I was moved by the death of a countryman, Christopher Hitchens, last week. I am not a big fan of swagger, whether physical, moral, or rhetorical--and from where I sat, not knowing him personally, Hitchens had them all and made a very public practice of them. He was, in debate, something of a bully, cocksure, intolerant of the opinions of those who disagreed with him. Some interpret this as laudable strength and conviction, and deplore the lack of it in those who tend more to listen well and include the views of others in their thinking. I see it rather as a cover-up for a deep inner insecurity and doubt. Whichever is true, it grieves me that a man of formidable intelligence--and one who contributed to the national dialogue with verve, insight and humor--should have died at so young an age.
What interests more above everything else is his virulent and outspoken atheism. I, too, am an atheist. I do not believe in any of the gods our species has invented over these past many centuries, not even the One God most of us seem to have arrived at in our present culture--though there is disagreement, obviously, over which One is the True One. Still, I remain uncomfortable with the certainty of disbelievers. Only death itself will bring any clarity about what reality, if any, exists beyond this life; and death is the ultimate problem that all religions seek ultimately to address. There must, we humans long to believe, be more to it than this brief life we're given to lead on earth.
I arrived at something of a breakthrough in my own thinking yesterday, and wrote about it in The Buddha Diaries. Earlier in the day, before our weekly sit in sangha, I had been reading the New York Times piece about Hitchens and his atheism by the Roman Catholic conservative columnist Ross Douthat. "When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-uptopian happy talk," he wrote, "rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin's poem, 'Aubade’--that 'death is no different whined at than withstood.’"
I disagree with both of them. It's not merely a belief in God that justifies "every human hope and endeavor." We can still strive to better ourselves and our common condition with other beings without the expectation of eternal reward. Is that not the essence of “hope” and “endeavor”? And, Larkin notwithstanding, there is an alternative to either whining at death or, in the words of his fellow poet, Dylan Thomas, to opting for the other path: to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” As we can choose to learn from the wisdom of the Buddha, if we’re willing to put in the work it takes it’s equally possible to find a place in our heart where we can address death calmly, with equanimity, and to prepare for it as the ultimate experience of life—the next adventure. But this is not belief. It’s practice. I cannot claim to have reached that point in my own life yet, but I’m working at it.
Is it possible, I wonder, that the deep insecurity Hitchens chose to convert into swagger was hidden precisely in the swaggering atheism he chose so loudly to preach?