The reactions to Christopher Hitchens' death have reminded me that I am, even among my fellow nonbelievers, a stranger in a strange land.
My personal "I had no need for that hypothesis" brand of atheism, or agnosticism, or whatever, is important to me to exactly the same degree it was important to Pierre Laplace -- that is, not at all, unless someone with the power to order my head chopped off makes an issue of it. (To be fair to Napoleon, he did nothing of the sort. Modern bloody-minded political leaders could take a lesson from this.) I spend as little time as possible pondering (and pontificating on!) the nonexistence of God, or the Gods, or the Universal Spritual Force Which Holds Everything Together But Which I Don't Want To Call God Because That's Too Conventional, because it does not matter to me. I have science to do.
But then, I was raised by two atheists, an ex-Catholic and an ex-Jew, and they didn't get that luxury. Neither, I strongly suspect, did Hitchens, or any of the other more vocal "New Atheist" leaders -- and neither did the vast majority of the nonbelievers I know. Almost everyone I have ever known, in my entire life, was raised with some sort of religious belief. Most of them retained that belief, or switched over to a closely related one. Some broke away from it, and the use here of the verb "to break" is appropriate. It is a breaking, and like all such violent events, it leaves scars. The ex-believers almost universally have in their minds something very much like the titanium rod I have in my leg; it provides some support against the stresses and strains of the world, but one is always aware that it is there, and sometimes it rubs against other, organic structures in uncomfortable ways.
My father is an immigrant, and although he's lived here for what is now by far the greater portion of his life, he's still sometimes taken aback by some cultural reference which was common to the childhoods of his native-born contemporaries. In a culture which is shaped as deeply by religion, specifically Christianity, as is ours, I sometimes feel like a long-term immigrant too. I may look and talk and for the most part think like the people around me, but there's that common cultural reference point, that history of belief if not the belief itself, that I don't have.
"You don't know what it was like, man! You weren't there!" Indeed. And I don't regret this, because I've seen the scars the breaking leaves. But I do regret that there really is no other way to understand what it feels like, without having to go through the associated pain.
Hitchens was an abrasive, egotistical loudmouth, and the things he was loud about tended to be opionions with which many of my family and friends passionately agreed. For what it's worth, I agreed too, for the most part, but without the passion. Because I just don't have the background -- the Passion of the Atheist, if you will -- to feel it. I have no need for that passion.
This leaves me free to look at the man and his life with the immigrant's eye. If the immigrant's lack of a common cultural reference point comes with a price, it confers advantages as well. My father often makes astute observations about American culture which no native-born citizen, not even one as culturally introspective as I am, could quite come up with. Objectivity helps. And the objective truth is that while Hitchens was right about many small things, he was wrong, badly wrong, about One Big Thing.
Hitchens saw 9/11 as the result not merely of Islamic extremism, but of religion in general -- in which he was right -- and conceived of America's subsequent kill-em-all reaction, specifically the Iraq portion, as a war against religious extremism -- in which he was wrong. Deeply, tragically, bloodily wrong. And he compounded the wrongness by turning his considerable eloquence and wit to propagandizing for the war, often turning against his fellow leftists in the process, growing ever louder as the corpses piled higher.
One Big Thing. And I understand that to my fellow nonbelievers, more specifically to the ex-believers in whose land I-the-immigrant live, the small things were not small. Hitchens wrote for decades against Yahweh, after all, and for only a few years in the service of Mars. But for myself, while I have no need of the Yahweh hypothesis, I know Mars quite well. Bright-speared Mars, and Odin who stirs up wars among men, and Morrigan who sends her ravens to feed on the dead -- these Gods I know; and Hitchens preached their gospel. To others, this may well be a minor heresy. So be it. It is a sin I find myself unwilling to forgive.