This was published in the 26 December edition of the Greensboro News and Record:
By Dr. Tom Arcaro
Professor of Sociology
“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”
Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything)
The death of Christopher Hitchens was sad news for many in the general reading public, but it was an especially somber blow to those in the atheist community. Of the major public figures in the “New Atheism” movement - British ethologist Richard Dawkins, Tuffs philosopher Daniel Dennett, and American author and neuroscientist Sam Harris - Hitchens was the most accessible on a personal level, the one that never disappointed by being both equally intelligent and humble before the complexities life.
The outpouring of tributes provide testament to Hitchens' impact on many non-believers. A common theme in these tributes is that he helped to take away the stigma and shame that can be associated with being a non-believer, particularly here in the Bible Belt. In recent years the model of his life and writings allowed many for the first time “come out of the closet” and to go openly public with their atheism.
In fact, as Hitchens discusses in his memoir, he was particularly proud of serving this function for the atheist community.
Hitchens was a most articulate and public atheist, and he gave a voice to the rapidly growing population of non-believers here in the United States. A 2010 example of both his intellect and oratorical skills was his televised debate with former British Prime Minister and converted Catholic Tony Blair over the proposition that “religion is a force for good in the world.” Hitchens won that debate, as well as many others both before and after that Toronto event, by relentlessly calling to reason and to a factual framing of both history and the current impact that religion in toto has on the world.
Perhaps the most important single point in his debates is that morality precedes religion, that you can be good without God. To the everyday atheist, having this specific message so eloquently stated in so many and varied forums was incalculably empowering.
A personal attribute “Hitch” displayed both in his debates and in facing the cancer that eventually took his life was his courage. He went toe-to-toe with his adversaries in a relentless and unflinching fashion, and faced death in the same way, writing and speaking out even in the last weeks before his passing.
But now what? How do those who looked to Hitchens as a voice of reason defending freethinking and rationality respond to his death?
Hitchens was someone many everyday atheists used as a “go to” person to articulate many of our arguments, and he modeled that you should think for yourself and challenge rather than accept the view of the world, especially vis a vis the faith practices to which many of us were exposed growing up in a nation dominated by religion.
So, with Hitch silenced by cancer, there is an opportunity for everyday atheists to be more public and vocal. Much is being done by local, regional and national atheist organizations to dispel the negative image of non-believers, but there is much more work to be done.
An old wisdom states that when a tall tree finally falls the smaller trees in the area can find room to grow. For those who found comfort in Hitch's words, and for those he influenced to be forthright and proud of their own non-beliefs, the best way to honor his life and preserve his legacy is to raise your own voice and continue the work he championed.
Will these acts take courage on the part of everyday atheists? Yes, they will, especially here in the Bible Belt. But courage of conviction and action, backed by an unwavering call to reason, rationality and balanced skepticism, is what it takes for change to happen.
Like Hitch, we all need to be and to model the positive change we want to see in our social world.