That’s the question in my mind today as I remember the life of columnist and the vitriolic atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who died last night after a brave bout with esophageal cancer.

Hitchens, perhaps the world’s most popular atheist, often said that he didn’t want anyone to pray for him during his illness. During life he was often someone, I thought, who treated religion unfairly. He was particularly critical of Mother Teresa and he rejoiced when she admitted to having dark nights of the soul.

However, what our response is to someone like Hitch, always needs to be love. I would say that his criticism of religion often gave me an opportunity to be validly critical of religion, to admit failings in my church and other churches, to get underneath the surface of religious belief and to admit goofiness on one hand and what leads to transcendence on the other. He made us all look more deeply at ourselves because his brilliance often betrayed us and portrayed us at times accurately, so accurately that it caused us to pray more deeply about the church we profess and the people we become. Even his unfairness, made me think about the times that I’m unfair, especially to atheists and fundamentalists–the people I often find very hard to love, as well as to ask if I’m really living and loving the gospel.

We need to remember that prayer isn’t a request for a magic trick. Prayer is a raising of our hearts and minds to God. It is a relationship with the divine where we need to talk as well as listen for where God is calling us. In short, prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes us. How are we changed by praying for someone who is an atheist?

Perhaps it leads us to remember that God loves Christopher Hitchens. And called us to love him to–even if he didn’t always love us.

Because of his hatred of religion, there will be many who will dance on his grave. His death calls to mind a time when I remember a friend who went to a funeral of someone who he really didn’t get along with. I was impressed that he showed up and told him that it was nice of him to come. His response:

“I just wanted to make sure that bastard’s dead!”

Gallo’s Humor aside, there’s a deep sadness in that kind of attitude, an unchristian one at that. It’s the kind of hatred that Christopher Hitchens often railed against in his criticism of what religion often breeds in people. There’s an uncalled for righteousness in claiming that Hitchens is in hell. A righteousness that allows evil to take hold of us to the point where we rejoice over someone’s death. God expects more and we should expect more of ourselves.

And that is where I think we’re called today in asking God to surprise Christopher Hitchens with the great love that God has for all people, believers or not. God isn’t finished with any of us yet.

From today’s NY Times, HItchen’s was quoted:

“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair, for which he was a contributing editor.

He took pains to emphasize that he had not revised his position on atheism, articulated in his best-selling 2007 book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” although he did express amused appreciation at the hope, among some concerned Christians, that he might undergo a late-life conversion.

Perhaps he did think a bit about the afterlife. I’d like to highlight a quote from a NY Times interview given not so long ago on the subject of death, a topic he thought about writing a book about, and I’m hoping he did write some about. He joked that it could be called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting!”

Turning serious, he said, “I’ve had some dark nights of the soul, of course, but giving in to depression would be a sellout, a defeat.” He added: “I don’t know why I got so sick. Maybe it was the smokes, or maybe it’s genes. My father died of the same thing. It’s pointless getting into remorse.”

True enough. One religious lesson that Mr. Hitchen’s unwittingly gave us all is that he taught us to die well. He considered himself a person living with cancer and not dying from it. While he lost that battle eventually, I believe he also showed us that all human life has value. After all, We all will die one day, some will have that hastened by disease. But his tenacity and his vigor for his beliefs and his often good humor in the face of suffering will be remembered and I hope I have the same strength at the hour of my death.

And so I pray for Christopher Hitchens today, despite his sure protests that I do so. You changed me to become a more peaceful person and ironically deepened my relationship with God. I dare say you made me respect you, despite my disagreements with you. I hope I can give others who disagree with me a fair shake.

And while it’s doubtful that Hitch had any late conversion, I also think that his tenacity revealed some deep seated longing about faith. That perhaps God was working on him so much that he had to push back even harder.

May his pushing back cease today and may he be embraced by eternal rest.

Rest in peace, Hitch.

For more on Hitchens: Check out Fr. James Martin’s piece today.

2 thoughts on “Should We Pray for Someone Who Doesn’t Want Us To?”
  1. When I was a little kid, and I was upset, I’d yell at my mom, sometimes I even (I’m ashamed to admit it) tell her I hated her.
    My mom must be a saint, because her response was always, “Well I love YOU, Katie.” The angrier & meaner I got, the more loving her response to me, ’til at my worst she’d gather me in her arms and hug me tight – even if I loudly proclaimed I wanted her to let me go.

    I’ve had my own dark times of desolation – who hasn’t? – and my assessment of such vitriolic dislike of religion is that he must’ve felt like I did, as a child, when I was hurt, angry, lonely, & generally miserable. Of course, deep down, a big hug and an expression of love were exactly what I wanted. But I was (and am) stupid and prideful and short-sighted, and I rebelled against exactly what I wanted and needed.

    OF COURSE we should pray for him.

    I can only hope that the people I’m awful to will pray for me.

  2. I prayed for him, too, just like I prayed for bin Laden. It’s a little scary to think that Hitler and Mussolini and all the world’s most awful people might be in heaven, but I still hope hell is empty.

    Also, I think you meant “gallows” humor there.

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