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Hitch in Heaven?

Christopher Hitchens's death has led to a predictable eruption of religious hostilities. For some Christian fundamentalists it's along the lines of 'that nasty atheist will have got a terrible shock'. For his part sceptic PZ Myers 'takes joy in discomfiting the godly'.

'We find our hope and joy in our lives, right now...not in an imaginary world, sight unseen, that we only get to enter after we're dead and unable to come back and tell everyone that the priests lied to us.'

It's hard not to wonder what a deeply committed atheist might feel on finding himself conscious after his death. Initial confusion and puzzlement, certainly, but gloating over a miscreant getting his come-uppance is surely misplaced.

Hitchens was praised for holding fast to his beliefs, even under the pressure of illness. I'd have expected no less. Even so, according to a BBC report he told an interviewer that if it turned out he'd been wrong he would be surprised, but that was OK, because he liked surprises. That sounds characteristic. I don't think he would feel any guilt. Like Bertrand Russell, he would say there hadn't been enough evidence. During life, the curiosity upon which he set such store just didn't stretch to psychic phenomena.

But perhaps all this is beside the point. I agree with the Huffpost's religious editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who thinks Hitchens' thoughts about his own death, and death in general, deserve respect.

His fierce atheism was determined to yank our thoughts away from any future place and time after we die, back to the world that is present to us in this very moment. Take, for example, this arresting passage from The Portable Atheist:

'Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.'

This emphasis on the present may feel incomplete to some. But concentrating on what we know -- our own experiences, senses and rational mind -- does not, in fact create a void; rather, it fills these precious moments that we have on earth with intensity, urgency and inherent meaning. An atheist perspective on the afterlife eliminates the option of patient endurance in hopes of rewards in the sweet by and by; rather, it insists that any hopes and desires must be realized in this life, or not at all.

A powerful disbelief in afterlife might be seen as an affirmation the value of life - one of humanism's more attractive qualities. If we're sure this is the only one we have, we should live it to the full, and not go 'gentle into that good night'.

But could the opposite be true? Does a belief in afterlife actually weaken one's commitment to life. Do we value it less if we look forward to the kind of existence described for instance by near-death experiencers?

It's possible. I sometimes wonder if Frederic Myers, who died relatively young at 58, might have lived longer if he had fought against his last illness. He looked forward to the next life so much he seemed happy enough to let go of this one. But then Myers was powerfully immersed in the idea of survival of consciousness. He was deeply romantic. He believed he was in communication with the married woman he had fallen in love with, and who taken her life in tragic circumstances, and that she was waiting for him. He couldn't wait to move on.

So perhaps his case is exceptional. One certainly can't generalise, and say that religious people don't value life. What one thinks about that surely depends as much on temperament and circumstances as metaphysical beliefs.

Hitchens had a good life, doing what he loved, surrounded by friends, and well cared for at the end. Someone in his position doesn't need to find consolation in the idea of an afterlife. But concepts of 'loving life' and 'living it the full' are not so much of an option for peasant farmers struggling with floods and famine, wage slaves in dystopian urban hells, African child soldiers, the homeless and the chronically long-term sick. The slaves labouring in American plantations found solace in the Christian message of a better future life, and could they be blamed for that?


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Robert, your last paragraph reminded me of an editorial, originally published in the Times Online, that has made the rounds in some corners of the internet for the last couple of years. It is no longer available at the TimesOnline website, but I found it preserved over at The Richard Dawkins (?!) Foundation website. Interesting stuff from an Atheist, whom as far as I know, is still an Atheist.
The entire article is worth reading, as it makes several striking points.

Yes I remember this article. Good to reread it, and to see it preserved on the Dawkins site, of all places.

It stands as a rebuke to the extreme atheists, including Dawkins himself, who as far as I know is not prepared to concede the slightest value to religious belief. He could rightly point to a lot of bad and misguided behaviour by evangelist missionaries (about AIDS and condoms for instance). But it doesn't take away from the good they do, or the religious spirit that motivates them.

At first we have to separate the idea of ​​the afterlife and the idea of God, because they are not necessarily linked.

Then we noticed something very curious, because one can argue that belief in God and the afterlife reduces value to life and argue the opposite, that not believing in God and the afterlife makes life meaningless. Here's how: atheists may argue that only a finite life believing we can live fully the present, because life is valuable because it is finite. On the other hand, the religious may argue that just because life is infinite, is valuable, because nothing we do will be lost in time as if it never existed. According to atheists, religious devalue present life for the afterlife, while according to the religious, atheists devalues ​​present life, condemned to a hopeless nihilism.

I think that both positions are wrong, because life has meaning or not according to what we do, not if there is an afterlife or God and if we are finite. Anyway the topic of the afterlife to be treated as a matter of empirical research, not a question related to the sense of life, and the empirical evidence indicates that the most probable is that if an afterlife.

Hitchens is someone who really makes me hope there is a punishment in the hereafter. He was a cheerleader for war, grossly intolerant and pigheaded of people who believed differently than he, slanderous, illogical and downright cruel. He gleefully extolled cluster bombs and the damage they will do to the human body, and had no problem promoting hateful stereotypes of muslims as terrorists. I spit on his grave.

I'm fond of the comment by transpersonal psychologist and consciousness scholar Charles Tart about the afterlife prospect: “After 25 years of studying this, I have come to two conclusions. One is that, as I die, after a period of confusion and fear, I won’t really be too surprised if I regain consciousness. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ‘I’ regain consciousness.”
Hard to imagine Hitch as anyone other than his "I."

"Hard to imagine Hitch as anyone other than his "I.""
Isn't intense atheism, like fanatically held beliefs about religion and politics so often all about the ego?
It's a scourge on humanity, but so many of us fall victim to that extreme ego spell, to one degree or another.

I think much of the blather either for or against HItchens's atheism misses the point. Let's say for argument's sake there is an afterlife - do religious people expect to have an easier time of it there merely because they believed in it and happened to be right about God's existence? That's so self-righteous and absurd.

It's as if you score points with God and the angels if you merely believe in them! What about what you do and say in this life? At the end of the day religious folk are just paying lip service to leading 'good lives'. The largely asinine responses from religious believers to Hitch's death are a case in point, 'Hitch is going to have to eat crow in the afterlife, as his atheism would have been shown to be a crock. He's gonna have to answer for that'.

If there is an afterlife, Hitch will like the rest of us have to answer for the life he led, the things he did, the things he didn't do. His atheism is neither here nor there. And the Hitch was intelligent enough to know that. Same goes for the believers who often enough believe in a God of their own making.

heehee.......i just like imagining Hitchens and Dawkins etc. realizing there's an afterlife but still arguing that there is no god. Then they can get together and proselytize for atheism from 'the other side'!

i haven't found much of a correlation between living in the here and now and atheism or living in the now and religious belief. people and our problems are sadly more complicated. steph

Hitchens was obviously a clever commenter who was always going to attract a large following. He had that knack of being radicle and controversial without fear of alienating.
Why didn't he look properly at the evidence for survival ? His assertions that there simply wasn't any good evidence is plain wrong. There's more than enough in the NDE literature. DBV's, mediumship, reincarnation.....I believe it's simply seen as 'sexier' to be a sceptic, braver, less romantic and more stoical. And at the bottom of oneself far away from the adoring eyes of the triumphant materialist admirers and well wishers, you can still keep a tiny grain of survival alive (I am not saying he did )..... that 'curious' sense of self that consciousness possesses.

Hitchens did say he liked surprises.


Good post. The non-believers all seem to think that believers are all living in the future, their minds focussed only on the afterlife. Of course, this is not true with the great majority. We carry the belief with us mostly in the subconscious and that belief gives meaning to the present. As William James put it:

"The luster of the present hour is always borrowed from the background of possibilities it goes with. Let our common experiences be enveloped in an eternal moral order; let our suffering have an immortal significance; let Heaven smile upon the earth, and deities pay their visits; let faith and hope be the atmosphere which man breathes in; and his days pass by with zest; they stir with prospects, they thrill with remoter values. Place around them on the contrary the curdling cold and gloom and absence of all permanent meaning which for pure naturalism and the popular-science evolutionism of our time are all that is visible ultimately, and the thrill stops short, or turns rather to an anxious trembling.”

Peasant farmers and others aside, life is not alll that exciting for the average person, especially if one has retired and the kids are off on their own. Most of the retirees I know spend their time engrossed in television programs or playing meaningless games. I would certainly like to know what the non-believers have in mind when they say to "live life to the fullest." I think that is the problem with much of the world. Life is all about "having fun" and we can't think of enough ways to have fun.

I would certainly like to know what the non-believers have in mind when they say to "live life to the fullest."

It's bravado or the traditional stoical method of sticking the head in the sand. If there is no continuation of life beyond the physical then I would personally rather have never lived in such a stupid world. Who wants to carry on dancing when they know that when the music stops the world will end for them ?

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