Christopher Hitchens had a tongue so sharp, you’d bleed out before you knew you were wounded. The famous atheist, who regarded faith as “the surrender of the mind,” mastered the cutting witticism, using it to slash through his opponents in his long toil against superstition and religion. Hitch died in December 2011, but his legacy is tremendous. Here are six of his very best quotes, and what they tell us.
The quintessential Hitchens quote, this idea is often referred to as Hitchens’ Razor. It’s perhaps the simplest explanation of the skeptic’s burden of proof, because it places epistemological responsibility where it belongs. In other words, if you insist that there’s a bearded sky-man who created the entire universe but still wants you to save yourself for marriage, that’s fine. But it’s up to you to prove it.
Hitchens’ war on religion took many different approaches. He argued not only against the improbability of the supernatural but also against the real world effect of organized religion. (In fact, Hitchens thought “antitheist” a better description of himself than atheist.) He approached the Bible’s deplorable morality with characteristic ruthlessness, noting that the single most important instance of divine law (the Ten Commandments) omits some serious crimes. This kind of analysis helps reveal the insanity of religious literalism, and the tendency of the faithful to pick and choose which laws they follow. Do you hate gays because the Bible says so? Then why are you wearing polyester? And eating shellfish? And playing football?
(Image caption: "Good news! He said nothing about money laundering!")
"The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: We stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more." -The Portable Atheist
Hitchens was a typical skeptic in that he sought to emphasize the wonder and amazement of the secular existence. One of many common misconceptions about atheists is that they are immune to any sense of wonder because they doubt the supernatural. Oprah recently espoused this view, which is sadly just one more way atheists are cast as something less-than-human. Though it may not come as a surprise, atheists definitely do find a sense of wonder and awe in their world. The beauty of chemistry, the truth of art, the power of music – all are perfect examples of things that stir great passions in thinking men (and women). As Douglas Adams said, “Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Atheists discover just as much beauty in and awe in life as everyone else. To skeptics, logical explanation robs nothing of its inherent awesomeness. Hitch knew life to be positively incredible even without someone or something pulling the strings.
There are few things more frustrating to a skeptic than the arguer who has no point except that his feelings have been hurt. Years of interactions with the faithful led Hitchens to the sentiment behind this quote, which describes one of the biggest obstacles to rational discussion of religion: The fact that you’re offended has absolutely no bearing on the truth of the matter. For example, it’s probably really uncomfortable to consider the fact that your lifelong efforts to toe the religious line were all made in vain. It might be disheartening to realize that there really was no reason for your parents to cut off the tip of your man-parts. And it would be similarly jarring to find out that the earth is not the center of the universe, the planet is more than 6,000 years old, or that people didn’t actually live side-by-side with dinosaurs. Skepticism requires that we evaluate any such claim, but when the religious attempt to prevent the discussion altogether, citing the need to “protect religious feelings,” the skeptic truly understands Hitchens’ frustration. As I’ve written before, there are times when it is necessary to be rude.
When Hitchens revealed in 2010 that he had been diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer, there were predictable eruptions of glee from the religious community. Some even implied God had caused Hitchens’ throat cancer because of his vocal atheism. But Hitchens, never one to let his opponents’ bitterness poison his spirit, turned the other cheek in hilarious fashion. The irony of the situation — that this heretic demonstrated Jesus’ teaching far better than the legions of faithful happily awaiting his death — certainly wasn’t lost on him.
I’ll let this one speak for itself.
We miss you, Hitch.