Christopher Hitchens — bald from cancer treatments, speaking between doctor’s appointments — has a special disdain for deathbed religious conversions. Appearing before a group of journalists organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, he criticized the pressures put on Tom Paine to embrace Christianity and the malicious rumors of faith that followed Charles Darwin’s demise. “I’ve already thought about this a great deal, thanks all the same,” he explained. The idea “that you may be terrified” is no reason to “abandon the principles of a lifetime.” At this event — a joint appearance with his brother Peter, a Christian — Hitchens applied those principles with typical vigor. His arguments on the political dangers of religion are strong. In Turkey or Russia, he notes, ” ‘faith-based’ is not a preface to something positive.” In Iraq or Iran, a “secular” ruler would be cause for celebration. The alliance of faith and power is often unholy.

But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative. Peter Hitchens responded, effectively, that any journey becomes difficult when a compass points differently at different times.

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