It seems entirely possible that Christopher Hitchens will be primarily remembered in America for his public atheism. I suspect Hitchens himself was surprised at how wildly popular God Is Not Great became, giving much-needed voice and ammunition to thousands of godless heathens in the land of the drive-through church.
Yet it’s an inadequate way to remember the man, and not because Hitchens did little more in that book than to lay some tracing paper on the Enlightenment’s best thinkers and draw giddily (though with acidic and often very funny ink), or because—this is not an exaggeration—the American public regards atheists on about the same level as rapists.
The problem is that splitting the atheism away from the body of Hitchens’s work debases it into a kind of rascally parlor trick—“Uncle Christopher, say the mean thing about Mother Teresa again!”—and distracts from the thorny paradox at the heart of Hitchens’s thinking. Which is: While certainly an enemy of superstition and an eager chronicler of the sins and idiocies of the world’s religions, Hitchens was actually a lifelong believer, if strictly in man-made gods. It is impossible to contemplate his prodigious and passionate writing without recognizing that it was always animated by crusades, holy men, and devils.
Indeed, the Hitchens universe was long populated by notions of absolute good and evil, stretching back to his days as a student Trotskyite. This tendency was tempered by a love of literature and the cocoon of irony that writers wrap around themselves. But Hitchens himself spoke of the struggle between the literal and ironic minds, and it is an aptly Hitchensian contradiction that the episode, I think, that created his own brand of fundamentalist was in defense of the ironic mind—in 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for the supposed blasphemy of The Satanic Verses.
The importance of the Rushdie saga on Hitchens’s thinking cannot be overstated. “I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me,” he wrote in his splendid memoir, Hitch-22. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved.” This is of course a functional definition of evil and good. And there were obviously implications for the future, once Hitchens learned that among the Western left, it is entirely possible for well-meaning people, in the name of multicultural “understanding” or “tolerance” of non-Western societies, to overlook and even excuse atrocities and barbarism that would never be acceptable if perpetrated, say, by the Republican Party and its allies.