What happens to an atheist when he dies?
No one can answer that question with certainty, as any response requires the kind of faith emphatically rejected by Christopher Hitchens, who has died at the age of 62. However, we can and should reflect on how this extraordinary author, intellectual and provocateur faced death before he died.
Hitchens' thoughts about his own death, and death in general, deserve respect. His fierce atheism was determined to yank our thoughts away from any future place and time after we die, back to the world that is present to us in this very moment. Take, for example, this arresting passage written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali* from the book Hitchens edited called The Portable Atheist:
Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.
This emphasis on the present may feel incomplete to some. But concentrating on what we know -- our own experiences, senses and rational mind -- does not, in fact create a void; rather, it fills these precious moments that we have on earth with intensity, urgency and inherent meaning. An atheist perspective on the afterlife eliminates the option of patient endurance in hopes of rewards in the sweet by and by; rather, it insists that any hopes and desires must be realized in this life, or not at all.
Hitchens' approach to death also demonstrated the value he placed on rationality and the life of the mind. Christopher Hitchens represented the tradition of the public intellectual and his contributions that will endure are his writing, speaking and wit. He famously declared that if he were to have any sort of conversion experience in his final days that it wouldn't be him, but instead a "demented and drug ridden" version of himself.
It may be the atheist's fierce trust in the rational capabilities of the intellect that is least appreciated by religious people, most of whom recognize additional avenues of inspiration and knowledge. Yet, here too, Hitchens' consistency should be admired. Hitchens wanted his approach to death to flow out of the convictions he held in life. His approach to death was to insist that the fabric of his life was to be of one piece. The idea of a bedside conversion represented a renting and denial of the rest of his life. Instead, whether one agrees with him or not, he died with integrity.
Perhaps the most universally understandable approach to death represented by Hitchens was his love and appreciation for his children. According to his own writing in Hitch-22, if he was to live on in any way it would be through them:
To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase 'terrible beauty.' Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it's a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away.
This last line is humorous and poignant, viewing death as an obligation necessary to liberate one's children, and to make room for the next generation. To feel that his heart was "running around inside someone else's body," was probably the closest that Hitchens came to life after death.
A couple of years ago I visited my cousin Richard Rorty, another famously secular humanist philosopher who was dying from pancreatic cancer. Out of curiosity rather than evangelistic fervor, I asked my cousin if he was having any thoughts about God or religion now that he was so immediately confronted with his mortality. Less vehement in his atheism than Hitchens, Rorty gently rebuked me saying: "Paul, you can't be in love with something you aren't in love with."
I then asked him about philosophy, and what it had to say about death. As one of America's most influential, and controversial philosophers of the late 20th century, Rorty replied emphatically: "Philosophy has nothing to say about death. Only poetry. I wish I had memorized more poetry." And then he recited sad, beautiful and enduring poetry to his son Jay and me, as we listened and learned.
When an atheist dies it is wrong to wonder what is happening to them now that they are dead. Instead we might consider whether they lived well while alive. Had we been able to ask that one question to Christopher Hitchens as he died, it seems he would have answered that he had.
How will we answer that question at the hour of our own death?
*The post has been updated to make clear that it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote the passage quoted in The Portable Atheist.