An agnostic defends religion
I have struggled to come up with words to memorialize my friend Christopher Hitchens. It occurs to me that were Hitch given such a task, he would quickly produce several pungent paragraphs packed with provocative ideas, erudite literary references, and razor-sharp humor – all composed in perfect sentences. Even in his last weeks of cancer progression — when, as he wrote, “more and more [was] being relentlessly subtracted from less and less” — Christopher maintained the tireless ability to deliver treasures from his own richly-stocked intellectual shop in the marketplace of ideas. He once said to me that he was more afraid of boredom than of death.
Perhaps it seems odd that a physician-scientist who has written about his own conversion to Christianity should become close friends with an avowed atheist whose book subtitle is “how religion poisons everything.”Perhaps that seems particularly strange in Washington, D.C., where even minor differences of philosophy or politics can be grounds for permanent personal animosity.
And certainly my friendship with Hitch did not begin easily. I attended a small dinner function for him after he had debated an unfailingly polite British scientist-Christian about the rationality of faith. In the debate, fueled by the ever present glass of scotch, Hitch’s one-liners had become increasingly outrageous, and he was scoring many points with the audience of university undergraduates. In the aftermath, I thought it would be interesting to engage him on what I thought to be a more serious question – whether it is possible for a strict atheist, who sees all of human behavior as a consequence of evolution, to claim any real status for the concepts of good and evil — or whether these must be considered wholly as artifacts of natural selection, of no real significance. Hitch’s response was explosive, decrying the question as utterly childish – just as a good debater would do. Let’s just say we didn’t shed further light on the matter at that time.