There is no doubt, if you watch his recent 60 Minutes interview, that Christopher Hitchens, the erudite English atheist enfant terrible, is at least somewhat subdued by struggling through chemotherapy. It is hard to be witty, to keep one’s barbs sharp, battling cancer of the esophagus, the very same kind of cancer that claimed his father’s life. Cancer is a humorless opponent to debate. Such debates never end in a draw. With Stage IV esophageal cancer, the stage upon which Hitchens now stands in debate, the decisive rebuttal is had by the cancer 95% of the time.
Hitchens is quick to point out that many believers, nettled by his belligerent atheism, have sent him notice that it is entirely appropriate that God has punished the very organ of his blasphemies, and that his current suffering is nothing compared to what awaits him in Hell. But he also admits, in a softened tone, that many other religious believers wish him well and pray fervently for a cure to the very God against which he has vented so much spleen (his spleen being an organ that stands in some danger of the metastasizing cancer). They also pray, even more fervently, that his heart and mind will be changed, that he will be converted.
But Hitchens’ heart is deeply hardened against religion. He has declared, ad nauseam (even amidst the nauseam of chemotherapy) that the wish to believe is “the wish to be a slave. It is the desire that there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep.” So he likens the reign of the kingdom of God to be a kind of “celestial North Korea”—ironically, given that North Korea is a dedicated godless dictatorship built on the Marxist-Leninist inspired Juche ideology.
So, what is at stake, for Hitchens, is freedom. He hates tyranny of all kinds, any imposition of authority or power of one person over another, and most especially one God over everyone else. He hates all dictators, and for him, God is the dictator, than which none greater can be conceived (to crib St. Anselm’s proof of God’s existence). He hates the very idea of God, although he rejects the existence of God. Although a better way to say it would be that he hates the very idea of God, the very idea of an absolute authority over him, and so rejects the existence of God.
Not believing that God exists, Hitchens does not believe that his cancer of the esophagus is a divine ordained punishment. As he points out quite (somewhat) soberly that cancer of the esophagus is exactly what one would expect if he freely chooses to smoke and drink heavily. The punishment fits the crime, and the crime is defined authoritatively by the biological constitution of his body. About this, he has no choice; the human body is a given. Certainly, Hitchens was entirely free to smoke and drink in excessive, rebellious, epic proportions, but the laws of the body have the last word. Against this authority, against the tyranny of these absolute biological laws, all rebellion is fruitless.
One can imagine a particular episode, Hitchens in the garden of his youth. His body declares to him, “You may freely eat and drink of everything in the garden, all that is good for you, but you may not smoke the leaves of this tobacco plant nor drink of this whisky, for in the day that you take of them, you shall die.”
And then a pause, and we hear another voice, a sibilant whisper: “Did your body say that you couldn’t eat or drink anything?”
“No, I can eat and drink anything in the garden, but my body said, ‘You shall not smoke of the leaf of tobacco nor drink of whisky, lest you die.’”
“You will not die,” the voice assured him, “for your body knows that when you smoke and drink, you will experience real pleasure, and you will write with Olympian wit.”
Young Christopher saw that these things were indeed good to put in his mouth, a delight to the tongue and throat, and desirable to make one wise. So he took and he smoked, and he reached his hand to the Jack Daniels and he drank, and on that day, he began to die.
I have no doubt that Hitchens has met some self-righteous and exceedingly annoying health-nut fundamentalists, nor that he’s encountered sanctimonious and hypocritical doctors—all of whom repeated the warnings of his body in the garden. But despite their self-righteousness, their grating ways, their uncharitable satisfaction in delivering messages of doom against his primal enjoyments (and this, despite their disagreements among each other about what one should eat and drink), they all spoke truthfully on behalf of the laws of the body, and prophesied all too accurately about the hell one goes through with chemotherapy, about the guilty torment racking one who realizes he’s aimed his own freedom with deadly accuracy at his own destruction, about the painful and then permanent separation from all that, and whom, one loves.
Getting closer to the nub, we might well ask: Is the body a pitiless and sadistic dictator, an “unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority who can convict you of thought crime while you are asleep”? As to the latter point, I imagine many a night (leading right up to the night before the delivery of the hideous oncology news), the cancer convicted Hitchens stage by stage while he slept. But is the body a dictator, and are people who wish to be healthy and follow its unalterable, unchallengeable authority bowing down to a tyrannical authority?
Isn’t the body that which allows us any freedom and pleasure at all—even the curious and pleasurable freedom of destroying it through neglect and abuse?
The body is a kind of tyrant if we define human freedom as freedom from all other authority than our own will, our own desires. In fact, it seems to me that Hitchens has always gotten exactly what he wished—and here I will say it directly—from God. He has the freedom, as a gift, the most radical kind of freedom, the complete freedom to choose life or death for his body. He chose, by his own admission, the pleasures that lead to death. He did not know it, truly know it, until he got cancer, but he understands it quite clearly now.
It would have been better, so one might think, for God to have made a world in which there was no tobacco or whisky, or more accurately, one in which you could eat or drink anything you want to any excess, and no harm would come of it. But rail about it though we may, that is not the way this world is, even for the atheist.
Now here is the final question, the essential question, the question upon which all debates between atheists and theists hang: Is there a thing, the soul, which, intimately united to the body, is also a given, the constitution of which is as determinate and well-defined as the body? And are God’s commands in regard to the health, the good of the soul, the laws of the soul?—the laws, against which, rebellion means only self-destruction? Is Hell the most radical and awful affirmation of our freedom?