An atheist faces eternity


Maybe Andrew Sullivan knows something the rest of us don’t about Christopher Hitchens, the enthusiastic atheist and author now undergoing cancer treatment in a Texas hospital. In his blog today, Sullivan asks his readers to pray for Hitch, “if you pray.”

Sullivan, an outspoken and articulate Christian, calls Hitchens “the greatest advertisement for the existential courage of the atheist I have ever known.” The two have a longstanding friendly rivalry, so it’s probably OK with Hitchens that Sullivan would organize prayers on his behalf. (Though we can only imagine the flame Hitchens would throw at anyone who predicts a deathbed conversion.)

Sullivan also links to Hitchens’ article in the current Vanity Fair, repudiating his own long-held view that whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger. Quite to the contrary, Hitchens writes: “One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less.” It’s a remarkable read – a thorough demolition of a sentiment, attributed to Nietzsche, that (when you think about it) makes about as much sense as “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And it’s all the more remarkable considering that the person writing it is suffering, and describing his suffering in real time:

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. …

To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. …

So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

Photo by the|G|™ via Flickr

  • BC

    The precis from the RSS feed says: “Christopher Hitchens finds that at least some of the philosophy he’s lived by doesn’t add up.” Where did this idea come from? The tiny blog snippet by Andrew Sullivan that you reference in no way could be interpreted like this. Projecting much?

  • Jim Shapiro

    Some of the most truly “Christian” people ( as in following the examples of JC) I have known have been atheists.

    Hitchens is no saint, but he is a great mind and a great writer, and he will be sorely missed.

  • Eric Ringham

    To BC: The last sentence in the last snippet refers to “facile maxims,” by which Hitchens means the Nietzsche quote. His whole VF article is about how stuff that doesn’t kill you may in fact make you weaker, not stronger.

  • Jim!!!

    I would say “atheist faces end”. There is no eternity, especially not for living things. I’ve greatly admired Mr. Hitchens and his premature loss will be a great loss to humankind.

  • John P II

    “Only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity.” Christopher Hitchens

    Thanks for adding to the conflict.