This morning I woke up to the terrible (although not completely unexpected) news that Christopher Hitchens had died. The rational community has, of course, lost one of its most erudite and interesting members. But it seems that Christopher had one last trick up his sleeve.
As with most breaking news these days, I found out about his death from Twitter. I checked my Twitter feed as I got up at about 6am. A few people that I follow were already awake and discussing it. As a mark of respect, many of those tweets were tagged with the name of Hitchens’ best known book “God Is Not Great“. And then more and more people started to do that. And before too long, the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was listed as one of Twitter’s worldwide trending topics. At which point it started to go a bit weird.
All around the world religious people who knew nothing at all about Christopher Hitchens, his books or his death were looking at Twitter and seeing the tag #GodIsNotGreat. And that annoyed many of them immensely. So they started tweeting on the subject. Their tweets seemed to largely fall into three categories.
2/ Attempts to inject their own beliefs into the stream – “God isn’t just great – he’s the GREATEST!!” (from someone called foolishdenise – you couldn’t make this up)
3/ Threats to kill whoever had started the hashtag (all very Christian) [UPDATE: Replaced a tweet with a rather NSFW background with another expressing the same sentiment]
Of course, all of these new tweets all included the hashtag. So that just helped ensure that the hashtag became even more popular. Hitchens fans replied, pointing out why the hashtag was trending (and inviting them to read the book) and the hashtag was tweeted and retweeted and commented on and argued over more than pretty much any other hashtag I’ve followed all year. For most of the morning the Tweetdeck column I set up to follow the tag was moving too fast for me to follow it.
At some point in the morning, the hashtag disappeared from the list of trending topics. Some people claimed that Twitter had removed it deliberately in response to the Christian death threats. But it seems slightly ironic for Hitchens fans to claim something like that without any firm evidence. I suspect that it’s more likely that once a hashtag reaches a plateau of activity then Twitter’s algorithm ignores it – otherwise the top trend would always be Justin Bieber (as two people pointed out to me). Apparently it’s still trending in Canada. But I’m not sure what that proves about anything.
Hitchens dies. His book
#GodisNotGreat trends. Religious people threaten violence. The point of his book is proven. Hitchens for the win.
It’s tempting to imagine Hitchens looking down on the storm that his death has caused and laughing. But that would go against everything that he believed in.
So don’t do that. Instead, reread his articles, buy his books, watch videos of him demolishing his opponents in debate. And remember the great mind that we have lost.