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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. Nancy M. B.

    All religion is fairy tales - pure and simple.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • sure thing

      What if you are wrong? Big risk for no reward!!

      August 5, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
    • Charlie

      What an obtuse and banal comment. After all the other comments on this article, ranging from the thoughtful to the sputtering, anonymous hate that pervades the internet, you chose to post this? Did it make you feel like you added something to religious discourse today with this vapid faux-inflammatory "jab"? After reading all the irritating, but (at least somewhat) reasoned comments above, yours was the one that inspired me to add my two cents. I think the point of the original article is that we should encourage discourse and passion on both sides of issues, even when we see no room for compromise. Your ridiculous, dismissive statement is like poison for that discourse, and I find it more offensive than anything else said here on either side.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
    • nOT Trash

      Fairy tales can be useful and teach life lessons. 🙂

      August 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • Charlie

      I was referring to Nancy M.B. by the way. The comment after this is at least funny – I wish I would have made light of Nancy's offensive comment instead of letting it get under my skin, but it is what it is.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
    • Shadtree

      Nancy maybe you should have said myth either way it is a hard stretch to believe first of all you have to believe in a woman having a child without the "terrible" act of sexual intercours, then you are suppose to believe that God sent his son to have nails hammered into him and then he comes back from the dead so that everybody is saved...and this is only the Christian version there are other myths in other beliefs that are equally as ridiculous.....

      August 5, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • verify

      Yes, Charlie, making light of it was one option. Your reply was, in itself, dismissive of her assertion, an ad hominem, and therefore a conversation stopper. Could there be any other reply options here?

      August 5, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  2. SG

    Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart. Christ said to love one another as I have loved you. So that being true to the Christian are we not bound to love him enough to pray for his turning to Christ. His free will is his, but so is yours. Peace be with you all.......

    August 5, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  3. Robert

    Perhaps in praying for him, and anyone else (friend or foe), we do our best to show grace and mercy for those who need it the most

    August 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • BradLW

      "Show" to whom?

      And who makes the judgment as to those who are the most in need of "grace and mercy"? Surely you don't mean all of us good atheists!

      August 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  4. Simon

    As an atheist, I am often more annoyed by other atheists that the religious. So many atheists believe religion is some sort of grand conspiracy foisted upon humanity by some charlatan. Religion is no different from any other belief system. All the bad things about religion don't originate in religion, they originate in human nature. Without monotheism, humanity would still experience guilt, remorse, fear and a longing for meaning. Firm beliefs without evidence are a fact of the human condition. You can't abolish religion, any more than you can abolish politics, or abolish curiosity. Religion is not an evolved form of myth. Myth and religion (as well as political fanaticism) are the result of the human need for a firmament of perception.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • sealchan

      It seems to me that today's religions developed as a culture transitioned from oral to literate. Having made that transition the oral context of myth with its creative and ever-changing stories became cemented for all time as the written word. Religions are those institutions that have arise around those myths-turned-printed texts.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      Hmmm....interesting...

      August 5, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • chunkbrother

      Firm belief without facts is NOT part of THE human condition. Hope is. People just defend their hopes as if they were firm beliefs.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      ...so I guess that insanity, hallucinations, and other neurological disorders and symptoms are the reasons that irrational belief systems have developed over the course of history...because our neurological disorders give rise to such things as a natural course of cause and effect?
      Okay...and this makes it acceptable to people because they are imperfect bundles of incipient psychosis?
      I would not call it a need for a "firmament of perception" when insane people do not necessarily desire sanity.
      Or am I misunderstanding things again? *sigh*

      August 5, 2010 at 6:21 pm |
    • BradLW

      "Without monotheism, humanity would still experience guilt, remorse, fear and a longing for meaning."

      Strange: In almost 7 decades of meeting all kinds of folks holding all kinds of monotheistic/polytheistic/or no "beliefs", I have yet to meet one who didn't experience all of the feelings in the quote above at different times over the span of their lives; before and after their "conversion" experiences.

      Rather suspect the same is true of you regardless of how much you try to convince yourself otherwise.

      August 5, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  5. ken

    As with so many of the intelligencia atheists out there, after all is said and done free will reigns, but we will be held accountable for our lives and our choices while on this earth. Those who chose to turn away from God do so on their own.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      Then feel my wrath, ken.

      People don't appear to desire accountability in this world. Saying "you're gonna get it" in the "next life" is pure sophistry used to justify the frantic avoidance of accountability and responsibility that passes for morality in a lot of people.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
    • Bob

      Ken, perhaps you should read your bible.

      There is no such thing as free will. The bible if true, proves this simple concept.

      Jesus said to Peter "And before the cock crows, you shall deny me three times."

      What does this show? It shows that God knows the future (he should, he's omnipotent.

      Because he knows the future, far after we're dead, and because the future is predicated on the past, your actions are already set in stone before you're even born.

      You do not have the choice. You only have the illusion of a choice.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
    • BradLW

      Please supply your evidence that there is continuation of our "being" after our brains flat line. And please remember that your evidence must be both verifiable and falsifiable.

      August 5, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
    • Rob16a

      What I can't understand is what God is trying to achieve anyway. He created the universe and the world and then put us in it like some sort of giant elaborate ant farm. He then provides us with a very long and contradictory instruction book on how to behave, with a huge reward for those who get right, and eternal damnation for those who get it wrong. He is supposed to love us as his children but all along the road he tests us and torment us and then refuses tells us how we are doing. To cap it off he never shows himself so we're not totally convinced he's there anyway. If the ultimate aim of the whole process is for our souls to join him in Heaven, why doesn't He just put as there in the first place? He could spare us the ordeal of living in a human form altogether but chooses not to. It would not be an unreasonable to reach the conclusion that the almighty is essentially capricious and uncaring and we are mere wind-up toys in his play room to be kept or discarded on a whim.

      August 8, 2010 at 7:26 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Rob16A,

      You said:…… He is supposed to love us as his children but all along the road he tests us and torment us and then refuses tells us how we are doing. To cap it off he never shows himself so we're not totally convinced he's there anyway.

      If you feel tested and tormented….you must not like how your conscience is working…and it is working, or you would not like how you feel when you do something you know you shouldn’t do. Don’t look at it as a bad thing…it is something that will help you ‘stay on or get on’ the right path that leads to everlasting life!

      God does not want to force you to do good works instead of evil ones but as you go along, you get these hints as to how you are doing…so don’t say He never tells you how you are doing. You know perfectly well how you are doing.

      All of this put together is how He shows Himself to us. You don’t have to see and touch Him to know He is around….just keep on living your life and you will recognize the pattern; you are in control of your life but His Love is there to guide you along. You can reject it and the way you do that is ‘stop listening to your conscience’…

      So you see, you are not a wind-up toy, other than the fact that you get your every breath from God so you can keep on going along. God loves you and everyone who is breathing.

      All I can say is, never stop listening to your conscience, never stop trying to do good works, and when the breathing stops, I pray you made all the right decisions and choices that came before you. Everyone is destined for Heaven but you can choose not to go there.

      My hope is that I will go there; and you, too; so that at one point in timelessness you will come up to me and say, ‘Hi, I’m Rob 16A.’

      August 8, 2010 at 11:38 am |
  6. ringo123

    To all the mean comments about him being an athiest, get a life! Everyone has to die eventually. You can't pray away bad biology. Even Hitchens knows this. He will be remembered for questioning false authority and the deceit of all religions. At least he's a real honest man till his dying days which shows real integrity that he really cared about the human race and the effects of the mental viruses called organized religions.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      ringo, you're a star!

      August 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
  7. Abigail

    I love Stephen Prothero. I own his books and love what he has to say. As a devout Christian I think he makes some fantastic points in general. I keep hoping that one day my job will lead me to live in Boston so I can take his classes for fun. If you guys want to read a great book, pick up "Religious Literacy."

    I know my comment doesn't really flow with the theme of the story, but I had to share that everyone needs to pick up this book.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
    • Bob

      It might help keep my back garage door open in the wind. Thanks for the tip.

      August 5, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  8. Florencio Mendiola Jr.

    Judge not, and maybe, you shall not be judged. Never wish nor think negative thoughts of hatred toward another human being. No, I am not follower of any god but I do keep an open mind. It is an insufferable fool who measures all things by his own opinion.

    Life is sometimes unpleasant. Life is an ever-flowing process and somewhere on the path some unpleasant things will pop up, it might leave a scar, but then life is flowing, and like running water, when it stops, it grows stale. Go bravely on, my friend, because each experience teaches us a lesson.

    Life itself is your teacher and you are in a state of constant learning.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      pot, meet kettle...

      August 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Bob

      What about the man who murders children sir. What about him? Do you not wish him to be caught, do you not want him to have his freedom taken away? Do you not wish that he is behind bars so he cannot perform the act again?

      August 5, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  9. h1five

    Love reading his work. Appreciate his fighting spirit. Wish the debate on religion did not turn into debate of extreme oppositions, and as such become totally unproductive.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  10. ubo

    At least this author is level headed enough to sort of enjoy Hitchens, but on the other hand, he's a great example of a deluded believer who is basically saying "isn't it cute you don't believe? Aww it's ok little buddy I'll pray for you so you'll only be tortured for half of eternity for not loving god"

    Humanity does not need religion. Humanity needs faith. You can have faith in other people without having to believe in your absolutely powerful but somehow as flawed as humans super-being that is just fooling us with science.

    Once religions vanish, there will be no hate of believers, either by other believers or by non-believers. Real world peace...

    August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  11. Mary Shaheen

    Forget the mythology and the pretty stories about Arabs also being insultd by a synague in Detroit.
    9/11 began Islams war on the West and a mosque nearby is a definitive part of that war, despite
    Muslim arguments, pleas and arrogance. They vaporized thousands of Americans, what is unclear
    to you here?

    August 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      uh......

      August 5, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • Luke

      Hmmm, what? Wrong page Mary. Head on over to the "Hatin me some Muzlins" thread.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  12. j-j

    Anyone is entitled to repent even the worst sinner, regardless of whether you forgive the person or not, there is only 1 judge you need to worry about and he is not of this earth...

    This guy hitchens may realize that in has seconds of life and repent and will be forgiven.. it is the mystery of the lord... Do not judge others as you will also be judged by the same measures... Word to the wise..

    August 5, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  13. Jessica

    I always laugh when I see my friends make repeated comments on facebook praying to god to change their circumstances – and it's like they dont get it, that THEY physically have to do something to change whatever's going on in their lives. Asking god to "give you strength"...here's a thought, check yourself first to see if you already possess it...nah, too logical.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  14. Veronica

    I'll pray for him. Now is the time.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  15. JJF

    Well, he won't be an atheist much longer. Death cures that little misunderstanding.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • ubo

      A shame you can't scout it out for him first

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

      im not an atheist (but I also am not a believer) but I can pretty much guarantee that WHEN I die, I wont be turning to some fake guy in the sky. nope, i'll be turning to the universe and will simply say "I hope I was a good human". end of story. because, that's all I hope for myself, that when my times up...I was a good human on this planet, and that I did some little bit of good. whatever happens after death, is what it is.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • JJF For President!

      Amen! 🙂

      August 5, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      @ Jessica I like the way you argue...and I agree wholeheartedly with your declaration. I wish there were more people like you around...I'm not very good at expressing myself, you see...

      August 5, 2010 at 5:15 pm |
    • Jebus

      Gee, you sound awfully sure of yourself for someone who presumably has never been dead. Hitching your wagon to 2000 year-old Jewish folk tales (also written by people who had never previously been dead) doesn't get around this unfortunate fact. Bottom line, I don't know, you don't know, and neither does anybody else.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
    • Bob

      If only you knew what atheism was, you wouldn't call it a misunderstanding. But then again, to ask people of faith to understand things that are contrary to their own viewpoints is like mixing oil and water. Cognative dissonance anyone?

      August 5, 2010 at 5:30 pm |
    • Shadtree

      Jessica I so agree with what you are saying...Amen

      August 5, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • Patrick

      @Jessica; If you're not a believer then you're an atheist. That's exactly what it means.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
    • BradLW

      Gosh! And here all this time I have been thinking that death cures ALL "little" misunderstandings.

      August 5, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
    • Bob

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Of course, adding nothing didn't really add much.

      August 5, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
  16. Sanity Claws

    I must say I got a good laugh about that quote concerning Falwell. I personally find a nasty sort of satisfaction in cutting wits who leave blood on the floor, as it were.
    It sounds like Mr. Hitchens is the sort who would write an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I look forward to reading his works, and can only deplore the fact that I am too poor to buy one and thus contribute to his personal comfort as his book(s) may well be a comfort to me.
    I enjoy scathing retorts in an argument, whether I am present or not. As far as I am concerned, they are the best part of any blog regardless of the topic.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • Shadtree

      You may still be able to check out one of Hitchens books in the library...better hurry though while we still have public libraries and the Palin theocracy is not in power yet.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
    • Julian

      As Christopher says in "Hitch22", his favorite word in the English language is "Library". Your nearby public library might be a good, free place to read his books.

      August 6, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  17. Kevin

    Christopher Hitchens – 1,000,000

    Steven Prothero – 0

    August 5, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  18. sealchan

    Here is my basic philosophical answer to atheist's criticism of belief:

    The true function of myth or religion is to help guide the individual throughout their lives in how to adapt to both the world outside, our society, and the world inside. Myth and religion must develop over time just as the society develops. I think that many churches have fallen way behind the times with respect to society. No Christian should be questioning scientist's theories based on Biblical text, that is confusing apples with oranges.

    While scientific facts are usually and often helpful in fullfilling this role, they are by no means adequate. One of the central tenets of, at least, Western cultural belief is that we are to be each free to choose our paths in life. This choice is always accompanied by an experience of personal meaning. That personal meaning requires that many questions be answered that science cannot provide answers to. These answers are invariably unproven or even unprovable beliefs. The primary function of these answers is to provide meaning to the knower and not to serve as a basis for determining objective truths. These answers help to untie the knots that bind us into a meaningless and unvalued existence.

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

      Sorry, but atheists do not believe that there is no such thing as morality.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      I do not accept your premise about the "function" of myth and religion. How can you say it is a "true function"?

      ...and then you go glorifying "Western cultural beliefs" as if it were actually relevant...! I can only guess what's going on...
      ...and ask you to refine your ideas further, if only as a favor to your captive audience...

      August 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      @ubo I really think you've got waaaay too many negatives in your sentence structure....

      August 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • sealchan

      ubo, what did I say that made it appear that I thought atheists don't believe or have an understanding of morality?

      Sanity Claws, what would you define as a "true function"?

      August 5, 2010 at 5:18 pm |
    • Bob

      Your argument is flawed. A system cannot claim to have the absolute truth and the will of God and "change" society. Because if it does, it was not perfect in the past. And if it's not perfect in the past, then it follows that Jesus' teachings were not perfect. If that's the case, he's not divinely inspired.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • BradLW

      "Here is my basic philosophical answer to atheist's criticism of belief:"

      "While scientific facts are usually and often helpful in fullfilling this role, they are by no means adequate."

      What do you suggest in addition to "scientific facts" other than "blind belief"; the latter of course having very little, if any, basis at all in rationality?

      Also, if scientific facts are "usually" helpful doesn't that by itself mean that they are "often" helpful?

      August 5, 2010 at 8:37 pm |
  19. GodIsForImbeciles

    Pray in one hand and poo in the other. See which piles up first.

    The Hitch will be remembered and respected as a great thinker long after 10,000 sky fairy worshipers like this author have turned into dust.

    August 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
  20. Rick

    Matthew 5:43-48 (New King James Version)

    43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the heathen do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the heathen do so?

    August 5, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      Another cut-and-paste fetishist.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:48 pm |
    • Gezus

      If only more people understood basic tenements of humanity, we wouldn't have these discussions.

      This illustration sums up these concerns and teaches those with hearts open to listen.

      August 5, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
    • sealchan

      Posting a comment with a derogatory name is a good example of what happens when you completely finished with listening and have moved on to arrogant isolation. This quote from the Bible has shown its power by provoking this immature anti-social behavior. In the simple fact of that power there is psychological truth.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bob

      Loving your enemies is not moral. It's quite immoral in my books. Goodness for the sake of goodness is never acceptable. And for my proof of this, I'll turn to Christians in the United States. For a group that claims to follow Christ, isnt' it a bid odd that the promote the death penalty more then any other group? Shouldn't these people be forgiven? Shouldn't no harm come to them. I say to you if you follow the true meaning of Christ, a man murders you child you should welcome him into your home and feed him a lovely dinner. That's immoral.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Grasshopper

      Sounds like Jesus was a good Buddhist.

      August 5, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
    • tinyprof

      Exactly. What many people overlook is that in the phrase Jesus is talking about how human beings treat each other in everyday circumstances, not about how they practice religion or observe rites. The phrase really shows that much of what Jesus of Nazareth says has to do with behavior in addition to, or even apart from, religious observance.

      August 5, 2010 at 8:13 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.