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Prayers for Mr. Hitchens

As most people who would be interested probably know, Christopher Hitchens announced recently that he is undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus. I have the impression that this is a form of cancer which is pretty difficult to cure. And since Hitchens is one of the half dozen or so most visible and hostile atheists on the public scene, a certain public drama is involved. Many Christians, and I'm among them, have a certain amount of admiration and affection for Hitchens, despite his ferocious bigotry (I see no need to mince words here) toward our faith. There are several reasons for this. One, I think, is an impression that he wishes to follow the truth wherever it leads. I emphasize "wishes" because his ability to make or follow an argument often seems to desert him when the subject is religion. For instance, in a recent review of an historical novel set in the English Reformation, Hitchens appears to denounce St. Thomas More in the strongest terms, not just as someone overpraised but as "one of history's wickedest men." (I say "appears" because I'm not 100% sure that More is the subject of that description, but I think he is.) Really, he said that. Sometimes it seems that when you scratch the surface of these English atheists you find the Rev. Ian Paisley. The whole review is a flight of classically obtuse Anglo-Protestant belligerence (you can read it here).

Another reason why some Christians may find Hitchens interesting is that he does sometimes give evidence of understanding the significance of Christianity better than most atheists and more than a few Christians. He's a bit like Nietzsche in that respect, though so far as I've seen he doesn't reach the depths that Nietzsche does. He does seem to understand--sometimes--that if the Christian faith were true the world would be a very different place from what he conceives it to be. There's an example at First Thoughts, a post by David Mills which includes an excerpt from Hitchens' review (which I have not read) of a book by fellow savage atheist Philip Pullman, in which Hitchens agrees with C.S. Lewis against Thomas Jefferson on the character of Jesus (the post is here).

I have seen mentioned in reviews of Hitchens' recently published memoir, Hitch-22, that his mother committed suicide along with a lover with whom she had left her husband. I have only seen it mentioned in one review that this lover was a clergyman, and have not seen at all what I read somewhere some years ago, I don't know where, that he was a fallen-away Catholic priest. If that is true, it might shed some light on the ferocity of Hitchens' hatred of Christianity.

There is a curious discussion taking place on that First Things post, and on one which preceded it: some people, Christians, are arguing that there is something wrong with praying for Hitchens: either that he doesn't deserve it, or that we should spend our limited prayer time praying for those closest to us, or that we have no right to interfere between Hitchens and God, or...well, I admit that I cannot comprehend this at all. Why should one not pray for anyone and everyone who comes to one's attention? Certainly we all need it, one way or another. There are a number of people for whom I pray often who either never were or have ceased to be Christians. I cannot begin to fathom any line of reasoning which would lead to the conclusion that I should stop. I'll be including Hitchens for a while.


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There is a curious discussion taking place on that First Things post, and on one which preceded it: some people, Christians, are arguing that there is something wrong with praying for Hitchens: either that he doesn't deserve it, or that we should spend our limited prayer time praying for those closest to us, or that we have no right to interfere between Hitchens and God, or...well, I admit that I cannot comprehend this at all.

Me neither. As well as being good for him, it will only be to the glory of God if Hitchens converts.

I can imagine God saying "There's no way I'm going to let Hitchens convert publicly anytime soon, because if I do my Christians will think they did it."

I read maybe twenty of the comments on that thread and was completely floored. Also, there seemed to be atheists who seemed to suspect some bad motives in our prayer. It's sad to realize that so many people not only disagrees with Christians but have such a distrust which must come from getting your notions of Christianity from the media.


I think it goes beyond the media. It's a whole mental climate, one which Hitchens has done his part to foster. What really strikes me most about these preachers of rationalism is how irrational they are. And what are they doing reading that blog in the first place? It's like they're looking for things to be outraged about.

I only read a few of the comments, but I thought some people (atheists) were arguing that we should not pray for Hitchens because he doesn't believe in, and hence doesn't want, prayer. Sometimes the argument seemed to be founded almost on etiquette, as though praying for Hitchens were akin to giving a box of Omaha steaks as a present to a vegetarian.

I think they read it because they were googling Hitchens for some reason and landed there.


The tone of the discussion may have changed since Sally T linked to it, but when I glanced at it a day or two ago the atheists seemed to be saying "Being prayed for is like being wished good luck - it makes no difference to the outcome, but at least you know you have the goodwill of the person offering", while it was (unfathomably) Christians who were saying "He doesn't want prayers, so we shouldn't offer them on his behalf." Which makes no sense whichever way you look at it.

The tone varies. Some of the atheists were pretty hostile, saying that there was something malicious in praying for him--accusing people of saying things they weren't even hinting at, such as being happy that H is being punished for his sins.

I have just found the whole thing so bizarre. The atheists are bizarre, if predictable, and also massively, massively depressing. But the most bizarre argument against praying for Hitchens that I've seen so far is a Christian's assertion that to pray for his conversion is somehow presumptuous -- I believe at some point (this was on an Anchoress thread last week) the phrase "an act of violence" was actually trotted out.

Now, I can see an atheist's thinking this, but a Christian? Since when do we not pray for people's conversions (whether they want it or not -- in fact, the very fact that we're praying for them would seem to indicate that they don't really want this gift we want them to have)?

And yes, I do think people come to FT to be angry, which is one reason I never got around to blogging for them after all. I can't stomach it.

Ah, I see that Paul saw the same comments I saw. I think there are now at least four praying-for-Hitch posts floating around the FT-O-Sphere, so the "conversation," such as it is, is all over the map in more ways than one.

I ran across some stuff earlier, via some secular media's report on Hitchens' illness, that would justify atheist animosity: people pretty much chortling that God is teaching him a lesson by giving him cancer, and looking forward to watching him grovel. That's pretty foul but in a what-do-you-expect-from-human-nature sort of way understandable. The more lofty argument that we are somehow infringing on God's prerogatives (or whatever) by praying for Hitchens just baffles me. As you say, how could we then pray for anyone's conversion?

I also ran across some reactions from the man himself; he was very gracious about those praying for him--though he doesn't think it means anything he appreciates the good will.

I'm thinking now that it shouldn't surprise me so much since I've interviewed many, many Protestant ministers who, when asked, "Do you think the best way to build a perfect world is to convert everyone to Christianity," laugh and say, "Oh, no, no." (I'm not, btw, saying that this is a totally Protestant answer. I just don't intervew Catholics ;-)) From their tone of voice, etc., they seem to be saying that anything else would be just as good. And so much mission work nowadays is not done with the idea of converting anyone. It's all social justice.

I'm am still a bit surprised to see this attitude in FT readers, though.


How many people are actual FT readers, and how many are just folks who drifted in from cyberspace, is up for grabs. But I confess that I find this "act of violence' attitude among professed faithful Catholics very strange. Since when did we get all mamby-pamby about people's feelings about our prayers?

The other strange argument I saw was that it's disgusting to talk publicly about praying for someone like Hitchens -- it's like celebrity name-dropping your prayer list all over the internet or something. OK, so we ONLY pray for obscure people, and we don't EVER EVER talk about it?

Thanks for this. I´ve always had a softspot for Hitch.

Didn't that "celebrity name-dropping" guy suggest a sort of list of people to be prayed for, prioritized by physical proximity, so that Hitchens could never reach the top? That was weird.

It seems that a lot of people do, Francesca. Others...don't.

Physical proximity? So British Christians can pray for him every day, French ones maybe twice a week....

And I can't pray for my sister and her family in Kenya because there are too many other people in between, presumably.

I s'pose there's a dispensation for family.

No, Anne-Marie, not even that--you have to know him personally. I suppose you could start walking toward him, praying for every single person you see on the way, and then once he got in sight you'd be free to pray for him.

I smell a paradox here. Before I can pray for Hitchens, I have to pray for someone closer to me than he is, but before I can pray for that person, I have to pray for someone closer to me than that person is....

Yes, it works out that way, and by design. I think the plan was that you must start from the other direction, with the people closest to you, first the ones you actually know, then strangers you see on the street, etc., and there would always be so many of the latter that you would be stuck there forever.

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