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. Willy

    Religion is childish. There's nothing to debate.

    August 5, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  2. Don

    If you tally up all the vicious vitriol in this thread so far and compare, you'll find that the overwhelming majority comes from the fingers of self-proclaimed atheists. That in and of itself makes a pretty good argument for avoiding atheism (unless you're simply into hate) as a tenet for living. Although most religious people don't voice it, what they seem to object to in Dawkins, Hitchens,and other rabid – albeit entertaining – atheists is their aggressive attempt to deny believers a sense of hope. Now why would Hitchens want to do this? So they can be as happy and charitable as he is?

    August 5, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • MuttMom

      I'd like to see your actual numbers on that.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
    • BradLW

      "Although most religious people don't voice it, what they seem to object to in Dawkins, Hitchens,and other rabid – albeit entertaining – atheists is their aggressive attempt to deny believers a sense of hope."

      Please give us examples of our "aggressive" attempts "to deny believers a sense of hope".

      Also please give us specific examples of this "hate" of which you so crassly accuse us atheists.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  3. Why?

    Having cancer should be no problem for him. he's not afraid of dying. He doesn't believe in any afterlife so there is no point in praying for him. We will all die anyway. I wonder why that is? Why do we die if there is no purpose on earth? Why don't we live as long as trees? Why is life on earth so short? Does anyone know the answer to that?

    August 5, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
    • MuttMom

      Don't bother looking for a reason we're here, there isn't one. We just are. We're a species, our brains have evolved to allow complex thought, but we're still just a species with a physical vessel that ages or gets diseased and eventually stops working. Enjoy the time you've got, laugh as much as you can, and, as another poster said, live your life until you breathe your last breath.

      August 5, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      We only have to live a life time because that is all the longer it should take to figure it out....

      August 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  4. Donna

    Luke–you're unflappable dude!! Keep it up!
    I will raise a wine glass to Mr Hitchens this evening and wish him better health and if that's not in the cards then good narcotics.

    August 5, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  5. James

    Prayers are a huge waste of time and a sign ignorance and not being in touch with reality. As an atheist, I personally can't stand it when someone tells me they will pray for me. Even if they mean well, I don't want them involving me in their ignorance.

    Religion is nothing by a security blanket. When we were children, our parents told us about Santa Claus and if we didn't behave, we wouldn't get any gifts. When we reached a certain age, our parents broke the news to us that there is no Santa Claus. Well, the fairy tail of god is the same, it's just for behavior modification, the only problem is your parents forgot to tell you that there is no god when you grew up.

    Hail Santa!

    August 5, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      What? Is my bro here?

      Aww, he's gone again......tartar sauce!

      August 5, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
  6. Jihad

    Studies and statistics consistently reveal that people who do not believe in God have a short life span, IQs much lower than Somali pirates and small penises or breasts. It's true...I read it on a post just like yours Luke.

    August 5, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
    • Really??

      My uncle was a lifelong atheist and lived to be the ripe old age of 91.
      And, by the way, he was one of the kindest men I knew. Never judged people and left everything to various charities. Pretty good for a non-believer. And I would bet he is where we all end up.. ..Dust in the wind.

      August 5, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • Luke

      Well, not that I have any way of proving over the internet, but I am a member of MENSA and have three degrees in finance. Those darn Pirates sure do study a lot I guess. Shucks!

      August 5, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      You are talking about your uncle's body....but what about his soul?

      August 5, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  7. Jim

    When asked what the greatest commandment was Jesus replied with Love One Another. Pretty simple....apparently not so easy...but simple. Hitchens is an interesting human being period. My Faith is mine and his is his. I can mourn his illness and pray for his soul according to MY Faith. Trust me, I can find a reason to pray for anyone.....anyone.

    August 5, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
    • LouAz

      Well get busy praying then. Humanity is a mess ! For 10,000 years we have been killing each other in the name of . . .
      Oh, never mind.

      August 5, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  8. joy

    The man is a fellow human. Have some compassion. Why does everything have to be a debate in this COUNTRY! So he doesnt believe in GOD. That is for him and GOD to work out one day. I have learned all the debate in the world isnt going to change how someone feels if they are passionate. Live and let Live. If you believe then pray for the man if not then so be it. I am a Christian and dont believe that calling names and telling someone they are wrong by not to believeing is my business. It doenst change my right to practice my religion. We live in a free country. I think many have forgotten that this gives us a right to believe what we wont. All this petty fighting isnt doing anyone any good. Calling someone names isnt a good way to get ur message across. It only makes you and the others in ur religion look silly

    August 5, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  9. Debbie

    Great debate with Christopher Hitchens for those interested... tried to find a link to transcript of it (I could've sworn I've read one before), but just do a web search of "Christopher Hitchens debate William Lane Craig" on "Does God Exist".

    August 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  10. Ladislav Nemec, Big Bear, CA

    I survived two cancers (probably related) 10 and 7 years ago. As an agnostic, I give primary credit to Sloan Kettering in New York but, since some of my friends prayed for me, I do not eliminate Divine Intervention. With cancer one can use all what one can get. I did not pray – I may even remember Pater Noster in Latin (and my native Czech) but I feel (I may be, of course, wrong) that the Almighty has other things to do (creating new universes, for instance) than to listen to each prayer. Maybe He/She has some kind of Divine Computer that records these prayers and automatically puts credits to the souls. Everything is possible and I never understood why ATHEISTS (agnostics are vey different) so strongly BELIEVE in non-existence of God. Well, each of us has (or lacks to have) his/her religion of believing, not believing with 100% uncertainty what is really going on or denying God.

    The writer has some reasonably good job teaching a contemporary variation on themes taught at universities since Middle Ages, madrasses in Pakistan (with a bit of dangerous flavor) and, of course, he has to stick to his points of view. Nothing worse than hypocrits.

    I am definitely NOT going to watch any debates about the Ten Commandments or some such, with Hitchens or without him. I hope he has a chance to survive but with his type of cancer it is not very likely. Maybe he will go through death bed conversion and it may get him to the Heaven for English Intellectuals – quite a good company there like Greene and the guy who wrote the mysteries about priestly detective. He should consider that, one never knows.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  11. ShutYoTrap

    I like how the author thinks Christopher Hitchens cares about being prayed for.

    In that case, no one should pray for this guy either.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  12. Carol

    This is the best discussion I have read in ages. Pro, con, and neutral: well said and a pleasure to read. Thanks to all of you.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  13. JMcCain

    Females are strangely allowed to be un-accountable for their actions until they're about 60. Weird, huh?

    August 5, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  14. Hugh Jarce

    Just another worthless Brit who fled his homeland to peddle his bilge to Americans who are transfixed by anyone with a "cultured" tone.

    The only people who will be saddened by his passing are the executives at Johnny Walker. If they cremate him, the fire will burn for a week.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  15. DrCarrington

    I have no interest in debating religious people. Whether they're middle eastern fruitcakes, foaming southerners or brilliant scholars with lots of letters after their names. That makes me shallow and superficial. Who cares. I've already paid my debt to a society made crazy by religion. And it only continues unabated as we are bombarded daily with "important news" about what holy structures should take up space near Ground Zero, or how prayer can stop the oil spill or cure an atheist's cancer. Christopher Hitchens is a better man than me. He participates in public discussions ( possibly he gets paid ) with people who actually believe in o ghost who walks. Either he is trying to prove that his big words are the biggest or this is just another form of entertainment for him.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  16. JMcCain

    The problem here is that none of this bickering is going to prove that Obama WAS EVER BORN IN AMERICA. No birth certificate has EVER been found. Who cares if some DB has cancer. Show me Obama's birth certificate.

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

      You show me George W Bush's birth certificate and I will show you Obama's

      August 5, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  17. chunkbrother

    Well done Mr. Prothero. I am sure that it is not easy for a believer to treat an adversary with respect when he has made so many remarks that are offensive to your beliefs. If only all religious people were as tolerant as you.

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

      It's difficult to treat an advesary with respect? Do you even hear yourself?

      He's not his advesary. He's someone who has a different viewpoint. I'd dare say that it'd be morally reprehensible, even evil, to wish someone who disagreed with you some sort of physical harm.

      Not everyone thinks the same. Some people accept a book that has obvious flaws as fact. Some people don't. Some peoples faith is strengthened by stories other people tell, some people regard that as nonsense.

      The difference here is that one side bases their ideas on logic and evidence. The other is on what they feel, what they want to believe and how they can rationalize what they've seen.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
    • Ard V.

      "I am sure that it is not easy for a believer to treat an adversary with respect."

      It should be for a Christian. Oh wait – there's that hypocrisy thing that's cropped up again. DAMN! If only you Christians weren't also required to be hypocrites! So, I guess you're right – it ISN'T easy for a Christian to live up to the Commandments their imaginary god has placed them under.

      BTW – Eat shrimp much???

      August 5, 2010 at 6:37 pm |
  18. Gigi

    @wonderingmom. Chlldren are not accountable until around the age ten They are innocent because they don't know right from wrong until a certain age.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
    • Debbie

      Haha! You obviously don't have a child. Observe my 4 year old (even when she was 2) interacting with other kids for half an hour, and you'll rethink your statement "children are innocent until the age 10".

      August 5, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
  19. JT

    Religion is a sham. Always has been and always will be. Doesn't matter how much you study it, it's still based on absolutely nothing.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
    • JMcCain

      Do you mean religion is a Sham-Wow? because Sham-wow's are awesome.

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

      I don't know. I think that the slap chop is a far superior product.

      That and oxy clean.


      August 5, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
    • Bob

      BTW if heaven did exist it'd be filled with OxyClean and OrangeGlo. Because Billy Mays would certainly be there. How could he not, he could talk his way into Mother Teresa's Panties. Not that he'd want to. But if he did, he'd be a sick, sick man.

      August 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  20. Ryan

    Read his vanity fair piece if you haven't already. Love him or hate him, thats some epic writing.

    August 5, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
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