Christopher Hitchens, one of the so-called Four Horseman of the new atheists, has esophageal cancer. Should you pray for him? The Rev. Robert Barron thinks so, yet countless atheists and theists alike are having a fit about it.
Let me start with the disclaimer that while I do wish Hitchens well in his treatment and recovery, even though I’m also an atheist, I’m not a fan. ‘The Four Horsemen’ – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens (video) preach what is now being referred to as “new atheism”. I would characterize it more properly as antitheism rather than atheism as they don’t simply lack a belief in God, they are advocating against it. Something I cannot support at all. Further, I believe in large part they give the lot of us a bad name.
However, I do have a perspective on the dilemma of praying for atheists as I went through this myself. A few years back I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It was benign and wasn’t as scary as cancer, but it was scary enough. Scary enough that a few of my Christian friends wondered if this event would lead me back to God. I thought the notion was naive, but not too surprising given the popular saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. The premise being that when facing death, one always finds comfort in religion. Although, I think most people, including myself, who have made rational and considered choices to be atheists have long since considered the realities of death and its inherent lack of an afterlife. I’m quite at peace with that. In fact, I’m actually comforted by the finality of death. I’m in no hurry mind you. But when I get to that end, I’m okay with it actually being an end.
The other interesting question I got, both directly and indirectly, was whether or not it would be okay to pray for me. It was interesting and even considerate for people to ask. At the time, I couldn’t see how this could possibly offend me, but based on some of the reactions to Hitchens’ situation, apparently some people really get their shorts in a bunch over this.
I’ve thought about this notion of prayer directed at non-believers from both my perspective and the perspective of the theist, and I’m still perplexed about how there is a downside for anyone. As an atheist, I don’t believe someone’s prayers are actually influencing my health. However, the fact that people care enough to exert that effort is touching. It means they care about me, and that is a healthy thought for anyone. On the flip side, the theist believes they are actually making a difference. They have a feeling of contributing to my health. That’s a healthy thing for them. And if their God should really exist and opt to intervene, all the better for both of us!
If there’s a downside here it’s not remotely apparent. So follow your heart. Do what feels right. If you’re a theist, pray for whom you wish. If you’re an atheist, be grateful people care. Above all, remember that whether you believe in another life or not, this one is all too short.