Affected by an Atheist: How Hitch Changed Me

It was 2007 and I stood amongst a long line of others at the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) conference, waiting with breathless anticipation to have Christopher Hitchens sign my copy of God Is Not Great.

Before me was a man who had helped me find my own expressions of strength and doubt about religion and atheism. But as I inched closer to him with each step, by the time my turn was up, I had forgotten everything I wanted to say. He gently pulled the book from my hands, and I blurted out “I’m a big fan!” Hitch paused, and looking up at me from over the rim of his glasses, asked “Do you know the root for the word ‘fan’?” My scrambled brain kicked in gear—and I said, “Fanatic.” He replied, “Correct, I don’t want fanatics. So next time you come see me, come with a great question instead.”

Abashed, but not quite embarrassed enough to run and hide, I asked for a picture. He kindly agreed.

That was my first personal encounter with a living legend in the nontheistic community. But he was so much more. Hitch was a lightning rod for controversy because he was not a liberal—he was a conservative and supported the Iraq war. A fact that caused many attendees of the FFRF conference to protest his appearance.

What made Hitch an inspiration and a role model for me were not so much his debates with religious leaders and politicians or his particular views, but his astounding breadth of knowledge, vocabulary, and ability to use words—written and orally—to eviscerate an opponent or convey the most intimate moments of life. Hitch never backed down and he rarely had cause. He did his research; he knew what he was talking about; and he backed up everything he said with facts, prose, poetry, and personal stories.

The second and final time I had a personal encounter with Christopher Hitchens was this past October at the joint Texas Freethought and Atheist Alliance for America Convention. Hitch made a rare appearance to accept an award and spoke for several minutes. Then graciously, along with his friend (and another nontheistic leader) Richard Dawkins, took questions from the audience.

I was ready this time to ask a “great question”—I hoped. When it was my turn to ask my question, I was able to share the story of the first time I met Hitch—with him and the entire audience. It was a wonderful moment for me to share with others how he had been so gracious—and a bit stern—to a wide-eyed kid. Then I asked him about how religion and the nontheistic movement could be better to women. And Hitch was Hitch—I received a wonderful answer about how and why religion has such an effect on women to their detriment.

That evening no one wanted to leave, it seemed—especially Hitch. When the evening came to a close, Hitch met with a young girl to provide her with a list of books he recommended she should read. That was one of his greatest gifts—his generosity; encouraging people to think for themselves.

This is the Hitch I will remember: the unparalleled intelligence, effortless wit, and countless kindnesses to everyday people who drew inspiration and strength from his words and actions.

Thank you, Mr. Hitchens, thank you.

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Beautifully written! As a former Orthodox Jew, once I became an atheist, Hitchens writings put everything I already thought into perfect order. It was almost as if it were "devine". I had just finished reading God is not great, and the day after Hitchens was dead. I had no idea he was even sick. It was a very difficult day for me. The first time I had to deal with death as an atheist, and all on my own. But either way.. I am very happy to have known him through his writings. He is the John Lennon of writing.
I was in Texas as well and I knew right then and there that it would be his last appearance - I was devastated but elating at the same time since I didn't expect to hear his voice that I thought was already lost. I remember your question....I also loved his answer, but I love most of them. I stood right behind the little girl outside and was therefore very close to him which showed the effects of his illness even more clearly. I was very happy to have been in his presence at least this one time. Sure I am grateful for all the great works he left behind but we should have had at least 20 more years with him and so much more wisdom would have come out of this wonderful man. "Thank you" doesn't even begin to describe the gratitude I feel for Hitchens...I feel the world is a lot less interesting without him.
This is a nicely written piece. I am glad you were able to meet him. Unfortunately, I will now never be able to meet the man. I will have to get to know him better through the writings of his I have not read. Thanks for sharing your experience with him. The world is short one great man...
Mr. Hitchens' death saddens me in a most profound way. I never had the pleasure of meeting him in person, but I have respected him for years, for all the reasons Amanda listed, and remain forever grateful for his influence in my life. A great mind and an even greater human being has departed this life, leaving a emptiness not easily filled. I feel certain I am not alone in my sadness, and I wish peace and contentment for his family and friends in the difficult days ahead, as they contend with their personal loss.
I'm not sure I'd say that Hitchens was a "conservative" even though he supported the war in Iraq; by his own words he supported the war for his own liberal reasons. Combine that with his blunt words for the conservative leadership and it seems clear that he played no favorites among either party -- which makes him hard to classify and breaks him from the traditional Left/Right molds we wish to apply to people.

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