Christopher Hitchens – Mortality [Review Essay]

January 31, 2013


Page 3 – Alex Dye on Hitchens’s Mortality


As an example, Hitchens talks about Abba Eban, a diplomat from Israel, who on a visit to New York noted the ease in which the Irael-Palestinian debate could be solved.  He remarks to this:  “And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it.  But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war.  Religion poisons everything.  As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival” (41).


*** [easyazon-link keywords=”Christopher Hitchens” locale=”us”]Books by Christopher Hitchens[/easyazon-link]

Admittedly, I struggle with the vicious tone of his argument, and yet, I cannot help but agree with him on some points.  History, viewed from a certain lens, does paint a bleak picture of the social efficacy of religion.  Beyond the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, 9/11 and the Jonestown massacre, religious sentiments inspire everyday attitudes of racism, sexism, homophobia, and a general sense of dividedness between people with differing points of view.  And Christianity, a religion founded on the law of Christ that says to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself, is the chief of sinners.


That being said, I disagree with his basic definition of religion.  Hitchens sees religion from a popular, well accepted point of view, that groups of people who claim to have faith in some kind of lifestyle, law, or higher being and turn their lives towards that faith are religious.  This of course includes both theistic religions, such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as atheistic religions, such as Buddhism and Confucianism.  He also assumes that religion is an entity separated from other outside influences such as state and national power, and that any motivations towards violence and other forms of oppression were founded in the religious beliefs rather than an outcome of syncretism with national or patriarchal values.   Furthermore, using William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, I would assert that one cannot define religion without including other typically non-religious entities such as nationalism and patriotism.


In the book, Cavanaugh undertakes a veritable Goliath of a project:  challenging popular modern thought that religion in the public sphere is dangerous because it encourages violence, as evidenced in history.  And one might wonder how one man could tackle all modern “opponents” of religion who would cite that history reveals its violent tendencies.  Cavanaugh, however, asks a simple question and cuts down popular arguments at their roots:  what is religion?  Can anyone properly define religion?  And if they do offer a concrete description, then how does one separate religion from secular?  He painstakingly searches through the foremost scholars who argue on this subject and reveal how, at one point or another, their theses fail because they assume that religion is just “understood.”


Cavanaugh also addresses historians’ inability to separate religion from politics, economics, etc. in history, and in fact exposes the subversive revisionist history that occurs when one posits that the idea of secular even existed prior to the modern age.


And so, in the third chapter of the book, Cavanaugh addresses the myth of wars of religion, which incidentally are used as the primary source material for arguing that religion is inherently violent, while the secular society is not.  He does so by arguing that “the myth of religious violence is inextricably bound up with the legitimation of the state and its use of violence.” (Cavanaugh, 124).  Religion, therefore, is not the great “poison” in society because it is not the source of all evils.  It certainly has been used in the name of violence, but religion cannot be separated from state, from personal desires for power and money, and therefore cannot be the sole blame for the problems of the world.
That being said, Christians’ reactions to Hitchens cancer certainly do not prove that their God is indeed a God of love.


Hitchens shares in Mortality this online entry from a “Christian” responding to the announcement of his cancer.  I warn that this anonymous contributor would make Pat Robertson proud.  I realize that this is a long quote but for the sake of Christians who do not wear condemnation as a badge of honor, it needed to be known that not all who claim to follow Jesus subscribe to this retributive garbage, neither do we all believe that suffering is a natural outpouring of God’s wrath upon those deserving sinners.


“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer (sic) was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?  Atheists like to ignore FACTS.  They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.”  Really?  It’s just a ‘coincidence’ (that) out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy?  Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists.  He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and  then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire” (12).


Awesome. I do not deny that amongst my fellow believers, there are those that wish to make their point through assuming to understand the will of God; and yet, I know of enough children who have died of cancer to recognize that the advent of this disease is not directly proportionate to the level of blasphemy in one’s life.  But again, no wonder Hitchens holds a grudge against religion.


In a subsequent chapter, Hitchens writes on the etiquette rules of how the living interact with those in the process of dying.  Oftentimes to attempt to reach out to or relate to others we try to empathize with stories, which, to Hitchens, is our “attempt to cover the awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbors.” (42)  In that same manner, Hitchens feels that it is necessary for the sick person to show restraint in his or her sharing with others.


I would agree that, in the Western world especially, we do not know how to let others die graciously.  With all of the advances of modern medicine coupled with the ability to live far beyond what our body was meant to handle, we do not know how to accept death as a natural conclusion to life or how to ease others into this acceptance.  We are fixers and storytellers, and so to fix we tell our own stories, hoping that somehow their conclusions might inspire others.  And all the while we are imposing ourselves onto others.  Death has become so taboo that we cannot navigate it from either side of the hospital bed.


Diana Butler Bass, in her book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story, contrasts the way that modern society reacts to death versus the way that the medieval church faced it.


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