Christopher Hitchens dies at 62: Sharp-tongued writer fearlessly challenged moral, religious hypocrisy

Christopher Hitchens, an English writer whose powerful, persuasive essays took on moral and religious hypocrisy, died at 62 in a hospital in Houston. As Matt Schudel reported:

Christopher Hitchens, a sharp-witted provocateur who used his formidable learning, biting wit and muscular prose style to skewer what he considered high-placed hypocrites, craven lackeys of the right and left, “Islamic fascists” and religious faith of any kind, died Dec. 15 at a hospital in Houston. He was 62.

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Christopher Hitchens explains what he sees as his life's work: combating \

Christopher Hitchens explains what he sees as his life's work: combating "superstition and religious totalitarianism." This video is part of an interview with On Faith’s Sally Quinn from the fall of 2010.

He had pneumonia and complications from esophageal cancer, according to a statement from Vanity Fair, the magazine for which Mr. Hitchens worked.

Mr. Hitchens, an English-born writer who had lived in Washington since 1982, was a tireless master of the persuasive essay, which he wrote with an indefatigable energy and venomous glee. He often wrote about the masters of English literature, but he was better known for his lifelong engagement with politics, with subtly nuanced views that did not fit comfortably with the conventional right or left.

In his tartly worded essays, books and television appearances, Mr. Hitchens was a self-styled contrarian who often challenged political and moral orthodoxy. He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal, savaged Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, ridiculed both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, then became an outspoken opponent of terrorism against the West from the Muslim world.

In 2007, Mr. Hitchens aimed his vitriol even higher, writing a best-selling book that disputed the existence of God, then enthusiastically took on anyone — including his own brother — who wanted to argue the matter.

His supporters praised Mr. Hitchens as a truth-telling literary master who, in the words of the Village Voice, was “America’s foremost rhetorical pugilist.” Writer Christopher Buckley has called him “the greatest living essayist in the English language.”

Hitchens became one of the most respected figures in the atheist community, partly because of his willingness to debate members of the religious establishment. As Susan Jacoby explained :

My old friend Julius Hobson, an unconventional Washington civil rights leader in the 1960s (he once drove a cage of rats to Georgetown and threatened to release them at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street so the power brokers would know how the other half lives), used to say, “I sleep mad.” When I mentioned this many years ago to Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer Thursday, Christopher remarked, “What a great epitaph that would be!”

We have lost an irreplaceable person in this age of American unreason. By “we,” I do not mean only atheists (although Hitchens is irreplaceable in that respect too) but everyone who values rationality and the English language. Hitchens, whose obituaries are devoting equal space to his atheism and his support for the Iraq war (he once called me stupid to my face for disagreeing with him about the latter), was a great, scathing Anglo-American writer in the tradition of Thomas Paine, George Orwell and Jessica Mitford. We may not see his like again, because the respect for language exemplified by his writings is fading away.

What Christopher (I just cannot call him Hitchens, because it is hard for me to accept the fact that his distinctive voice now belongs to history), contributed to the American dialogue about atheism was a combination of wit and disrespect that American-born atheists just cannot seem to manage. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Christopher was born and educated in England and was an heir to the best British traditions of no-holds-barred wit and satire.

No American atheist was ever going to give a book a title like The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice . No, we would begin such a book, if we ever thought about writing it in the first place, by making sure to acknowledge all the good that missionaries, somewhere, somehow, must have done. Christopher, by contrast, went straight for the jugular, noting: “As Edward Gibbon observed about the modes of worship prevalent in the Roman world, they were `considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.’ Mother Teresa descends from each element in this ghastly triptych.” What a wonderful image “ghastly triptych” is!

Reactions to Hitchens’ death were numerous. Alexandra Petri argues in her satire blog ComPost that most of the onslaught of tributes did little to capture the true essence of the man.

The response to Christopher Hitchens’ death — in the wee hours of last night, from esophageal cancer — has been, predictably, asinine.

First there was the flurry of tweets insisting that anyone who said God Is Not Great ought to be taken out and shot, mistaking the trending book title for an assertion that needed hasty and eRraticAlly capitalized debunking.

I must confess that the thought of Christopher Hitchens banging about the firmament with a harp is of limited consolation. Nor is the idea of him being fricasseed on some supernal skewer particularly satisfying. But it seems oddly prevalent among online commenters.

Shortly after Christopher Hitchens’ passing in the wee hours of Thursday-into-Friday, the Reverend Rick Warren tweeted, “My friend Christopher Hitchens has died. I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.”

Then there was the uncomfortable fact that any writer worth his salt who has picked up a magazine in the past decade has the idea that he has a deep and personal relationship with Hitchens that the world at large will be interested in reading about. Why not try? It’s a trending topic.

When it comes to the penning of lugubrious tributes, he belongs squarely in the category of those who said it themselves and said it better. And if he didn’t, he was best friends with Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley, and I am fairly sure they have it covered. There is little you can say better about someone who has anthologized himself — not once, but five times.

He was, at all times, Christopher Hitchens. Writing for every outlet from Slate to Vanity Fair, he embodied the dream that New Journalism has been wanting so desperately and pulling off so badly — the personal brand, the byline so dominant and promising that you’d read him if he wrote about the telephone directory or the beneficence of foaming hand soap. He said controversial things that were more than merely controversial by virtue of the excellent way he said them.

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