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. saywhat

    Understanding the views of others is a trait we seem to be losing. The past 4 years saw us gradually but inexorably drifting away from this finest example of the American spirit. Thanks to politically induced & designed propaganda, bigotry and far right religious ideology.

    December 16, 2011 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Roger B.

    In defense of Sheriff Joe Arpaio: If fox are raiding the hehouse, you do not set rat traps. You go after the fox! It is not Germans, Irish or French who are illegally entering across the Az boader - its latinos (dah).

    December 16, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  3. James Hovland

    I thought this comment was rather enlightening... "The problem I had with Hitchens is not that he was an atheist, but rather that he ridiculed theists as somehow being less intelligent."

    Lol David... You should actually look into it. There are plenty of real studies(not opinion) on religion and IQ. Theists are on average "less intelligent". People with higher IQs have a much greater tendency to be Atheist, Liberal and believe it or not... Monogamous!

    The problem I have with theists is that they tend to believe things rather than actually knowing things. I guess it's just a matter of faith huh?

    December 16, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick W.

      Yes, a matter of faith it is. Sadly, the old saying is true- As a Christian, if I'm wrong I will pushing up the same soil as you. If you are wrong...

      December 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • PhoenixM

      @RickW: But who's to say that you're believing in the right deity in the first place? In the history of mankind, there have been literally tens of thousands of religions – all of which have about as much proof that they're right as you have that you're right. Heck, as a Christian I'm sure you're aware that there are literally a few hundred branches of Christianity itself – none of which are 100% like the others. ALL of the religions in the history of mankind can't all be right – but they can all be wrong. Not only that, but ask yourself *why* so many religions – the false ones, of course, not the "true" one like yours – exist in the first place: they exist because, clearly, mankind has a propensity to invent deities. If you can accept as a logical given that mankind has a propensity to invent deities, as evidenced by the existence of thousands of religions that you *know* are false, how can you be so sure that that same reasoning should not be applied to those that authored the books of your bible?

      December 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • rick

      Rick W: Both can wrong too. There could be a god, but not one you believe in

      December 20, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Rick W.

    If there is no life after death then whats the point? Maybe that's why some people live without regard for others. As far as the comment above about God being a bearded white guy that just passes judgement, you should read John 3:17 (yes the one after the verse that most everyone knows).

    December 16, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alicia

      This begs the question, though: does there have to be a "point" in living? I live my life for the moment, not for some upcoming stage that is (hopefully) years away. Just because I am not aspiring to go to a certain place after death does not mean that my life is pointless.

      December 16, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Feinberg

      What reason is there not to be a good person and help those in need? Some atheists are humanists just because it's more personally gratifying than being a selfish jerk. Most of us just see the value in making the world a better place for future generations. It's the golden rule. You can sit and wish that life was better, but the deciding factor is what previous generations did to make it better, as well as what you do right now. For instance, consider old age and cancer. We are, as of this moment, about 80 years from turning cancer into a problem no more serious than a head cold, and in 100 years we will most likely have doubled the human lifespan. That's research made possible by the theory of evolution, by the way. So, in about 180 years, give or take, people will be living healthy lives twice as long and cancer will be a non-issue. Religion has been hampering and harassing science and scientific minds for thousands of years. That means, had our ancestors put a little less effort into burning people at the stake and channeled some of that energy into thinking critically about how and why things happen, we could have had cancer beaten hundreds of years ago. There's an excellent chance we would have less disease, famine, poverty, and suffering in the world today, and maybe even flying cars or something like that. But it all comes down to putting the work in now, fighting the good fight, and doing what you know is right and just. You may not reap the benefits, but as a human being it wouldn't be a stretch to see it as your duty to better the lot of your species.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sassan K. Darian

      Actually my friend, we then value this one life we live even more. We value the beauty and marvels of life. Imagine, you were that one sperm out of the hundreds of millions that happened to fertilize your mother's egg. If it was another sperm, it wouldn't have been you! IT is part of the tree of life; whether we are ants or humans. As humans, we simply have cognition and thought and can think about the past and future, hence we have come up with religion as what was an adaptive manner in our evolutionary past to cope with death. As science progresses, it dwindles. We should value each other for the fact that we are all humans and we need to depend on each other so that we don't destroy this planet and survive for many generations so that we can eventually become a space-faring species! 🙂

      December 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Rick W.

    Alicia, respectfully, I did not say your life was pointless I was just wondering what the point of living is for someone who does not belive in GOD. If I were not a believer (like I was about 20 yrs ago) I would just be living for the now and it would not matter if I died tomorrow.

    December 16, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alicia

      Yes, I understand your point. I just meant that not believing in god does not mean there's no point in living. I actually do try to live in the now, as I feel if I focus too much on the hypothetical future I will miss out on all the wonderful things happening in my life right now. I have a deep appreciation for the life I have because I don't view it as a middle stepping stone to something else. I am pretty satisfied with the life that I have lived up to this point, so if I died tomorrow, I could honestly say I died happy (though I'd love to get another few decades in haha).

      If you don't mind my asking, what changed your beliefs? I'm very interested in what makes people go from non-believers to believers, and I wonder if the same might happen to me at some point.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      RIck W,
      This is often something I hear from my more faith-oriented friends and it always makes me scratch my head. Why does the beauty of life or "the point" of it all happen to rest in the belief of a divine being? I always turn it the other way: this life, this world and this body are not miraculous but rather something to be cherished because as far as I know, this happy coincidence of being is all we get. I think that this fundamental difference in outlook should result in making life more precious for we atheists and agnostics. We feel that we have no harp or mansion or harem of virgins or rebirth as an animal awaiting our death and therefore tend to value our time here more...

      December 16, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Rick W.

    For me personally I just felt I needed to change my life. I have always had a great life, family, etc and am not one of those guys who had to hit rock bottom before I wanted to change. I just started going to church and listening, reading and understanding more and more. God has made me a better person and now I have a peace about me and desire to help my fellow man. I am a much less selfish person and now believe that I'm living to glorify GOD.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • PhoenixM

      Like you, I am a good person. I have a peace about me and a desire to help my fellow man. I'm not selfish at all. And yet, unlike you, I'm this way without having any belief in God in the slightest.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • PraiseTheLard

      So... you just started going to church... is there any reason you didn't just start going to a mosque, a synagogue, a Sikh temple, etc.?

      December 18, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Rick W.

    I understand your thought here. I do. I respect your opinions and am not here trying to "convert" anyone. I just know how much better my life is now that I believe in Christ than it was before (plus I get to keep my life for now). I guess I CAN have my cake and eat it too.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul Haalboom

      There seems to be a pattern in theists who express a strong faith or conversion to a strong faith...that they need a strong sense of psychological and emotional security in the face of life's complex dangers, fears and losses and sooner or later illness and death. When I hear atheists they sound more secure with life's many uncertainties, losses and death. One would think it would be the other way around. And, atheists strong opinions may be as a result of having to face continual condemnation from the majority of people who are usually theists and because they have had to think about life in greater depth than theists.

      December 16, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rick W.

    I have to go now, sorry. True Christians can never debate anyone into believing. I'm not saying my belive is correct. I'm just beliving it is just like you are beliving there is no afterlife. I believe you are confusing religion and Christianity (the reason there are many different forms of Christianity is because of MAN). Being a Christian means I believe Christ died for me. It has nothing to do with my denomination.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Lefty

    I love the comment from "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."

    God is a delusion, love is an emotion, and morality and value of life are human standards. The common thread is that they're all SUBJECTIVE. If you want to demand "intellectual consistency" from your atheist counterparts, a good starting point would be understanding what it means yourself. Meanwhile, your playground-logic ultimatum will probably just get you laughed at.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Feinberg

    Hitchens was a truly great man. He made people think, he made a lasting contribution, and he made the world a better place. That's more than most can say.

    December 16, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mark M

    I find it slightly ironic that those who support Hitchens in his atheistic belief, then go on to say, "may you rest in peace." Seems hypocritical to assume he is anything other than a corpse which of course can't rest in peace or angst, it just rots. He was brilliant, problem was, he knew it.

    December 16, 2011 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Chris

    Why do theists constantly trumpet the canard that Einstein believed in God? You're delusional.

    "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (Albert Einstein, 1954)"

    December 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. PIR

    May God Bless his soul.

    December 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Which god did you have in mind? There have been so many...

      December 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. HeIsGod

    “I had plans for the next decade of my life. I think I should cancel them.”

    God will not be mocked.....this man was a vessel for Satan preaching in his behalf, even though Hitchens did't believe in Satan, which worked well for his master. Our lives are but a number....we are like grass, we wither, fade, and than die. Christ said, "For tomorrow is NOT promised." Too bad Hitchens prefer to worship himself instead of giving Christ the benefit of doubt to realize that God is more real than he was.

    It's never easy to see a love one die and never gave Christ a chance to know Him. I have family who calls themselves Catholic and no doubt in my heart they some of them will end up in hell. We can't convert, much less convince that God is present. ALL MAN TO HIS/HER OWN DEEDS.

    December 16, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. PEB63

    HeIsGod, that makes no sense; faith is faith, and I have no doubt that people who call themselves Christians will end up in Hell, also.

    December 16, 2011 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
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