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. 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 10:13 pm |
  2. Rob W.

    The cancer, like other inherited diseases, is co-morbid to his alcholism and a pity he was never able to get a handle on this other pernicious condition. I suspect there were numerous other alkies in Hitchens family tree (mother committed suicide, one of the more common outcomes of this genetically determined brain disease.) and the extreme behaviours associated with a family contending with a clinically irrational head of the household. Father's tend to stay outside the home, children run off at the first opportunity and other children succumb to their parent's genetic legacy. You will find, understandably, atheist ranks filled with the children of alcholics who could not reconcile religion and basic spiritual beneficence to their horrifically diseased and insane households. (And perfectly rational for anyone in this circumstance who does not understand the disease.)

    August 9, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  3. YoungMoney

    Prothero claims Hitchens doesn't know his subject.. wow... What he really means is this.. Hitchens doesn't know the exact complex fabric of lies, delusions, hopes and myths that Prothero has personally created as his own individual coping strategy for dealing with the fact that Prothero is personally scared of death and a meaningless existence. The believer hopes that Hitch will live long enough that he gets a platform to espouse these delusions, and the possible lunch afterwards. Christianity trying to be classy and just sounding unnecessary, selfish, incorrect and offensive. Nothing new

    August 9, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  4. PsiCop

    So a militant religionist doesn't like Hitchens? Is this supposed to be a surprise or something? Am I supposed to believe that Prothero - the guy who wants mandatory religion classes in public schools - even has the slightest clue what Hitchens has to say? Seriously?

    August 7, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
  5. Ed Yang

    Also worth noting is his brother, Peter Hitchens. Peter was also an atheist but is now Born Again: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1255983/How-I-God-peace-atheist-brother-PETER-HITCHENS-traces-journey-Christianity.html

    August 7, 2010 at 3:23 am |
    • PsiCop

      So what if Christopher Hitchens's brother is born again? What does that matter? It grants neither man any veracity. About the only thing it does, is contradict the assumption widely made by religionists that Christopher Hitchens doesn't know any believers and therefore doesn't understand them. Of course he does. He just disagrees with them. Which is something that - oddly enough - he is entitled to do!

      August 7, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  6. Ed Yang

    Ecclesiastes 3:11 "He has also set eternity in the hearts of men..." Everyone has a yearning that there is something more to this life. We are all looking for something, and that something is Jesus. There is enough historical proof that he existed, died and rose from the dead three days later, appearing to thousands. Please review "Reason for God" by Keller or "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" by McDowell or any book by Lee Strobel who used to be an atheist. God bless Hitchens...

    August 7, 2010 at 3:20 am |
  7. TheRationale

    Prayer works. That's why there aren't any problems in life. Duh.

    August 6, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
  8. zach

    Is it reasonable for a so called real Christian to take comfort in the suffering and death of another human being? It appears some people have lost their way.

    Hitchen's will most likely die, but he is unyielding in his beliefs, and has displayed more integrity in the face death than most display in a lifetime.

    He is stoic but not made of stone, I think that he acknowledges –as a humanist– that prayer, in this instance, is simply human empathy taking form.

    August 6, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
    • Kenster

      I think I just heard a nail being hit on the head.

      August 6, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
    • zach

      thank you.

      August 7, 2010 at 3:59 am |
  9. 333


    I hope he recovers as well!!

    August 6, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  10. forest

    To all who have written, christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever, I ask one simple question, where is the love? Whatever you believe, basic humanity requires us to love one another; a difficult task indeed, considering human history. One can debate the deity of Jesus Christ, but you cannot avoid his basic teaching, love. This feeling can be found in each human heart. It doesn't have to be conjured through "prayer"; it is as real as hate, anger, joy or any human emotion. If Mr Hitchins has read any of this, I am sure he is thoroughly amused. I hope he recovers, he is an interesting human being.

    August 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • Guest

      After prayer, what's the best medicine?

      August 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      forest, you sound like an interesting human being yourself. Good post.

      August 6, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
    • Luke

      Forest, don't you see...

      People like me get a little bent out of shape because Christians tend lay this trap and essentially say that without Christ, there is no love, like they have some sort of patent on it or that Jesus himself invented love or some crap. It's quite simply not true. Love is an emotion all of us have felt whether for another human being, a pet or a baseball team and it certainly didn't begin a few centuries ago.

      I've had an extended debate with open minded Christians and after a few hours, I was able to reduce religion, specifically Abrahamic religions, down to their charity, philanthropic work and moral teachings. Once we get there (it's hard!), we can start to see that you don't need to inject the rest of the mumbo jumbo in order to be a loving, caring human that is kind to his fellow man. Then I usually ask – why bother with the religion? If you have an open mind, this question takes a long time to contemplate and answer intelligently. The generic "just in case" or "what if you're wrong" or blah blah blah whargarbargla doesn't fly.

      August 6, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
    • forest

      Luke, I promise that I see clearly and my mind is always open. What you question is faith. A "mystery" that cannot be quantified or explained. Debated, endlessly. Thanks for the post.

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

      forest – Faith most certianly is questioned every day. By people like me, I question the entire lot of you. The most hilarious part of that little quip is that the Christians question Muslim's faith in Mohammed's teachings, the Jews questions all of you and me, the Muslim's question the Christians and hate me and parts of the far east just think you're all nuts for not worshiping the universe itself. Then there's those Cargo Cults (google it) that worship an American WWII soldier dude, and you question them. The only way out, forest, is to pack up and give up.

      August 7, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • CatholicMom

      forest and Luke,
      Love is not an emotion. People decide to love. You decide to love your neighbor; you decide to love your enemy.
      This is why our religion is all about Faith, Hope, and Charity [another word for Love].

      August 7, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
    • Luke

      CatholicMom – First of all, it most certainly is an emotion. That's ridiculous. I, for one, made no such decision to love my wife nor my best friend. Secondly, you consistently (I've seen you post all over these boards limit your vision to human beings. Love is prevalent across most higher order species, particularly primates. The most obvious example is the mother child relationship/bond we see across the animal kingdom. Emperor penguins, for example, whale and whimper when an egg or baby is killed. They most certainly didn't decide to love their baby. Emperor penguins are also one of the few species that pair up rather than mate with many other penguins to ensure the survival of the species.

      August 7, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  11. Michael

    Stephen writes:

    "Ravi Zacharias would kill him in a debate."

    The murder metaphor reveals more about the nature of your beliefs than it is about the substantive questions to be addressed in such a debate. I am a Christian and troubled by the murder that fills the hearts of many self-identified Christians.

    August 6, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  12. 333

    First off...I did not say that they did not give her chemo... i said that they did not want to.
    The chemo was not working so that is when they did the pet scan to see what else they could do. She was on the strongest chemo there is.
    Getting the results...it was almost all gone.
    I don't know any other way you want me to prove it to you. Name it and I will. And yes it was stage 4..they gave her a year to live.

    "Did she have ABRAXANE? Avastin? Herceptin? Did they move her into a late stage clinical trial for NEXAVAR, HKI-272 or ZOMETA?"


    August 6, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
    • Luke

      Oh, so the Chemo worked, not "the Lord." I'm with you now. No proof needed. Glad your mother is ok. Have a great day.

      August 6, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  13. 333

    Wow this is sad.
    My mother was diagnosed back in February with breast cancer stage 4. It had spread to her lungs, liver and 95% of her bones. They gave her a year to live. They said that there is no cure for her and they cant do anything for her. They did not even want to give her chemo because they knew she would not live.
    4 months later she had a petscan and the results blew our mind. The Lord DOES heal...and he is REAL!
    There is no more cancer in her bones, no cancer in her liver or lungs, and what was in her breast went from a size 11.5 cm to 2cm.

    There is no reason to be bashing this guy because He is hateful and doesn't believe in God. What does that say to him?... that Christians can't love?

    Christopher if you read this I am praying for you personally that God will completely show you Himself.

    August 6, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Luke

      333 – I call BullS**t. Stage 4 breast cancer which spread to her lungs, liver and also became a new form of cancer in the bone marrow, and without chemo, her body suddenly stopped producing cancer cells. I want proof.

      Did she have ABRAXANE? Avastin? Herceptin? Did they move her into a late stage clinical trial for NEXAVAR, HKI-272 or ZOMETA? Denosumab by Amgen is better than ZOMETA, but still in phase III. What did they do? I want proof, then we can talk.

      August 6, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
    • Guest


      Do you know about RETLIN?

      August 6, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
    • Luke

      RETLIN? No, I do not know that drug and certainly isn't used front line for any form of Cancer I know nor is it in any early stage clinical trial I've studied. Did you mean Ritalin? Yes, it's manufactured by Swiss Pharma giant Novartis and competes with a number of other drugs that treat ADHD such as Adderall, Concerta, Dexadrine and Focalin. The generic name is methylphenidate. (I had to look up some of these spellings). Hope this helps. Any other questions on medications?

      August 6, 2010 at 6:04 pm |



    August 6, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
    • Gary

      gabriel , you have no clue who god is and prob never will... say hello to satan in your next life...

      August 6, 2010 at 1:38 pm |
    • MandoZink

      Speaking of... I find it truly creepy that the Christians have a god such as Satan. I guess it is a pretty convenient excuse for lapses of morality. Atheists know they are responsible for their own behavior. That is why almost NONE of them are in prisons.

      August 6, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • Guest


      Are you speaking of the Heaven we are in right now??? Did you ever think it might be a prison, just being married to you?

      August 6, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  15. vel

    Jerry Falwell was an ugly little charlatan, his death makes no difference to that fact. I'm also wondering, Mr. Prothero, just how Hitchens is unfamiliar with the bible. I suspect that you would wish he was and try to take cover in a claim that he doesn't "know" aka interpret the Bible "correctly just like you". And golly, we should thank you for not wishing Hitch dead because you are supposedly a "better man"? how "Christian" of you. It's rather sad when Christians attempt to redefine words like prayer, so their claims don't sound so ridiculous. Sorry, prayer is not defined as "paying attention" no where in any holy book, yours included. It is an act to get the actions of a god to benefit you, to offer subservience to said god. It has no evidence of working, which, I can see, being a great reason why you desperately need to redefine it.

    August 6, 2010 at 12:31 pm |



    August 6, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
    • verify

      Oral Roberts died of pneumonia - and he 'breathed' the word of the 'Lord'.

      Christopher Hitchens does not have throat cancer, btw, he has cancer of the esophagus, which is part of the digestive system.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Go to a children's cancer ward. Tell me how the babies deserve this disease.

      The incidence of cancer is no greater among atheists than believers.

      I will have a go. I speak blasphemy against god every chance I get. There is no god.

      Why do you use all caps? Are you pretending it is god who is speaking? It's just you, guy.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • Melissa

      There is no god. I've said it repeatedly and I'm just fine. Want to try scaring me again? Childish.

      August 6, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • Guest


      Courage is a gift from God, Cowardice is a tool of the Father of Lies.

      August 6, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  17. Jim

    Not praying for Hitchens is wrong (if you are a person who believes in a personal God of course). If he is lost then praying for him is the best answer (if you aren't friends with him and able to speak with him persoanlly).

    As to the absurd notion that because Hitchens would and doesn't want anyone praying for him so people shouldn't do so – that is foolish.

    1. If hitchens is right, it matters not.
    2. If Hitchens is right then it is none of his business what people do in their private life that does not affect him.
    3. Hitchens thinks he can tell people what not to do that has no impact on his life (if Hitchens is correct of course) which makes him at best a busybody and at worst a tyrant wannabe with no power.


    August 6, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  18. Foz

    Stephen, you just proved how ignorant you are in y our faith. Why not pray for your enemies? You're a living example of why religious leaders are nothing but brainwashed haters. Take a hike you're pathetic.

    August 6, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • CatholicMom

      How is it that an atheist is an enemy, as you say, to us Christians? No, they are an enemy only to themselves.

      August 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
  19. COLady

    So Stephen – are you not praying for Chris because you believe he would not appreciate it, or because you believe since his an atheist he is unworthy of your prayers? Either way, it's a very UNchristian way to behave. I've always been impressed by your open-mindedness in the past. Not so this time. You disappoint me.

    August 6, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  20. Pate-man

    First, Catholics aren't Christians. They pray to false idols and graven images.
    @Sanity Claws...... you never had faith which is evident by your lack of it now. "You" don't turn believe on and off when you want. When God does a supernatural work in your life there is no going back. YOu have never experienced this supernatural experience and the Holy Spirit doesn't dwell within you based on the ridiculous things you posted.

    August 6, 2010 at 9:56 am |
    • David Johnson

      I love the way you Christians fight over who has the one true god. A wise man once said, "Religion poisons everything".

      You are all equally wrong. None of you have any proof, for any god. You are funny.

      August 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • Sanity Claws

      If you are unable to control your own mind, then don't take it out on me. The ability to turn my "faith" on and off at will is a higher brain function, I am sure.
      And if you don't know your own mind about anything, how can you have a true "faith"?

      Can you answer any of my questions in the post you dislike? I mean, with an actual argument? Can you not trust in your "god"? If "he" made the world, why do you not trust in the reality that surrounds you? Would you prefer not to know anything real and verifiable in your quest to defend your beliefs?

      Oh, I could go on and on....and win and win and win...but fight me by answering my questions or admit that my questions make you incredibly (no pun intended) uncomfortable...!

      August 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • Guest

      Sanity Claws–

      "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." – ILN, 1/14/11

      Curious, SC what's behind you?

      August 6, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • Sanity Claws


      Hey, better luck next time, huh? Maybe when you have an argument, then? Great.

      August 6, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • Guest

      What? your Boss tell you your in over your head again?

      August 6, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      First off, you can lose your faith and your salvation but sinning. [Sounds like you are one who believes ‘once saved always saved,’ a heresy to Christianity].
      Secondly, undermining the Catholic Church undermines your ‘Christianity’. Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church…this is His Bride! He only has One Bride. If you are following the Bible try to remember where you got it in the first place…the Catholic Church. Does yours have all the Books?
      Thirdly, you do not know the Truth, for if you did you would know that Catholics do not pray to false idols and graven images. Go on line and check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, therein you will learn the Truth about the Christian faith.

      August 8, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
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