Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Write All These Words?: The Death of an Atheist

For the past week I have been reading many online posts, blogs, and articles noting the death of Christopher Hitchens, best known perhaps for his book God is Not Great. Some atheists, myself included, felt mild sadness and will miss his writing and his skill at debating. Some atheists viewed him as their hero and were literally shedding tears. Some atheists hated the guy over political differences and were glad that he was gone. 

Of course there were also theists who had something to say about Mr. Hitchens’ death. Some were genuinely heart-felt and kind in their address. The rest of them seem to fall into three categories.  Some went with the Universalist idea, suggesting he would be in Heaven eventually. Others who do not believe in a literal Hell suggested that he was indeed dead and gone, missing the opportunity for “everlasting life” in Heaven. Lastly, there were those who said that if he didn’t convert at the last moment, that he was in Hell and/or separated from God forever, screaming for mercy. The latter group came across almost gleefully in an “I-told-you-so” sort of way, as if his death was somehow “proof” that he had begun his eternal torment.

At first I was angry at the theists in this latter group for expressing such terrible ideas about the late Mr. Hitchens. Then it occurred to me that in his day he didn’t really have any kind words for the late Jerry Falwell or Mother Teresa either. None of this really matters anyway. He’s dead. So what purpose do all of these words have? Why would so many people bother to write about their feelings concerning one man’s life and how he lived it? My guess is that when news breaks about the death of a widely-known person who has had such a divisive influence on our political and theological discussions, there are a lot more of us who notice a sort-of “empty spot” in our lives. Whether it’s big or small, or brings sadness or happiness or something in between, the fabric of our lives has been permanently changed, and we take notice.

Perhaps in the case of Christopher Hitchens, a very outspoken atheist who held no punches when it came to debating the existence of a god and/or an afterlife, there is an odd curiosity of what it must be like to come face to face with death, unwavering and unrepentant. His fellow atheists, whether they liked him or not, might recognize this one aspect of his outlook on life and death with some respect, perhaps awe. Theists on the other hand, especially the more fundamental ones, might have a harder time wrapping their heads around this.

Of the many misconceptions widely held about atheists, the idea that we actually believe in a god but simply refuse to acknowledge it somehow, seems to be one of the most common. So when someone like Christopher Hitchens dies with no remorseful last-minute conversion, the theist might conclude one of two things:
  • He honestly did not believe that there was a god or an afterlife. - For the theist to acknowledge that Mr. Hitchens’ disbelief was truly held through to the very end could mean that there is the slightest chance that he might have been right. Such a concept seems to be one of the scariest for a stalwart theist to imagine.
  • Or he was simply too stubborn and prideful; refusing to believe what was “obvious.” - This allows the theist to continue feeling secure in his or her beliefs without having to address any doubts. Thus the theist, depending upon the flavor of religious faith, concludes that Mr. Hitchens is burning in Hell or just eternally separated from God or is truly dead with no chance of experiencing an afterlife, and all is right with the world.
No, the words aren’t for the late Christopher Hitchens, they’re for us, and they help each of us to describe how we are dealing with this “empty spot” that has been left behind. Whether we agree with each other or not; whether we are theist or atheist; whether we liked the man or not, all of these words paint a tapestry of how his life influenced the world around him. So, if we all felt the same, it would be a pretty boring tapestry, wouldn’t it?

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