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The spirituality of Hitch's atheist funeral

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Last week, Christopher Hitchens was memorialized in New York. The event raised a profound issue: how to "do" funerals for those of little faith, or none. The matter is of increasing importance as more and more people turn away from religion.

Hitch was an atheist writer. In his later career, he wrote a great deal about what he called "anti-theism," the view that faith is anti-social. As a friend of Hitch's, I was curious to see how his family would mark his life, given that view.

Faith has always monopolized funerals. If you wanted a decent burial, the temple was the place to go, the shaman the man to pay. The arrival of scientific atheism in the 18th century only changed this somewhat. Many secularists continued to have religious funerals – for lack of other ritual, or for fear of sticking out.

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The Hitch memorial solved this problem. The solution was to embrace a deeply personal truth of Hitch's own: the idea that atheism must celebrate a secular trinity of love, human equality and art, just as much as it denies God. The celebration must feed the denial, and the denial the celebration. For Hitch, anyone who preferred denial of faith to celebration of life was merely nihilist and could not claim true fellowship with the godless.

The service took place at Cooper Union, the great 19th-century liberal arts school for adult students in Greenwich. As we entered the hall, we heard songs that reflected the dead man's values: Steve Winwood's Higher Love, Bob Dylan's Mr. Tambourine Man, The Internationale (a nod to the Trotskyism that informed Hitch's conservatism). Mourners read from his works: Sean Penn on Vietnam, Salman Rushdie on faith's slander against pigs, Carol Blue (Hitch's wife) on the good and the bad in Oscar Wilde.

The eulogies and excerpts dwelt on art for art's sake. Martin Amis spoke on literature as that which brings meaning. Tangible beauty was everywhere, from portraits of the author as a youth and grown-up to the tailoring on Anna Wintour. The Vogue editor-in-chief wore a perfect cream suit (to a funeral!), thus manifesting Wildean ideals. Throughout, there were no fewer laughs than at church services of the relevant mode, and no fewer tears.

Religion was present, too. That was the most interesting part. Hitch's brother read from St. Paul, on hope. Francis Collins, a devout Christian and former head scientist the Human Genome Project, admitted he was better at piano than speech. So he played a composition of his own, which he said was what his final conversation with Hitch had sounded like. They had spoken of an experimental gene therapy for cancer. Hitch had participated as a test subject, even though the protocol had come too late to save him. (He wanted to help.) Though he didn't dwell on it, Mr. Collins suggested that the beautiful music came from God. Plainly, atheist funerals don't mean exclusion of the faithful living.

But religion was perhaps most present in the memorial's language. The readers spoke of spirit, transcendence, soul. These words are from faith. Their meaning is bound up with biblical poetry. Hitch's great argument was that we must strive to see the sometimes hidden moral evil in those poems, going beyond them, to a beauty that lives much deeper. There, religion's barbaric legacy can be stamped out so that love might flourish. Perfect execution of this may be impossible. (For Hitch, that fact necessitated "contempt for our own weakness.") But like Robin Hood, we can steal faith's gold, its unique terminology for some of the most mysterious human aspects.

I used to wonder whether an atheist funeral could really be spiritual. I don't any more.

Aidan Johnson is a lawyer.

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