Christopher Hitchens, one of the “new atheists,” has died of cancer at age 62. An iconoclast skeptical not only about religion but about conventional liberalism, Hitchens won wide respect, including that of many Christians who debated him. One of his sparring partners, Doug Wilson, has written a good account of the man and his unbelief for Christianity Today (which also links to their written debates):
Hitchens was something of a staple on the Washington, D. C., social scene, and I’ve talked with several people I know who met him at a party or some such and hung out with him. He was said to be an unusually friendly and likeable person, even to people he disagreed with, as well as a very stimulating conversationalist on virtually any issue.
He is being called Christians’ favorite atheist. Many had been praying for his conversion, something that did happen to his brother Peter. It’s hard to imagine so many Christians writing tributes to Richard Dawkins.
Hitchens wrote books condemning God and, what might be worse in some circles, Mother Teresa, and yet lots of Christians, while disagreeing with him, liked him. What was his secret? How could he be both so cuttingly negative to what people hold so dear and yet so winsome? Is there anything that the other side could learn from him?
UPDATE: The arch-confessional Lutheran journalist Mollie Hemingway knew Hitchens, to the point of co-hosting a baby shower with him and his wife, so her thoughts are especially interesting.
UPDATE: Ross Douthat may have the definitive answer about why Christians liked him:
Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation. (Or as a fellow Catholic once murmured to me: “He just protests a bit too much, don’t you think?”) This is not a sentiment that was often expressed about Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or any other member of the New Atheist tribe. But where Hitchens was concerned, no insult he hurled or blasphemy he uttered could shake the almost-filial connection that many Christians felt for him.
Some of this reflected his immense personal charm, his willingness to debate with Baptists and drink with Catholics and be comradely to anyone who took ideas seriously. But there was something deeper at work as well. American Christian intellectual life is sustained today, to a large extent, by the work of writers very much like Hitchens — by essayists and journalists and novelists and poets, from G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis to W. H. Auden and Evelyn Waugh, who shared his English roots, his gift for argument and his abiding humanism.
Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and “Brideshead Revisited” surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.
For a sample of Hitchen’s masterful, yea, C. S. Lewis-style of essay writing, click that link to his tribute to the King James Bible.
HT: Matthew Schmitz