Christopher Hitchens’ illness: I. How atheists die.

The normal jolt most of us get when we run into someone well-known was accentuated for me when I turned to see Christopher Hitchens standing a few feet away from me at a party on the night of the recent UK election. On top of “Wow, there is someone famous” was a more intense, visceral response: “Wow, that man looks really sick”. He was being his usual animated, talking, smoking, drinking, larger than life self, but his pallor suggested underlying physical disquiet. I don’t know if he had been diagnosed with cancer by then, but I was not surprised to hear the sad news not long afterwards.

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic has a revealing interview with Mr. Hitchens on line, in which among other things they discuss Hitchens’ atheism. I suspect many religious people who hated Hitchens’ book about atheism are praying that he will have a conversion in the face of his serious illness (esophageal cancer). The more hard-hearted will wish that as an atheist he will pass from this life in fear and trembling because he has no hope of heaven. The likelihood of either of these of things happening are as close to nothing as makes no odds.

For about eight years, I was a hospice volunteer, and had the honor to attend many people throughout their dying process. One of the most reliable rules was that people died as they had lived. Happy people were happy at the end, crabby people were crabby, anxious people were anxious. The story of human personality development is largely one of continuity. Temperamental differences measured within an hour of birth predict temperament 20 years later, and people who win million dollar lotto prizes tend, within a year, to return to being precisely as happy or unhappy as they were before their big win.

During my time with hospice, I saw only two cases of religious transformation just before death, and those were both in Hollywood movies I watched, not in any of my patients. Many people had an uptick of interest in religion after getting a terminal diagnosis, but it was the religion they had been nominally or actively a part of in prior times of their life, rather than being a new revelation. The best bet therefore for an atheist is that s/he will die an atheist, just as Baptists, Hindus, Jews and Mormons tend to face death with the same religious views they have always had.

Neither do atheists have a particular fear of death (sorry, Hitchens-haters). Indeed, thanatological research shows that someone like Hitchens who is sure that death is the end will be less fearful than people who aren’t quite sure what they believe, and, people who believe in final judgment but are unsure if the decision will go their way. As in so many other areas of human psychology, specific outcomes seem to bother us less than does uncertainty about which one will obtain in the end.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens’ illness: I. How atheists die.”

  1. "specific outcomes seem to bother us less than does uncertainty about which one will obtain in the end."

    As an agnostic, I'm not sure what to think about that.

  2. As an agnostic, I’m not sure what to think about that.

    Isn't the best course of action to accept that uncertainty? Sorry.

    Keith's comments reflect my experience. Because I'm the mobile one in the family, I'm semi-temporarily relocated to help my relatives who are at that point, help take care of their affairs, etc. I've watched two go. They both claimed religious belief. One was sincere, the other, I believe, had doubts, either about existence or of his own worthiness, not sure which. The latter had a much harder time of it.

    For myself, an atheist, I really can't say if I fear death more than other people or not. I don't want it to happen, having a pretty good time here, thanks, but beyond that it doesn't freak me out. I certainly know some theists who seem to fear it much more than I do, but I can't say I know how to quantify the delta. At moments when I've felt tired and glum and was considering the notion, the idea of an afterlife seemed even less appealing – sort of the eschatological equivalent of getting out of the grind of grad school and realizing that, oh shit, now I'm just getting started.

  3. Speaking as an unbeliever:

    The one time I had a really close brush with my own death, I felt the basic, animal panic that I think is normal in those circumstances. I'd just be speculating to say what I'd think or do when anticipating my death with both certainty of its soon happening and the time for reflection; but I know what I want to do: regard the end with equanimity. Life has been a decidedly mixed bag–at least as much waste and anguish as joy–and so to me it seems almost indecent to keep clinging to it.

    I'm not as sure of things as Christopher Hitchens or P.Z. Myers–I always prefer to speak in terms of probability. How probable then is any afterlife–or any afterlife that I'd actually care to experience? I'd like–certainly not the Christian eternity of sycophantic glee–but rather an eternity of stimlating fellowship and conversation with those I loved and admired. To spend eternity on ever-interesting walks with my daughter–or, for a change of pace, to speak with Hume, Darwin, or Thucydides–that's the afterlife that I'd like. But when we sit down and try to puzzle out the details of any afterlife, it seems to me it's borne in on us more than ever just how fantastically improbable the whole idea is.

    So, probably, we die completely and forever. Sometimes, when given over to joy, we regret that probability; at other times, it's Hamlet's "consummation devoutly to be wished." Balance it out, and what's warranted beyond a shrug?

  4. Brian, that's funny. Thanks.

    I'll admit to a good deal of curiosity regarding what's on the other side at the end of life. I have seen no hint that I trust.

    But it would be nice to find out if there really is such a thing as time or if time is just a fiction humans have created out of the blocks of language and syntax in order to describe the universe. The likelihood of me finding out before or after death is, of course, vanishingly small.

  5. I'm both an atheist and one of your "Hitchens-haters," at least as much as you can hate a public figure for their work.

    I read the NYT article announcing his illness. I suppose if you're ever going to get a free pass to say whatever you want, the moment when you're telling the press that you're going to die early from a nasty illness is that moment. If he'd wanted to be gracious, or angry, or sarcastic, or sad, or optimistic, or if he'd wanted to take the opportunity to lay out the case for the next three wars in Iraq, in case he's not there to call for them, well, okay.

    As it turns out, just about half of the article is about Hitchens' potential deathbed conversion. Hitchens is game: oh, sure, it could seem to happen in the throes of delirium and pain meds, but that's not Christopher Hitchens, that's the insane biological remnant left after Proper Hitchens has ceased to be. Again, fine. For once I can't fault his logic. And if he wants to chortle over some religious types who send him e-mails telling him they can't decide whether they want him saved or damned, well, see above. It's his funeral and they asked for it.

    You've probably heard the idea that Hitchens and the other "New" "Atheists" are really just copying from the playbook of the religions they criticize. They're charismatic (male) leaders who proclaim themselves the vessel for a higher Truth that only the elect can understand. They write this truth in sacred texts ($19.95 + S/H on Amazon) and charge their flocks to go forth and evangelize. The cult externalizes all evil onto the Other, but especial fury is reserved for the apostate (Chris Hedges, for instance) because he who perverts the Word is worse than the barbarians (actual theists) who never had it. The messianic leader never lets his followers forget that they are a persecuted minority, because a sinful world fears the light of truth, but that in their steadfast faith alone lies the hope for the salvation of the world. Someday all of creation will be ready to hear the Good News, and many evils will be banished in the final battle between Truth and Falsehood, but for now the chosen must bide their time in a world so wicked that it knows not good from evil. And so on and so forth.

    It's a pretty heavy charge, because it combines one of the major premises of fundamentalist atheism–that religions are first and foremost about controlling others–with the most premise most obviously lacking from fundamentalist atheism–that religions satisfy (and arise out of) real social and psychological needs. That's why con artists and saints alike intuitively know how to appeal to other people through that omnipresent need for connection with "something bigger." Of course Hitchens is just another William Miller, or Joseph Smith, or Bahá'u'lláh, or Mother Ann Lee. He's an egomaniac with a lifetime of professional experience at pushing people's buttons: how could he not be? And while the self-worth and reassurance that his disciples derive from their faith in their own salvation might make them unpleasantly smug or prone to screeching tirades, well, that's humanity for you.

    Hitchens is extremely dismissive of this idea, of course, but has never really tried to refute it in word or deed. Making the announcement of his impending death into a sermon on the iniquities of the heathens, and musings about how his mortal shell might fall to temptation in the final moments, but his eternal essence will remain pure–well, Oral Roberts couldn't have done it better.

    I'm sorry he's probably going to die. I don't want him to live so that he can embrace a faith, or repent of his sins. I was just hoping he'd live long enough to eventually stop talking, and thereby let some of the damage he's done be undone. Now instead his cult is going to have–at the very least–a risen saint to venerate.

  6. I am a Christian. When I try to put myself in Christopher Hitchen's (or any other atheist's) shoes and imagine what my feelings would be like in the face of impending death, it simply depresses me. If we come from nothing and end in nothing, then in the ultimate picture what happens in the in-between is meaningless and is worth nothing. Don't get me wrong, I see how people try to make meaning out of meaninglessness and are successful in doing so to varying degrees in a subjective sense. But in an objective sense, it is all meaningless without some ultimate beginning and some eternal destiny. I don't hate Christopher at all; I pity him. I'm one of the ones that will pray that he comes to faith in the late hours of his life. I realize, as Keith points out, that the human experience is more characterized by continuity than change and thus it is highly unlikely that Christopher will experience a genuine conversion from our human standpoint, but I also know that with God all things are possible. I'm glad you wrote about Christopher because I've been thinking about him. I feel sad for him. I pray that before he dies he comes to the place where his brother Peter is.

  7. I hope Hitchens has a meaningful and peaceful end of his physical life. I also think that his beliefs will not offend God in the least, since I believe in the Good Shepherd and it doesn't matter how far you try to run. All that God-has-a-huge-ego stuff is human projection. Besides, as far as I know, never having met the man, he is honest about what he thinks. Isn't that a way to serve the truth, even if I think he's wrong?

    Anybody ever watch that movie "The Rapture?" It's one of my favorites ever. It's intense.

  8. "Of course Hitchens is just another William Miller, or Joseph Smith, or Bahá’u'lláh, or Mother Ann Lee."

    Particular in how he casually makes preposterous, overstated analogies. (Then again, this sort of thing probably arises out of and satisfies some sort of psychological need, so it's all good.)

  9. Actually, what I said was: "Of course Hitchens is just another William Miller, or Joseph Smith, or Bahá’u'lláh, or Mother Ann Lee. He’s an egomaniac with a lifetime of professional experience at pushing people’s buttons: how could he not be? And while the self-worth and reassurance that his disciples derive from their faith in their own salvation might make them unpleasantly smug or prone to screeching tirades, well, that’s humanity for you."

    You've more or less faithfully given Hitchens' usual response to this charge. "Preposterous! No I'm not." Okay then.

  10. Actually, what I said pretty explicitly presupposes that Hitchens casually makes preposterous, overstated analogies. The larger point aside, of course.

  11. Bux, if you pity Christopher Hitchens for his unbelief, it is because you have failed in your effort to put yourself in his place. Or, I should say, you have merely put yourself, as a believer, in his place, but failed to understand how a nonbeliever feels. Some nonbelievers want to believe (Hawthorne said that of Melville), but many, including Hitchens, do not. They have no problem with objective meaninglessness, and would consider it a weakness to pretend it to be otherwise.

  12. Point taken Henry. Maybe folks like Hitchens are completely comfortable with and have no problem with objective meaninglessness. But then Hitchens and others who are comfortable with objective meaninglessness and see anything else as weakness need to be consistent in their worldview. Don't take up causes that tries to impose inherent meaning on human life. If life is pointless and meaningless, if we all come from dirt and return to it permanently, then what does it matter if blacks are segregated from whites? What does it matter if six million Jews are slaughtered? There is no intrensic value. So the problem that I see is that I don't believe Hitchens would be completely consistent in following his worldview through to its logical conclusions. What I like to say is that too often atheists live on borrowed capital.

  13. No, Bux, the opposite is the case. If life, in itself, is pointless and meaningless, then the meaning we give it — such as in fighting racial segregation or the Holocaust — is all that matters. Our time here on earth is all we have, and we should make it as good as we can for ourselves and others. It is attributing meaning to an afterlife that would seem to lessen the meaning of life on earth (although, not being a believer, I can't really speak to that).

  14. Ok, let me play devil's advocate then Henry. If the point of life is to "make it as good as we can for ourselves and others", who determines what "good" is? What if I think it is good to kill Jews? Sure, it has a negative impact on someone else but what if it serves my purposes? It seems to me that your logic is setting up a self-imposed morality that is subjective, and thus nobody has the right to make an absolute judgment on the actions of the next person. There is no basis for any absolutes, so anything can go. Who are you to say that murder is wrong? What if I say it is right and good and pleasurable to me. Why does the next person have any kind of intrinsic value that should make we want to respect him/her if he/she stands in the way of my happiness. Take this example,

    Proposition 1: my neighbor has something that I really want but can't afford.

    Proposition 2: My neighbor is a cosmic accident, being created from nothing and headed nowhere in any ultimate sense

    Conclusion: What should it matter to me if I beat up my neighbor and take what he has that I want

  15. Bux, now you're changing the subject from the meaning of life to the foundation of morality, but a god is necessary for neither. Nonbelievers simply do not think the way the neighbors in your example do; if anything, atheists think about the morality of their actions more than believers do, because they lack bibles or clergy to give them the answers. But the foundation of morality is far too complex a subject to pursue in this forum.

  16. Bux:

    1. You can't "impose inherent meaning". If it's inherent, then it does not need to be imposed, and if it's imposed, then it cannot be inherent.

    2. It gives me chills to hear people who claim to be Christians say that the only thing keeping them from beating me up and taking my stuff is that God says its wrong. That's seriously messed up.

    3. In my experience, the belief that this life is just a practice life, and that it is the next one that really matters (whether you're talking reincarnation or heaven) is the much more dangerous belief than that we just get this one shot.

  17. Like Richard Dawkins and other professed atheists, Hitchens' "belief" (if we insist upon a "belief") is in the natural world, devoid of the supernatural, religious mythologies, superstition and the like. When one allows for the supernatural, then every unreasonable notion is, perforce, validated–e.g., witches, warlocks, ghosts, goblins, faeries, "little people," unicorns and every mad notion under the sun. Given our human natures as malcontents, the very idea of an eternal paradise of ecstasy and harmony is absurd, unless religion would posit that with death, our human nature is obliterated, and we can settle for "eternity" with only the abstraction of "God" for company. You want heaven? As Jack Kerouac wrote in Mexico City Blues, 211th Chorus: "I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead." Nature is "God," if you must, and death will be our heaven (and our hell, if you must), with a complete absence of pain and torment, but also complete absence of connection and joy. This wistful, melancholy reality is "just how it is" to the atheist.

  18. When I see Hitchens brought to task in debate my internal instinct is to cringe. I am proud to see him always able to fire back; no matter the demandng or damning of inquiry or statement. He has definitely got himself out and about to see the world. He can use many civilizations to contrast and show the difference and likeness of many cultures and society's around the earth. He always consults their ancestors to arrive at a very thought-out analysis on politics, philosophy, and economics. May many learn from him and see how they could live and make a difference using his exquisite template. He is loyal to the truth and has humility and does relate to people interested in how the world really works and at what ways they can contribute more educations to the subject. I do not need any religion to complete what I am to do here. I do need all of our sisters and brothers from now back to the beginning to show me what works and what does not. Someday we will all unify and outgrow our amatuer and childish education on spirituality and religion and realize that we cannot explain it or put anything into any context that we have control of our after life destiny. When we take certain points in history and look back we always laugh at how naive we were and how far we have come. How long can our churches survive in these turbulant times of truth. It is definitely what we make out of the information age that will define us again. I think a new sense of community is upon us from the world over. Thank you to Christopher Hitchens for blazing paths for us to follow. I for one wish him well and if not that is life!

  19. Bux, you're describing nihilism. Atheists or Agnostics (myself) are not nihilist. That is a common flaw that believers make – This life and what you do with it is what matters!

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