Response: Christopher Hitchens and Prayer

Andrew Hall is a guest blogger for My Dog Ate My Blog and a writer on Online Computer Science Degree for Guide to Online Schools.


The seemingly large number of people who seem to expect – or want – to pray for Christopher Hitchens, or who see Hitchens himself turn to prayer in the wake of his learning that he has esophageal cancer, is completely and totally baffling. Carl’s piece on Hitchens and prayer understands this quite clearly.

As a self-described “anti-theist” and someone who has made much of his career writing about religion and its negative effects upon society, which he explored thoroughly in much of his journalistic work as well as his nonfiction (particularly God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), it would make no sense for Hitchens to suddenly become a religious person in any capacity. It would appear, rather, as a complete and total cop-out, evidence of a man’s desperation to continue living that simply could not be justified in any capacity given who Hitchens is and what he’s made his life doing.

Carl Packman’s passage about Pascal’s wager makes especially clear why this is the case, as Hitchens would be “only doing this in case” it somehow were to miraculously cure him of a condition that very few people ever survive for more than a few years. Furthermore, Hitchens’ lifestyle has in many ways encouraged the development of his cancer, and you’ll hear this from Hitchens before anyone else, as Hitchens readily acknowledges his heavy drinking and cigarette smoking as a major factor in his having developed this condition.

Given that this is the case – and that Hitchens didn’t change his behavior for decades and is now undergoing treatment, but expects to live not longer than perhaps five years – one can safely assume that the essential qualities that make Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens are not going to change anytime soon, and this includes his lifelong dedication to anti-theism and criticism of religion. Were Hitchens to embrace religion now and for nothing to change, he would merely prove his point; were Hitchens to embrace religion now and to miraculously recover, he would invalidate his career and ruin his legacy as a writer and thinker over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Not mentioned in the piece but also certainly of interest is the fact that Hitchens has also said that those who feel compelled to pray for him are welcome to do so, since it’s essentially harmless and may make people feel better. Rather than vehemently oppose all prayer about him, he’s simply chosen not to participate in it (including the day of prayer for Hitchens that some seemed to be interested in making happen). This stance seems surprisingly more atheistic than anti-theistic, though given that it is a personal belief and not one necessarily being imposed upon others, it could be viewed as less damaging or potentially destructive than other forms of religious expression and thus less immediately menacing.

What happens to Hitchens in the next several years, and his last writings, will be of great interest, but I don’t think either of us expect to see him turn to prayer anytime soon.

This is a response to my blog entry called Christopher Hitchens and prayer.

Christopher Hitchens and prayer

There are an extrordinary amount of articles and blogs out there by people who are bothered by what Christopher Hitchens will do now that he has cancer and, now that there is a strong chance he will die (though, as he rightly says himself we are all dying, with him it has been accelerated). 

These aren’t necessarily religious people and writers, but they are all either concerned about what Hitchens will think or re-think on God, or are surprised that he has said he won’t be praying – surely it should drive some of these people to distraction just contemplating the unlikely event that Hitchens would turn to God; how stupid a reason for believing in God than being reminded of your own mortality.

Strikes me at first glance at being even more stupider than Pascal’s Wager.

Some examples are:

Christopher Hitchens tells The Atlantic magazine that he knows he’s dying, but still views all religion as manmade and all of its claims to divine revelation as false.

WTOL in Ohio

A month ago, the conservative Catholic writer challenged readers of the American Papist website to join him in praying one Hail Mary a day on behalf of the iconoclastic atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been stricken with esophageal cancer, a disease that leaves few survivors.

Terry Mattingly for North West Arkansas Online

Nearly two months after being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens has lost much of his hair but his unbelief remains intact.

Nathan Black for the Christian Post

He said that as for a deathbed conversion, he would not, while lucid, do ”such a pathetic thing”, and that if there are any rumours saying otherwise, ”don’t believe it”.

Matt Buchanan and Leesha McKenny for The Sydney Morning Herald

That won’t change while he continues to undergo difficult cancer treatments nor will his belief that praying won’t help him a lick. At least he is consistent.

Paula Duffy for Huliq news

Hitchens elsewhere has noted a “lets paray for Hitchens” day which will take place on the 20th of September, though says he will not take part.

Now I’m not religious, and I’m not strident in my atheism as Hitchens, nor am I as anti-thesitic as him, which he regards more important than atheism in itself. But I would question the intergrity of someone who throughout their career has professed a deep and thought out dislike for religion, but then on finding out they have a potentially life threatening illness, decides to say “well, i’ll give that God a go now”.

Like the wager appropriated by Pascal in the 1600’s, God if he had any dignity should say “sod off, you’re only doing this in case”; either that or forgive those who don’t believe on the grounds that ockham’s razor is demonstrably an easier tool to muck around with than blind faith.

For those who think cancer is an appropriate occasion for conversion, perhaps they would prefer to concentrate their attention on President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. For the second time a tumor has been detected in his thorax, between the lungs and the spinal column and like with Hitchens it will affect his lymph nodes.

The difference is, Lugo is the self-confessed “Bishop of the Poor”, a former Roman Catholic priest for 30 years. I don’t suppose they would want him to have a cancer conversion.

I shouldn’t like to be so strident (ever), but I will be for this reason: for those of us who don’t think religion is simply stupid, it is often quite a task to convince people who do, that religion doesn’t just pick on the vulnerable. With trying to encourage conversions for those with cancer, on their deathbed, or with any other illnesses, this doesn’t help my task out much.

So retire – and make the 20th of September just another day.