I met Christopher Hitchens once, when he came to Trinity six years ago to help inaugurate our Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. He was his usual entertaining self, and dished out his usual kind of provocation. During the panel discussion, he did his riff on metzitzah b’peh, the controversial practice of sucking the blood from a circumcision that he persisted in portraying as institutionalized pedophilia. Undergraduates and elderly Jewish attendees were suitably shocked. On the way back to the airport, he traded stories with fellow professional skeptic Susan Jacoby about their respective close encounters with religion, recounting how, after his marriage-induced conversion to Greek Orthodoxy, it was “like waking up a cockroach.”
And yet, venture around the internet and you can find barely a religious scribbler who doesn’t have a kind word to say about the man. Grumpy old GetReligion features a love-letter from Mollie Hemingway and a friendly envoi from tmatt himelf. Chris Hitchens, evidently, got religion.
Certainly he was one of those rare secular public intellectuals who took the thing seriously. In this, as in other ways, he served as the closest thing in contemporary American journalism to H.L. Mencken–erudite but not academic, devoted to the English language, prepared to do the shoe-leather reporting, and ever ready to bash the innumerable persons, places, and ideas he couldn’t stand.
If Hitchens was much better liked than Mencken it was because he had a talent for friendship and an ability to make people think that his jibes and assaults were dispatched as much for comic as serious ends. I’m not sure that was true, but it was always hard to take his Oxford Union debater’s style entirely at face value. Plus he was honest enough, or at least shrewd enough, to give believers a sense that it was not his fault that he wasn’t one of them.
In God is Not Great, he wrote, “When I was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, I could feel, even if I could not believe, the joyous words that are exchanged between believers on Easter morning: ‘Christos anesti!’ (Christ is risen!) ‘Alethos anesti!’ (He is truly risen!)” No wonder he was America’s favorite atheist.
Update: Ross Douthat, on the same page.