idea of death becomes more familiar, the "pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance becomes more hollow and artificial." Instead of the "false consolations of religion," which he equates with superstition, Hitchens said he places his trust in medical science and the support of friends and family. His cancer is apparently the result of his lifestyle habits. Although he knows the end is near, he jests at the possibility of a deathbed confession.

Ironically, one of the scientists who helped design the experimental cancer treatments that Hitchens is using is none other than the evangelical scientist Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health. The two have a "wonderful relationship" despite their differences.

Identified as a champion of the "New Atheism" movement, Hitchens describes himself as an anti-theist and a believer in the philosophical values of the "Enlightenment." He argues that the concept of god or a supreme being is a totalitarian belief that destroys individual freedom, and that free expression and scientific discovery should replace religion as a means of teaching ethics and defining human civilization. He wrote at length on atheism and the nature of religion in his 2007 book, "God Is Not Great."

Hitchens' younger brother by two-and-a-half years, Peter Hitchens, is a Christian and a socially conservative journalist in London. The brothers had a protracted falling-out after Peter wrote that Christopher had once joked that he "didn't care if the Red Army watered its horses at Hendon" (a suburb of London). Christopher denied having said this and broke off contact with his brother. He then referred to his brother as "an idiot" in a letter to Commentary, and the dispute spilled into other publications as well.

Peter wrote that his brother's book was misguided, "mostly in the way that it blames faith for so many bad things and gives it no credit for any of the good it may have done. I think it misunderstands religious people and their aims and desires. And I think it asserts a number of things as true and obvious that are nothing of the sort."

Hitchens was raised nominally Christian, and went to a Christian boarding school, but from an early age declined to participate in communal prayers. One cannot help but believe that he rebelled at the display and presentation of the Christian faith in his upbringing. Our Christian faith has a lot of natural appeal to children, but well-meaning Christian leaders can sometimes make it offensive by the way they present it or by a strict unloving attitude.

Raymond F. Smith is a deacon at Fellowship Bible Church in Victoria and president of Strong Families of Victoria.

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