RIP Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

I’m forgoing today’s “Masterpiece Monday,” so I can express my thoughts on the late great Christopher Hitchens. Sure, I’m a bit late considering that most media are more concerned with Kim Jong Il’s death right now, but how do you figure out what to say about a man who changed your life?

For those of us who knew of Christopher Hitchens, his death on Thursday was not surprising. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t heart-breaking. Hitchens was a famous atheist from England whose reputation as a debater could not be matched. And the only thing that could match his excessive smoking and drinking was his esophageal cancer, which killed him at only 62 years old.

I became familiar with Hitchens in high school, as I educated myself on atheism and read the works of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I read excerpts of Hitchens’ God is not Great and loved watching his debates on YouTube. His curmudgeonly attitude and harsh words against religion obviously upset a lot of people, but I was amazed at how many commenters online respected his refusal to be sorry for his beliefs, as well as admired his quick wit and riveting words.

Hitchens gave me the courage to live as a loud and proud atheist. One smart reader noticed that I prefer to call myself “secular” on my blog, but I only do that for your guys’ benefit, not mine. This is a book blog, and my atheism–although vital to my life–does not need to be mentioned in all my posts. But make no mistake: ever since de-converting as a teenager, I have never had doubts or felt apologetic for my views.

Which is why I love Hitchens so much. Many journalists made offensive comments to him as he struggled with cancer, such as whether he wished to recant in his final days, but he took all the ignorance with grace. And if Hitchens could read when The Huffington Post asked “What happens when an atheist dies?”, he would probably laugh and reply, “The same that happens to everybody else.”

Hitchens didn’t need saving, no prayers and miracles. He chose to smoke so heavily, and he never regretted his lifestyle. We shouldn’t hope that God will let him into Heaven anyway, and we shouldn’t wish him a torturous existence in Hell. He didn’t fret about his afterlife, so we shouldn’t either. Instead we should respect his beliefs and focus on all the good he achieved while he lived.

So how exactly did Hitchens change my life? By showing me that if atheists want to be accepted by society, we need to lead by example. We shouldn’t be afraid to share our thoughts and educate others, to fight for our civil rights and remind people that the majority shouldn’t rule by default. Show everybody that you don’t need faith to be a kind, considerate, generous, and moral person.

Whether you’re a staunch atheist, a devout Christian, or someone in between, you can benefit by reading Hitchens. He’ll broaden your mind as he blows it with all his exquisite arguments. You may not agree with a word he says, but at least you will be encouraged to ask questions and not take everything for granted.

Because that’s what it means to be an atheist. We believe that this life is all we get, so we better make the most of it.