WASHINGTON -- Christopher Hitchens -- bald from cancer treatments, speaking between doctor's appointments -- has a special disdain for deathbed religious conversions. Appearing before a group of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, he criticized the pressures put on Tom Paine to embrace Christianity and the malicious rumors of faith that followed Charles Darwin's demise. "I've already thought about this a great deal, thanks all the same," he explained. The idea "that you may be terrified" is no reason to "abandon the principles of a lifetime."
At this event -- a joint appearance with his brother Peter, a Christian -- Hitchens applied those principles with typical vigor. His arguments on the political dangers of religion are strong. In Turkey or Russia, he notes, "'faith-based' is not a preface to something positive." In Iraq or Iran, a "secular" ruler would be cause for celebration. The alliance of faith and power is often unholy.
But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.
The best answer that Christopher Hitchens can offer to this ethical objection is himself. He is a sort of living refutation -- an atheist who is also a moralist. His politics are defined by a hatred of bullies, whether Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or the mullahs in Iran. His affections are reserved for underdogs, from the Kurds to Salman Rushdie. The dreams of totalitarians are his nightmares -- what W.H. Auden described as: "A million eyes, a million boots in line / Without expression, waiting for a sign." Even Hitchens' opposition to God seems less of a theological argument than a revolt against celestial tyranny.
All this fire and bleeding passion would seem to require a moral law, even a holy law. But Hitchens produces outrage, empathy and solidarity without it.