Christopher Hitchens, it seems, is dying of cancer. And he asks, in an article penned for October’s Vanity Fair, that you do not pray for him.
This is probably not news to many of you, if not most. I do not follow the man’s career, and am in fact only vaguely aware of him as one of the luminaries of the fundamentalist atheist movement of the 21st century.
As I read the piece, I found myself thinking about how sad it is that he is so bitterly intractable in his belief that God is not. There is an emptiness, a pitiable pointlessness to a life lived without such purpose that comes through in his shallow rebuff of prayers (or words of condemnation) offered on his behalf. He shows some graciousness in accepting the intercessions in the spirit in which they’re offered, before he summarily dismisses them as “bootless cries,” when he writes:
Of the astonishing and flattering number of people who wrote to me when I fell so ill, very few failed to say one of two things. Either they assured me that they wouldn’t offend me by offering prayers or they tenderly insisted that they would pray anyway. Devotional Web sites consecrated special space to the question. (If you should read this in time, by all means keep in mind that September 20 has already been designated “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day.”) Pat Archbold, at the National Catholic Register, and Deacon Greg Kandra were among the Roman Catholics who thought me a worthy object of prayer. Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters and the leader of a major congregation in Los Angeles, said the same. He has been a debating partner of mine, as have several Protestant evangelical conservatives like Pastor Douglas Wilson of the New St. Andrews College and Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. Both wrote to say that their assemblies were praying for me. And it was to them that it first occurred to me to write back, asking: Praying for what?
As with many of the Catholics who essentially pray for me to see the light as much as to get better, they were very honest. Salvation was the main point. “We are, to be sure, concerned for your health, too, but that is a very secondary consideration. ‘For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’ [Matthew 16:26.]” That was Larry Taunton. Pastor Wilson responded that when he heard the news he prayed for three things: that I would fight off the disease, that I would make myself right with eternity, and that the process would bring the two of us back into contact. He couldn’t resist adding rather puckishly that the third prayer had already been answered…
So these are some quite reputable Catholics, Jews, and Protestants who think that I might in some sense of the word be worth saving.
As someone who has toyed, in my darker moments, with temptations of atheism, lost as I’ve sometimes gotten in the seeming contradiction, paradoxes and intellectual inconsistencies of the things we believe, I sympathize with some of Mr. Hitchens’ bewilderment in the text with the behavior of some believers. Christians are nothing if not hypocrites, to be honest. After all, if we weren’t, there’d be no need for Christ.
But at the end of the day, something I’ve discovered that seems to have eluded Mr. Hitchens’ grasp is the simple realization that outside of any particular conviction or creed, without something good and and noble to believe in, I am a petty, selfish, ugly person. The realization of the meaninglessness of a life without God goes a long way in motivating a man to at the very least desire faith. Even if he struggles with it. Even if he is quite certain he will never perfectly attain it.
I recently spoke to an atheist who had tragically lost someone very dear to them, someone who vehemently believed that there was no God. This individual recounted how a family member at the funeral expressed a desire that the deceased was “with God” and “in a better place.” He was outraged when he heard the comment, because the person who said it knew what the deceased believed, or, rather, didn’t. He thought it would have been a huge disappointment for the deceased to wake up and find themselves in heaven after spending so long believing that there could be no such thing.
I made a passing attempt at analogy, offering the suggestion that if a person spent their life believing that they would hate sushi, and finally liked it when they had the chance to try it, would that be such a bad thing? Would heaven be a let down to a person who got there and found that it was great after all?
We will, of course, pray for Mr. Hitchens’ salvation whether he wants it or not. If he’s right, he’ll come to no harm from it. If we’re right, we can only hope he’ll be given a chance to see the truth before it’s too late.