Prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens dies

He never shied away from telling believers exactly what he thought about God, faith and why the world would be better off without both of them.

Essayist and speaker Christopher Hitchens, 62, passed away at a cancer centre in Houston from pneumonia, a complication of his oesophageal cancer.

Following news of his death last night, the devout atheist will most likely be remembered by Christians as an intellectual thorn in the side who not only challenged believers to understand what they believe, but to better argue for it too.

Although Hitchens engaged in various issues during his lifetime, it was his angry disquisitions against God – most notably in his bestseller “God Is Not Great” - that came to be his hallmark.

In his final interview, by close friend and fellow atheist Richard Dawkins for the special Christmas issue of New Statesman, he lost no time in linking the church to the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s.

“The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously," he wrote.

“The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do.”

Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in June last year, but the seriousness of his illness never diminished his sagacious intellect.

In a televised debate against Catholic convert Tony Blair last November, he argued that faith was not a force for good.

Humans were, he said, “Objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and then commanded to be well … and over us to supervise this is a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.”

The headline in the Guardian the following day ran: “Christopher Hitchens 1 – 0 Tony Blair.”

Following his diagnosis, Hitchens told Christians not to trouble “deaf Heaven” with prayers for him, but they couldn’t resist and an “Everybody Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day” was promptly assembled.

Geneticist, theistic evolutionist, committed Christian and another good friend of his, Francis Collins, led the way.

“My prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention,” Collins wrote in the Washington Post. “Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 (“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him”).

Hitchens said he took the prayers “kindly”, but in spite of the knowledge that death was close at hand, he remained adamant that there would be no deathbed conversion.

“If that comes, it will be when I'm very ill, when I'm half demented, either by drugs or pain where I wouldn't have control over what I say,” he told US anchorman Anderson Cooper.

Hitchens mused that some Christians were praying for him to die a “horrible agonising death”. Most Christians however bear no grudges.

Evangelist Krish Kandiah tweeted: “RIP Christopher Hitchens – my condolences to the family.”

Youth magazine editor Martin Saunders wrote: “RIP #christopherhitchens. Fellow Christians, let's treat the man with respect in our tweets today.”

Somewhat fittingly, Dawkins combined his tribute with a stab at God: “Christopher Hitchens, finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.”