Today, April 13th, would have perhaps marked Christopher Hitchens’ sixty-eighth birthday, had he not developed such a partiality for whiskey and cigarettes as he did in his younger years.
To mark the occasion, I decided to compile a short list of some of my favourite of his quotes, and after realising that almost anything he ever said or wrote could fit such a bill, I settled on no particular order.
1) That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Don’t be fooled, these words do not apply solely to their original, theistic context. If you ever found yourself in opposition to Christopher, this was the golden rule by which to play the game of conversation: if you’re going to present a claim, especially with any implication of certainty, you’d better have a solid justification for doing so.
2) Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus.
In my limited experience, I find that when people are uncertain of themselves, it can be incredibly tempting for them to jump on the bandwagon of consensus, just to have something to say. Hitch recognised a necessity in thinking for oneself, and rejected any appeals to majority opinion — history is flooded with examples of misguided solidarity, and to attempt to defend a stance in such a way always comes at the sacrifice of critical thinking and individualism.
3) Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity . . . The grave will supply plenty of time for silence.
Christopher’s sense of urgency was one of his defining traits. He knew that time was too precious to waste on customary reticence or forced courtesy, and was a rare example of an individual who was brave enough to act accordingly.
4) I learned that very often the most intolerant and narrow-minded people are the ones who congratulate themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness.
When has this ever been a more appropriate thing to say? For all of Hitchens’ steadfastness, he always seemed to have an extensive understanding of his oppositional contemporaries and their views. Hypocrisy is a hallmark of ignorance, and when it comes to politics and religion, everybody could do with taking a leaf out of his book here.
5) Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should remain.
Characteristic wit coupled with a disagreeable truth; a classic Hitch technique that can leave many laughing at their own expense.
6) Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes us objects in a cruel experiment, whereby we are created sick, and commanded to be well.
This quote is oft-attributed to Christopher’s own poeticism, however it is in fact derived from Fulke Greville’s Seventeenth-Century tragedy, Mustapha:
Oh wearisome Condition of Humanity!
Born under one law, to another bound:
Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity,
Created sick, commanded to be sound
7) Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.
Christopher’s most (in)famous challenge. “You can’t do it!” he would say, before turning the dare on its head and asking, “Who now can name me an evil statement made or an evil action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer?” And you’ve already thought of one.
8) Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.
To Hitch, not only was the majesty of nature as awe-inspiring and poetic as any ancient scripture, it was more so. Ethics, altruism, and decency have been around far longer than any imagined deities. The process of evolution by means of natural selection is the true origin of these virtues, without the intercession of any Middle Eastern patriarch.
9) If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.
I am certain that Christopher here was not advocating for this to happen. I, too, am made uncomfortable by any suggestion to curtail parental and religious freedoms in the name of secularism (except in extreme cases), however it is an interesting thought experiment. Even the pious routinely admit that their religiosity is very often shaped more by their upbringing than their reason, but unfortunately, by the time a child of religious parents has matured their critical faculties, confirmation bias often prevents them from fully utilising them. As Daniel Dennett succinctly summarised, “There is simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”
10) The four most over-rated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex, and picnics.
You can’t argue with that, folks.
I might well raise a glass of whiskey in Christopher’s honour tonight. I don’t even much like whiskey. Happy birthday, Hitch.