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On Praying for Atheists (or Get Well, Ye Godless)

Several weeks ago my pastor mentioned that Christopher Hitchens, one of the leading, most outspoken atheists in the world, had developed esophageal cancer. I hadn’t heard this and must admit, I got choked up. But why? After all, Christopher Hitchens is an avowed enemy of Christianity. His best-selling God Is Not Great — How Religion Poisons Everything peddles blasphemy, falsely caricatures the religious, and persuasively argues for a life of non-faith.

Yet we prayed for Christopher Hitchens.

Of course, some hedge against this response, seeing it as a “gotcha” moment, others as opportunistic on the part of Christians. At USA Today’s Faith and Reason blog, Cathy Lynn Grossman noted how Hitchens’ announcement prompted a conversion debate among many of the concerned. Is this the judgment of God upon a wicked man? Or is this the mercy of God to get his attention? Should Christians see this as the dropping of the other shoe, or as a tragedy upon a gifted, affable man? Should we rejoice or have pity? Which leads religion reporter David Gibson to ask Should Believers Pray for Hitchens? Not all are agreed… especially atheists.

Atheist allies of Hitchens have… been vocal in their rejection of what they see as the condescension of believers praying for Hitchens, echoing opinions Hitchens himself has expressed many times.

“Hitchens doesn’t need prayers, as there is no god,” a commenter on [Rod] Dreher’s post wrote. “No doubt, there will be contrived rumors of his requests of contrition and apologies. I can assure you, this will not be the case with this great man.”

It is the tragedy of atheism that they have no god to blame cancer on. Nor one to appeal to. Turning to ourselves, other (inevitably) terminal selves, or the cold universe, hardly brings a sense of solace. I suppose clinging to one’s guns can be noble. Were I ever to suffer something similar, I could only hope to have the conviction to “finish my course.” But soliciting, even tolerating, “opposing” prayers should hardly faze someone who is devout in their beliefs. Especially one who believes such prayers are ultimately moot.

Apparently, Hitchens differs. In a recent Vanity Fair piece entitled Topic of Cancer, Hitchens retains his biting humor while writing poignantly about the awful realities of his plight. And even giving a nod to his “believing” opponents. He concludes with these words:

These are my first raw reactions to being stricken. I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.

So I’m choking up again.

Dear sir, I am both your opponent and on your side. Number me in that “astonishing number of prayer groups” on bended knee. I do not wish you ill, but I do wish your illness — whether through medical genius or “indeterminate” processes — be gone. Admittedly, my motivations may be skewed. Maybe even selfish. Nevertheless,  I am cheering you on against “the blind, emotionless alien.” Of course, your recovery could mean continued assault on the faith I cherish. So be it. May you live another day to battle the One I love. Get well, Hitch…

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Brenda Jackson August 11, 2010, 8:06 AM

    I am astonished—that people would not immediately think to pray for him. Oh yes, we are human and there’s going to be a certain amount of “he got what he deserved” type comments–which should immediately be followed by realizing our error and then prayer.

    I got the same type of astonished reaction when I prayed for Saddam Hussein before he was executed. Yes, I didn’t like him. But Jesus’ death covers all.

    It is hard not to speculate as human beings when something happens. For instance, the quake in D.C. recently. Was that a wake up call? The examples are endless. After all, we can only speculate, because we’re not God and while He may have explained lots of things to us, He doesn’t explain all. But speculation shouldn’t interfere with our purpose here or who we are as Christians.

    • Kaci August 11, 2010, 9:09 AM

      I feel the same way. The man deserved death, but I didn’t think the video of them picking lice out of his beard or the YouTube video of his hanging was necessary.

    • Zoe August 11, 2010, 8:35 PM

      My thoughts exactly. Nobody should wish ill on another person, and we as Christians especially should not. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.

      Cancer is a terrible disease, and what people have to go through to be rid of it is terrible as well. It is awful and I extend my deepest sympathy to Mr. Hitchens as well as my hope and prayers that he will recover. I pray that God will use this illness to reveal Himself in a spectacular way.

      In response to the quote, “this will not be the case with this great man,” I think cancer humbles the greatest of great men. I hope the author of this comment will not think less of Hitchens if such a thing were to happen.

      Lewis once wrote that God “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious, but shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (more or less verbatim). I pray that this will be the result of the pain Hitchens must now go through.

      • Kaci August 13, 2010, 7:14 AM

        Zoe – Thank you! I couldn’t remember the verse I wanted. 0=)

  • Kaci August 11, 2010, 9:06 AM

    The Scriptures are pretty clear on God’s opinion of taking pleasure, mocking, disdaining, laughing at, or otherwise taking pleasure or amusement in someone else’s plight. They’re also quite clear on loving and praying for your enemies, rejoicing with someone when good things happen, and mourning when bad things happen. So, overall, I think God has more to say about us showing basic common decency and respecting human dignity than giggling with a childish “I told you so.”

    Know what I mean?

    As for the atheists: With all respect…telling someone what they can and can’t pray about to a god you don’t believe exists anyway is…well…a little on the silly side.

  • Mark August 11, 2010, 10:00 AM

    I just heard this on your blog, and my first thought was “God, save him through this.” Granted, I’m not always so spiritual, but I think it is what we should strive for.

    After all, Jesus told us to pray for our enemies.

  • Kat Heckenbach August 11, 2010, 10:15 AM

    I’ve been through cancer, and not one nearly as difficult to deal with as esophageal. I would not wish it on anyone, even the most devout of atheists.

    That said, my experience stripped away my reliance on everything but God. I wouldn’t change things if I could because of that. Maybe this is, then, something he “deserves”–not as punishment, but as an opportunity to find God’s grace.

    • Mike Duran August 11, 2010, 12:44 PM

      One commenter on another blog noted that if God really did not love Hitchens, he would NOT interrupt his life at all, give him any opportunity, but rather let him quietly argue his way to hell. Could this be God’s mercy giving him a chance? It sounds cruel, but possible.

  • Jay August 11, 2010, 11:07 AM

    One thing I don’t quite understand is why some atheists would be adamant against prayer for Hitchens? It should amount (to them) to nothing more than innocuous well-wishes, which the most anyone can do for Hitchens if you’re not his doctor(s).

    Another thing about praying for the sick…there’s a Biblical mandate for church elder to “lay hands” to heal the sick. I’m to busy/lazy to Google it, but if we’re looking for formal healing, just sending up prayers might not actually do the trick.

  • Jessica Thomas August 11, 2010, 12:18 PM

    This is a no brainer for me.

    I was listening to a gentleman talk about his new book about heaven (and hell) on ‘In the Market’ this week (sorry can’t remember the author/title at the moment). The author was discussing near-death experiences that weren’t so pleasant, i.e., the person found themselves descending into hell.

    Let’s see, I’ve battle depression my whole life and I’ve had a child without pain meds of any kind. I know both physical and emotional pain. I know what it’s like to be ‘stuck’ in an agonizing place and desperately cry out to God for mercy. I can’t imagine being truly stuck in that state for eternity.

    I don’t wish hell on any human being, not even Hitler.

    Beyond a doubt, prayer is warranted in this case. I wish him well and I pray he humbles himself to God ASAP.

  • Dan Davis August 11, 2010, 3:12 PM

    I think the “don’t pray for us” bit from this group is not because of the innocuous good wishes based on prayer to a god that doesn’t exist. It’s more for the secondary (or often primary) prayer – even expressed in comments before this one: “I pray he humbles himself to God ASAP”… “an opportunity to find God’s grace”… “Could this be God’s mercy giving him a chance?”… please, not picking on anyone… but using close comments as examples.

    Thus, they say, sure, go ahead and pray Hitchen’s gets better – that doesn’t matter. But when you simply reinforce your “misguided beliefs” by wondering or praying for redemption/conversions/understanding of what YOU believe, you are doing something we’d prefer not to happen.

    Does that make sense?

    • Jay August 11, 2010, 4:10 PM

      But even then, if there’s no God there’s no real power behind the prayer. It’s just people talking into empty space. I think they’re really stretching to find a way to get offended.

  • Mark H. August 12, 2010, 7:35 AM

    Yeah, I think it’s a no-brainer, as others have said here. Once I remove the plank from my own eye, it’s a lot easier to see and love my neighbor.

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