Does Hitchens Have a Prayer?
Today’s Religion Dispatches contains an article by Garret Keizer entitled “Does Hitchens Have a Prayer? Since the dire diagnosis of esophageal cancer a question has arisen over whether to pray for famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens.” Keizer’s essay informed me that famed contrarian Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Hitchens is an outspoken naysayer regarding religions generally and Christianity in particular. He is prone to use worse case scenarios to represent entire faith traditions and then dismiss them. I find his writing both interesting but ultimately intellectually dishonest.
Keizer’s essay reported on the debate with Christian circles over whether to pray for him. One line in particular caught my attention. Here is the line and my response to it:
In the end, the only sensible reason I can imagine for prayerful people not to pray for Christopher Hitchens is that, with so many others in need of prayer, they have to draw the line someplace.
Actually, they don’t. Undoubtedly, they feel compelled to do so. Indeed, it is the compulsion to draw lines, to create boxes with distinct boundaries that marks the existential security-driven approach to religion for many, perhaps most, adherents.
But the perception of a compulsion to draw lines is ultimately just that – an experienced perception. No one holds a gun to believers’ heads. And I suspect it is precisely the eventual recognition of the constructed nature of such security systems – no matter how legitimated and rationalized - and the anger over the failure of constructed systems to provide the desired protection from the inevitable encounters with real existential angst that fuels the rage of folks like Christopher Hitchens.
But Keizer’s assertion here really does raise a more fundamental question about religion and prayer. Is prayer ultimately all about the believer? Is the decision to pray for a seriously ill fellow human really about the one praying? Is the deservedness of the one prayed for even an honest consideration?
Clearly the need for prayer in this case is present: Hitchens is seriously ill. Whether the decision to pray for him presupposes belief in a tribal deity who, if appeased with the right incantation or sacrifice will intervene in a natural process of illness and death, is ultimately beside the point. Moreover, whether his conduct, his attitude or his belief system meets the approval of those who would pray for him – and who naively or arrogantly presume that their own judgments necessarily reflect the ultimate judgment of G-d - is irrelevant. It is his humanity – perhaps for Jews and Christians the image of G-d he bears – that ought to dictate our response to him.
For fully human beings, it is the needs of the other that call out to the would-be pray-er. These very real needs for concern, for mindfulness, for empathy from other human beings require no justification. They require no meeting of ideological litmus tests as a precondition. They require no positive judgment of the character and deeds of the object of their prayers. In other words, they require no lines to be drawn.
The confrontation of one’s mortality presents very real needs for empathy and support that each human being will ultimately experience. And the ability to empathetically extend oneself in light of the need of the other is both a very human response and the only authentic choice under the circumstances.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
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