Spring 2011, Vol. 13, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Month of the Condom

Political Islamophobia

Our Christian Nation

Sharia Isn't OK

The Religion Gap Abides

Not a Witch but a What?

The Fall of Eddie Long

No Goyim Need Apply

The Golb Affair

Praying for Christopher Hitchens



Praying For Christopher Hitchens
by Daniel W. Morgan

A chief instigator in the recent atheist war of words on religion, Christopher Hitchens, has spent many years rising to his own challenge to go anywhere to debate anyone in order to establish the superiority of atheism to any religion. From stages all over the world, Hitchens has engaged in formal debate with dozens of advocates of religion, purposefully stepping on as many toes as possible.

“Christopher Hitchens can be smart, acerbic, funny, mean, insightful, and thick. He defends Western Civilization while, via his outspoken atheism, semantically chipping away at the Christian pillars that support it,” Pat Archbold, a Catholic writer who has disputed Hitchens on stage, wrote in the National Catholic Register on July 1. “In short, Christopher Hitchens is a frustrating person.Christopher Hitchens is also very sick.”

Archbold wasn’t making a nasty crack about Hitchens’ sanity, he was reflecting on the early June announcement that the polemicist was suffering from Stage Four esophageal cancer. What followed that announcement was striking, even to Hitchens: an outpouring of public statements from religious figures who told the world that Hitchens was in their prayers.

“Hitchens seeks by means of specious argument, insinuation, and sometimes plain smear-tactics to undermine religion,” the Rev. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest from Chicago, wrote in a June 15 column posted on CNN’s website. “He ought to be opposed, vigorously, with counter-argument and clarification of fact. But all the while, he ought to be respected.”

There were so many stories, blogs, and statements from religious folk about Hitchens and his illness, that Hitchens himself wrote an article in the October Vanity Fair reflecting on the paradox and expressing his profound indifference to the prayers others were uttering on his behalf. “Even if my voice stops before I do, I will continue to write polemics against religious delusions,” Hitchens wrote.

At some level, this outpouring of religious sentiment—especially from Christians—reveals believers seizing an opportunity to do publicly what their faith requires of them: love their enemy. More than that, it gave Christians a chance to pray for Hitchens’ “imperiled” soul. “We are, to be sure, concerned for your health, too, but that is a very secondary consideration,” blogger Larry Taunton was quoted by Hitchens in the Vanity Fair piece. “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’ [Matthew 16:26.]”

Characteristically, Hitchens scorned gestures like Taunton’s: “If I were to announce that I had suddenly converted to Catholicism, I know that Larry Taunton and Douglas Wilson would feel I had fallen into grievous error. On the other hand, if I were to join either of their Protestant evangelical groups, the followers of Rome would not think my soul was much safer than it is now, while a late-in-life decision to adhere to Judaism or Islam would inevitably lose me many prayers from both factions.”

There are, of course, those who desperately hate Hitchens, and even some who discern divine justice in his diagnosis. One Christian blog cited by Hitchens in Vanity Fair read: “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?. . . It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? . . . He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.”

However, encomia like Rabbi David Wolpe’s, delivered in the July Atlantic, were much more common. “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,” Wolpe wrote. “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.”

Hitchens, it appears, has a rare gift for friendship, perhaps especially unlikely ones. As Michael Gerson put it in his October 5 column in the Washington Post, “The ferocious critic of Christianity accepts and seeks the company of Christians. Friendship is a particular talent. One review of his memoir, Hitch-22, described it as ‘among the loveliest paeans to the dearness of one’s friends…I have ever read.’”

Hitchens emerged from the love fest as a beloved adversary, respected and admired by those who disagree with him, a contemporary version of Robert Ingersoll, the 19th-century orator and freethinker, who gloried in the nickname “the magnificent infidel” and a man whom his peers loved to hate.

This is remarkable because Hitchens, utterly unlike Ingersoll, plays rough: He likes to think of himself as a professional scoundrel. When debating Orthodox Jews, for example, he frequently stirs the pot by sneering references to Orthodox circumcision ritual, referring to the mohels who conduct the ceremonies as “bloodsucking pedophiles.” (This refers to the traditional practice known as mezizah, in which the mohel sucks blood from the circumcision wound.)

Hitchens committed this particular rap to prose in a piece in the August 29, 2005 edition of Slate: “If another man of that age were found to be slicing the foreskins of little boys and then sucking their penises and their blood, he would be in jail—one hopes—so fast that his feet wouldn’t touch the ground.”

If Hitchens was indifferent to the news that the world was praying for him, other self-identifying atheists and atheistic polemicists rose quickly to defend him from the indignity of prayer. On October 27, one leader of a university atheist student group wrote in the Rocky Mountain Collegian, “The prayers all-too-publically defame and admonish his beliefs as an atheist.”

And then there are those religious folks who have risen lately to embrace Hitchens under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  This applies especially to conservative Protestants who spent much of 2010 savoring Hitchensonian jabs at Islam, which are only a degree or two sharper than his putdowns of Christianity.

“As the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens recently noted, ‘Islamophobia’ is a dangerous concept because the word implies irrational fear or dislike,” conservative columnist Bradley C. Glitz wrote in an August 29 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column. “But he argues, ‘Islamic preaching very often manifests precisely this feature, which is why suspicion of it is by no means irrational.’”

But what many religious individuals may fail to appreciate is that the sword cuts harshly both ways—as Hitchens reminded everyone in his February 19, 2007 article in Slate: “‘See how the Christians love each other!’ This used to be the secular response to the fratricide between Catholics and Protestants, let alone the schisms within the Catholic Church and the vicious quarrels between different schools of Calvinism.”

Returning to the self-made spectacle, the man himself, Hitchens responded this way when asked in a November 26 Newsnight interview whether or not he was afraid of death: “Well of death, no. Of dying, yes. I feel a sense of waste about it because I’m not ready. I feel a sense of betrayal to my family and even to some of my friends who would miss me. Undone things, unattained objectives. But I hope I’d always have that, if I was 100 when I was checking out.

“But no, I think my main fear is of being incapacitated or imbecilic at the end. That of course, is not something to be afraid of, it’s something to be terrified of.”

Hitchens on Religion

 Religion is “making a living out of lying to children. That’s what the priesthood do. And if all they did was lie to the children, it would be bad enough. But they rape them and torture them and then hope we’ll call it ‘abuse’” — Debate with his brother, Peter Hitchens, carried on CNN on April 3, 2010.

 “If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.” — On Hannity and Colmes, June 6, 2007.

 “I would say that millions of people are much worse off for [Mother Teresa’s] efforts. On an Irish radio show on a recent Sunday morning, I said, ‘I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to’.”
— July 19, 2007,

“Religion is made up by a primate species which is one step evolved from the chimpanzee, and it shows.”
— Toronto Globe and Mail, October 23, 2010.


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