Originally Published in the Englewood Review of Books
“Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.”
-John Ottway from The Grey
“There is a time for everything,a time to be born and a time to die,”
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
-Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 (NIV)
Christopher Hitchens never met a cow so sacred that he would not gleefully serve it medium-rare with a glass of red wine (or more-likely scotch), if the mood struck just right. As a journalist, he endeavored to explore, unravel, and critique the largely unchallenged parts of society. In doing so, has taken on Christianity and religion as a whole, the Pope, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and even dear Mother Theresa in his short work Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and in Practice. For some, he has been on the radar for quite some time as an author, speaker, and avid spokesman for atheists. For others, his name has only recently cropped up with the much hailed release of his series of essays entitled Arguably and his posthumously released memoir on the process of dying from cancer, Mortality. It is the latter that I would like analyze and respond to in this article.
Many Christians have balked at his abrasive approach to faith and his heated debates with those pro-religion. As a Christian, I became interested in his thoughts on death and dying as related to his own experience and what this would look like for somebody who does not believe in any kind of higher power or afterlife. In fairness to his experience, I wanted to read the book from a point of listening and understanding rather than with defense or critique. In addition, I have read through parts of his great Atheist manifesto, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, to better understand his worldview.
Mortality is Hitchens attempt to starkly and actively view and participate in his own death, unfettered by the trappings and hopes of religion. In fact, in God is Not Great, he attributes the popularity of religion to a fear of death. “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other. He often referred to this experience as “living dyingly.” Even the cover, the title mortality in plain white contrasted against a black background with his name in gray, emits an air of uncompromising stark challenge to the reality of life and death.
The chapters in the book represent the chronological advancement of his cancer and the various issues that arise with continued medication, loss of function, and grappling with Mortality, all a part of living in what he called “Tumortown.”
Mortality begins with Hitchens recounting the experience of discovering that he may have some kind of cancer. “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” From there he describes traveling to the hospital and the various tests that showed he had esophageal cancer, which would spread to the lymph nodes and eventually invade his entire body. This was eighteen months before he would eventually succumb to the ravaging effects of cancer.
Throughout the book Hitchens takes the reader on a journey, in his own fashion, of dealing with the self-consciousness of losing faculties and abilities once precious to you, like growing hair on your upper lip and being able to speak. He addresses the Christian reaction to his cancer, which ranges from a vengeful “God is smiting you” response to prayer groups, whom he largely rejects because he, as an atheist, does not believe in the efficacy of prayer. He also talks about the etiquette of correspondence between those who reside in Tumorville, sickness, and the shadow of death, and those of us who cannot empathize with this experience, and how both sides have a lot to learn about passing off the burden of responsibility to one another. And in the final chapter we are treated to unfinished sentences and paragraphs that he never got to craft into a cohesive whole.
To understand Hitchens’ approach to death then, one must understand his approach to life. Among many other things, he spent a great deal of time combating proponents of faith and religion, especially the Christian religion. Hitchens, as described in God is Not Great, was a lifelong atheist from an early age. At one point, he goes so far as to say that he is not an atheist, but an anti-theist. His work was not centered on co-existence with or tolerance of religion, but rather in reputing, disproving, and ridiculing it. As a progenitor of the modern atheistic movement, Hitchens provides in God is Not Great a pseudo-manifesto for himself and his fellow free thinkers to their objections to religious faith: It propitiates the creation myth which makes man servant to some higher power, that it is the cause and result of sexual repression, and that it is just “wish-thinking.” He also asserts that ethical living is certainly possible without religion while in the same token religion has spurred the faithful towards immoral lifestyles, “in ways that would make a brother-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.”  According to Hitchens, religion is a man-made phenomenon, and man, not God, is the creator. “God did not create man in his own image. Evidently it was the other way about.” This creation, then, has “so retarded the development of civilization. In subsequent chapters, then, he uses historical violence as proofs that religion is a catalytic force for crimes against humanity.
As an example, Hitchens talks about Abba Eban, a diplomat from Israel, who on a visit to New York noted the ease in which the Irael-Plaestinian debate could be solved. He remarks to this: “And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Amrageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war. Religion poisons everything. As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival.”
Admittedly, I struggle with the vicious tone of his argument, and yet, I cannot help but agree with him on some points. History, viewed from a certain lens, does paint a bleak picture of the social efficacy of religion. Beyond the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, 9/11 and the Jonestown massacre, religious sentiments inspire everyday attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a general sense of dividedness between people with differing points of view. And Christianity, a religion founded on the law of Christ that says to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself, is the chief of sinners.
That being said, I disagree with his basic definition of religion. Hitchens sees religion from a popular, well accepted point of view, that groups of people who claim to have faith in some kind of lifestyle, law, or higher being and turn their lives towards that faith are religious. This of course includes both theistic religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as atheistic religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism. He also assumes that religion is an entity separated from other outside influences such as state and national power, and that any motivations towards violence and other forms of oppression were founded in the religious beliefs rather than an outcome of syncretism with national or patriarchal values. Furthermore, using William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, I would assert that one cannot define religion without including other typically non-religious entities such as nationalism and patriotism.
In the book, Cavanaugh undertakes a veritable Goliath of a project: challenging popular modern thought that religion in the public sphere is dangerous because it encourages violence, as evidenced in history. And one might wonder how one man could tackle all modern “opponents” of religion who would cite that history reveals its violent tendencies. Cavanaugh, however, asks a simple question and cuts down popular arguments at their roots: what is religion? Can anyone properly define religion? And if they do offer a concrete description, then how does one separate religion from secular? He painstakingly searches through the foremost scholars who argue on this subject and reveal how, at one point or another, their theses fail because they assume that religion is just “understood.”
Cavanaugh also addresses historians’ inability to separate religion from politics, economics, etc. in history, and in fact exposes the subversive revisionist history that occurs when one posits that the idea of secular even existed prior to the modern age.
And so, in the third chapter of the book, Cavanaugh addresses the myth of wars of religion, which incidentally are used as the primary source material for arguing that religion is inherently violent, while the secular society is not. He does so by arguing that “the myth of religious violence is inextricably bound up with the legitimation of the state and its use of violence.” Religion, therefore, is not the great “poison” in society because it is not the source of all evils. It certainly has been used in the name of violence, but religion cannot be separated from state, from personal desires for power and money, and therefore cannot be the sole blame for the problems of the world.
That being said, Christians’ reactions to Hitchens cancer certainly do not prove that their God is indeed a God of love.
Hitchens shares in Mortality this online entry from a “Christian” responding to the announcement of his cancer. I warn that this anonymous contributor would make Pat Robertson proud. I realize that this is a long quote but for the sake of Christians who do not wear condemnation as a badge of honor, it needed to be known that not all who claim to follow Jesus subscribe to this retributive garbage, neither do we all believe that suffering is a natural outpouring of God’s wrath upon those deserving sinners.
I do not deny that amongst my fellow believers, there are those that wish to make their point through assuming to understand the will of God; and yet, I know of enough children who have died of cancer to recognize that the advent of this disease is not directly proportionate to the level of blasphemy in one’s life. But again, no wonder Hitchens holds a grudge against religion.
In a subsequent chapter, Hitchens writes on the etiquette rules of how the living interact with those in the process of dying. Oftentimes to attempt to reach out to or relate to others we try to empathize with stories, which, to Hitchens, is our “attempt to cover the awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbors.” In that same manner, Hitchens feels that it is necessary for the sick person to show restraint in his or her sharing with others.
I would agree that, in the Western world especially, we do not know how to let others die graciously. With all of the advances of modern medicine coupled with the ability to live far beyond what our body was meant to handle, we do not know how to accept death as a natural conclusion to life or how to ease others into this acceptance. We are fixers and storytellers, and so to fix we tell our own stories, hoping that somehow their conclusions might inspire others. And all the while we are imposing ourselves onto others. Death has become so taboo that we cannot navigate it from either side of the hospital bed.
Diana Butler Bass, in her book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, contrasts the way that modern society reacts to death versus the way that the medieval church faced it.
Unlike in our society, where we hide it, death surrounded medieval people. They had few hospitals, and so churches, poorhouses, and homes handled the dying and the dead. Death was not a distant prospect at the end of a long, healthy life. It was integrated into ordinary experience. Medieval life was transitory, a journey through this world that often ended too soon and too abruptly. Death was often violent and unexpected. Extended death, through illness and in one’s own bed, was actually a blessing. Death was part of everyday life; medieval people considered their deaths regularly.”
With this context in mind, the medieval church was more readily equipped to dialogue with death and the dying, rather than attempting to “make everything okay” through empathy and casseroles.
Hitchens, in making his point, though, criticizes another recent author who attempted to discover meaning of life and death through positive reflection upon dying of cancer: Randy Pausch. Of Randy Pausch, a college professor and author of The Last Lecture, Hitchens writes: “It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it…It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse.”
In the same way that the uninitiated “healthy” should not try to impose their own feelings upon the sick, the sick should not capitalize on their experience through the sympathies of others. Of course in establishing this segregated society, the sick are alienated and the healthy are not given the opportunity to learn of the dying experience, whether or not one views it while wearing “sugary” lenses.
In the fifth chapter, Hitchens talks about the painful experience of losing his voice. For a man who made a great deal of his living through public speaking, this was a particularly nasty side effect of cancer. To Hitchens, writing was only one component of his work, one that did not yield nearly the same impact without his ability to speak as well. In talking about all of the painful medical procedures that he had to go through to address his cancer, Hitchens writes that “What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
Some of his final thoughts, Hitchens addresses one of the most common aphorisms that both the sick and the healthy subscribe to when considering any kind of illness, malady, or stress: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. To this, Hitchens responds: “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” He discusses Nietzsche, the author of this quote, and notes the irony in his own life that when he contracted syphilis, the disease only proved to rot his mind rather than strengthen his resolve, and so his experience negated his own philosophy.
As I sit here, editing this article and re-watching the Liam Neeson thriller, The Grey, I cannot help but reflect upon the similar approaches to death between Christopher Hitchens and John Ottway, Liam Neeson’s character. In the movie, a plane taking workers from an oil rig in remote Alaska to Anchorage crashes in the vast, desolate wilderness, and the survivors are forced to defend themselves against the elements and a pack of wolves as they attempt to travel to safety. Ottway, an atheist, makes a plea with God to show him some sort of sign that He is watching. When no response is given, Ottway gives up and resolves to finish on his own. At the movie’s denouement, Neeson squares off against the leader of the murderous wolf pack who had killed the rest of his companions with only a knife and several shards of broken glass taped to his hands as weapons. As the two stare into one another’s eyes, readying themselves to lunge, Neeson recites the poem at the top, “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.” He faced his death with a cold hard stare and a steel resolve, refusing to allow himself the comforts that religion might have offered.
In that same way, Hitchens gritted his teeth, stared death in the eyes, and lunged fists forward. Nowhere in the book does he turn to religion as a sedative, as he feared may happen, though at certain points he allows a bit of fear and humanity to gleam through his hardened exterior. And he left the world his legacy, a bleak, unflinching look at mortality. Yet I wonder in all of this, what did Hitchens really accomplish? What can one learn from his encounter with death? Certainly we can treat cancer patients with greater kindness and dignity and attempt to love others as ourselves, even if the “other” happens to be a militant anti-theist. But there is no happy ending, no hope; there is nothing but earth and darkness, cold and nothingness.
For me, as much as I appreciate understanding his mind and experience, I cannot accept that the beauty of this life flares out into ashes. Nor would I suggest this to others suffering from fatal illnesses. Because I cling to hope found in religion, that humanity was created with the purpose of loving God and this world and restoring it back to some semblance of peace, that we can see evidences of the truthfulness of this faith in creation, history, reason, and Scripture. And that death does not have to be greeted with a cold hard stare, but rather, it can be welcomed as the conclusion to our journeys here on earth and the entrance into our promised life with God in eternity.
Bass, Diana Butler. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Cavanaugh, William T. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.
Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve, 2012.
 Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (New York: Twelve, 2007), 22.
 Christopher Hitchens, Mortality, (New York: Twelve, 2012), 97.
 Ibid, 1.
 Hitchens, God is Not Great, 7.
 Ibid, 9-10.
 Ibid, 18.
 Ibid, 13.
 Ibid, 41.
 William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 124.
 Hitchens, Mortality, 12.
 Ibid, 42.
 Bass, Diana Butler Bass. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 118.
 Hitchens, Mortality, 43.
 Ibid, 55.
 Ibid, 60.