Journalist Christopher Hitchens died on Dec. 15 of pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, England in 1949. His father, Ernest, a commander in the British Royal Navy, and his mother, Yvonne, a bookkeeper, scrimped and saved so that he could attend the independent Leys School in Cambridge, and later Balliol College, Oxford. They were determined that he would receive a top-notch education and join the upper class.
During his time at university, Hitchens studied philosophy, politics and economics, but the more he learned, the angrier he became. Hitchens’ disgust with racism and opposition to the Vietnam War led him to the political left. He would eventually join the International Socialists, a faction of the anti-Stalinist left, and participate in political protests against the war.
Attending college in the 1960s introduced Hitchens to a more hedonistic way of life as well. Although he eschewed drugs, Hitchens became both a heavy smoker and hard drinker. He claimed such practices supported his writing efforts. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk,” he said.
Writing was also the perfect outlet for him to enrage and enlighten. The British monarchy, Henry Kissinger and the Roman Catholic Church were just a few of his favorite targets in the 1970s. Despite being a bon vivant, Hitchens resolved to spend time at least once a year in “a country less fortunate than [his] own.” As such, the early part of his career was dedicated to wandering the globe, reporting on the world’s trouble spots and shining a light on those he considered cruel or evil.
After immigrating to the U.S. in 1981, Hitchens began writing for The Nation magazine. He would later edit and contribute articles to numerous publications, including Vanity Fair, the Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Harper’s, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. His surprising advocacy for the war in Iraq, which was prompted by his growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a danger to the West, gained Hitchens a wider readership, and in September 2005 he was named one of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals” by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines.
Hitchens penned two dozens books — including “Letters To A Young Contrarian,” “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “Hitch-22: A Memoir” — and frequently made television and radio appearances. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh and the New School of Social Research.
As a cultural pundit, Hitchens loved picking fights. He offered unsparing insight on a wide range of subjects, from politics to religion to his own his mortality, but was perhaps best known for his criticism of Mother Teresa, both in his 1994 documentary “Hell’s Angel,” and in Vanity Fair.
“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor,” Hitchens said. “She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
His negative portrayal of a woman many considered to be a saint prompted hundreds of readers to cancel their magazine subscriptions. And yet, after word of his death was reported, India’s Missionaries of Charity order said it would pray for Hitchens’ soul, despite his aggressive campaign against its Nobel prize-winning founder.
In 2008, amidst a nationwide discussion of “enhanced interrogation techniques, Hitchens decided to subject himself to a waterboarding treatment to see if it was truly a form of torture. He lasted for 16 seconds.
“It’s annoying to me now to read every time it’s discussed in the press — or in Congress — that it simulates the feeling of drowning,” he said. “It doesn’t simulate the feeling of drowning. You are being drowned, slowly.”
Ever the contrarian, Hitchens adopted the U.S., warts and all, and took an oath of citizenship in 2007 on his 58th birthday. The ceremony was conducted by former President George W. Bush’s homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff.
An outspoken atheist — or as he preferred to be called, an antitheist — Hitchens rallied many to a belief in rational thinking by describing organized religion as the main source of hatred and tyranny in the world. In the final years of his life, he debated both religious and political figures about the nature of faith and the existence of God.
“Faith is the surrender of the mind; it’s the surrender of reason, it’s the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other mammals,” Hitchens said. “It’s our need to believe, and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. Of all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated.”
Even after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2010, Hitchens refused to turn to a deity or organized religion for comfort. He made it clear that if anyone ever claimed he had converted at the end of his life, it would be either a lie propagated by the religious community or an effect of the cancer and treatment that made him no longer himself.
“The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain. I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark,” he said.
“There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar,” said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. “Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”
Hitchens is survived by his wife, the writer Carol Blue, and three children.
Listen to an excerpt from “Hitch 22” by Christopher Hitchens