By: Christopher Hitchens
I am (obviously) late to the game on Christopher Hitchens. Although I was aware of his stature as an antitheist, such postures have never really interested me. I largely ignored him until a friend recommended his book Letters to a Young Contrarian. Not knowing what to expect, and admittedly perturbed by the cover image of a middle-aged man trying too hard to pose with a cigarette (the original inspiration of "Sparrow Face"?), I was happily surprised by what was inside when I finally cracked the pages and began to read.
Hitchens wields the English language like a duelist an épée, parrying and thrusting at the stagnant attitudes of modernity with such eloquence that it is easy to forget how difficult such mastery is. Until, that is, you find yourself scrambling for a dictionary to look up an obscure term or reference the author makes seemingly in passing. If some narcissism is necessarily present in a book of advice from one's self to an imaginary protege, at least Hitchens has the CV to back it up. More than a journalist, Christopher Hitchens was a public intellectual who rubbed shoulders with presidents, dissidents, revolutionaries, and academics alike, authoring 30 books before his death in 2011 at the age of 62.
Letters to a Young Contrarian poses as a collection of correspondence between Hitchens the sage and an aspiring reader who wants to make a change in the world. As a left-leaning humanist, he points out flaws in religion, society, politics, and , nationalism and calls readers to embrace the role of misfit in order to create a better tomorrow. The book is valuable for its critiques, and Hitchens does a good job of calling awareness to cognitive dissonance that many readers likely experience subconsciously, but have not felt permission to address head on.
That being said, when he addresses a topic I know something about (religion), I find his critiques are valid against poor, even mainstream, ideas, but do little to strike at the deeply rooted heritage of the traditions he opposes. For example, he rightly calls the popular Christian notion of heaven as a "state of endless praise and gratitude and adoration" a "vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability" (25), but seems unaware that these beliefs are best categorized, shelved, and forgotten as pop theology and have little to do with the rich theological tradition which emphasizes the future state of humanity as a new creation—Earth renewed, with work, play, and relationships providing meaningful pursuits (see N.T. Wright for more on this). In another place, he critiques the religious for the arrogance of claiming to know what the Supreme Being desires, claiming that they assume the conclusion from the beginning, while begging the question himself regarding the impossibility of divine revelation (57). It seems fair to state that both believer and unbeliever stand on equal footing in this regard. When Hitchens states that divine revelation "degrades the whole concept of the free intelligence" of humanity, I find his argument utterly unconvincing by his own logic. As the book concludes, he writes that the next epoch of human history "is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the 'globalisation' of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics." Theologians like Jurgen Moltmann agree, but characterize the impetus for change as the Divine drawing humanity towards the Divine Self. That is to say, Divine revelation for humanity is no more a degradation of free intelligence than the nurturing presence of a parent is to a child. Hitchens would do well to heed his own advice to avoid "the narcissism of the small difference" (59), and instead, work together with likeminded people of faith to advance "the immense discoveries about our own nature" that remain to be found (108).
Criticisms aside, Letters to a Young Contrarian is a refreshing, witty, thought-provoking book that should be on your reading list this summer. If you have questions or comments as you read, leave a comment below!