Features

March/ April 2012 Heaven Can Wait

Was I wrong about the afterlife? No.

By Christopher Hitchens, as told to Art Levine

At the end, the manner of my “passing,” as the pious so delicately refer to death, was as much a disappointment to the dewy-eyed acolytes of god-worship as it was to me, although for rather different reasons. For more than a year after I publicly announced in June 2010 that I would begin chemotherapy for esophageal cancer, the stupidest of the faithful either gloated on their subliterate Web sites that my illness was a sign of “God’s revenge” for having blasphemed their Lord and Master, or prayed that I would abandon my contempt for their nonsensical beliefs by undergoing a deathbed conversion. The vulgarity of the idea that a vengeful deity would somehow stoop to inflicting a cancer on me still boggles the mind, especially in the face of the ready explanation supplied for my illness by my long, happy, and prodigious career as a smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spirits.

As for that longed-for conversion, it never came, despite the fervent wishes of such clerical mountebanks as the Reverend Rick Warren. Said reverend, who portrayed himself as my “friend” while consigning homosexuals and nonbelievers to one of Dante’s outer circles of Hell, proclaimed with the arrogant surety of the devout: “I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.” Indeed I do, and much better than he. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, for his part, did not fail to use my death as an opportunity to stoke the fear of damnation among the credulous. Having somehow managed to evolve the thumbs needed to “tweet” his followers on his BlackBerry, he declared that my end—as if death were not a natural process common to all mammals—was “an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief,” while observing with the religionist’s usual condescension that my “brilliance & eloquence” will not matter “in the world to come.”

How would he know?

What was clear enough before my death was that visions of an afterlife were no more verifiable than any other bedtime tales designed to offer false hope to toddlers frightened of the dark. They are the ultimate embodiment of the solipsism at the heart of all religions. This infantilizing fiction comes in various guises, from orthodox religions with their fabricated consolations of fairytale heavens—whether it is the Islamic fanatic’s seventy-two celestial virgins or the Christian fantasia of winged angels—to the modern pseudoscientific “research” into so-called near-death experiences (known with ridiculous technicality as NDEs). These hallucinatory claims, originally popularized by a Dr. Raymond Moody for Me Generation readers of the 1970s, rest on numerous banal and repetitive testimonials about floating above one’s body, hurtling through a tunnel toward a bright light, vividly reviewing episodes from one’s past as if watching a holiday slide show, and encountering various beings lit up with an unearthly glow. These latter apparitions can range from one’s surprisingly youthful-looking relatives to an omniscient spiritual guide, including the ubiquitous Jesus if you’re a Christian, not-so-coincidentally matching your own faith or lack thereof.

There’s nothing in these visionary tall tales that can’t be either simply explained through an understanding of basic science or discounted as the unprovable “revelations” of individuals with no legitimate claim on our belief. That was my position before I experienced my own peculiar hallucinations after death, and I have seen no evidence since then requiring me to recant my position. Was I wrong on the afterlife, as so many among the bien-pensant brayed for me to admit that I was wrong on Iraq? Plainly, no.

As the psychologist Susan Blackmore has persuasively shown, the near-death experience is a product of the dying brain and shaped by the individual’s cultural expectations. The temporal lobe is especially prone to inducing hallucinations, memory flashbacks, and other visions after death when undergoing anoxia, or oxygen deprivation. In concordance with this understanding, virtually every one of the phenomena I experienced after my own death has a clear-cut neurological or biological cause or an obvious cultural antecedent. As Blackmore wrote recently in the Guardian, “If human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned.”

Yes, in the final moments of my mortal denouement I did feel “myself” floating above my body. But that was just the first of a commonplace series of interrelated hallucinations that bore a notable resemblance to the visual effects of the LSD I tried one summer evening in 1968 at Oxford—except that these recent hallucinations were, if anything, rather less life-altering. Of course, by this time in my hospital room, there was no “life” to alter, but I have never wavered in holding on to core truths in the absence of contravening evidence.

There was no “tunnel,” and no vividly bright light that I moved toward, and whatever euphoria I experienced was as transient as the buzz from polishing off a few bottles of wine with dear Martin in the cafés of Monmartre. Yes, there appeared to be a passageway leading to something a bit brighter than the total darkness that I expected, but I experienced this for what it was: a well-known epiphenomenon of oxygen depletion in the dying retina.

If the scenes from my past that subsequently paraded before my view were especially vivid and, indeed, somewhat affecting, it cannot have been coincidental that I had only recently spent time finalizing the paperback edition of my memoir, Hitch-22, with a new foreword reflecting on my then-imminent death. And as one would expect, given my intellectual predilections, there was no angelic being or robed dime-store Jesus to greet me as my near-death experience quickly progressed into what might be termed my death experience (DE). Instead, as my hallucinatory journey continued, I was greeted warmly by the predictable neural holograms of Tom Paine, Voltaire, and George Orwell, who all bore a striking resemblance to their paintings, or, in Orwell’s case, to the penetrating photo of him on the cover of my book Why Orwell Matters. Not for a moment did I believe they were “real.” Even so, Orwell, never one to tolerate cant of any kind, furthered my resolve: “This is all a delusion, my dear boy, but enjoy it while you can.”

Christopher Hitchens, as told to Art Levine . Levine is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and a longtime admirer of the work of Christopher Hitchens.

Comments

  • Granite Sentry on March 13, 2012 10:50 PM:

    Brilliant. It's Hitchens all the way, from his withering rhetoric to his invincible faith in his own point of view come what may. He lives! (Despite himself.)

  • David Scott Lewis on March 14, 2012 2:22 AM:

    Nice touch, but putting himself in the same league as "Hume, Voltaire, Paine, Orwell, Mencken" is stretching things more than just a bit.

  • Adwaith on March 14, 2012 2:26 AM:

    @Art Levine: This piece made my day.loved it

  • eero.iloniemi on March 14, 2012 3:32 AM:

    I don't know. Riding on the coattails of a dead man, even if you share his views... Seems a bit tasteless.

  • Jim on March 14, 2012 4:00 AM:

    Alas, not a sentence in this piece approaches Hitchens' style. Clichés ("bore a notable resemblance") and flat turns of phrase ("smoker of cigarettes and drinker of spirits") in place of Hitch's fresh and expressive use of English. Nice try, I s'pose.

  • Addison H. Hart on March 14, 2012 7:58 AM:

    I found this hilarious. Christopher Hitchens is dead, and damn if he isn't still at it, telling us that he's not having an afterlife at all. I guess we've not heard the last of him even yet. I fully expect, perhaps a month or two from now, to read that some psychic medium in, say, Newark or Nottingham, has just transcribed an op ed piece from his ghost, once again letting us know that he's really and truly dead (as in kaput and utterly nonexistent), and that there's no life after death, and no "god", and so on. The incorrigible chatterbox...

    As for Susan Blackmore's remark (“If human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned.”), she has clearly overstepped the line by suggesting that neuroscience really has any capacity to say whether or not consciousness can or cannot "leave the body". She doesn't know that. She assumes it, like a good materialist. And it's just possible that indeed "everything we know in neuroscience" -- which is damned little really -- "has to be questioned".

  • nitpicker on March 14, 2012 8:27 AM:

    Coattails? Please. This is funny.

  • martin on March 14, 2012 8:51 AM:

    Judging from the illustration, he got back his hair from 30 years ago and shed a few pounds, so the afterlife can't be all bad.

  • shipspassing on March 14, 2012 9:03 AM:

    Nice long parody.

  • Paige Belle on March 14, 2012 9:55 AM:

    The only good thing about this piece is that the prose style here is so bad and the argument so brutally crude that it makes one appreciate Hitchens the writer even more. I always thought Hitchens fairly overrated as a writer, and certainly he was anything but a deep or coherent thinker (his mind had all the precision of a sawed-off shotgun with two bent barrels aiming in different directions). But he never produced amateurish trash like this.

    Anyway, the sheer sleaziness of writing something like this, with Hitchens barely cold in the ground, just to enjoy the parasite's pleasure of feeding off another's substance, speaks for itself.

    By the way, dear Susan Blackmore, as a neuroscientist myself, I assure you that all we know about the relation between neural activity and consciousness could fit comfortably in a thimble. We know some things about the mechanical workings of the brain in relation to perception and motor movement, but the real problems of consciousness--qualia, representation, intention, etc.--are so far beyond anything we can even begin to imagine how to address that the hypothesis of an immortal soul is at least as plausible as your silly meme-theory.

  • James on March 14, 2012 10:34 AM:

    Yes, it does make you pine for the real Hitchens. The prose here isn't really much of a parody or copy of his style. That said, one would have to be quite a writer to pull THAT off... I think the best one you can say overall is that this is just a lame old joke, one told many times, just as lumberingly, while the man was still alive. Hard to see the point of it now.

  • Steve on March 14, 2012 10:51 AM:

    Nothing new here, and certainly nothing remotely illuminating. Vastly superior intellects such as Anthony Flew have indeed experienced genuine, deeply reasoned conversions from atheism to theism. Acting as though such an event is silly or ridiculous reflects entirely and solely on the uniform intellectual vacuity of the crowd Hitchens played like a fiddle.

  • Kevin on March 14, 2012 11:24 AM:

    Paige Belle:

    Brava! Excellently put, and to which I have little to add, except that the meme idea is not even really Blackmore's. It derives from her schoolgirl crush on Richard Dawkins. Blackmore the sheep was actually far more of a "bright" than Blackmore the goat--not that that says a great deal.

  • The Sanity Inspector on March 14, 2012 11:54 AM:

    Okay, so it doesn't sound exactly like Hitchens. Who ever could? At least Mr. Levin isn't making a career of mimicry, as R. Emmett Tyrell has done with H. L. Mencken. Fine job, good points, and a fun read--well done!

  • Steve F on March 14, 2012 1:15 PM:

    My vote is that you didn't get close.

  • Peter Sibley on March 14, 2012 3:31 PM:

    This is obscene.

  • Matt on March 14, 2012 4:57 PM:

    In fairness to Hitchens, he would have argued for Levine's right to do exactly this.

    In further fairness to Hitchens, he also would have specifically exempted himself from the list of legitimate targets of criticism or parody, on the grounds that the stubborn fact of his correctness and supremacy trumped any conceivable "right," and that anyone who couldn't see that didn't deserve to be considered a sentient human being, much less a writer.

  • Brendan on March 14, 2012 7:49 PM:

    About as good of an attempt to capture hitch as anyone could.

  • Mr Gee on March 14, 2012 8:09 PM:

    @Steve The tenor of this piece is that it's ridiculous that Hitchens would have a death-bed conversion triggered by fear or an "NDE" and that he would actually experience an after-life as ordained by God. You mention Anthony Flew, which changed his position from atheist to deist, i.e. the broadest definition of theism. His position merely supposes there is a creator who, after the act of creation, no longer interacts with it ("an inoffensive inactive god"). Certainly not in the way the Abrahamic theists believe happens at any rate. Flew's position of deism makes no claims of an after-life or fear of eternal punishment; so for you to invoke his authority as a defence for the ideas mocked in this piece is nonsensical and irrelevant.

  • Vitalic on March 15, 2012 12:22 AM:

    @Paige Belle, the dislike of Hitchens/Dawkins in your post is striking, perhaps you could reveal the source of this dislike. If you really are a neuroscientist then I cannot imagine you are religiously orientated, so I'm going to have a guess and suggest you are the "believe in belief" type that thinks the new atheist movement is "strident" and "militant". To say that the current knowledge in neuroscience and science generally doesn't make the possibility of consciousness existing outside of the physical body extremely unlikely is utterly absurd. Two words: brain damage. As Sam Harris once said "And, what we're being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another; and yet more is lost. And yet, if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties, recognizing grandma and speaking English."

  • Steve P on March 15, 2012 2:05 AM:

    Got the humourlessness down cold.
    And the name-dropping: "Why Orwell (or Paine), er, I matter".

  • Tom on March 15, 2012 5:25 AM:

    This isn't just tasteless, it's bad taste. Hitchens argued his point of view well enough while he was alive, and those interested can easily enjoy it. The man is dead. Let him rest.

  • HowieV on March 15, 2012 6:26 AM:

    I enjoyed this immensely. Hitchens would get a laugh out of it too, write an acerbic and incisive response placing himself, as ever and of course, on top of the metaphorical christmas tree. I'll miss his wit.

  • Pottering on March 15, 2012 6:28 AM:

    You've missed the point Tom. He's not resting, he's actually dead and no amount of articles can tire him!

  • Shopen on March 15, 2012 9:44 AM:

    really really enjoyed this. Thank you. A moment even imagining this man is still talking to us is a shining moment indeed.

  • Anonymous on March 15, 2012 10:00 AM:

    Bravo! Brilliant.

  • Jo Jo on March 15, 2012 10:28 AM:

    The complaints about NDE's and annoying Christians, per usual singled out among all faiths, are true enough. Also per usual, ad hominem pokes it's head out and ends up stealing the show. Lastly, per usual, the historical nature of Judeo-Christian faith which stands apart from every religion I've ever heard, is lumped together with every other cave dwelling philosopher who conveys his inflated sense of self knowledge through proclaiming universal truths.

    Christianity is based on historical facts over the ages, on which it stands or falls, to be tested. The resurrection of Christ as the ultimate. The testing of which are reasonable to anyone, unlike the testing of the claims of this article 'here's what happened to me after I died, and take it from me it can't happen'.

  • Mark D on March 15, 2012 10:57 AM:

    "Christianity is based on historical facts over the ages ..."
    Jo Jo

    Not sure if that was snark. If so, well done!

    If not, well ... in what reality would the above claim be true?

    Because in this one, Christianity is based on often poorly translated passages that were originally written by a bunch of bronze-age "cave dwelling philosophers who conveyed their inflated sense of self knowledge through proclaiming universal truths."

    Sorry, but trying to act as if your particular belief is based on empirical evidence is a delusion. An amusing one, but one nonetheless.

  • Eternal student on March 15, 2012 12:44 PM:

    Solipsistically speaking, I enjoyed it.

  • Eternal student on March 15, 2012 12:46 PM:

    Solipsistically speaking, I enjoyed it.

  • Dead Parrot on March 15, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Bereft of life, he has joined the choir invisible and nonexistent.


  • Glad2bgodless on March 15, 2012 1:20 PM:

    In bad taste, self-indulgent, unfunny, and entirely pointless.

    What's next, a Kirk Cameron "interview" with the recently-deceased Hitchens, in which Hitch recants everything and begs for a drop of water?

  • Sean P on March 15, 2012 1:43 PM:

    Hitchens couldn't have said it better himself.

  • Joe Schwartz on March 15, 2012 5:29 PM:

    Bravo, bravo. I could hear him reading every word, slurring a little and dropping his barratone as he came to the end.

  • Batman on March 15, 2012 6:51 PM:

    God, he cannot even DIE without being a fucking asshole.

  • Henry on March 15, 2012 9:31 PM:

    The man died. Wee moved on (wasn't hard). Life was good. Now this crap. Spare us, OK?

  • shuckster on March 15, 2012 10:01 PM:

    Well, I liked it.

  • TomOnKeys on March 15, 2012 10:20 PM:

    Great job. I give you credit for attempting this... Of course it's impossible to replicate exactly what Hitch would say, but I think you caught the spirit of the man. Most people would be intimidated to try to imitate the man's writing style. I too agree that he would not have cast himself with the historical figures he (you) mentions in the piece, but I think its an appropriate liberty for to have taken. Most importantly, it's a good read!

  • Geo Beach on March 15, 2012 11:52 PM:

    Upon death, Christopher Hitchens greeted by Orwell. Hitchens didn’t believe his eyes. “This is all a delusion, my dear boy,” Orwell told him, “but enjoy it while you can”...

    Well, rot? / Well-wrought!

    ...Don’t believe a word of it.


    Compare with the marvelous THE LAND OF LATER ON by Anthony Weller:

    Not surprisingly, travelers are anxious about this stage. Will it hurt? Well, no. Will it take long? Nope; a swath of infinite blackness, then you're through to the other side in one enormous exhalation. But because everybody's minds are filled with claptrap from those who've had "near-death" experiences, they're expecting a modernist corridor straight out of a cylindrical 1960s spaceship, with blinding lights and welcoming hazy figures.

    It's not like this. One moment you're alive... the next moment you've arrived. Ther's no corridor, no turnstile, no Checkpoint Eternity. You know exactly what's happened. You're not beset by doubts or jet lag.

    And when your subconsious grasps the inevitable, you do relax. You know, with every inch of your being, that nothing can be done anymore

    ...

    He poured us coffee into black mugs...

    "You haven't told me your name," I said

    "Walt. Walt Whitman."

    In the ensuing silence I finally said, "I don't believe you."

    "Everybody's got to be somewhere."

    As if that explained it. "Why here?"


    ......You'll know soon enough.

  • Win Dizzler on March 16, 2012 8:53 AM:

    That was great! I think Hitchens would have appreciated it.

    And so, Hitchens has achieved a true form of immortality. We can all hope for as much.

  • Becky on March 16, 2012 2:39 PM:

    I too enjoyed it and think that Hitch would have approved (although he might be inclined to make a few niggly corrections here or there). How I miss him! Damn him for dying! Well, I don't believe in damnation so perhaps I should rephrase.... I say, old boy, it is really rather annoying that you've gone and kicked the bucket. We needed you!

  • Smith on March 16, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Staggeringly sharp. Embarrassingly cogent, revealing inadequacy in the reader. The Hitch is dead. Long live the Hitch.

  • Mattmark on March 16, 2012 8:46 PM:

    I've never heard mention of the link between inner bright lights and retinal oxygen depletion before. Bummer. Now when the time comes I won't even derive benefit from the illusion. Instead, I'll realize I'm encountering one final bit of evidence that it's curtains.

  • spiritor on March 16, 2012 9:35 PM:

    Where is he supposed to be writing this from if there's no afterlife. Hard to get past that.

  • Mattmark on March 16, 2012 10:23 PM:

    The "apparent duration and persistence of these hallucinations" part is easily enough explained. We cannot experience our own death in the sense of getting beyond it to look back on it, notwithstanding the fact that, in dying, we must come to a final moment. As far as we're concerned, from our 'subjective viewpoint' (the only one available to us), this 'final moment' endures indefinitely, literally occupying 'all the time there is.' Objectively, it ceases, but we can never experience its cessation.

  • personne on March 17, 2012 8:20 PM:

    Boring.

  • icapricorn on March 18, 2012 10:56 AM:

    Bravo, Art Levine. Bravo this wonderful "Christopher Hitchens" confection.

  • adult on March 18, 2012 10:47 PM:

    My sister died in my arms. To say that this l'il bit of cleverness is staggeringly childish, given the gravitas of death, is an understatement times Pi. Enough said.

  • Red Bore on March 19, 2012 12:47 AM:

    Kind of brilliant. Here, Hitchens has entered the only afterlife he actually believed in, peopled by Orwell and Paine and Mencken--why else would mantra-like name dropping become a pardodyable keystone of his style? He wanted to broaden their immortality and
    launch himself alongside them. Well, he's done it. Hitch is
    dead and still writing from the grave. His character just as real to us as the character of Jesus. It makes me wonder if he honed his irreverent public persona with this in mind, knowing that the particular character traits he chose to emphasize were instantly recognizable and reproducible and somehow suited for our times. If he were born in a different country, maybe in an earlier era, he would have probably been shot mid-career, or exiled, or disappeared. The experience may have propelled him into inspiration or writerly immortality. But he was born when and where he was born, on the most prosperous hemisphere in the most prosperous time our species has experienced, so he had create a man-against-God struggle during his career that was worthy of canonization because of its expression of present-day anxiety about death. Doesn't his argumentation always have a trace of the immature? Boylike at times. I imagine him sometimes playing soldiers with rhetoric. But his last battle skirmish, that wasn't play. He sat us by his deathbed and made us watch him squirm, proudly, locking us in with lashing wit and defiance. He wouldn't let us leave the room. He bore all, leaving himself no privacy--or so it seemed. And now he's dead. But has he actually risen again?

    Let's say he did believe in writerly immortality and that a writer lives on through his work--a character is created to embody the writer in the afterlife. Can we accept this? Does some semblance of his soul live on in the parody we just read? Or is there nothing of him that lives beyond his last breath? If he does have an afterlife, how vulnerable is it to our interjections? If there's enough damage to his legacy, does his over-dead form shift. If we eliminate all traces of his writing, his legacy, does he die anew--this time for eternity?

    I think the short answer is that Hitch has made it. But what about us?

  • Michael on March 20, 2012 3:42 PM:

    If Hitchens could come back and read this, I'm sure he would have the good manners to smile and pay Mr. Levine thanks for his admiration and effort. I enjoyed this the same way I enjoy the occasional "Diary" in Vanity Fair. The harsh criticism in this comment thread is not necessary.

  • Loup de Loup on March 24, 2012 9:09 AM:

    Hitchin a ride into eternity...

  • steve on March 24, 2012 10:23 PM:

    Non-sensible at best. Let's write an article about the supposed afterlife of a man who didn't believe in an afterlife and the God of it. If Hitchens was correct, the article would be blank because he would have poofed into nothingness since there's nothing after death.

    The article existence itself is contradictory to Hitchens' belief system.

  • Stanley Moorcroft on April 01, 2012 12:09 PM:

    Wonderful, love the moving 'from NDE to DE Death experience.' Bravo, made my Sunday.

    Check out http://alextalbot.blogspot.co.uk/ dedicated to Christopher

  • Ange- on April 12, 2012 11:44 PM:

    This made me miss CH so much! It succeeds in making this point: hypocrisy is eternal. Levin is not trying to sound like Hitchens, so chill people...but this works on another level and that is we need shine a light on the self-righteous who somehow believe that being right makes them superior when the biggest joke on all of us is that we are all equally ignorant--as dumb and blind as the worms that will munch away on us after we all croak/die/cease to breathe/have a d/e.

  • Don Polly on April 18, 2012 6:16 AM:

    Hitchens WAS wrong about Iraq. He's still batting eight-hundred something.

  • IT Support on April 20, 2012 2:37 AM:

    Perplexing where the commentary on the spiritual and the afterlife comes from, having no solid source for the discussion. It support the concept of making ideas of creative discussion

  • Carson Spratt on April 24, 2012 9:29 PM:

    "I suspect, however, that it is only a matter of time before some New Age or Christian publishing huckster sees the lucre to be made by publishing the spurious recantations of dead atheists and freethinkers."

    Spurious reaffirmations are much better, though - if you can pull it off without anyone noticing.

  • Morris Newman on May 14, 2012 11:42 AM:

    So, let's get this straight: Death is an illusion, but essay writing is reality? I must have missed something. And if anybody thinks this tin-eared imitation of Hitchens is a success, they should go back and read a couple sentences from the original to see how bad this is. Worst of all, Orwell in heaven addressing Hitchens as "dear boy"? Makes me want to throw up.

  • chris stefanick on June 15, 2012 10:53 AM:

    As empty, hollow, and incapable of giving anyone happiness and Hitchen's writings in life...

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