Renowned geneticist and theistic evolutionist Francis Collins was among the hundreds, if not thousands, of Christians who set apart time Monday to pray for prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens.
But while many prayed for the polemic author to fight off his esophageal cancer and for the self-described “anti-theist” to get right with God, Collins said he prayed for wisdom for both him and his friend, whom he met a few years ago for an “intellectual joust.”
“My prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention – as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience,” wrote Collins in a special piece for the Washington Post that was published on “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day.”
“Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5,” added the world renowned geneticist, citing a verse in the Bible that states, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."
Since it was revealed in June that Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – the same cancer that killed his father – Collins said he reached out to the God Is Not Great author and his wife, and has met with them several times since.
“As the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” reported Collins, who successfully led efforts to map the human genetic code before being tapped by President Obama to lead the nation's premiere medical research agency.
“Advances are occurring with great rapidity as technologies arising from the success of the Human Genome Project are making it possible to get a comprehensive understanding of what drives malignancy,” added Collins. ”The ability to match cancer drugs to the characteristics of an individual tumor is growing rapidly.”
Noting that Hitchens’ cancer had already spread to regional lymph nodes, Collins acknowledged that Hitchens’ situation is “very serious” and has a “poor prognosis.”
Pursuing “all avenues of intervention, even if experimental, would be highly advisable,” he added.
While Collins is by no means the typical Christian given his work, his belief in evolution, and his defense of embryonic stem cell research, the physician's relationship with Hitchens still came as a surprise to many given Hitchens' "militant" brand of atheism.
But for those who are surprised by how an anti-God intellectual and a pro-God man of faith could become friends, Collins suggested that, despite the current political climate in Washington, not everyone who disagrees with you is your enemy.
Furthermore, Collins noted how Hitchens’ “sharp intellect” has challenged his own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling.
"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," he said, citing Proverbs 27:17.
And despite Hitchens’ "enfant terrible" reputation, Collins testified to Hitchens’ “warm humanity.”
“And his willingness to be utterly open and transparent about his cancer diagnosis provides a breathtaking window into his personal integrity,” he added.
As for Hitchens, the bestselling author has expressed similarly flattering remarks regarding his evangelical friend.
In a first-person piece for Vanity Fair, Hitchens described Collins as “one of the greatest living Americans,” a “great humanitarian” and “the best of the faithful” who have approached him since news spread of his cancer diagnosis.
“And let me put it this way: he hasn’t suggested prayer, and I in turn haven’t teased him about The Screwtape Letters,” the English-born author added, referring to the Christian apologetics novel by C. S. Lewis. In the story, which takes the form of a series of letters, a senior demon, Screwtape, advises his nephew on methods of securing the damnation of a British man, known only as "the Patient."
As for others who planned to pray for him Monday, Hitchens told The Associated Press how he would respond to each.
"'To hell with you' is the response to the ones who pray for me to go to hell," Hitchens said.
"'Thanks but no thanks' is the reply to those who want me to convert and recognize a divinity or deity," he added.
As for the third group - people who are asking God for his healing - Hitchens was more careful with his words and ultimately said he thinks of it as a “nice gesture” that is “fine by me.”
“And it may well make them feel better, which is a good thing in itself," added Hitchens, reiterating what he’s said in previous interviews.
Hitchens has also emphasized in previous interviews that he would never make a deathbed conversion unless he was “very ill” or “half demented, either by drugs or pain where I wouldn’t have control over what I say.”
“I can’t say that entity … wouldn’t be me,” Hitchens told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last month. But while he’s still “lucid,” HItchens said he “wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing.”
"Don't believe it," Hitchens announced in advance to those who hear any rumors of a deathbed conversion.