Monday, July 19, 2010

Should We Pray for Christopher Hitchens?

By now everyone knows that Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As he put it, it is not one of the cancers you want to have.

Naturally, the news has provoked a spirited, and sometimes furious, debate about whether believers should pray for the good health of this inveterate atheist and unrepentant blasphemer.

This is hardly surprising. Hitchens has made a career out of spinning his own narratives while debunking the narratives of others.

As an itinerant intellectual he offers opinions on just about everything. But as a man of his age, he has also made himself a celebrity, constructing narratives about the way he lives his life.

Remember that Hitchens allowed himself to be waterboarded, and also had his body waxed. And he has had much to say about his celebrated abuse of alcohol and tobacco.

Beyond those episodes, Hitchens has not exactly treated his body with the respect that a more pious soul would accord to something that he, the more pious soul, would consider to be a sacred vessel.

When you have written your body into your narratives, you should expect that some of your many fans will spend their energy constructing a narrative of your illness. It need not be a story of sin and guilt and punishment, but it will still be a story.

Hitchens has famously imbibed more than his fair share of alcohol and has, until recently, been a chain smoker. Whether or not these are forms of what therapists now call, quite correctly, self-medication, Hitchens has claimed that his oral extremism has had a salutary effect on his prodigious literary output.

Leaving aside the question of what God has to do with this, if you pour excessive quantities of something as corrosive as alcohol down your gullet, then it is reasonable for someone somewhere to notice that your illness suggests that Mother Nature does not entirely approve of your habits.

It would not be unreasonable or disrespectful to point out that there are certain immutable, universal laws in the universe that function in complete disregard of whether or not Christopher Hitchens believes in them.

Again, I leave aside the thornier issue of whether these are God's laws.

As I was saying, Hitchens's diagnosis has provoked much commentary on many sites. I have not read the thousands of posts responding to his illness, but Carlin Romano has, so I happily place my trust in his summary. Link here.

Surely, Hitch would like Romano's title: "No One Left to Pray to."

Here is how Romano frames the issue: "Should believers pray for him, a man celebratedly insensitive to norms of politeness and acts of altruism."

And also: "The explosion of comments on Hitchens's plight, by contrast, confirms the uncertain state of free-expression etiquette in our time, as well as the impact of Hitchens's work. It also highlights the peculiar issue of parallelism that comes up when curmudgeons, contrarians, and provocateurs find themselves on the ropes, as with all violators of society's norms."

Romano is addressing two issues here, and it is good to keep them separated. Praying and being courteous are not the same thing. Let's not confuse them.

And I would add that wishing for someone's good health is not the same as forgiving him his transgressions, whether these are transgressions against God or against propriety.

As for whether we should pray for Christopher Hitchens's good health, I would agree with the rabbi who said that of course we should. Unless we believe that blasphemers deserve a death sentence for their crimes, and unless we believe that we want to help in carrying it out, we will wish for a full and speedy recovery.

An old rule, found in just about all religions and systems of ethical thought, says that we should do unto others as we would want others to do unto us. Link here.

I will leave to the side whether this rule makes sense to atheists, but when people follow it they are sustaining community ties with good social behavior.

I sense that Hitchens is so thoroughly enthralled with the stories religions tell and with the depredations people commit in their name that he has ignored the simple fact that religions produce communities and that they contain many sensible and correct rules to live by.

You can criticize the horrors that have been produced in the name of religion, but a man with a full measure of intellectual honesty would also accept that atheism has been applied as a basis for government, and that it does not exactly have a glorious track record.

Truth be told, the great totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century, especially the communist ones, have destroyed more lives in a shorter period of time than any religion.

Perhaps communism is competing with religion on the wrong playing field, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that atheism would provide is with some kind of secular salvation.

As for whether anyone should pray for Christopher Hitchens or even wish him better health, let's recognize that the golden rule does not say that you should do unto others as they do unto you or as they would do unto you, but as you would want them to do unto you.

When you offer good wishes, or even prayers, to someone who would not be inclined to reciprocate, you are simply setting a moral example and asserting your own good character.

But, offering a prayer or a hope or a wish is not the same thing as offering forgiveness... assuming that you feel that Hitchens has done anything that requires forgiveness.

As I understand it, forgiveness is not offered freely. Whether we are talking about someone who has sinned or someone who has offended rules of propriety, forgiveness requires contrition, shame, apology, and some form of atonement. It also needs to be requested.

A person who feels that he has done nothing wrong does not ask for forgiveness. Therefore, it should not be offered.

Romano raises another interesting question when he asks about free-expression etiquette. It is one thing to say blasphemous things about this or that deity, but what happens when you express opinions that are taken to be heresy by your former colleagues.

When Hitchens became a supporter of the Iraq war, he took his leave from his colleagues at the leftist magazine, The Nation. To many leftists thinkers he thereby committed an act of heresy.

In many precincts, ideological warfare is the modern secular version of the religious wars of the past. If so, do you think that it is right and honorable to wish to silence the voice of someone whose political opinions are radically different from yours? Would it not be better to defeat him in honest and open debate?

As for the proper etiquette, the proper etiquette is still the proper etiquette. To greet differences of opinion as the occasion to shun an individual, disrespect him, and refuse to engage his arguments is simply vulgar.

Not all opinions are worthy of the same respect. Some deserve to be thoroughly ignored. But the extremes do not make the rules, and only the most vulgar among us would assume that a serious writer offering a provocative opinion is a heretic who deserves to have cancer.

Those who think otherwise seem to believe that God has settled the argument.

Hitchens's cancer might well have something to do with his personal habits and the way he has treated his body. There is no need to assume that God would ever be trying to say anything else here.


Julia said...

Asking if you should say a prayer for Christopher Hitchens is to an atheist the equivalent of me asking anyone if I should spin around three times and clap my hands to cure their cancer. Get over the religious aspect of this incident. There is none, plain and simple. I don't know many churchgoers who treat their bodies like temples, we're all human and we are not perfect. The fact that a lot of religious people are using this as childish "ha ha he has cancer" kind of tone in most the blogs and articles with christian authors is the opposite of Christ-like. It makes me more confident every time I read a religious journalist that I made the right decision in taking off the cloak of mythology as truth.

Anonymous said...

A Christian should not only pray for Hitch, but pray that he also receives grace. For a debater as eloquent and talented as he is, a conversion could make him this generation's C.S Lewis.