(Photo: The Atlantic via The Christian Post)
With less than two weeks before “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day,” cancer-stricken Christopher Hitchens is encouraging believers to hold off on praying for him.
“I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries,” the atheist author wrote in a first-person article for Vanity Fair’s October 2010 issue.
“Unless, of course, it makes you feel better,” he added, echoing a past comment.
Last month, in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Hitchens said he was well aware of the prayer groups that have formed since he announced late June that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – the same cancer his father died of.
When asked if he told people not to pray for him, the devoted atheist told Cooper, “No,” but said those who feel better in doing so “have my blessing.”
In an interview days later with The Atlantic, Hitchens also said, “I take it (prayer) kindly on the assumption that people are praying for my recovery.”
Now, about a month after the interviews, Hitchens appears to have decided to discourage prayer – particularly on Sept. 20 – noting in his Vanity Fair piece that it would present him with another “secular problem.”
“[W]hat if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating,” he wrote.
Author of the New York Times bestseller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens is one of the most prominent figures in the “new atheism” movement, though the English-born author describes himself as an anti-theist.
Hitchens contends that organized religion is "the main source of hatred in the world" and has appeared in a number of debates with Christian theologians and pastors, including Pastor Douglas Wilson, who Hitchens engaged in a series of written debates on the question "Is Christianity Good for the World?"
In his Vanity Fair piece, Hitchens said Wilson was among those praying for him and that the Moscow, Idaho-based pastor was praying 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,” Hitchens remarked.
To date, Hitchens says he’s received an “astonishing and flattering” number of correspondences from people regarding his illness.
And “very few,” he said, 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,” Hitchens shared.
He also noted that there are some “quite reputable Catholics, Jews, and Protestants who think that I might in some sense of the word be worth saving,” including renowned geneticist and believer Dr. Francis Collins, who Hitchens described as “one of the greatest living Americans.”
“He has been kind enough to visit me in his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case. And let me put it this way: he hasn’t suggested prayer, and I in turn haven’t teased him about The Screwtape Letters,” Hitchens wrote.
But not all, unsurprisingly, have been praying for Hitchens’ well-being. Some have been praying for him to die “a horrible agonizing death,” while others have been praying for him to burn in hell.
Some even believe the tumor in his esophagus is “God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him,” though the cancer has yet spread to his throat.
But, as Hitchens noted, cancer is “quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers.”
Furthermore, he says, “even if my voice goes before I do, I shall continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it’s hello darkness my old friend.”
Even if he developed cancer of the brain and became a “terrified, half-aware imbecile” who near death would call for a priest, Hitchens insists “while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’”
“[T]he god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe,” he said, calling out those who “ditch” long-held principles “in hope of gaining favor at the last minute.”
While not mentioned, some have interpreted Hitchens' "entity" remarks to be a subtle reference to the late Professor Antony Flew, who became a deist six years ago after championing atheism for most of his life.
Flew, who died this past April, was one of the best-known atheists of his generation. And to this day, his conversion remains contentious as there were doubts over Flew's mental capacities after 2004.
"With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand," wrote New York Times Magazine writer Mark Oppenheimer after meeting up with Flew in England prior to the professor’s death.
To guard against such an occurrence and to dispel potential rumors, Hitchens has insisted that any story about him making a death bed conversion should be quickly rejected.
“If that comes, it will be when I'm very ill, when I'm half demented, either by drugs or pain where I wouldn't have control over what I say,” Hitchens told Anderson Cooper last month.
“I can't say that the entity … wouldn't be me,” he added. But while he’s still “lucid,” Hitchens said he “wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing.”
“So if there is some story that on your death bed …” Cooper began to ask.
“Don't believe it,” Hitchens quickly responded.