August 5th, 2010
08:09 AM ET

Thoughts before debating Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (right) with author Mark Danner in 2004.

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor. CNN's Anderson Cooper interviews Christopher Hitchens tonight at 10 ET on "AC360."

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

After professional provocateur Christopher Hitchens announced that he had come down with cancer, legions lined up to pray for him. I have been known to lapse into prayer on occasion, but I did not pray for Hitchens, and I don't expect I will.

I understand why Mormons want to baptize the dead and, on the theory of "no harm, no foul," I don't object to it in most cases. But praying to God for the Great Unbeliever seems like something akin to sacrilege (and not against the divine).

Not so ripping into him. In a scathing review of Hitchens' "God is Not Great" published in the Washington Post, I wrote that I had "never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject."  I also wrote, however, that "there is no living journalist I more enjoy reading."

I stand by both statements. This post is prompted by the latter.

I teach a course at Boston University called "Death and Immortality," and in it we read remarkable work about the "undiscovered country" of death and whatever (if anything) lies beyond.  Hitchens wrote this week in a piece in Vanity Fair of "the unfamiliar country" of people with cancer, and his reflections rank up there with the best writing I know on that sickness unto death.

The Provincetown poet Mary Oliver has written of prayer as paying attention. And so she does - to the humpback whales and peonies and red-tailed hawks that animate her native Cape Cod (and mine). Hitchens pays equally attention to literary and political things, and writes down what he sees with care and courage.

It would be more Hitchenesque of me to body slam him while he is down. This is, after all, the man who called televangelist Jerry Falwell "an ugly little charlatan" just hours after his death, adding that "if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox."  But I don't have it in me, and not because I am a better man.

Hitchens and I are scheduled to square off for the first time for a panel on the Ten Commandments with David Hazony in New York City on November 4, and I am fairly certain that if that event comes to pass he will have me for lunch, dinner, or whatever else is being served that day.

I am rooting for him nonetheless. We need people like Hitchens in our debates over God and war and torture and adultery and literature and other things that actually matter. We also need his writing, to remind us what passion sounds like.

"In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be," Hitchens writes in his Vanity Fair piece, "I have very abruptly become a finalist." I hope this finalist has a lot more laps in him, even if that means he will run headlong into me in New York City in November.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Culture & Science • Opinion • Prayer

soundoff (526 Responses)
  1. martinnitsim

    well susie it took me ages to find it i think this is there web address
    filling address , they have a deal on at the mo ,say mart said you would sort him out

    July 23, 2012 at 5:11 am |
  2. michaelnalsim

    hello again trevor i got it from a mate so this is there site
    and some info , they have 20% discount now,tell them michael nalsim recommened you

    June 26, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  3. garydarten

    hi steven this is the link address ,ring them for advice ,just say gazza give you there number

    May 8, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  4. Colleen

    Christopher Hitchens is a beacon of truth in the midst of a new age, spiritualized ,mumbo jumbo world gone crazy. Lets see life for what it is, a brief moment of time that eventually ends and so lets live it to its fullest- instead of hoping for immortality. Life is fulfilling enough without fantasies for life everlasting. Christopher Hitchens has left his mark on the world, he has changed me and the way I view the world and I would like him to live longer in order to write and debate more.

    August 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm |
  5. too bad

    Stephen, when you die the worms will eat your wretched carcass and you don't live forever. Especially you, you don't deserve to live for eternity.

    August 10, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
    • yonnie

      Borrowing from Hitchins... give "too bad" an enema and bury him in a matchbox

      October 11, 2011 at 2:03 am |
    • Fred C. Dobbs

      There will be plenty of room for others like him in that matchbox if you do that.

      October 11, 2011 at 2:07 am |
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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.