Editor's Note: Christopher Hitchens has died at the age of 62. A statement from Vanity Fair said that he died Thursday night at cancer center in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of his esophageal cancer. CT asked Douglas Wilson to weigh in on the life and death of the prominent atheist. (The image on our homepage features Wilson, left, and Hitchens in a mock arm wrestling match.)
Christopher Hitchens was a celebrity intellectual, and, as such, the basic outlines of his life are generally well known. But for those just joining us, Christopher Hitchens was the older of two sons, born to Eric and Yvonne in April 1949. He discovered as a schoolboy that probing questions about the veracity of the Christian faith were part of a discussion that he "liked having." His younger brother, Peter, followed him in unbelief. But unlike Christopher, Peter publicly returned to the Church of England, the communion where they had both been baptized.
Christopher spent some time in the 1960s as a radical leftist, but of course that was what everybody was doing back then. Somehow Christopher managed to do this and march to a different drummer, doing his radical stint as part of a post–Trotskyite Luxemburgist sect. He graduated from Balliol at Oxford, and soon became established as a writer, the vocation of his life, one in which he excelled. As a writer and thinker, he was greatly influenced by (and wrote about) men like George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, while as the same time reserving the right to attack any sacred cow of his choosing—and the more sacred, the better. He is widely known for his scathing attack on Mother Teresa, and when Jerry Falwell passed away, he spent a good deal of time on television chortling about it.
But this was all part of Christopher's very public rhetorical strategy, not a function of an inability to domesticate a surly temperament. He was actually an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman. He was fully aware of the authority an enfant terrible could have, provided he played his cards right, and this was a strategy that Hitchens employed very well indeed. One man who delivers a terrible insult is banned from television for life, and another man, who does the same thing, has people lining up with invitations and microphones. In case anyone is wondering, Christopher was that second man.
A defining characteristic of his life was a willingness to break with the last group he was identified with. Whenever Orwell's "smelly little orthodoxies" began to develop, Christopher would be down the road. One of his books was Letters to a Young Contrarian, and that word contrarian appears to describe Christopher's approach to the desirability of not quite fitting in. After the attacks of September 11, he surprised a number of people with his full-throated support of the Iraq war, and he became a vigorous defender of the Western response to what he identified as "fascism with an Islamic face." As a result, he soon became identified with neoconservatives (who also supported the war), but he vigorously denied being a conservative of any stripe. At the same time, he found himself on the same side of a significant issue with George W. Bush, for example, while his former fellow leftists were most emphatically not.
I came to know Christopher during the promotion tour for his atheist encyclical, God Is Not Great. True to form, Christopher did not want to write a book attacking God and his minions only to have the release be a wine and cheese party in Manhattan with a bunch of fellow unbelievers, where they could all laugh knowingly about the rubes and cornpones down in the Bible Belt. So he told his publicist that he wanted to debate with any and all comers, and in the course of promoting his book, he did exactly that. I believe his book tour began in Arkansas, and the range of his debate partners included Al Sharpton, Dinesh D'Souza, and numerous others. In response to this general defiance he delivered to the armies of Israel, my agent Aaron Rench contacted Christianity Today to see if they would be willing to host a written exchange. They were, and when Christopher was contacted, he quickly agreed as well. That online exchange attracted some attention, and the debate was made into a small book (Is Christianity Good for the World?). The short promotion tour for the release of the book was a series of debates that Christopher and I held in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, which were filmed for the documentary Collision.