Christopher Hitchens last year / London Telegraph

Atheism is in decline, according to American
pundit George Weigel. Really? That wasn’t my impression, but he cited figures
from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research which claims that their
global number is now 137 million. They have been dropping steadily over the
past decade.

However, I remained sceptical until I read
a London
Telegraph interview
with Christopher Hitchens which was both poignant and
terrifying. Mick Brown, a veteran interviewer, had gone to Washington to meet
the archpriest of the New Atheism.

Hitchens has been diagnosed with terminal
cancer. The disease is now at stage four, Hitchens says. “And the thing to note
about stage four is that there is no stage five.” A man in love with life and
surrounded by admirers of his wit, intelligence and superb powers of expression
is making his last journey to a place he calls “Tumourville”.

It reminded me of Kurtz’s dying words to
Marlowe in Joseph Conrad’s novella The Heart
of Darkness: “The horror, the horror”. Surely this must be one of the
reasons for the decline in atheism.

I do not suggest that Christopher Hitchens
has on his conscience the dark crimes which Kurtz had. What drove those
terrible words from Kurz’s heart in his dying moments is a literary conundrum.
But it is hard not to feel dismay at observing someone about to embark on a
final journey into annihilation.

The poverty of a life lived under the illusion
induced by the fallacy that because there is no scientific proof for X, then X
is not true is a dreadful condition. For ordinary mortals the bleakness makes the
burden of atheism too great to bear. T.S. Eliot reminded us that “humankind
cannot bear very much reality”. And humankind is clearly not buying the limited
reality which Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett & Co. are proposing to us as the
be-all and the end-all of existence.

Brown tells us that Hitchens has faced his
illness with great courage. He has, and it is admirable. But as far as death is
concerned why does he need courage? By his lights, there is nothing to be
afraid of. Just Nothing.

Nonetheless Brown observes that, “you sense
not only an anger with the institutions, teaching and practices of religion,
but also an exasperation and bemusement with the very fact of belief. Put
simply, he just doesn’t get it.”

“‘With religion,
try as I may, I can’t think myself into the viewpoint of the faithful. I can’t
think what it would be like to believe that somebody had died for my sins, for
example. I don’t get it at all.’ So it is that people’s experiences of faith
will always be ‘delusions’; the consolations they may derive from it always
‘false’ ones.”

Brown and Hitchens discussed another
notable British atheist and his fear of death, the late poet Philip Larkin.

“‘What Larkin
was saying was, you bloody fools; that’s exactly what I’m afraid of –
annihilation.’ He pauses. ‘It is a disagreeable thought.’

“‘However, put
the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s
going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a
good time –- the boss says so.’ He gives a slight shudder. ‘Anything eternal is
probably intolerable.’”

Brown asked him if he thought he had been a
good person?

“‘No, not
particularly. Not as the world counts these things, because the world expects,
for that definition to apply, a good deal of selflessness. And while no one
scores very high on that, I score lower than most. I don’t do much living for
others, I really don’t.’”

Perhaps that is the real crunch. The
prospect of eternity in that state of mind really is intolerable. And that is
where “the horror, the horror” really bites.

While the prognosis for Christopher
Hitchens is grim, there is a glimmer of hope. He is taking part in a clinical
trial. It turns out that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour
for which there already exists a drug. His chemotherapy treatment is based on this

The irony is that one of the doctors taking
an active interest in Hitchens’s treatment is Francis Collins, one of the best
known scientists in the US, and the head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins
is an evangelical Christian, the author of a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents
Evidence for Belief
. “It is a rather wonderful relationship,” Hitchens told
Brown. “I won’t say he doesn’t pray for me, because I think he probably does;
but he doesn’t discuss it with me.”

Perhaps all this will prove to be something
beyond irony.

Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin. 
He blogs at Garvan Hill.

Michael Kirke was born in Ireland. In 1966 he graduated from University College Dublin (History and Politics). In that year he began working on the sub-editorial desk of The Evening...