Author Christopher Hitchens poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York in this June 7, 2010 file photo. Hitchens, 62, died of complications from esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011
I have struggled to come up with words to memorialize my friend Christopher Hitchens. It occurs to me that were Hitch given such a task, he would quickly produce several pungent paragraphs packed with provocative ideas, erudite literary references, and razor-sharp humor – all composed in perfect sentences. Even in his last weeks of cancer progression — when, as he wrote, “more and more [was] being relentlessly subtracted from less and less” — Christopher maintained the tireless ability to deliver treasures from his own richly-stocked intellectual shop in the marketplace of ideas. He once said to me that he was more afraid of boredom than of death.
Perhaps it seems odd that a physician-scientist who has written about his own conversion to Christianity should become close friends with an avowed atheist whose book subtitle is “how religion poisons everything.” Perhaps that seems particularly strange in Washington, D.C., where even minor differences of philosophy or politics can be grounds for permanent personal animosity.
And certainly my friendship with Hitch did not begin easily. I attended a small dinner function for him after he had debated an unfailingly polite British scientist-Christian about the rationality of faith. In the debate, fueled by the ever present glass of scotch, Hitch’s one-liners had become increasingly outrageous, and he was scoring many points with the audience of university undergraduates. In the aftermath, I thought it would be interesting to engage him on what I thought to be a more serious question – whether it is possible for a strict atheist, who sees all of human behavior as a consequence of evolution, to claim any real status for the concepts of good and evil — or whether these must be considered wholly as artifacts of natural selection, of no real significance. Hitch’s response was explosive, decrying the question as utterly childish – just as a good debater would do. Let’s just say we didn’t shed further light on the matter at that time.
In a later debate about faith with Hitch at a small gathering, I found that his penetrating approach to the topic was an excellent stimulus to sharpening my own thinking about the issues. His knowledge of world religions was truly impressive — he had a much more detailed grasp of the Christian Bible than most Christians do. What he didn’t seem to be able to understand was how a thinking person could be a follower of Jesus. Perhaps I hoped to help with that.
Hitch and I were brought together in a very different way 18 months ago — induced by the diabolical and malignant expansion of renegade cells in Christopher’s esophagus. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (and Hitch was quick to note that there is no stage 5), his prognosis was grim. But advances in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics are happening rapidly now, built upon the advances made possible by the Human Genome Project. I reached out to Hitch and his wife Carol Blue, and thus began an unforgettable series of evening meetings at their apartment near Dupont Circle. I would arrive on my Harley, wine and cheese would appear, and we would discourse about the latest developments in medical research — or perhaps the latest turn in Washington politics. Whenever I had the chance, I would ask Hitch to tell me about some other project he was working on — and out would come tumbling astounding discourses on Orwell, or G.K. Chesterton, or Jefferson. I brought him my own just-published book Belief - a collection of readings from Plato to Pascal to Plantinga on faith and reason – and we agreed that the best entry was from a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many options were considered to identify an approach to Hitch’s cancer that might buy time. At my urging, his tumor cells were analyzed in Boston, but not found to have any of the actionable changes that might suggest specific therapies. But that was just a snapshot — why not the whole picture? Hitch to travelled to St. Louis, where as part of a research project the entire sequence of the genes in his cancer cells was determined by experts in cancer genomics at Washington University. To our surprise and delight, a mutation was identified in a gene that had not previously been associated with esophageal cancer, but suggested the possibility of response to drugs that had recently been developed for leukemia.
The experimental drugs were tried, and may well have provided some benefit – but it is impossible to judge that from a single case. The relentless advance of other complications of his advanced disease, and the need to stop therapy often because of pneumonia, made it hard to judge whether the drugs were working. Hitch soldiered on, never complaining, never wanting his illness to be the topic of conversation if something more interesting could be identified.
Through all of this, we became close friends. He knew I was praying for him, and welcomed that — though he was also quite sure that no one was listening. He never showed any sign of retreating from his own atheist position — in fact, he warned his followers early on that they should reject any suggestion that such weakening of resolve was occurring. But his views seemed to soften toward those of us caught up in what he considered to be a religious delusion, and the hard edge I had seen when we first met gave way to a bemused acceptance. He signed my copy of his new book “from a fellow sinner,” and his e-mails were always signed “Love, Christopher.”
In my last face to face meeting with Christopher, he was clearly weakening. He openly questioned whether it might be time to back away from aggressive therapeutic interventions, as those were clearly costing him a lot. My arm around his bony shoulder, I noted how much of a toll this terrible disease had taken on his body, though his mind burned as bright as ever. Encouraged by his tireless champion Carol, he chose to press on, travelling to Houston for the full court press, rallying once again, continuing to write brilliantly for three more months, and almost convincing us all that he really was indestructible. But the great voice finally fell silent on December 15.
I will miss Christopher. I will miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh out loud. No doubt he now knows the answer to the question of whether there is more to the spirit than just atoms and molecules. I hope he was surprised by the answer. I hope to hear him tell about it someday. He will tell it really well.
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. is director of the National Institutes of Health