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. Q

    I do agree with Prothero on one point: he is no match for Hitchens as his "scathing review" aptly demonstrates. The core argument of God is Not Great is not (as Prothero appears to claim) that the totality of religion is equal to its most radical fundamentalist examples, but rather, that the difference between these worst cases and the "moderates" is a small function of degree with both equally reliant on magical, irrational and wishful thinking. The further point illustrated in Hitchen's book and unrefuted by Prothero, is that religions claim absolute standards of morality and then invariably contradict these tenets, both in their holy books and in the practices of their adherents (be they fundamentalist or "moderate"). Furthermore, the new atheists offer that the "good" that religions do is a reflection of our human empathy and occur not because of, but rather in spite of divisive religious beliefs, i.e. the good claimed for religion, while potentially correlative, is certainly not a causative relationship.

    August 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
    • Ryan

      It is very interesting to look at bible-belt Christians for this very reason, conservatives who advocate conservative media in regard to violence on television, sexual content, profanity, etc.

      The bible is an extremely violent text and is filled with tales regarding polygamy, sending a man who serves one to die in order to marry his wife, sacrifice, offering up ones own daughters to an angry mall, etc.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
  2. Ryan

    I wish Christopher Hitchens the best of luck – although this could be a condition of his own creation given his proclivity for smoking and drinking – vices and choices lead to poor repercussions at times.

    A brilliant and ardent mind willing to stand up for his beliefs. You don't have to respect what he says, you may disagree and disavow all you want – but as an American or citizen of every free society, you must respect his belief to say it.

    August 5, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
    • Eve

      Ryan... you accept pollution's everyday in our society. You feed your children poisons and allow the Govt to continue to kill us silently. You are just as bad as he. You allow it. You breath in smoke pollution's daily and consume things far worse than alcohol within your food.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
    • Ryan

      Eve – there is a big difference between what I inhale walking around – and smoking

      the rate of cancer for smokers vs non-smokers is very telling, as are issues of kidney issues, liver, etc.

      Yes I inhale impurities and eat impurities everyday – but there is massive difference in known-self infliction and severity or reprucussions

      August 5, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
  3. Free

    "guilt" I meant

    August 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  4. Free

    I admit I was wrong and I apologize for my stereotyping in my last post. I do have to ask; You keep refering to the "guild of God," by that I'm guessing you mean we are basically forced into good deeds in order to satisfy God's will. (that in itself, a stereotype by your own admission) I try to help people for the obvious reasons God is helps as a strenghth and focus towards this but in no way (for me) do I feel propelled by guilt.

    August 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Luke

      No, that is part of the Christian doctrine. Therefore, your charity is due to satisfying your god's wishes and commands. If you do good deeds because you want to, welcome to the secular humanist camp, Free. Happy to have you.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • ABerdaine

      I would disagree with you on it being Doctrine. I am an active Lutheran and do the "works" I do not because I have to but because I want too. There is no mandate, in the theological perspective of Lutherans, to do good works because God demands them. In fact scripture says that our works to earn merit are distasteful to God as we should love and serve our neighbors our of love and not out of a desire to gain access to heaven. You application is very Roman Catholic and the very opposite of what Martin Lutheran established when he began to write (which led to the Reformation). My intent with this isn't necessarily to beat you over the head but to very generally point out that good works are done to serve not to gain favor from God or access to eternal life.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • sealchan

      Luke, I think Free outflanked you here...let's not assume all Christians are motivated by some form of God guilt when they are performing acts of charity or working to support an organization that does so.

      Religious belief, like scientific theories, are truths that can be used for good or ill.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Luke

      ABerdaine -I appreciate your insight, but it still does not work. Because you do this due to being told by your prophet makes it selfish, not selfless like you claim it to be. Martin Luther's teachings get their roots in Christianity and you can't avoid the connection. Chinese walls cannot so simply be built. The entire idea of the Golden Rule, which Christianity likes to claim ownership of, appears first in early teachings of the books of Jainism, a deity-less philosophy rather than an organized religion.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
    • Luke

      sealchan – No. And this is what frustrates me with religious folk, particularly the Christians and its many sects. It's the idea of Cherry Picking. The Christian doctrine very specifically demands its followers to do any number of things, including charity and philanthropic work. Now here we have Christians doing philanthropic work and suddenly it's not selfish, but rather selfless? If that's the case, it falls right into my argument that you don't need religion to do good things, such as charity work, in the first place. We see this over and over and over and over again. Noah's Ark? That didn't happen, it's a metaphor! But the creation story, that's real! A guy living in a great fish – that's a metaphor too! Gays are not equal humans – the word of god! There's no consistency anymore. That's what makes poking holes in religion so easy.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      How long have you been a Lutheran and laying blame for every untruth on the Catholic Church? Here is a Joint Declaration on Justification by the Catholic Church and the Lutherans, made in 1999 after 33 years of discussion…. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by GOD and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."

      The Catholic Church has never changed the doctrine concerning works….that is....we cannot do works which Heaven recognizes until we are Baptized. At Baptism the Holy Spirit resides within our soul-Him in us and us in Him! NOW we begin to do works that are stored in the Kingdom of God for it is not us doing the work but the Holy Spirit working through us. No wonder Jesus Christ commanded the Apostles to go and Baptize all nations!!

      We are CALLED to good works, yes!
      "Make no mistake: GOD is not mocked, for a person will reap only what he sows, because the one who sows for his flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows for the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due season we shall reap our harvest if we do not give up." Gal 6:7-9
      Even a non-Catholic can read and understand the Truth in this verse.

      "For His workmanship we are, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which GOD has made ready beforehand that we may walk in them." Eph 2:10 So 'walk in works' which are the fruits of faith.

      Grace is a free gift from GOD, and a sufficient amount is given to each and every one of us for our salvation. Without it, we can do nothing at all, no good works, nothing. Grace is needed and is freely given, starting with Baptism. Those who say, ‘All you have to do is believe and you are saved’ are in grave error and leading people astray. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who DOES THE WILL OF MY FATHER in heaven shall enter the kingdom of heaven." Matt 7:21 Doing the will of the Father means WORKS! Satan believes but refuses to do the will of the Father. We must do more than satan to enter the kingdom of heaven!

      "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Yes, says the Spirit, let them rest from their labors, FOR THEIR WORKS FOLLOW THEM'." Rev 14:13 The works which you do in this life will follow you forever.

      With all of these verses in support of doing good works, how can anyone say works are not required for salvation?

      Next time you are compelled to criticize the Catholic Church, try to remember that if you have any Truth within your ecclesial community it came from the Catholic Church. If you belittle or undermine the Church that Jesus Christ founded, you have only hurt yourself. The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ; She is without stain, wrinkle or any such thing, and is the only Bride He has; the only One. Remember, the Catholic Church is the pillar and foundation of Truth.

      "Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it."Psalms 127:1
      All the thousands of ecclesial communities since the Martin Luther’s house are houses built by man. If they carry any Truth at all, they took it from the Catholic Church. What they took, they have twisted to their own destruction…throwing out Books of the Bible and changing and removing words.

      And so now am I your enemy because I have told you the Truth?

      August 8, 2010 at 10:59 am |
  5. Gary

    Sealchan, sorry dont follow you. My only "argument" as angnostic is my not knowing whether a God exists or dosnt. "personal experience" meaning what? God appears before me? oh yes that would start me believing in something, Going to a church with a congregation of folks listening to a man regurtitating from a religious text written by men some 2100+ years ago. No that wouldnt be a "personal experience" to start me believing in a higher power. When I look around the world and past history. I realize how religion is self evident to folks depending on their culture and family persuations. American Indians believing in sun,rain all nature Gods self evident of their basic needs for survival. high concentrations of hindus in India, high concentration of muslims in Islamic countries pressure from family and national culture. an so on.

    August 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  6. Bob

    What Stephen means to say about Christopher Hitchen's book is that "Christopher is wrong because he won't accept our kind interpretation of the bible's worst references." You know, where obvious flaws suddenly are transformed from fact to "metaphor". It's easy to find metaphors in the bible however, if they contradict known fact they're metaphors. If they don't, absolute fact.

    August 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  7. Free

    I am a Christian, but I am not anti feminism, dem.(as I am one) or gay. I can have gay friends and not agree with there lifestyle. I am family memebers and friends that do things that I don't think are best for my life but I don't love them any less. Why do we think that everyone must have the same mindset on life to get along or respect each other? Pockets and those like him; You should learn to respect peoples beleifs cause mocking someone because they don't think like you shows a lot of ignorance, as does stereotyping.

    And even if you belive with all your heart that God is impossible, you still have the fact that a lot of churchs do a lot of good for the community. They house and feed the homeless, I know my church helped to give homes to the Hati victims and new Iraqi and Indian citizens. So without any God debate, putting that aside as hard as it may be, many of these churchs do a lot of good for people and help those in need, even if their is an underlining agenda with SOME churches. And I don't see any atheist groups gathering to help the needy. They're busy mocking people who belive while people who belive are busy helping their fellow man. (Not all of course, I know their are many, many hypocrites) So how bad, how poisoned is religion, really?

    August 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • Grant

      I'm an atheist and I volunteer with Big Brothers. Why does it need to be a group for it to matter? You made the exception that there are many many hypocrites in your religion, so why do you leave no room for such an exception with atheists as well? That's rather presumptuous in my opinion.

      August 5, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Luke

      First, no one discounts the philanthropic good that some church groups do. But we do point to secular organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross that do a better job without the burden of your god. They do it because they want to. Second, you do see atheist groups, you just never bothered to look (talk about stereotyping). Please direct your attention to the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which has made huge contributions on behalf of people like us to disaster relief. Additionally, I (someone you are stereotyping) make donations straight to the source when doing my good deeds, again without the guilt of god. I donate time and money to local societies dedicated to raising the population’s awareness of science and music. I donate to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. I donate to disaster relief and donate my time at hospitals. I am an atheist. Care to rephrase your post?

      August 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • Nyarlathotep

      "Forbes" has just released its list of the world's most generous philanthropists. Sitting atop the list was Bill Gates, who's donated at least 50% of his $53B net worth to charity. That's at least $26B. And yes, Bill Gates is an atheist.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bob

      You do not see any atheist groups helping because you do not wish to see. Bill Gates has a rather sizable charity orgainization going. You're the type of person who simply asserts with out checking or knowing.

      An interesting side note, what is the church as an organization doing with all that cash. How much money do you think it has? Why aren't these vast sums being deposited into the bellies of the starving children in Africa?

      There a story in the bible where an old poor woman gives a copper piece having only one and a rich man gives a gold having many. The old woman gives more of a sacrifice Jesus says. Why doesn't the church give a reasonable sacrifice? Why is it only the members of the congregation giving?

      August 5, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
    • Maria

      The Catholic Church is the 2nd largest charitable organization in this country. The 1st is our Federal Government.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
    • CatholicMom


      Are you saying the doctors who work for Doctors Without Borders and the body of workers of Red Cross are atheists?

      August 7, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  8. sealchan

    Religion and prior to that, myth, were very important parts of a cultural system. It organized moral standards and inspired right action for a group, a culture, that was badly in need of meaning at one point. Different religions are, therefore, tuned to the cultures they predominate in. Statistically a believer is best served to work their spiritual needs out through their "local" religion. I've studied various culture's myths, the great stories that became the basis of the various religions. Without prejudice I, at one point, chose to pursue Christianity as my "belief system". I feel that in doing so I also have taken the responsibility to not let my belief system think too much for me even while I use it as a polished mirror to reflect upon myself.

    August 5, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • NL

      Few would argue that religion and accepted myth hasn't played an important part in our cultural system, but should they continue to act as the principal guide for what is morally correct, or even cosmologically true? You can argue that our moral systems sprang up from our ancient religious and mythical beliefs, and maybe it once took belief in a lightening throwing god to keep people from eating one another on a regular basis, but why do we need that threat anymore? Isn't that like telling grown adults that Santa may not get them anything for Christmas if they are naughty? Hasn't our society grown beyond treating everyone like children?

      August 5, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
    • sealchan

      Yes, our religious belief systems need to grow and as far as I can see many Christians are still stuck with a very outdated system of belief that perpetuates a lot of ignorance and hatred.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
    • BradLW

      Having been an atheist since about the age of 12, and now fortunately nearing the end of my 7th decade in this marvelous experience we have defined as "life", I have yet to have anybody prove to me that xtianity is not just another "myth".

      Please prove otherwise to me.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  9. Gary

    Sealchan, as an agnostic not atheist I agree that just because I dont know or have faith in any particular God dosnt mean I am correct and believers are wrong. As an agnostic the fact that "believers" all believe in different things ie christian,buddist muslim,hindu and so on also within same "religions so many secs ie.catholic,methodist,baptist,luthern,pentecostal,ect just makes it more confusing and makes me even more agnostic. Not to mention how science points towards an old earth,natural selection,evolution and how religion appears to be a cultural,geographical concept.

    August 5, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • sealchan

      Being an agnostic makes sense unless one has found a personal experience that is best explained by placing it in the context of a system of belief. Then the practical value of pursuing a belief system, a religion, becomes self-evident. However, the personal experience of the value of belief is just that, a deeply personal experience. It does not translate well into an objective arguement on the general value of belief.

      August 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  10. Woody

    I firmly believe that life is between one's ears. Life is what your brain perceives life to be. The brain takes the input from the various sensory organs and computes it into a unique viewpoint of the individual. When brain function is gone, so is life. There's nothing sacred or otherworldly about it. Humans are the only mammals with the intelligence to have a concept of death. I'm sure that when one of their group dies, other higher social animals understand that the deceased is not moving and no longer interacts with them, but they don't dwell on it or think about some kind of afterlife. They move on. It's a matter of survival for the rest of the group. The human recognition of death obviously created much bewilderment for our ancestors. The sky god concept probably came about shortly after language was developed to the point where people could verbally exchange ideas. These ideas were handed down generation after generation for many thousands of years. Every generation added their own little twists to the stories, adding gods here and gods there, the concept of life after death, sacrifices etc. Science has taken much of the mystery out of our world and the surrounding universe. Many people, however, still cling to the ancient fables. Hitchens, Dawkins and others like them have been vilified for trying to help people out of the dark ages. It's like a replay of the Inquisition.

    August 5, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • TammyB

      You know, I don't believe in any organized religion because I think MAN screws up beliefs and perverts myths. However, for me, I do believe in a higher being, for myself. Not one that tells me what I should or shouldn't do, because I know how to be a good human being and I know right from wrong regardless, however, I do find some things that are mysteries, such as our souls. No one is going to make me not think this is a mystery and I accept science as an explanation for other things. I think organized religion is the worst thing ever, as well, for all the worst things that a human can be comes out when given a little power over other people. I won't scoff at others for not believing, as it doesn't matter to me one way another, however, I don't believe I should be scoffed at for believing in what I believe. It's just that simple for me.

      August 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
    • sealchan

      The athiests weakest arguement is their strongest arguement: that belief in the unprovable is and only is a destructive waste. This is a great untruth. However, atheists can be excused from this mistake because science is still needing to develop to a point where it can more clearly explain the need for and role of belief as an essential human psychic need with a great practical value. As an atheist who has become an un-mindwashed believer who has a tendency to alienate other believers with my unwillingness to take too much for sacred, I feel qualified to make this claim.

      August 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • Dianne Foster

      I'm not sure the higher social animals are quite as blase about death as you think. Apparently African elephants have elaborate mourning rituals/behavior, even involving the skulls of the dead which they sometimes seem to recognize. Many primates are also attached to their dead until they actually rot, including mothers which carry around their dead infants. So I don't think man was the first to feel grief or the only species to express it with something more than the equivalent of a shrug and shuffle.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
    • Woody

      Yes Diane, I sure they do grieve, but it's unlikely that the elephants and the primates believe that they'll see their friends in the afterlife, or even have any concept of an afterlife. They know that their friends are gone, but I doubt if they truly understand what has happened. I doubt if they build altars and offer sacrifices to the elephant or primate god and offer prayers for the dearly departed.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
    • Eve

      The existence of the Universe itself is unbelievable and should prove that ANYTHING is possible. Fact is that you are too limited to conclude anything.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
  11. Pockets

    This invisible man in the sky is also very very concerned what you do naked, so keep your clothes on, especially in the bedroom. After all he took 233,000 new "angels' to be with him from Haiti, you know the ole voo doo worshippers. He wanted to make sure they didn't worship idols, which one has to think the Catholic Church has got to get rid of all of theirs, the churches are full of 'idols'. Hanging dead man on a cross being the first to go, and 'saint's crossing rivers with a kid on his shoulder. Sighhhhhhhh mumbo jumo and doesn't religion simply poison everything.

    August 5, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
  12. Pockets

    I have come to the realization that religion is a mental illnes. Religion is "anti" everything, democratic, feminism, gays, abortion, you name it and unles some invisible diety in the sky left instructions to the contrary, YOU MUST OBEY.

    August 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
    • Noble9

      Depends on the religion.

      August 5, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • AnnBChrist

      Depends on what you been told, what you have been 'allowed' to read. Visit UfO Human LInk A Page inthe LIfe and refresh those antagonized brain cells of yours.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  13. Conchis

    I'm continually baffled by people who find Hitchens impressive as a debater. My only explanation is that people are awestruck by anyone with a mildly amusing way with words. Really, he's an intellectual lightweight–get educated, people!

    August 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • Luke

      Conchis – Your argument that Chris is not a good debater is that he is "mildly amusing"? So you want to debate his fans with the core of your debate being that his is "mildly amusing"? I don't even know where to begin.

      August 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
    • Conchis

      Nice try, Luke. You didn't read my message very carefully. First of all, I didn't make an argument, but an assertion. I said that Hitchens' "success" is owing primarily to his rhetorical abilities, which I described as a "mildly amusing way with words." Again, the fact that Hitchens is considered one of the top "public intellectuals" by various media outlets is extremely depressing given the general poverty of his ideas and arguments, most of which have lately been recycled, vulgarized versions of Enlightenment cliches. There's no real thinking going on here.

      August 5, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • Luke

      Conchis – So that's your opinion, right? That is not as good as I think he is? Just your opinion? I tend to enjoy his interesting view on topics that many don't dare touch. Specifically, his attack on Mother Theresa. Thought provoking whether or not you agree or disagree. However, of the men that are at the forefront of topics he generally focuses on, I do find Sam Harris a better writer and more unique. I do not discount Mr. Hitchens, however.

      August 5, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • NL

      If Hitchens is an "intellectual lightweight" then perhaps he best demonstrates that someone really doesn't have to be an intellectual giant in order to successfully argue atheism? Considering his success the arguments must be so simple to understand, and so very, very compelling that it matters little who actually delivers them. Hitchens' real gift then must be the ability to stay focussed through the haze of preaching and bible-quoting that services for theist arguments. Anyone who can keep their mind sharp throughout argumentation designed to stupefy the masses is to be admired, right?

      August 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • Joe

      A rabbit with down's syndrome could argue the sensibility of atheism and win. While I enjoy Hitchens, and am an ardent athiest, I know a good deal of people who I would consider greater intellectual heavyweights.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • Gary

      @joe It's funny that you say that because I've found that most atheists have the combined intellect of a rabbit with Down's Syndrome, which I suppose explains why you think they've actually "won" the argument...

      August 5, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
    • Patrick

      So it would be easy to prove God exists. No? Atheism wins!

      August 5, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
    • David Johnson


      You said, "So it would be easy to prove God exists. No? Atheism wins!"

      Careful Patrick. You can't prove God does not exist. A tie.

      Yeah, I know the burden is on existence. Still, it's a tie.

      August 6, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  14. Gary

    luke you are correct ....placebo effect is a very interesting phonemon...it has alot to do with gastrointestinal issues,low back pain ,fibromyalgia and other pyscho medical symptons.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Luke

      Didn't work on my low back pain. It's the pits.

      August 5, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  15. David Johnson

    I have great respect for Hitchens. I have read his book several times. It always makes me smile. I hope he pulls through.

    I think Mr. Prothero could not carry Hitchen's jock strap.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:51 am |
    • Luke

      David Johnson – better not hope too much. Catholic mom will accuse you of praying.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • TammyB

      I don't think Mr Prothero would WANT to carry Mr Hitchens jock strap and I don't think Mr Hitchens would want Mr Prothero to.

      August 5, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  16. Gary

    As an agnostic I realize prayer can help some people. If the person praying truley believes mind over matter can have some positive physical effects. other people praying for him wont help though

    August 5, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • Luke

      Duh. It's called the placebo effect.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:29 am |
    • Adam

      If all people who believe in god did was pray, I'd have no problem with them. It's the rest of the stuff that people who believe in god do that I have issue with. Things like using their religion as a yardstick for society as a whole, or using their biased judgment to affect the lives of people they have no business with, or condoning war, or believing their god has a place in government.

      August 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Reality

    Prothero has argued for mandatory public school Bible literacy courses (along the lines of the Bible Literacy Project's The Bible and Its Influence), along with mandatory courses on world religions. In a May 2010 interview on CSpan's BookTV, Prothero defined himself as "religiously confused."

    Hmmm, not a good state of mind to be in when going into a debate about religion i.e. "well Professor Prothero I see you are listed as religiously confused". Maybe you would like to expand on that statement"?

    August 5, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • Stephen Prothero

      That's a softball, Reality. I'm sure he'll have much harder pitches than that.

      August 5, 2010 at 10:23 am |
    • Bleheheh

      Professor Prothero,

      I don't mean to be a fan boy (I've read a couple of your books for courses I've taken).

      But thank you for that response. My day will now be awesome.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • Reality

      Steve P,

      Think fast pitch softball and of course you will be confronted with all the flaws and errors in contemporary religions. Looks like a lot of extra innings as in The New Torah for Modern Minds followed by all the angel and Three B syndromes flying by your bat. You could go 0 for 9!!! with nine K's.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  18. :3

    Prayer doesn't help cancer. Not praying for him isn't going to teach him a lesson. Prayer doesn't help anything, for that matter.

    August 5, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • tibbit

      Prayer helps those who pray in the sense that it gives those people comfort...comfort that God is looking out for them. The beauty of this is that whether or not the person is cured, believers can always respond with, "God has/had a bigger plan" and even that lends comfort to believers.

      As a nurse I recognize that belief in God is important to some people in the process of coping with a medical travesty. It's not my place, nor the time to tell them otherwise.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • what tibbit means to say

      *lying helps people feel better

      August 5, 2010 at 11:34 am |
    • tibbit

      Don't put words in my mouth. I never offer to pray for people. it's neither the time nor the place for me to say otherwise. If people find comfort in God who am I to take that away from them. God exists for those who believe precisely because they believe. The only untoward effect of prayer is death and believers must accept the whole package. It's kind of "you made your bed, now lie in it".

      August 5, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • AnnBChrist

      There have been double blind studies done in which the power of prayer has been demonstrated to help sick people heal outside the parameters of just random chance. Read The Zero Point Field and catch a summary of it at a Page In the Life Zero Point Field

      August 5, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • Grant

      There have also been studies where those prayed for actually worsened.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • Luke

      And there have been numerous studies that show, scientifically and statistically significantly, prayer has no impact on the health of patients. Three such studies were conducted on heart attack victims using double blinded techniques. More importantly, the studies that show any sort of wavering due to prayer were conducted on patients with terminal diseases and not say...amputees. That way, god could fix cancer hypothetically. But when amputees were prayed for, their limbs didn't grow back.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
    • BR

      tibbit-Perhaps prayer may help the individual doing so on their own behalf by releasing chemicals, etc. In that case, by all means, your patients should pray for themselves but it shows us nothing about any god. Numerous studies show that praying for another does absolutely nothing and, as Grant pointed out, it has been known to have negative results when the patient actually knows they are being prayed for. What if your patient was a tribesman from Africa? Would you be so ready to write them a pass for their beliefs in witches and the like, regardless of whether you actually ever confronted them on the subject?
      'God exists for those who believe precisely because they believe.' A little shocking to hear from someone in the medical profession. Isn’t it funny how penicillin doesn’t come about in the same way? Unfortunately, reality doesn't work that way. Even if there were tangible, demonstrable effects from the act of pure belief, it would do nothing to show that any god exists.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • j

      There have been studies that show that studies can show almost anything.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Thugliest

      when I have a hangover, praying to the porcelain goddess works wonders!

      August 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • nOT Trash

      AnnBChrist. Post links to your bull or shut up.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
    • prayer is crap

      Actually AnneB: The vast majority of real studies have shown that 1) Prayer doesn't have any effect on the groups that don't know they're being prayed for and 2) people who know they're being prayed for often get worse. Prayer is useless. Toddlers in Wisconsin die for no reason b/c their moron parents believe in prayer. It isn't helpful, it's a lie the people tell themselves so that they can feel like they've helped without actually doing anything. Religion is complete crap. It needs to go away and stop screw up people's lives.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • kevin

      @AnnBChrist – those same studies can also show that a sugar pill has more affect on the sick then not having anything. its a mind game and only works for a short period of time.

      in other words, its useless and a con.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • ScottK

      Sugar pills heal the same way prayer can heal, its all in the mind. Just as Jesus said when the sick woman touched his robes and was healed "Your faith has made you well". Prayer has nothing to do with a conection to the spirit realm but has everything to do with the power of our own minds to effect our own wellbeing. But, just as with sugar pills, they have their limits. A placibo is not going to magicly close a gunshot wound or cure late stage cancer, it can merely give a mental hope that can help the patient relax and feel better which can have a physical effect.

      Do miracles exist? Its all in the definition of a miracle.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
    • Herbys

      @AnnBChrist: actually I would like to learn about such study. Because I know of a few large ones, commisioned by all sorts of organizations (including Christian ones) and that followed proper testing procedures that proved otherwise.
      And it is an undeniable fact that some highly visible people that are prayed for by millions don't have any better help than the rest of us (look at the Pope, the queen or any pop star for examples). If prayer had any effect, these peopke would have to live SIGNIFICANTLY more than the average person. They don't.

      August 5, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • Leonardo da Vinci

      Isn't praying an insult to the perceived god? Isn't it saying "Whoa, you made a mistake. Here's what you need to do?" Isn't it telling the deity to change his/her/its mind? If I were a supreme being, I certainly would not need my mere creations telling me what to do!!!!!

      August 5, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
    • Bob

      AnnBChrist, is impossible to do such double blind studies. How in the world could you ever know who is praying for whom when you consider the entire population of planet earth?

      August 5, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
    • Maria

      Actually prayer to have the strength and grace to deal with your illness is the best kind of prayer. If you believe in God you don't tell Him what the outcome should be. He's got a plan , you pray for the ability to deal with it. Redemptive suffering. Older Catholics call it "offering it up" . I hope Mr. Hitchens will find his strength to deal with this awful cancer. Best of Luck.

      August 5, 2010 at 10:57 pm |
    • aPity

      Ignorance is still Bliss....It's funny how atheist want everything to be tangible, and hate those who understand the intangible...I will not pray for Hitchens to be cured, to have hair, to live longer, to die now, to expound into his single dimension of the "great" intellect he is, or even pray that he shut up......He seems to be a strong man(bc God made us in His image) and taking his unfortunate situation courageously, prob a lot better than many christians(us, that means me=)....nevertheless, I will pray that God let me witness or read about Mr. Hitchens utterance for help, to God...THATS ALL......NO MATTER WHAT THE OUTCOME, ALL GLORY STILL GOES TO GOD AT THE END....and all atheist will stay hate us because no matter what.....GOD will have HIS way.....no one lives without Mercy.

      August 6, 2010 at 1:00 am |
    • Vivian Lovlein

      I had Chronic Fatigue for 10 years, I am great, I lost a Kidney to cancer I am doing great, My husbannd left me and my adult children after 33 years of marriage I am fine, I have gone through so many things and had so many actual experiences with God and His Holy Spirit nothing Carol or anyone can tell me anything! I was very antireligious , I am 66 yrs old and I am still having the revelations of God's love . I should be dead , so people once I was blind but now I can see. My experiences with God eliminates all of your silly opinions. i have herd them all my life. I am here for you because I was were you are now!

      August 7, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  19. McCluck

    This is a great man. It will be a long battle againt unjustified religious influence. Im glad we had/have someone like him on our side. I hope we will continue the crusade and one day the world will be without the poison that is religion.

    August 5, 2010 at 9:50 am |
    • JamieinMN

      I can't wait for that day, but sadly, we will probably no longer be here to witness it.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • nOT Trash

      It will get worse before it gets better, many more will die in the name of religions before true universal understanding is reached. We are all human, we are all equal. Not under god, but under the depths of the universe and nature.

      Religion preys on our fear. WE will move past it but many will die. Pray for me. :-p

      August 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
  20. Luke

    Stephen – I'm almost fairly certain that Chris will want to have scotch with you, rather than just lunch or dinner. That is, of course, if his throat can still take it. I too think Chris is needed and am pulling for him so he can fight the good fight. I admire him and love his work. When you see him, please do tell him that he has a huge fan in his corner. I wish I could meet him and say it myself, but you seem to have an route, whereas I have his only his books and articles. Oh, I would never want to be on the other side of him in a debate. Good luck, you're going to need it.

    August 5, 2010 at 8:29 am |
    • CatholicMom

      You mentioned you are 'pulling for him'....how is it that you do that?

      August 5, 2010 at 10:23 am |
    • Luke

      CatholicMom – What do you mean? I hope he lives in the same way that I hope the Mets start hitting and playing defense instead of making fools of themselves for the remainder of the season. I hope the Yankees collapse. I hope the Giants fix their porous defense by making a good acquisition to fix their secondary. I hope my wife and I are able to make it to Dylan Prime for dinner Friday with friends. I hope you leave me alone and realize that not everyone lives the same way you do and you know what? They're happy and just fine without your foundational philosophies. I know what you are up to and implying with your snide little comment and it's misguided and easily refuted. Go proselytize somewhere else. I wrote a kind note to Stephen about a man I admire, and you try to hijack my words to inject your religious beliefs that hoping is impossible without Yahweh or the holy trinity. Foolishness and ugly. If that's the case, 75% of the current population of planet has it all wrong and the bulk of the humans that lived prior to this time had it all wrong too. Essentially, you are saying the entire country of Japan, for example, can't hope because they're not deists. Go away.

      August 5, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Luke

      CatholicMom – Clearly not the same way you do. I am pulling for him in the same way I hope the Mets turn around their season or that my wife makes steaks with potatoes for dinner. I certainly know what you're up to and ask you nicely not to proselytize me after I very nicely dropped a note to Stephen that he send his regards to a man I admire.

      August 5, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • TammyB

      @ CatholicMom....For all your attempts to pretend you are a Christian person, you are not. Good Christians would hope for the best for another human being; bad Christians judge which is not their job. I understand what this author is saying. He is hoping for the best for someone who doesn't agree with him, but is a human being going through illness, hard times, etc. at this time. Human beings need to hope for other human beings, whether or not they believe in God. If you were a good Christian and believed in God and the work of Jesus, you would be compassionate, tolerant and hopeful for all humankind. From everything I've seen you write on these blogs, you don't come anywhere near being a good Christian person, or a human for that matter. I hope for you, however, that you see the error in not having understanding for your fellow man.

      August 5, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
    • mary t

      I'm confused–how is it you don't think it right to pray for the man?
      Pray for your enemy then if he will have you for lunch–duh.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Luke

      mary t – Because people like Hitch, and myself, don't want to be prayed for. What part don't you get?

      August 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • AnnBChrist

      We 'pull for him' when we fight to dispell all the words everyone puts in His Mouth. See Angels and Demons and How to Resurrect the Gospel apageinthelife and don't be fooled by the false 'page not found' error message, the writings are there and that they are being blocked means they are all Good.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm |
    • stephen

      Ravi Zacharias would kill him in a debate.

      August 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
    • ABerdaine

      By saying that catholicmom is not a good Christian sounds judgmental to me. I understand your point – but your chastisement of her sounds very judgmental when you tell here that she is not being a good Christian...who are you to judge? Practice what you preach – or at the least don't get all judgmental and condescending

      August 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
    • offgrid

      I'd love to debate Hitchens but he always runs away from me. I'd like to talk Spiniza with him. Hitchens always runs from Spinoza as well.... calling Pantheism "sexed-up atheism".... How can the following thoughts be considered atheism ?
      Sorry Chris, Everything is God.

      Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived. – Baruch Spinoza

      We feel and Know that we are eternal. – Baruch Spinoza

      God is the indwelling …… Baruch Spinoza

      August 5, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
    • leggs67

      @stephen. There is no christian argument that stands up to Hitch's points.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • Jus Me

      Tell this dude not to pack a cover with him in his coffin..............cause its HOT where he is going...........unless he finds HIM

      August 5, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • TammyB

      @ABerdain...Yes, I probably did sound judgemental and condescending...I really wasn't trying to be either, so I am sorry for that (to you). I actually was more annoyed than anything, and that's how it came off. I was annoyed due to the fact that sometimes I find some self-proclaimed Christians to be the most judgemental, and least tolerant of people. That always annoys me, but being human, I am sure that I judge people too. I can admit that. Some people cannot admit when they are wrong, and since I have read a lot of what Catholicmom writes here on this blog, she strikes me as one of those kinds of "Christians", who is very staid in her opinion. Unfortunately, I am also in mine that if you hope well for everyone, even your enemies or people who don't think the same as you, that it makes you a better person for yourself, and no one else. I would hope well for her and you as well (even tho I don't like a lot of what she writes). I guess we all could do better!

      August 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • ABerdaine

      @ TammyB
      Thanks for the thoughts, I certainly appreciate your willingness to stand for what you believe and hold onto what you believe to know. Your apology certainly is taken for what it is worth – well meaning and intentional. good on ya!

      August 5, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
    • dougsheets

      @Jus Me To borrow a line from Mr. Hitchens, It is to bad there isn't a hell for you to go to.

      I would presume that you claim to be religious, whether that be christian, muslim, hindi, or other, and that you would be offended if someone were to infer that your particular religion was one of hate and intolerance. Instead claiming that you and those like you have nothing but good to contribute to the world and are the best type of human beings.

      Well I have news for you, people who are willing to taunt a man who is facing his own mortality with threats of fire and torture ARE NOT the best types of human beings! People who are willing to do what you just did, say what you just said are NOT good people, you are NOT doing good in the world.

      August 5, 2010 at 6:46 pm |

      I think CatholicMom may simply be asking a question in order to understand the POV better. She is trying to question her faith to make sure that it makes sense for her. Believe me, despite my moniker, any rational person would say there is doubt and leave it at that. But courtesy is something that CatholicMom should get...her comment was one line and she may be sincere you do not know from her comment alone that she is not.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:17 pm |
    • pj pj

      Catholicmom seems to have struck a nerve with luke. She pointed out the irony of "pulling for" while belittling prayer. Stings a little I guess.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      When I asked how you would pull for someone, it was an honest question. The way I pull for someone is pray for them but since that is not something you have confidence in, I really was curious what you do then.

      Evidently you missed my post on a previous blog where I wished Chris Hitchens well and hoped he found peace in his suffering.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
    • Clark


      I'm a former Catholic and believer (the type that would go on beaches and try to convert), the best part about finding the truth is that you can't do anything. That's okay. If I personally knew Mr. Hitchens and had contact with him, you could give him words of encouragement or spend time with him to make him happy. As far as the cancer, that is up to the doctors, the treatments and Chris' immune system. "Pulling for someone" is a figure of speech. It is a wish, it doesn't mean one believes that a thought alone will actually heal a person.

      While you may pray to Yahweh to get answers, I've learned it is much more effective and personal to go take your issues to a friend or loved one. A real person can help you find real answers or give you a hug. One has to understand what their limits are. Feeling upset because your thoughts can't telepathically heal another human being is as absurd as feeling upset because you can't fly. Luke and myself have come to grip with reality. We can show acts of kindness and help where possible, but we simply follow the scientific conclusions that strangers thoughts can not destroy cells in another persons body.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:21 am |
    • Vivian Lovlein

      Christopher don't let your intelectual pride keep you from calling on someone that died for you ( Jesus Christ ) besides what do you have to lose! I gurantee you100

      Christopher don't let your intelectual pride keep you from calling on someone that died for you ( Jesus Christ) Call on Me in the day of trouble and I will answer JC

      August 6, 2010 at 1:03 am |
    • Carol

      Oh, for crying out loud, Vivian. The last thing a man dealing with likely terminal cancer needs is for you to push your imaginary buddies on him.

      August 6, 2010 at 3:10 am |
    • nomoregbldgk

      Up! Up! Up! People still arguing about prayer and whether there is or is not a God and He walks into my shop and recreates a whole new me right before my eyes–I want Up! Now! This is not funny anymore–, and there is no need to keep up the charade since by now You've probably bought up all the farmland you're ever going to need.
      Why Am I Not Waking Up! notfunnynotfunnynotfunny
      UFO Human Link Apageinthelife The Secret of Min and what does it matter if the whole thing gets decoded nobody is allowed to readit thanks to the flyboys at the 754th electronic systems group.

      August 6, 2010 at 3:18 am |
    • David Johnson


      You said, "By saying that catholicmom is not a good Christian sounds judgmental to me. I understand your point – but your chastisement of her sounds very judgmental when you tell here that she is not being a good Christian...who are you to judge? Practice what you preach – or at the least don't get all judgmental and condescending"

      CatholicMom seems to think she is the spokesperson for the Vatican. She is quick to correct everyone on matters of faith. I think there may be the sin of pride involved here.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @pj pj

      You said, "Catholicmom seems to have struck a nerve with luke. She pointed out the irony of "pulling for" while belittling prayer. Stings a little I guess."

      It is simple. Luke knows prayer does not work. Our town just lost a little 7 year old boy to cancer. Lots of prayers for his healing. The child died. My 18 year old niece died. People prayed for her.

      You will see in the news, stories of people who's child died, because they didn't seek medical treatment. Instead they prayed.

      If you are sick and you are treated by a doctor, you can pray. But it's the meds that heal you, not a god.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      David Johnson,
      I pray that I never speak an untruth and always caution myself to be certain of my words for it would be unwise to lead someone into error. I write out of love for Truth, not out of pride as you say.

      August 8, 2010 at 8:57 am |
    • Damon

      "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."

      I hope you didn't just compare Jerry Falwell to Christopher Hitchens... you seem to operate like most religious under and idea that acts in and of themselves are absolutely evil or good without taking context into account. Jerry Falwell said some of the most poisonously demonizing and divisive statements of any "man of faith" in recent memory, and yet he's treated like a saint because he helps people who agree with him. Such a ridiculous double standard wouldn't be tolerated without his rubber stamp of approval from some Almighty.

      Would you conveniently forget someone was a murderer if they died? Would you pretend someone wasn't a rapist because they went through a perfectly natural process everyone does? Falwell did neither of those things, but he was an ignorant hatemonger who hurt many people with his words and encouraged feelings of intolerance.

      Hitchens was one of the few people brave enough not to ignore all of Falwell's evil acts (and I don't use that word lightly) just because he happened to be dead, or just because he happened to camouflage his hate with sanctimony and charity. Hearing you insult Hitchens for that by implying he regularly goes around hitting people "while they're down" discredits you sir.

      August 9, 2010 at 10:10 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.