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…