July 13th, 2010
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Why Christians should pray for Christopher Hitchens

Editor's Note: The Rev. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is founder of WordOnFire.org and host of the Catholicism Project. He is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary.

By the Rev. Robert Barron, Special to CNN

Perhaps you’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens. He is a British writer and cultural commentator who lives and works in Washington, D.C. For decades now, he has been observing the political/societal scene and writing about it in a particularly insightful, witty and acerbic manner.

Early in his career, he was something of a Trotskyite, but in the years following September 11, 2001, he emerged as a strong advocate of the Iraq war and, much to the chagrin of his colleagues on the left, a supporter of George W. Bush. He is best known, certainly, for his recent contributions as a critic of religion. His book "God is Not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything" appeared a couple of years ago and proved to be a bestseller.

Since the publication of this text, Hitchens has traveled the country debating a series of religious thinkers—Christian, Muslim and Jewish—meeting them with an extremely swift mind and wickedly barbed tongue. Along with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, he is one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism, the movement that advocates an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the claims of faith.

I think it’s fair to say that Hitchens is playing today the role that another brilliant Englishman, Bertrand Russell, played nearly a century ago, namely that of religion’s public enemy No. 1.

Just a few weeks ago, I picked up Hitchens’s latest, an autobiography entitled "Hitch-22." The book is a lot like the man: by turns funny, strange, deeply wise, infuriating, outrageous, critical, sometimes just plain baffling—and never dull.

Something that surprised and intrigued me was Hitchens’ affection for two of my own literary heroes, Bob Dylan and Evelyn Waugh. He echoes a number of top critics in saying that Dylan should be mentioned along with T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden as one of the poetic giants of the 20th century. (Now I’ve said something like that for years, but people usually just write me off as an overly enthusiastic Dylan fanatic).

And for Waugh, the author of, among many other novels, "A Handful of Dust" and "Helena," Hitchens has almost unlimited enthusiasm.

Here’s why I say I was surprised: Both Dylan and Waugh are inescapably religious writers. In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to understand and appreciate their work apart from the deeply Biblical sensibility that they share. In songs from all parts of his career—"A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall," "Blowin’ in the Wind," "All Along the Watchtower," "New Morning," "Gotta Serve Somebody," "Every Grain of Sand"—Dylan draws on the Scriptures, and Waugh’s "Brideshead Revisited" is one of the greatest celebrations of Catholicism in all of modern literature.

I confess I began to wonder whether, despite his brassy atheism, Mr. Hitchens didn’t have a good deal of sensitivity to things religious.

This was on my mind when word came out last week that Hitchens was suffering from esophageal cancer, a particularly aggressive and unforgiving form of the disease. I realize that certain believers couldn’t resist the temptation to see in this misfortune the avenging hand of God: the one who for so long blasphemed God was now getting his just reward.

But it’s always a very tricky business to interpret the purpose of the divine providence. After all, plenty of good, even saintly, people die prematurely from terrible diseases all the time, and lots of atheists and vile sinners live long prosperous lives before dying peacefully in their beds.

Hitchens’ disease is indeed ingredient in God’s providence, since at the very least it was permitted by the one whose wisdom “stretches from end to end mightily.”

But what it means and why it was allowed remain essentially opaque to us. Might it be an occasion for the famous atheist to reconsider his position? Perhaps. Might it be the means by which Hitchens comes to think more deeply about the ultimate meaning of things? Could be. Might it bring others to faith? Maybe. Might it have a significance that no one on the scene today could even in principle grasp? Probably.

But what struck me with particular power as I surveyed the Catholic media was that the vast, vast majority of Catholics reported Hitchens’ disease and then, with transparent sincerity, urged people to pray for him.

In making that recommendation, of course, they were on very sure ground indeed. Jesus said, “Love your enemies; bless those who curse you; pray for those who maltreat you." Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly the enemy of Christianity—even of Christians—but he is also a child of God, loved into being and destined for eternal life. Therefore, followers of Jesus must pray for him and want what is best for him.

Hitchens seeks by means of specious argument, insinuation, and sometimes plain smear-tactics to undermine religion. He ought to be opposed, vigorously, with counter-argument and clarification of fact. But all the while, he ought to be respected.

One of the greatest Catholic apologists of all time, G.K. Chesterton, debated the agnostic George Bernard Shaw up and down England, and their arguments were often pointed and aggressive; but after the debates, the two friends could be seen drinking and laughing together. That’s a model of how a Christian treats his intellectual opponents.

So read Christopher Hitchens; disagree with him and get angry with him; defend the faith against his attacks. And pray for him.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Barron.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Opinion • Prayer

soundoff (1,323 Responses)
  1. Mel Schaupp

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    October 12, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  2. Larson

    So...I have read many of these comments, and have come to a conclusion. Just a few days ago, I decided that many people who claim to be "devout Christians" are the most mean-spirited, judgmental, and egotistical people I have come across. I retract that statement, and would like to edit it to add atheists. I do not claim a religion, and reading this makes me sad for humankind in general. LIVE YOUR LIFE.

    August 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
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    August 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  4. Tom Kocoshis

    G. B. Shaw was also a vegetarian but he still had to eat, even with a Christian!! Perhaps he drank tea?

    To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan: Evolutionists (atheists?) have more faith in evolution (atheism?) than a Christian . has in Christ.

    September 6, 2011 at 7:22 pm |
  5. Garth Patrick

    "Robert Barron, Professor of Faith"

    Would Barron be taken seriously if he were "Professor of Voodoo" and asked people to cast bones for Christopher Hitchens?

    August 28, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  6. Tom

    Christians who have been murdered under atheist regimes by atheists......sorry.

    August 6, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
    • Gaorg

      Let us all pray for him and all atheists. Learn to defend your faith through resources like Ravi Zacharias and Hank Hannagraph and Gerald Schroeder and maybe (if the atheist is open to evidence) you can get through to them.

      August 7, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      Tom, if you want to play that game, Crusades (I & II), Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, and you get the Holocaust. You can't pin that on Atheists. Germany was not an Atheist state. The murder of millions was not in the name of Atheism. He was raised Catholic.

      In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote neither as an atheist, an agnostic, nor as a believer in a remote, rationalist divinity. Instead he expressed his belief in one providential, active, deity:

      "What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and the reproduction of our race...so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe...Peoples that bastardize themselves, or let themselves be bastardized, sin against the will of eternal Providence."

      No way you get away from creating that monster without catholic guilt.

      BTW, Waiting patiently for that evidence Gaorg.

      August 9, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  7. Tom

    Hateful Hitchins should worry about all the millions of Christians who have murdered under atheist regimes. More than all religions combined. mmmmmm. Interesting. What an intolerant pig. Is that in his book???? This guy lauged and mocked Mother Theresa when she died. The same die. Do not feel sorry for him in the least bit.

    August 6, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  8. John

    The best part of all this discourse is that it serves as undeniable proof that God does exist and He created you all; if you truly believed that there is no need to worship God because He is a made up piece of fiction, would you actually spend this much time arguing over some ridiculous fallacy? If you WOULD, then let's all spend a good portion of our day today fighting about the Loch Ness Monster – it might be just as productive.
    For so many of you who deny God, you certainly get fired up over something you profess not to believe in or care about...interesting – think about that for a moment perhaps.

    To the believers, don't worry about trying your case on a blog – let's just continue to pray as the Lord instructs; no weapon is more powerful than prayer. By the way, the fact that some professed believer, a member of the clergy in fact, would get on here to argue with Fr. Barron and say we don't need to pray for non-believers, is just as discouraging and disappointing to read as the posts that mock the existence of God.
    Why would an atheist ever convert to the faith if they see the faithful debating the concept of prayer for ALL of God's creations? Let's just pray; nevermind the qualifiers.

    August 6, 2010 at 8:48 am |
    • Vikki

      I agree with John. Jesus taught us to pray and our lives are short. Gods' will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Come Lord Jesus.

      July 7, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
  9. Pierce R. Butler

    ... after the debates, the two friends could be seen drinking ...

    Barron's history is as weak as his ethics and logic: G.B. Shaw was a notorious lifetime teetotaler.

    July 24, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.