Today, April 13th, would have perhaps marked Christopher Hitchens sixty-eighth birthday, had he not developed such a partiality for whiskey and cigarettes as he did in his younger years.
However woefully transient his life was, I am reminded of the quote oft-attributed to Banksy: “They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and the second, a bit later on, when somebody mentions your name for the last time.” I feel it will be a considerable while before Hitch’s second passing.
To mark the occasion, I decided to compile a short list of some of my favourite of his quotes, and after realising that almost anything he ever said or wrote could fit such a bill, I settled on no particular order.
1) That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Don’t be fooled, these words do not apply solely to their original, theistic context. If you ever found yourself in opposition to Christopher, this was the golden rule by which to play the game of conversation; if you’re going to present some claim, and do so with an implication of certainty, you’d better have some solid justification for doing so.
2) Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus.
In my limited experience, I find that when people are uncertain of themselves, it can be incredibly tempting for them to jump on the bandwagon of consensus, just to have something to say. Hitch recognised a necessity in thinking for oneself, and rejected any appeals to majority opinion — history is flooded with examples of misguided solidarity, and to attempt to defend a stance in such a way always comes at the sacrifice of critical thinking and individualism.
3) Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity . . . The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.
I think this quote sums up Christopher’s sense of urgency. He knew that there was no time to waste with customary censorship or unwarranted courtesy, and was a rare example of an individual who was brave enough to enact on such a principle. Find me the interview, debate or conversation in which Hitchens left something he had to say unheard, and I’ll eat my words immediately. Best of luck to you.
4) I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.
When has this ever been a more appropriate thing to say? For all of Hitchens’ steadfastness, he always seemed to have an extensive understanding of his oppositional contemporaries and their views. Hypocrisy is a hallmark of ignorance, and when it comes to politics and religion, everybody could do with taking a leaf out of his book here.
5) Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should remain.
Classic Hitch. When his characteristic wit is coupled with an disagreeable truth, many can find themselves laughing at their own expense.
6) Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.
This is perhaps the most common Hitchens quote I see on lists such as this, and a favourite among many. And who can blame us? The paradox of original sin is a wicked thing to propagate.
7) Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.
The (in)famous challenge. “You can’t do it!” Hitchens would say, before turning the dare on its head and asking, “Who now can name me an evil statement made or an evil action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer?” And you’ve already thought of one.
8) Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
Christopher Hitchens was no scientist. He did, however, have a lust for scientific understanding nonetheless. Not only was nature to him as awe-inspiring and poetic as any ancient scripture, it was more so, and by a long chalk. Ethics, altruism, and decency have been around far longer than any organised faith. The process of evolution by means of natural selection is the true origin of these virtues, not some transcendental Middle Eastern patriarch.
9) If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
I am certain that Hitchens here was not presenting an advocacy. I, too, am made uncomfortable by the suggestion of curtailing parental legal freedoms in the name of secularism (except in extreme cases), however it is an interesting thought experiment. Even the pious would likely admit to you that their religiosity is very often shaped more by their upbringing than their reason, but unfortunately, by the time a child of religious parents has matured their critical faculties, it can be too late for them to even recognise their chains, let alone attempt to break them. As Daniel Dennett put it, “There is simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”
10) The four most over-rated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex, and picnics.
You can’t argue with that, folks.
Now I’m off to raise a glass of Scotch in celebration. Happy birthday, Hitch.