Christopher Hitchens, the maverick essayist, unabashed atheist and cable television gladiatorwhose long list of targets included Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and even Mother Teresa and organized religion, has died from pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer. He was 62.
Hitchens died Thursday at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, according to a statement released by Vanity Fair late Thursday night.
“There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said in the statement. “Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”
Born in Britain April 13, 1949, and educated at Oxford, Hitchens authored more than a dozen books. He achieved his greatest notoriety with the 2007 best-seller “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” in which he dismissed faith as wish fulfillment and religion as “the main source of hatred in the world.”
With its publication, Hitchens became the public face of atheism. Critics assumed his cancer diagnosis, in 2010, would lead Hitchens to relent and embrace God. But he remained a proud non-believer to the very end, as he made clear in an early October 2011 speech at the annual Atheist Alliance of America convention in Houston, as he accepted the Freethinker of the Year Award.
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Christopher Hitchens poses for a portrait at…
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Christopher Hitchens poses for a portrait at The Hay Festival, May 30, 2010 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales.
His body gaunt from the ravages of cancer, Hitchens said, “We have the same job we always had: to say that there are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, the world of idiotic bliss can be yours.”
Hitchens’ career followed a remarkable arc. As a young man, Hitchens was a Trotskyite who sold “The Socialist Worker” on London street corners. By 2003, he had become such a supporter for invading Iraq, critics considered him a neoconservative. More recently, he wrote that he voted for Barack Obama, but had no regrets that George W. Bush won the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Through it all, Hitchens never shied from a fight. He called Kissinger a “war criminal” and Clinton a “psychopath.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a “Kennedy suck-up.” And he said George W. Bush’s ascension to the White House proved “anyone can be president.”
Hitchens took aim at a saintly target with the provocatively titled paperback, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.” To Hitchens, the acclaimed charity worker was “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud” who was more interested in furthering Catholic doctrine than tending to the poor. One reviewer called it “a cruise missile of a book.”
Critics labeled him a “professional controversialist,” even a “performance artist.” Former allies on the left were especially outspoken. Liberal writer Alexander Cockburn once posted on his website an attack on Hitchens under the headline, “Letter to a Lying, Self-Serving, Fat-Assed, Chain-Smoking, Drunken, Opportunistic, Cynical Contrarian.”
“You’d think I’d driven over their pets and abducted their daughters,” Hitchens told The New Yorker in 2006.
He denied that he had shifted to the right; he characterized his world view as “post ideological.”
“I’m a member of no party. I have no ideology. I’m a rationalist,” he told USA Today in 2010. “I do what I can in the international struggle between science and reason, and the barbarism, superstition and stupidity that’s all around us.”
Hitchens’ career as a journalist and author took him to 60 countries and many war zones, from Bosnia to Beirut. A gifted speaker, he cemented his status as a public intellectual by debating his views around the U.S. with proponents of contrary positions.