In Remembrance of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England, Christopher Hitchens wrote for a variety of English magazines before moving to the United States in 1981. Hitchens established himself as one of the leading intellectual writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, willing to offend his readership with his controversial positions on matters such as religion, art, politics, war and literature. He died in Houston, Texas, on December 15, 2011.

Christopher Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England. His father, Eric Hitchens, was a commander in the British Royal Navy, which required the family to travel frequently. (Hitchens’s brother was born in Malta in 1951.) While his father argued that the family couldn’t afford it, his mother, Yvonne, insisted on sending young Hitchens to private school, saying, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.” And so, at age 8, Hitchens was sent off, ending up later on at the Leys School in Cambridge.

In 1967, he began attending Balliol College in Oxford, where he joined a sect of Trotskyites called the “International Socialists.” Although he was a staunch member of the political left, Hitchens made connections across the political spectrum.

The 1970s: London

In 1970, Hitchens graduated from Balliol with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics and moved to London, where he wrote for the Times Higher Education Supplement. By 1973, Hitchens moved on to the left-wing weekly New Statesman, where he became acquainted with writer Martin Amis.

Tragedy struck that same year, when Hitchens’s mother committed suicide in a pact with her lover in an Athens, Greece hotel room. She left a note behind, addressed to Hitchens, essentially saying that one day he’d understand. When Amis wrote Hitchens a sympathetic note later on about the incident, it sparked a deep, lifelong friendship between the two writers. Hitchens wrote for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, before becoming the New Statesman’s foreign editor in 1979. He held the position until he moved to New York City in 1981.

The 1980s: New York and Washington

A year after moving to New York, Hitchens relocated to Washington, D.C., where he wrote a column called “Minority Report” for The Nation. During this period, he also wrote the books Cyprus (1984) and The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? (1987). Also in 1987, his father died of esophageal cancer, the same cancer that would kill Christopher Hitchens 24 years later.

In 1989, Hitchens broke with the left after death threats were made against his friend Salman Rushdie with the publication of The Satanic Verses. Hitchens defended Rushdie, citing his right to freedom of expression, but he was surprised that others from the left failed to do so and openly denounced them. This event seemed to mark the point when Hitchens would be perceived not merely as a leftist but also as someone who would lambast either side for perceived transgressions.

A year later, Hitchens released The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favorite Fetish, in which he condemned the royal family and the media’s treatment of them, and Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies, in which he examined the lopsided cultural exchange between the United States and Great Britain. In 1992, Hitchens began writing for Vanity Fair.

The 1990s were generally a time of great productivity and greater controversy for Hitchens,
with his output coming in the forms of books, essays and television appearances. As he did with the royal family, he often attacked what he perceived to be public figures raised to the level of gods, or at least myth, and began appearing on such talk shows as Frontiers and Charlie Rose, tenaciously engaging opponents in political debate.

Always finding new idols to topple, in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995), Hitchens assailed the previously untouchable reputation of Mother Teresa and claimed that she supported dictators, including Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. And once again crossing party lines to critique a beloved figure from the left, Hitchens parsed the various misdoings of U.S. President Bill Clinton in No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (1999).

The 2000s: Godlessness, 9/11 and George W. Bush

The 2000s saw a change in Hitchens’s subject matter, if not his tone. In 2002, he published Why Orwell Matters, followed by Thomas Jefferson: Author of America in 2005 and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography in 2006—all more traditionally academic than most of his previous books. He also continued to rile the political left when he persistently argued in favor of an invasion of Iraq, the deposing of Saddam Hussein after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and George W. Bush’s post-9/11 policies. In this vein, he released a series of essays entitled A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, which laid out his reasoning behind supporting military action.

In 2007, Hitchens came out with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, where he criticized virtually every religion on earth and began occupying a prominent place in the atheist movement, although he dubbed himself an “antitheist.”

Later Works and Death

Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, was published in 2010, and Hitchens announced during his book tour that he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He continued to make public appearances while undergoing treatment, frequently discussing his condition in the context of his religious disbelief and shunning the idea of a possible deathbed change-of-heart. The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism, a collection of his one-liners, and Arguably: Essays, a collection of cultural and political commentary, were released in 2011.

On December 15, 2011, in Houston, Texas, Hitchens succumbed to his cancer, leaving the literary world a rich legacy of ideas about civilization and humanity’s place in the world.

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April 11

Today’s meeting was a continuation of yesterday’s presentation and discussion. Steven finished his overview of the themes for the spring term: Battling Pseudoscience, Pseudoskepticism, and Conspiracy.

An idea or belief system that tries to use scientific language and/or emulate scientific processes but fails to abide by the rigorous methodology and standards of evidence that characterize true science.
Interesting topic we discussed:
The ratio of things one wants to hear to things one does not want to hear in pseudoscience vs legit science.

What is it? It is used to refer to those who declare themselves merely “skeptical” of a concept, but in reality would not be convinced by any evidence that might be presented.
Really good article to check out


What makes something a conspiracy?

We discussed these topics and methods or techniques to fight these oppressive thinking methodologies.

Yesterday focused on the principles of critical thought. Critical thinking is NOT just thinking about something hard or for a long time. It’s simply not.

However, it is the list after this paragraph. Each item on this list is not a difficult concept or task to grasp and the average 5 year old is capable of executing most of them. The trick is application.

A critical thinker:
1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
2. Desires to be, and is, well-informed
3. Judges well the credibility of sources
4. Identifies reasons, assumptions, and conclusions
5. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
6. Judges well the quality of an argument, including its reasons, assumptions, evidence, and their degree of support for the conclusion
7. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position regarding a belief or an action, doing justice to challenges
8. Formulates plausible hypotheses
9. Plans and conducts experiments well
10. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
11. Draws conclusions when warranted – but with caution
12. Integrates all of the above aspects of critical thinking

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge

The President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge is to advance “interfaith cooperation and community service in higher education”. On March 17, 2011, President Obama issued a challenge to college campuses, hoping to bring religious groups together to work on community projects. His reasoning is that many social issues are addressed by religious groups already – feeding the hungry, providing low-cost daycare, sheltering the homeless – and that combining efforts can only bring positive change. To his credit, President Obama used all-inclusive language, not leaving out the non-believers in our midst. The press release of the Interfaith Challenge, including video, can be found here, and the details of the challenge, including guidelines and program requirements, can be found here (.pdf).

At the end of April, the Student Activities and Leadership Programs (SALP) adviser for the religious, international, and language clubs on campus was given a packet of information about this challenge – about three weeks before the proposal was due. In that time, she teamed up with the Campus Minister and assembled a small group of members from the campus religious organizations, and they decided that they would like to proceed with the challenge; they prepared a plan and submitted it.

The PSU plan’s focus is on sustainability – economic, environmental, and social. With that in mind, the SALP leadership is hoping to piggyback on efforts by the Student Leaders for Service (SLS), who organize community service projects on campus – Viking Days, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Earth Day are all days that SLS plans activities for, and these are activities which the Interfaith organizers are hoping to join.

We can debate the merits and drawbacks of the President choosing to call upon faith-based organizations to do the work that the government arguably should be doing; however, my focus is on the formation and execution of the plan here on campus, as well as concerns I have about this initiative as it relates to PSU.

I got involved in this merely by chance. One morning early in Summer Term, I bumped into the Director of SALP in Smith near Starbucks. She gave me a heads-up that there was an interfaith group thing going on, and wanted to make sure that the non-religious didn’t get overlooked. A few emails later, and Ben and I were in her office learning more.

There was a pretty good cross-section of religious (and other miscellaneous) organization representatives in the first meeting. There were members from SLS; the Muslim Student Association; the Jewish Student Association; the UAE Student Group; the Society for Classical Languages, Literature and Culture; and an unaffiliated Buddhist student who has been involved with the running of the Quiet Meditation and Prayer Lounge. Two off-campus advisers for the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Campus Minister from the Spiritual Life Center, a representative from St. James Lutheran Church on the Park Blocks, and another representative from local churches were all in attendance – interestingly, no students from Christian groups were there at all.

Overall, while I would hesitate to say that the meeting was a waste of time, I am honestly not sure precisely what we accomplished. We are going to seek out no more than three individuals from each faith/tradition/whatever to be on the “board”; that is, organizing the Interfaith thingy — (temporarily) officially, “Interfaith Service Committee”. However, we want to cap the total at 20 individuals for these positions — I’m not sure how many faiths are represented on campus, but to gather up to three individuals from all of them seems like it would mean more than 20 representatives. From here, we’re going to work on marketing, work on social media, and work on getting the word out.

When Ben and I sat in the advisers office, getting a feel for what it was she was trying to do, we had a bit of a discussion about the word “spiritual” and how it theoretically applies to nonbelievers. I think she was hoping to get our tacit approval that the word is all-encompassing and doesn’t exclude us. While I don’t remember the conversation word-for-word, I think Ben and I were in agreement that it was a word that necessarily excludes us, because it’s relying on belief in the intangible that many of us just don’t have. While we were not willing to speak for all atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, etc., I think it’s fair to say that a good portion of non-spiritual people would laugh at the contradiction. And I can’t help but reflect on this post by Ophelia Benson, back when this challenge was first laid out:

Well, just for one thing, it can’t be. An Interfaith Challenge offered by an Interfaith Office can’t be fully open to and inclusive of atheists. It rejects atheists in the very language it uses. We shouldn’t be pretending it doesn’t. We shouldn’t be pretending there is nothing exclusive or particularist or antisecular about faith-based offices and faith-based challenges in and from a branch of government. I don’t feel included in Obama’s challenge. On the contrary; I feel very pointedly and explicitly not included.

I highly recommend reading the full post – she’s far more eloquent than I am. In any case, I rather felt like that at the meeting: everyone was so careful to say “people of faith and no faith”, as explicitly and pointedly as they could. There was no outright hostility, but there was a definite feeling that I was an inconvenience. Especially since I kept bringing up issues they were hoping to gloss over, such as the idea of holding meetings in different places of worship being bandied about. Having had a fair deal of experience with churches, temples, and synagogues, I expressed my concern that there may be issues with etiquette, and I know for myself I would be uncomfortable meeting in these places to address on-campus programs. They’ll continue to be held in the Spiritual Life Center for now. Make of that what you will.

So! If you have any feedback, concerns you’d like me to bring up, or would like to get involved, let us know!


Updated Schedule / Skeptics Links

First, here is an updated schedule for Winter 2011:

Tuesday 1/4 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 1/11 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 1/18 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 1/25 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 2/1 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 2/8 4-6 SMU 294

Tuesday 2/15 4-6 SMU 323

Tuesday 2/22 4-6 SMU 323

Tuesday 3/1 4-6 SMU 323

Tuesday 3/8 4-6 SMU 294

Note that for weeks 7-9 we will be upstairs in room 323. All other meeting sites and times remain the same.

And now, as mentioned in one of our meetings earlier this term, here are some good links to websites and podcasts on skepticism:


The first annual Portland Humanist Film Festival is happening RIGHT NOW! We had a great opening night last night with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, followed by clips from Lewis Black as well as Mr Deity. The festival continues today and all through tomorrow night. Saturday’s highlights include For The Bible Tells Me So, Heaven, In The Shadow of the Temple (filmmakers in attendance) and director Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic Sunshine. Sunday will feature Julia Sweeney’s  Letting Go of God, A Thing Of Wonder (filmmakers in attendance), A Sea Change and a very special double screening of the Portland premier of Creation. The full list of feature films can be found on the PHFF website.

Best part is, the entire festival is 100% free.