Friday, April 22, 2011

A Hitch In Time

Christopher Hitchens is dying of cancer. The link is to Hitchens's farewell letter to the American Atheist convention, which he was to have addressed, but was physically incapacitated past any hope of speaking. A big H/T to PZ Myers for publishing the letter. It may be the best thing Hitchens ever wrote.

Let's get something out of the way up front. Hitchens is a cantankerous man who drinks too much and has a real capacity for offending people. OK, I've posted the obligatory qualifier. But I am pretty cranky myself, and I don't write a tenth as well as he does. (I almost said "did" ... but as far as I know, he is still hanging on.) We can respect him for his good aspects. Speak no ill of the (almost-) dead, and all that.

Over the course of my 62 years (can you believe it? Hitchens is younger than I am) I have transitioned from non-belief (my very early exposure to Christianity simply didn't "take") to quasi-New-Age belief (I was influenced by friends toward that), to write-your-own-belief (I was a UU... an agnostic who admires our nation's Founders could do worse than to be a UU) to leaning-toward-unbelief, which is where I stand these days. The physical universe contains so many improbabilities, and their number and conceptual complexity seem to increase every time I revisit them after a few years, that I can no longer find it in myself to profess doctrinaire belief in any formal religion. And I seem to be able to speak God's alleged name only when I'm cussing a blue streak.

I've played music in services offered by an astonishing variety of Unitarian-Universalist churches, Christian churches both Catholic and Protestant, Jewish synagogues, and so on. That means I've heard sermons by a lot of different kinds of preachers. All I can say is, it is a good thing I was paid for listening to those preachers, um, I mean, playing those services...

Some preached moral truths; some among those actually addressed moral issues rather than listing thou-shalt-nots. Some stuck to the thou-shalt-nots.

Some preached Christian or Jewish stories; some of those stories were part of traditions thousands of years old... and none of them, not a damned one, was true in any literal sense, not that they didn't have their attractions and uses as myths.

Some UU ministers preached that I should create my own religion and traditions and stories from scratch or with help from any sources I chose. That came closest to fitting my needs (though I was too lazy to engage in much myth-making), and I stuck around for several years at one UU church.

But eventually I did not need a church for fulfillment. (I confess I do miss the music... but for performers, the music goes away one day, no matter how much you wish it wouldn't.) And as I don't need a god for salvation, blessing, justification for what I do, or formalizing of my human relations, I left most of my sense of God behind when I left the churches. I still have a vague, nebulous, nonspecific and certainly non-doctrinal sense of Presence, but I'm the first to admit that it could be (and likely is) brain chemistry.

So I have a great respect for the path chosen by Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the other serious atheists of our era, as well as the street fighters in behalf of that tradition, such as PZ Myers.

As for Hitchens, I shall miss the cranky bastard when he's gone. I offer no prayers, but I shall raise a glass in his memory.


  1. Then there is spirituality: the open boundaries of a free spirit. I find great comfort in the certainty of death, the only absolute one may know.

  2. mandt, it seems to me the existence and freedom of the spirit is a completely separate matter from the individual's relationship to a formal church, or that church's relationship to the government, or even belief/disbelief in a god. (I do sometimes use the word God, but I really should find another word... I'm about as theistic as Thomas Jefferson was.)

    More than merely separate or independent, the sense of one's spirit is orthogonal to the motives of even a good government, and quite possibly in opposition to the motives of almost all churches. Churches, far from being creatures of the spirit, are just another power structure, more often hierarchical than not.

    Let your spirit (that inner voice, even if it may well be brain chemistry) lead you; you'll be fine... just don't let a church lead you; you'll be screwed.

  3. Oh, I forgot to answer your last point... the older I get, the more relieved I am that I shall not live forever. "They" say death and taxes are the only certainties, but corporations manage to escape both death and taxes, so I guess it's true only for flesh-and-blood humans.

  4. I'm a renegade Catholic -- i.e., I was the kid who raised her hand and said, "But Sister, that doesn't make sense." and suffered the consequences. Right now I'm in neutral mode. I refuse to associate myself with all the damned GOP hacks (as well as the Tea Party) who call themselves Christians and in the next breath, break multiple commandments.

  5. Even dying Hitchens is brilliant. In many respects he reminds me of Oscar Wilde and/or that passel of old American Lenninists that turned neo-con on us during the Bush years. His command of the written word is exquisite crank poetry.

  6. Kay, I just read through an order of service for Easter at a local Episcopal church (Stella attends there on holidays; she was once a member, but I think her rebellious streak sent her away from a very, very conventional church) and was reminded once again why I cannot join any Christian church. In a way, I regret it; it must be nice to have a community of faith of which one can be a part. But it's just not there for me, and goodness knows I've tried at various times in my life.

    If I return to something that calls itself a church, it will be the UU church that I was a member of for a few years; they make few demands on members, and no doctrinal demands at all. Free inquiry into the nature of life, being, spirit and the world is what the UUs are all about, and sociopolitically, most UUs are... no doubt about it... liberal.

  7. mandt, your association of Hitchens with Wilde is brilliant; I never would have thought of it, but it feels right. I wish he had not physically abused himself toward his own apparent demise, but we are lucky to have had him in our world, even for a while.



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