I finished Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. It’s a brave account of how Hitchens handled throat cancer during the final stages of his life. He passed in 2011, but not without continuing to write sharply and intelligently.

Hitchens was an atheist, likely most well known for his work god is not Great. While many individuals would contemplate embracing religious faith once their end is near, Hitchens maintained his own beliefs while doing what he did best: write. Yet, though many allies embraced and encouraged his continued intellectual and personal exploration through his experiences, Hitchens often encountered far less supportive responses to his illness. Consider this passage:

You haven’t lived, if I can put it like this, until you have read contributions such as this one on the websites of the faithful:

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.

There are numerous passages in holy scripture and religious tradition that for centuries made this kind of gloating into a mainstream belief. Long before it concerned me particularly I had understood the obvious objections. First, which mere primate is so damn sure that he can know the mind of god? Second, would this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? Third, why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former “lifestyle” would suggest that I got. Fourth, why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: It’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done.

Hitchens’ willingness to maintain his public writings (he continued to make regular contributions to Vanity Fair throughout his illness) is remarkable. That he sharpened his wit is astounding. That his humor and humanity persisted is inspiring. Just take this recollection of his:

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

Mortality is a deep, intelligent, and honest first-hand account of facing a certain end. Hitchens was always a writer I knew I should be reading, and I feel like I cheated a little bit – as if I jumped to the ending having missed out on all the great stuff leading up to his final collection of writings. Well, I am looking forward to filling up my library with more wonderous words of Christopher Hitchens. He was a true thinker, a man of conviction, and someone (albeit posthumously) I’d like to get to know much better.

[For a little more of Hitchens’ perspective, check out discussion between Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan transcribed here and here. Great stuff.]

[EDIT: And here.]


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