Overheard on CNN.com: Vanity Fair essayist's death sparks atheism debate
Christopher Hitchens was "a master of the stunning line and the biting quip," Vanity Fair said in a statement.
December 16th, 2011
02:43 PM ET

Overheard on CNN.com: Vanity Fair essayist's death sparks atheism debate

Editor's note: This post is part of the Overheard on CNN.com series, a regular feature that examines interesting comments and thought-provoking conversations posted by the community.

"The world has lost an intellectual spark. May it have fired a million engines."

More than 1,000 comments poured in as tributes to Vanity Fair essayist Christopher Hitchens, 62, who died of esophageal cancer. Readers talked about his wit, his writing and his atheism, and Hitchens' outspoken beliefs ignited a vibrant discussion. We saw our community talking honestly about their own personal beliefs and trying to understand the views of others, which makes for a great set of comments.

Vanity Fair essayist Christopher Hitchens dead at 62

Many readers paid tribute to a man they admired. This reader vowed to carry on his legacy:

jimbacabaca: "Hitchens was for lack of a better word ... brilliant! May you rest in peace Mr. Hitchens. I will simply thank you for opening not only my mind a little more but countless others. Thank you for standing up to the churches, to the politicians, to the ignorance that holds billions of people down. Thank you for using your head. Thank you for shoving your middle finger in the face of all those who tried to drag the global population and yourself down. The world will be a little dumber now that you are gone. But I and many others will try to fill the void that you have left."

Some said his appeal goes beyond his beliefs.

THDUDEABlDES: "I don't have to be an atheist to appreciate the brilliance of Christopher Hitchens. While I may not have agreed with him on most things regarding matters of faith, I was able to appreciate the way he expressed his beliefs, even though they weren't always the most tolerant views. We don't have many independent thinkers in the media today, and it's a shame we've lost this one."

There were a few critics. One commenter said he thought Hitchens used a ridiculing tone. His comment sparked a conversation about the nature of God and science.

DavidOH: "The problem I had with Hitchens is not that he was an atheist, but rather that he ridiculed theists as somehow being less intelligent. Like there were not equally if not more intelligent people like Aquinas or even Einstein who did believe in God. Fact is that from a purely intellectual standpoint theism, atheism, and pantheism, etc., are all equally coherent and intellegent metaphysical standpoints. The rest is a matter of faith. I don't like people who go out the way to belittle other people's faith choices."

smlynch: "Einstein did not believe in God the way theists do. To him, God was the composite of physical laws, not some bearded white guy in the clouds passing judgment."

tneng: " I just hope all you atheists can be intellectually consistent and refuse to believe in things like love, morality, and the value of human life. If we are just a bunch of molecules, then those don't exist. If God is a delusion, then so are all of those things."

Readers said one thing they respected about Hitchens was that he advocated being good to their fellow man.

Terryshilo: "I believed Chris to be a brilliant man, thinker, speaker, debater, writer, etc. As compelling an argument as he could make against believing in God I cannot be shaken. It's part of me, it's who I am. I will agree, as I often do, that I have known many non believers that are kind, caring honest and compassionate that trump some loudmouth Christians bellowing misunderstood prophecy and verses. I have always maintained, believer or not, it's our actions towards our fellow man much more than verses that is the mark of a decent human being. His pain is over and I would like to think he now rests in peace or becomes beneficial organic material that will benefit mother nature. My condolences to his family and friends."

Several of our commenters identifying themselves as believers also spoke up in honor of Hitchens.

thatguy13: "I'm a strong christian, but even I can respect the intellectual prowess of Mr. Hitchens. He was a hell of a debater; a brilliant guy. Don't agree with his stance on religion at all, but he was a noteworthy man."

Dhamre: "As a Christian, I feel the separation of church and state is fundamental to democracy. As you have said it can, and does, often create problems for both."

There seemed to be a majority of comments from readers taking an atheist's perspective, and they said they respected Hitchens for being true to his beliefs to the very end.

Booval: "I guess the evangelicals who claim 'there are no atheists in foxholes' will have to eat their words. He never became an 11th-hour theist as his death approached."

SteelBeach: "I just love meeting the 'no atheists in foxholes' types. I enjoy shaking their hands and smiling as I inform them that there are many thousands of us serving, and many thousands more who are veterans. I then remind them about Pat Tillman."

Debate did get heated, but many readers tried to smooth things over and understand the other side's point of view. That's not always easy to do.

SeanAus: "It's great to see christians rejoicing in his death. It just further proves the point that their religion is not peaceful or loving at all and that they are just hypocrites."

mechols1225: "Can you be sure that a majority of christians are rejoicing, and can you be sure that all calling themselves christians actually follow christian teachings? Now, I'm sure you're one who despises those who paint a group with such a broad brush, are you not?"

SleepyinSF: "Well, I consider myself a believer and I'm not rejoicing. In fact, I still remember the disappointment last yr when he was scheduled to speak at Borders here in SF and had to cancel because he'd just been diagnosed. I'd never heard him speak and was rather looking forward to it. Goodbye Hitch, you'll be missed."

Share your opinion in the comments area below and in the latest stories on CNN.com. Or sound off on video via CNN iReport.

Compiled by the CNN.com moderation staff. Some comments edited for length or clarity.

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soundoff (69 Responses)
  1. Sigh

    Then wek"l all go to heaven. Woo hoo!

    December 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jose

    What's to debate ?????
    Believers believe and non-believers don't believe.
    Only the dead know for sure.

    December 19, 2011 at 9:06 am | Report abuse |
    • zombiejesus

      There is life after death, here I am now give me your Braaiiiiiiinnnnnnns.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. RAB

    Note to Jose: One afterlife theory is that consciousness does not survive death and that we revert to the same condition in which we existed before we were born... a state of complete nonexistence. If THAT is true, then the dead dont know anything. Those of us who accept this theory also have to accept that we will never know, not even when we are dead.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:28 am | Report abuse |
    • El Kababa

      He died too young! There were twenty more books left in him. I mourn his loss. Readers of books feel a lot of affection for the authors who give them so many good hours of thinking and imagining. It makes me wince to realize that his brain has stopped thinking and that his personality no longer exists. Death is a bummer.

      December 25, 2011 at 11:08 am | Report abuse |
  4. Raed Al-Jawad

    If we don't have people like Christopher Hitchens we would live now under the rule of religion ignorance and we would not see the light of science. Just imagine for a second what would life will be if wake up in the morning and pray and read only our religion book and stop wondering and questioning fairy tales.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • SHobbs

      Your statement presupposes that science and religion are at odds. How do you justify your claim? Also, if naturalism is true, then in what way, or according to what criteria, is knowledge superior to (qualitatively) ignorance, since both are just processes in our brains. In fact, how is it that processes in our brains correspond to the way things are outside of our subjective mental states on naturalism? Why couldn't a form of paranoia do equally well at preserving our species as having true beliefs?

      December 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • wayne317

      "Your statement presupposes that science and religion are at odds. How do you justify your claim?"

      Are you aware of the anti science/evolution movement here in the US? Ever heard of a creation musuem? Somebody on your side thinks they are.

      December 21, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • SHobbs


      December 21, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • SHobbs

      wayne317 If science and religion can coexist, like many notable theist believe, then both the anti science religionists and the antireligion secularists are extremists (not radical, of course). I am not FOR young earth creationism, but you also misrepresent their claims (as they do other people's claims), for they suggest a difference between working science and scientific theorizing about past data. They believe in science as it works in the field. So they are not against science, but against Darwinism or old earth geological theories. I don't think one has to be against Darwinism (or old earth theories) to believe in theism, though one does have to be against naturalism, which is different from Darwinism. I think the problem is that many atheists (and probably some misguided believers too) equate the two, which is fallacious. This is simply provable by an application of Leibniz's Law.

      December 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mr. Widemouth

    Who really believes Jesus existed anyway? http://www.squidoo.com/who-really-believes-jesus-existed

    December 21, 2011 at 2:21 am | Report abuse |
    • emeralds

      Cutting off recordings of Richard Dawkins proves a false point. The pressure for historians is to not rock the boat of overwhelming societal belief. Which "Jesus"? There are many named "Jesus" today. So what? they are not miracle workers nor can they be. You cannot raise people from the dead, turn water into wine, walk on water etc. Indeed there are more plausible explanations for these myths which make 99% more sense. So if I were to choose between if "Jesus" really walked on water, of if it was an old description of the sun making a track across a body of water as it rises or sets... Logic allows me to choose the later.

      Children do not get this choice when brainwashed by their parents or clergy. They don't even offer the explanation of comparative myths. So their brains are locked into a prison before they arrive at the age of reason.

      If your "Jesus" was true, then why must you resort to misleading cuts of a recording to try and convince others what you are saying is true? I checked out the website. It is full of dishonesty.... so you fulfill our vision of what a proselytizer is... a liar.

      December 21, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • SHobbs

      @emeralds–Hello, thanks for your post. I think that you are absolutely wrong, but that you have the ability to understand a different position than yours. Let me point out the obvious objection, namely, you yourself are giving reasons for believing a position, that is, you are attempting to persuade to a different viewpoint (argumentation in its best sense). This is what "proselytizers” do. Because you rely upon the negative connotation of the term means that this is not a very strong point, and if all who proselytize are liars, and you are giving arguments, thus, trying to proselytize to your position, then you are a liar. If all liars aren't to be trusted with a position, then neither are you and thus your argument destroys itself.
      You are making the argument that “Logic” allows you to choose a naturalistic explanation over a supernatural one. May I ask what rules of logic you are referring too? I have had three logic courses, and taught myself Aristotelian logic, and I have encountered no such rules of inference. Your free choice allows you to choose naturalism over supernaturalism, but it is incorrect to say that logic enables you to do so unless (if and only if, since we are talking about logic) one is inconsistent or the conclusion of one doesn’t follow from its premises. This is not obviously the case, and so I don’t think logic is what you are to appeal to.
      Dear Sir or Madam, Your speaking of brainwashing or indoctrination seems hardly convincing for the simple fact that all of our beliefs are based upon more basic beliefs until we arrive at what are considered “properly basic beliefs.” Aristotle speaks of how we cannot prove all of our beliefs from previous beliefs ad infinitum, and so we must begin with certain beliefs that are improvable. This reality makes it the case that we have many various positions. That means everyone, then, brainwashes people on such a broad and perverse use of this term. That hardly seems convincing.
      The fact that we have to convince people doesn’t undermine their personhood but rather affirms it. The reason being is that in an argument we are recognizing a persons intellect and free choice, and by giving our position we are asking them to, by their intellect and freedom, consider and perhaps join our position. This is the democratic way, so your anti-convincing people objection is in one sense a rant against democracy.

      December 21, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. emeralds

    Hitchens had a huge vocabulary and innate morals. He knew indoctrination of young minds into bronze aged thinking was not a "free choice" for them, but indeed a prison sentence.

    Christopher recognized the falsities of all religions realizing they derived from a lack of knowledge sometimes even willfully.

    "Faith", "God", "Proof", among other words have many definitions and before an effective discussion can be had, people should define more specifically just what they mean by these words: Faith in your friends or family is different from religious faith; Generic "God" is different from the "God" as described in the bible; Scientific Proof is different than proof in every day lingo.

    Religious faith is built on complete lack of empirical proof. God of the bible means the God of the flood, original sin, turning Lot's wife into a pillar of salt; Empirical proof is 99,99999% of all that you need to know you do not step off the edge of the roof of a building or swerve into a telephone pole as there is that miniscule percent that it might not be true that you will eventually hit the ground or the pole will disappear by the time your car reaches it.

    Logic demands we stop indoctrinating our youth and wrecking their brains. We need as much help to deal with the problems of this Earth without delusion. Ministers, Imams, Priests, and all others paid for spreading myth, will simply need to get real jobs.

    December 21, 2011 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • SHobbs

      In a sense you are correct. But your objection fails when it says that this use of phenomenological language is the only proper way to understand religion. One can be an evangelical, accept the Bible’s authority, believe that the usage of these items in the Bible is phenomenological to some extent, and still be rational, justified, living up to their intellectual responsibilities and so on. Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant man, and an able debater. So I am very happy that he wanted to dialog on these issues. But His position I think was wrong in the same way yours is wrong. It is an all or nothing mentality. There are good reasons to believe in God and even in the absence of arguments or evidence most philosophers who are not Christians or even theists believe that we are warranted to believe in God, that is if and only if God exists. So if you want to show us all that we are not warranted to believe in God, you have the onus of proof to show us that God does not exist.
      That is not an impossible task (unless God is a necessary being, like I believe He is, then that would very much be an impossible task). But your “empirical” method would never do it. It would never even make it improbable (at least at present) that God doesn’t exist because of the vast amount of information there is, that all people put together today, and all people put together both from the present and the past, do not know. That is you cannot empirically prove God doesn’t exist without omniscience. You certainly don’t have enough empirical evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist. So the only option I see open to you is to demonstrate that there is a contradiction in the very concept of God and other things we know to be the case. That seems like an interesting investigation, but it also seems (at least prima facie) that it would be ultimately fruitless.
      So I think that your rhetoric ridden posts do little to advance your position except for those who already agree with you. Even they ought to weary of this type of argument though. And I certainly don’t feel bad or improper or anything else for not being persuaded. I do appreciate the ongoing dialog though, it is an excellent exercise.

      December 21, 2011 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. WWJD?

    Seriously did i just read that if we don't believe in God then we don't value the life of a human? Seriously?! Where was the "value of the human life" during the Crusades?

    December 21, 2011 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan

      I seem to recall evil men using God in order to further their own gain, rather than the actual teachings of Christianity, that was the sole driving force behind the Crusades.

      Don't be fallicious. Christianity teaches many things, but it does not advocate violence or killing of innocents. The closest thing you will come to that is in the Old testament, which is a record of history before the salvation of Christ.

      December 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Page887

    So you all are satisfied with maybe a hundred years on this earth, if youre lucky. I am Not. Upwards of 500 people were witnesses to Jesus ressurection. I have that hope also. Im not better than you, but I am better off.Page887.

    December 22, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • ThinkRationally

      Hope and not being satisfied with just this life do mean that there is any more to it. Sure, I'd like there to be more, but I accept that there very likely isn't. I'd rather enjoy the reality of this life than live in hope of something that probably doesn't exist.

      December 23, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. Betty L.

    Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens.

    December 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Steve

    Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant debater, a great author, a good man, and a terrible Christian.

    December 28, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andreaw Bertush

    Superb post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I'd be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Cheers!

    July 29, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
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