What Christopher Hitchens Held Sacred

He scoffed at God and loved making blasphemous remarks about religious leaders. But he was deeply in awe of his friends.

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Hitchens (center) with friends Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis (right). Hitch-22/Twelve Books

"It's like saying that nothing would stop me from raping you now if I weren't under the supervision of a heavenly dictator," Christopher Hitchens once told me, startlingly, as we sat alone in his study. It was July 2007, and I was interviewing him about his recently published book, God Is Not Great. He'd just explained why he despised the Ten Commandments -- he hated the idea that people needed a divine authority to tell them not to kill, steal, or covet their neighbors' wives. "It's an awful insult to human self-respect to say that," he declared.

When Christopher Hitchens drew his last breath, it's safe to assume that he didn't utter the name of any deity. He railed against circumcision, scoffed at the virgin birth, and loved to debate members of the clergy in front of rapt audiences. But as irreverent as he was, Hitchens also had a tremendous capacity for awe -- and above all else, he seemed to revere friendship. 

I once had the pleasure of seeing Hitchens with his closest friend, the novelist Martin Amis. He was already sick then -- his hair hung in thin strands and his skin was patchy -- but when Amis walked into the living room, Hitchens's eyes blazed with affection. He seemed genuinely happy as he sat there with Amis, throwing out deep thoughts about Western civilization the way other men might toss around a football. "For me," Hitchens wrote in a recent Vanity Fair column, borrowing the language of religion, "to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one." 

It's impossible to know what Hitchens actually experienced as he drew his last breath, whether he ascended into glory or simply went to sleep. What we do know is that we've lost someone huge, brilliant, and profoundly human -- and that strangers as well as friends will feel the reverberations of that loss. "Each man's death diminishes me," wrote John Donne, "for I am involved in humankind." Christopher Hitchens is gone, and the bell tolls for you and for me.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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