Hitchens’ Widow: “He Insisted Ferociously on Living”

I found this poignant.  It’s from a touching memorial for the writer Christopher Hitchens that his wife, Carol Blue, wrote.  As many will know, Hitchens was a ferocious atheist.  That fact notwithstanding, his wife has this to say about his final months:

The new world lasted 19 months. During this time of what he called “living dyingly”, he insisted ferociously on living, and his constitution, physical and philosophical, did all it could to stay alive.

Christopher was aiming to be among the five to 20 per cent of those who could be cured (the odds depended on what doctor we talked to and how they interpreted the scans). Without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with a radical, childlike hope. His will to keep his existence intact, to remain engaged with his preternatural intensity, was spectacular.

The whole piece is worth reading.  Let’s say this: first, you feel the humanity of this remembrance.  It is clear that Hitchens was quite a man.  He’s the type of thinker and leader who I wish I could have talked and laughed with.  He was an outstanding intellect and a formidable opponent.

Second, an atheist can live with hope if they like.  But it seems a bit odd to do so.  At the very least, if there is no God, no meta-reality and meta-narrative–if the universe is a closed system–then there is surely no rational expectation that one should hope.  You can hope in whatever you like if you are so inclined.  But an atheist fundamentally believes that the universe is a closed system.  There is no ought, as the Marquis De Sade famously noted, in such a world.  There is only is.  Correspondingly, there is no real hope, or even a strong reason to keep existing.  Again, you can live if you like, or not.  It’s yours to decide.

But in our natural state, we have a very difficult time denying the basic realities of the image of God.  We are created.  We are inclined to hope.  God “has put eternity into man’s heart,” and so we quest after it regardless of whether our worldview directs us to do so (Ecclesiastes 3:11).  Though we are fallen according to Genesis 3 and Romans 1, we naturally want to believe that life matters, and we act as if it does.  Many of the most hardened of atheists, including Hitchens, want practically to find hope in the world, want desperately not to die.  That is a profound testimony to the beauty of life–and only God could create such a life.

Hitchens wrote hundreds of thousands of words in defense of his atheism–and here’s the thing: his completely understandable will to live denies them all.  This is not a triumphal realization, but a deeply sorrowful one, and it must move us to pray and engage those who are held together by Jesus Christ yet hate him, even as we once did.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him (John 1:10).

(Image: Dafydd Jones/Telegraph)

  • Bob Stone

    I guess if one does not believe in an eternal hope, and all there is to life is our life on earth, then I understand clinging to it with ferocity, for it is all we have. But as believers, we do not cling to life on earth, but to the life in Christ, and the blessed hope of eternity. For the athiest, death represents the end of the story, for the believer, the beginning.

  • Robert Woodhead

    Your thesis assumes that there is no inherent value in living absent belief in a deity. As an atheist, I can assure you this is not the case. The universe is a marvelous and wonderful thing, and every day brings me new jewels of knowledge. The fact that I must someday die and that will be “all she wrote” is sad, but also a powerful incentive to live another day, to experience the new wonders that it brings. It also compels me to do what I can to leave the world a better place than when I found it, so that those who come after me will have similar opportunities.

  • Derrick

    @ Robert

    Your comments are interesting as you state things like “the universe is marvelous” and “to leave the world in a better place”?

    a. If life and the universe will come to an end, then there is no ultimate meaning or purpose for them.
    b. If God does not exist, then prudential reason and moral reason can and often do come into conflict, in which case there is no reason to act morally rather than in one’s self-interest.
    c. Even if life and the universe did not come to an end, there still would be no ultimate meaning or purpose because they would be the result of cosmic accidents.
    d. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.

    —You see if God DOES in fact exist then things like charities, beautiful arts and concerts actually have significance and meaning. Atheism lacks the ultimate framework needed for our lives to have ultimate significance. I am not referring that “on theism our lives are the most important things.” And by “Ultimate” doesn’t mean “supreme” but more like “final.” You see with atheism, “not matter how much you try to convince yourself”, there is no ultimate goal of life.

    Have you read Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship”? Russell wrote:

    . . . even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

    Atheistic existentialists, too, testify to the despair atheism engenders because of life’s purposelessness and this is coming from fellow atheists!

    • Robert Woodhead

      a) is a non-sequitur. The fact that the universe will some day end is no different from the fact that I will someday end; what matters is the meaning and purpose we each derive from using the precious time we have as conscious beings well. And it is *we* who each define what that meaning is — the fact that atheists are not committing suicide willy-nilly demonstrates that it is possible to find meaning and happiness without the need for belief in a deity.

      b) is another non-sequitur; it assumes that moral reason comes only from a deity. Setting aside all the horribly immoral things that various religious texts claim are moral, all the moral/ethical rules most people would agree upon can be derived from the ability of human beings to model the internal states of other people — to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Thus, for example, “I will not kill someone, because I would not like to be killed.” Needless to say, it can get horribly complicated (at what point is it moral to kill in defense of others? etc) but the point is, it all boils down to, in a word, empathy.

      c) see a)

      d) see b). And by the way, “objective” morality has a way of evolving over time. A few hundred years ago, it was quite moral to keep slaves and burn witches — and still is in some places in the world. All morality is subjective, because each of us must choose our own code of morals and then try to live by them.

      As for charity coming from God, I can give you a personal counter-example. For many years, all the incidental income (affiliate link stuff) from one of my websites was donated to charity, and for much of this time, it went to, of all places, the Salvation Army. Why would I, an atheist, send them tens of thousands of dollars? Because while I think their religious stuff is silly, the SA is very efficient at providing services to the poor and homeless, and so we had a common purpose.

      Religious people get so hung up on life having some ultimate purpose, perhaps because it helps them cope with the fact that in this immense universe, we’re not very significant at all. But life does not need to have some ultimate purpose. Life just is. You and I are not actors on the great stage of life so much as we are members of the audience; we have been given the great gift of being able, for a brief time, to observe and enjoy the great pageant.

      And, having seen how wonderful it truly is, we have a moral responsibility to help others — both those alive now, and those to come — get a better view of the show.

      That, in the end, is the true meaning of life.