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.


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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in National

Just In