Should We Pray for Christopher Hitchens?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Christopher Hitchens, as Goldblog readers undoubtedly know, has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. I've been e-mailing a bit with him over the past couple of days, and he sounds like the same old Hitchens, which is good, because our civilization (not to mention our magazine) needs the same old Hitchens around for a while.

In one e-mail to him, I wrote, "I'm thinking of you and (insert prayer joke here)." Hitchens, who is America's most famous and pugnacious atheist, has by now received several dozen variants of this same line, undoubtedly doesn't want my prayers, and since I don't necessarily believe, in any case, that God sits in heaven keeping track of the sick and deciding for whom chemotherapy should work and for whom it should not, I don't feel overly compelled to pray for him. Though I might anyway.

This matter of theology brought to mind one of my favorite theologians, our mutual friend Rabbi David Wolpe, who has debated Hitch on innumerable occasions on the question of God's existence or non-existence. I asked David what sort of intercessory praying a believer should do on behalf of a declared non-believer, or if one should pray at all, and he wrote back with some very wise words: "I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray.  It is in any case an expression of one's deep hopes.  So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers."

So, friends and admirers of Hitchens, pray away, but expect him to consider you silly for doing so. And by the way, though Rabbi Wolpe will be praying to the Jewish God he shares with Hitchens (whether Hitchens wants to share in this gift or not), there are many different and exciting religions out there, and since Hitch believes in none of them, it is the position of Goldblog that you should pray to the god of your choice. Our colleague Jennie Rothenberg Gritz just received an e-mail, in fact, from the founder of a new religion who hopes her god will help Hitchens get better:

"Could you please pass on my thoughts, concerns, and caring to author Christopher Hitchens that he gets cured of cancer and feels better soon," this correspondent writes. "If he is in search of a religion that is not specifically about God, then he can become the second member of my newly created religion called Aloha-ism. The other religions always made me so miserable, so I created my own based on the Hawaiian lifestyle and the Spirit of Aloha marketing strategy of encouraging kinship between all humans."

Aloha-ism involves tiki lamps, and, if I understand it correctly, some sort of non-fatal use of lava.  Who, apart from Hitch, could object to such a faith?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2010/07/should-we-pray-for-christopher-hitchens/59116/