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. JT

    Nothing fails like prayer. Churches all over the country organized prayer to stop the oil leak in the gulf but...of course...this bronze age tactic did nothing to help except give the delusional a feeling they were somehow helping.

    August 6, 2010 at 9:52 am |
    • David Johnson


      But, the leak did stop...eventually. God does not think like you and I. Sometimes when we ask for something, god says, "wait".

      God said "Wait". Millions of gallons of oil poured into the Gulf, while we waited. Then god made it look like BP and advanced technology plugged the leak. That 'ol god works in mysterious ways. Yes, he does.

      August 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
    • Guest

      David Johnson–

      Now if we could just stop the killing of the innocent, in what should be the safest place in the world-a mother's womb.

      August 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • Sanity Claws


      You unwittingly bring to light a flaw in your thinking. "Should" is not the same as "What is actually true."

      The fact is that our physical reality is massively dangerous to any organism, regardless of what you would prefer.

      August 6, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
    • Guest

      Over 50 million facts and counting, I know where your coming from, I just can't figure where your going, I wonder if you even know.....that's "your" free will-not mine,

      August 6, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  2. Dale

    Somebody on this thread accused me of being a goose-stepping Christian. I'm actually an agnostic. But, in my post, I committed the cardinal sin of doubting the argument that the end of religion would lead to a world without hatred and violence. In recent years, I've been at odds in discussions about religion with both my religious and my atheist friends and acquaintances. With the former because of my skepticism about religioun, with the latter because I am skeptical about what the world would be like without religion. I will say that, without question, the atheists have been far more venomous than the believers. Just take a look at the posts on this thread.

    August 6, 2010 at 9:20 am |
    • Luke

      I think for your own sake, you need to start thinking about where the line is drawn. The problem for skeptics alike is that where gaps and questions arise, the faithful tend to inject the entire religious philosophy. The question of morality is a very important to question that must be addressed. What would the world look like without the rise of religion? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. If monotheistic religions failed (they rose because of the sword) and the philosophies of Jainism and Buddhism rose, I believe the globe would be a much safer place. If the Christians conquered everyone, then the world would be peaceful now, but at what cost? Then we need to start addressing whether or not religion has run its course. We now understand the topic of ethics and morality much better than centuries ago and know that people can live moral lives without the influence of one specific religion. That is, no organized society allows murder, but an ill-informed American would say that it was the Ten Commandments that outlawed murdering (while it does not outlaw genocide or slavery, but that is for another topic). Clearly, this statement can't be true because many societies in the East have similar views, or even stricter views on loving thy neighbor, without the influences of Moses and his tablets. In the end, we now understand that it is not fully necessary to inject the full religious philosophy simply to draw out morality. Again, I ask...which religion. I hear the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is very moral and completely non-violent.

      August 6, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • Dale

      @Luke: Thanks for your thoughtful and useful (and entirely non-venomous!) post. It's an increasingly rare exception to my contention that debate about religion is largely futile. To the assertions of atheists, the faithful either issue religious platitudes, promises of prayers, or consignments to hell. To the assertions of the faithful, atheists most often respond with their own declarations and accusations that the faithful are all dimwits. Try making any rhetorical progress in that climate.

      August 6, 2010 at 10:06 am |
    • Jim


      Your premise is incorrect on at least one major point (which bellies the falsity of your reasoning) – Christianity doesn't conquer because that is not what Christianity (as defined by being a Christian [literal translation=little christ] who follows Jesus who advocated against conquering and domination) is or does.


      August 6, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • Luke

      Jim – Did you sleep through the first 2000 years of Christianity's history? Uh...maybe the Crusades? Inquisition perhaps?

      August 6, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  3. Just One


    August 6, 2010 at 8:07 am |
    • Luke

      Good one! Comes from the texts of Jainism, not Christianity. Did you know that?

      August 6, 2010 at 8:56 am |
    • Jim

      Actually it is found in both and there is no borrowing from each other going on either.

      August 6, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • Luke

      Jim – I am not going to even bother placating you. Jainism predates Judaism, and therefore Christianity. There is nothing original about the philosophies of Christianity. You lie so much, you begin to believe it.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
    • Guest


      I thought you were spawn of the Father of Lies, don't tell me that was a lie too.....

      August 6, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
    • Luke

      Guest – Father of Lies? Is that a new comic book character?

      August 7, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  4. Tom

    I'm always amused when religious people tell Atheists that they are "so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject". On the contrary most atheists are people that were raised in a Religious home as i was and thought supernatural explanations lacking. It's laughable that someone can be an expert about a fairy tale or a completely made up subject.

    August 6, 2010 at 8:07 am |
    • MandoZink

      Tom, I must say there truly are fairy tale experts. As a modern example, just look at all the Star Trek aficionados. To back your point, however, I arrived at my atheism during my spiritual quest where I became very familiar with a number of religions. It was an awesome awakening. That understanding of the true nature of reality and religion was a great comfort during my own cancer episode. I was the least worried of all my friends and relatives, as I understood the reality of the odds, which were on my side for this particular cancer.

      August 6, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • Guest

      Expert Tom-

      Please explain "your" religion, for all of us.

      August 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
  5. Carol

    "never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject."

    That's a pretty fast way to destroy your own credibility. While I disagree with Hitchens on several issues, like the Iraqi war, one thing I can never say is that he has an uninformed opinion. The only question I have, after studying comparative religions for years and actually living in India, is where he gets the idea that Krishna was born to a virgin. His birth mother was certainly not a virgin.

    August 6, 2010 at 3:13 am |
  6. DoltMasher

    The one-text phiosophers never cease to amaze me, particularly in their capacity not to understand their professed theology. Most are followers of Paul (formerly known as Saul); not Jesus. My amusement and terror stem from the fact that the devout don't understand the distinction and feel obliged to make it up as they go along according to whomever they listen to on Sunday...no thought, reading or personal discovery required.

    For those that tuned in to see the decay of an irreligious man, what you saw was pure human soul.; a soul worthy of the label 'human', a soul worthy of its existence.

    August 6, 2010 at 2:39 am |
    • Jim

      One post philosophers who make claims with no support are no better my friend. You make a claim and do not back it up at all.


      August 6, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • Guest

      Still a soul created by God, with a free will,--Be not incredulous, but believing...that you may have life in His name

      August 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  7. ComAgain

    The catholic faith is responsible for so many murders, as in the crusades, it is just appaling that anyone would want to be a part of it.

    Lately, the catholics are still murdering, where they suppress any use of a condom in their African contolled zones. Of course that has augmented the spread of AIDS, where it could spread even farther. The real insiduous motive of that, is so they can report that they are growing their flock....sheesh.
    How come they have relics of real people that live thousands of years before jesus. Kink Tut, and oh so many more "real" persons come to mind.

    There is no proof that jesus existed, and there never will be! Pure fabrication.

    For an ivy leager, I guess critical reasoning was never a requirement for your graduation. Apologies for your grieving.

    August 6, 2010 at 1:50 am |
    • CatholicMom

      The use of condoms has increased the spread of AIDs; seatbelts when first implemented increased death by car accidents because people thought 'now they could drive faster because the seatbelt would save them'. People thought they could have more s*x with more partners, etc., etc. because of the condom; many got careless in their use of condoms...thus more AIDs.

      August 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
  8. ralph D.

    Stephen: Hitchens is infinitely correct in his post-mortem of Falwell, and you undoubtedly and sanctimoniously know it. Shame on you. We may be kin through my South Carolina ancestors Nathaniel and Evan Prothro, and thence all the way back to 1089 in Dolwylam. Shape up, Mother Theresa is watching.

    August 6, 2010 at 1:31 am |
  9. an infrequent viewer

    This posts grieves me.... it is a complete misrepresentation of the origin of Christianity – Jesus who founded the Church and established a man (flawed but gifted with the Holy Spirit} = Peter as the Rock – the Pope. Jesus is the Divine Mercy. Please do not forget the power of the Catholic Faith and all who join with us. It has saved our nation countless times before.

    Hey – call me crazy – I have an Ivy League degree, too.....

    \May Our Savior bless you all!


    August 6, 2010 at 1:19 am |
    • JT

      Proof that an "Ivy League degree" isn't a cure for delusions or enables one to cast off silly superstitions.

      August 6, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  10. ComAgain

    Hitchens is a bright light against the dark ages of religious dogma, and anti progressive oppression.

    All three most damning religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all come from the same location. Does anyone smell a rat here?

    To be a blind beliver in these so called religions means an abandonment of any critical reasoning, and adherents should merit little influence in our society.

    Furthermore, as religions are influencing the sheeps into political maneuvering, the tax laws need to be changed, and longer afford any preferentials treatments to any church, synagogue, temple or mosque.

    Althought, this is ideal, but not possible, children should not be brainwashed in any faith by the parents, but should be educated in all religions, and get to choose whatever, or nothing when they reach the age of majority.

    This is just a start....any feedback 🙂

    August 6, 2010 at 12:54 am |
    • JT

      Children should be taught critical thinking skills and encouraged to question religious dogma. Religious study should be taught in the same context as Greek mythology. Virgin birth, talking snakes, people rising from the dead after three days, etc. should be laughed at instead of taught as fact.

      Children should be taught the difference between delusion and reason.

      August 6, 2010 at 10:25 am |
  11. meg

    I could care less what you think in general, much less what you think of Chris Hitchens. I am far more offended by the fact that you attempted to use an adverb to modify a noun. Hitchens probably would be, too.

    August 6, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  12. Kitty Kelso

    Mr. Hutchins is turning over his thoughts and concerns over and over in his mind.. Who does he think is listening? The ability to haave such a close buddy to be there for venting at any time, any place, under any circumstance is a miracle in itself. God doesn't agree with you, but He will be with you in your darkest moments, and you will remember this. It is Spirit, and it is free.

    August 6, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  13. Sanity Claws

    For anyone wanting to know my responses to IMJ in my post above, you'll have to wait for the "moderators".

    August 5, 2010 at 11:26 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      I've had it with this "secret" moderation business. If there are key words to avoid, they should be listed in the Terms of Service.

      I will now go back to my troll cave and reflect upon the way of transgressors...and how it's all a bunch of hooey...

      August 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
    • IMJ

      I have to go to work in the morning so I will say good night.
      If there are words that are preventing you from posting then you can try to put a dash or space between letters.
      The L O R D is my G-d. Something like that.
      Also you can run wordsTogether and delimit the words by using a capital letter to start each word.

      You can also type the word backwords like mirror writing rorrim gnitirw.

      August 5, 2010 at 11:44 pm |
    • verify

      Yes, it is very frustrating, Sanity. I have gotten "awaiting moderation" a couple of times... and sometimes I click "post" and it just doesn't appear (resubmit and it's "you already said that"). I have never used any obviously objectionable words. I'm thinking that maybe people might be spitefully clicking 'abuse' and that triggers something. Who knows which magic words are disallowed - they could highlight them when we type, like with the misspellings' red squiggle. Good luck to you.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  14. steve

    Say what you will, Mr. Hitchens is not a hypocrite like all the other so called Christians I have ever known.
    Former (thank God) Baptist minister.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:14 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      I wish you would contact Scott Hahn....

      August 5, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  15. Meredith Wales

    Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher are two of the bravest individuals on the planet...they speak their mind and have faith.
    Faith that personal honesty is the truth that saves us all. It is so clear that whether you follow religion or not it doesn't matter.
    What matters is whether you promote honesty or hate. Many of the "Christian" comments of the fanantical right show hate and fear and darkness. Thank you Mr.Hitchens for the light.

    August 5, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  16. R Huckabee

    I hope MR. Hitchens does exactly as he pleases for the rest of his life and that somehow he has a long one. I relish seeing him address any topic and enjoy his presentation every time the subject is superstition. What I do not like is that every bum lke this Prothero fellow that makes his living with or about religion will be crowing about this or that connection to Mr. Hitchens. They'll all now be clambering to appear on the same stage with him hoping the lime-light of his brilliance will give them some status among the fools that follow them. But we all know that is ill got gain and we will remember Mr. Hitchens long after they are forgot; even as they remain after his life is gone. For they will then only exist in a darkness lost and dead to us without their Hitchens to illuminate them. They will not deserve even our pity.

    August 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm |
  17. Ian Brown

    When you find yourself arguing with strangers on the Internet, it's time to reevaluate your life.

    Oh, and if you want to avoid this man's fate, don't smoke like a chimney and drink excessively. Especially if, like Hitchens, you have a first degree relative who died of esophageal cancer (his father). Esophageal cancer is very rare in non-smokers.

    August 5, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      Ian, I'll bet that, way, way, way deep down..you're a real Fine Fellow...

      August 5, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
  18. Reflecting Pool Discourse Blog

    In characterizing what he calls a "Hitchenesque ... body slam," Prothero seems to equate comments Hitchens made about Falwell AFTER Falwell's "sudden cardiac death," with comments he (Prothero) might have made about Christropher Hitchens in the face of a fresh news announcement about Hitchin's dismal cancer prognosis. Those are two totally different circumstances - and Prothero's gross errors in judgment & perception are common in the echo chambers of dogmatism, but largely unheard of in the halls of genuine Compassion. Yet Prothero proceeded to engage in precisely that conduct he had just declared unscrupulous, while defrauding readers into believing he had forsaken that golden opportunity. The surreptitious flim-flam skills of the adroit dogmatist moving words faster than the eye can see. But perhaps Prothero's disguised attack and disingenuous proclamations of 'caring' is fitting here, because if anything about this situation is "Hitchenesque" it would be Hitchen's profound disrespect for iron-fisted 'dogmatists' masquerading as enlightened religious nobles who are 'fighting the good fight' for God, good and religion, while leaving behind a bloody trail of hate, prejudice, ethnic derision, and denigrations of other Compassion-based religions. Prothero speaks the unmistakable language of dogmatism, and make no mistake about it, this is what the fighting has always been about - "Religion as Dogma" versus "Religiousness Manifesting as Sincere Compassion." It's why we see so little Compassion and so much hate from the Religious Political Right ideologues, whether it's the Falwell American brand or the Afghanistan Islamic brand of Religious Fundamentalism. Two totally different epistemologies. And you can distinguish them by their fruits. "Reflecting Pool Discourse" - "Has Religion Forsaken Spirituality?" (google it)

    August 5, 2010 at 10:33 pm |
  19. Robert

    " I have been known to lapse into prayer on occasion, but I did not pray for Hitchens, and I don't expect I will." ??!! The lost are the FIRST ones we are supposed to pray for and reach out to! It is NOT up to us to determine who is worthy of our prayers, and to do so places you in God's place instead of obeying him and doing what he tells you.

    I cannot believe you said that, Stephen Prothero

    August 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
  20. Hitchtodayandtomorrow


    Christopher, through logic and reason and not faith, has propelled arguments that have left people like yourself in debates holding the empty sack as he likes to say....as you readily admit.

    The truly great thing is that regardless of what happens he is in part responsible for starting something that has been needed for a long, long time so you are right in that we need more Christopher Hitchens, and more of his type in this world.

    I"m drinking scotch tonight....

    August 5, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
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