Let us not pray

September 20, 2010 • 6:51 am

I’m sure you marked your calendars for today: it’s Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day.  Hitchens, of course, is having none of it:

Hitchens doesn’t know exactly how “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day” began, other than that it’s one of those things that appears on the Internet and goes viral. He declined an invitation to appear at a rabbi’s prayer service in Washington that day, and he doesn’t see any point in the exercise.

“I’m perfectly sure that there is nothing to be gained from it in point of my health, but perhaps I shouldn’t even say that. If it would do something for my morale possibly it would do something for my health. We all know that morale is an element in recovery,” he said. “But incantations, I don’t think, have any effect on the material world.” . .

Already into his fourth round of chemotherapy, which he is receiving every three weeks, Hitchens says it’s difficult to gauge his eventual legacy. He hopes to be remembered with affection by some; with passion by others; and hopefully as a good father by his three children.

As for his work, Hitchens says he would be happy to be recalled simply as one of those “who are attempting to uphold reason and science against superstition.”

“I’d be proud to have my contribution at that,” Hitchens said. “This is a very long, long, long story. It’s humanity’s oldest argument. If I played a small part in keeping it going that would be enough for me.”

In lieu of prayer, perhaps we can all recall how we’ve been influenced by Hitchens.  (If you want to bash him for his unfortunate stance on Iraq, please go elsewhere.).  I was reading him long before God is Not Great appeared.  I’d read several of  his books, including The Missionary Position, Elgin Marbles, and No One Left to Lie To, but it was in his essays and short pieces, collected into three volumes, that I really grew to admire him.  He’s the Orwell of our era: indeed, even better, since he’s more erudite, is a vociferous atheist and a superb public speaker. (Orwell, of course, didn’t appear much in public, though he did broadcast for the BBC.)  Like Orwell, he’s a man of action, is both journalist and author, has a wonderful, clear prose style, takes strong stands, is deeply engaged in politics, and knows his literature. It’s no accident that Hitchens wrote Why Orwell Matters. And it now appears that, like Orwell, Hitchens will be taken from us at an unconscionably young age.

He’s a tiger on the platform, whether giving talks or debating. No other public intellectual has his charisma and eloquence.  And of course there’s his atheism. I’m convinced that Hitchens, along with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, will eventually be recognized as major figures in turning the tide against religion, at least in America. Steven Weinberg said that “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”  I’d add that one of the great achievements of Hitchens has been, if not to make atheists vociferous, then at least to make make them proud.

We won’t see his like in our lifetime.

51 thoughts on “Let us not pray

  1. How about “Read a book for Hitchens day”?

    “Promote reason for Hitchens day”?

    “Be good to another human for Hitchens day”?

    “Donate to a worthwhile charity for Hitchens day”?

    “Grow out of childhood religion for Hitchens day”?

    Any of these, and more, would probably meet with Hitch’s approval.

    1. I was thinking, “Drink a Johnnie Walker Black for Hitchens Day”. Largely because drinking that stuff more than once a year is more than I’m willing to bear. Blech.

  2. His debate in Birmingham with the Discovery Institute guy was on CSPAN recently, and it was amazing to see that in spite of the fact that Hitchens looked terrible, his voice was still passionate, and he could pull out a vast number of literary references out to debate someone whose main point was “Atheists are Nazis”. The fact that his opponent refused to answer every question he was asked because they weren’t ‘clear’ while Hitchens just answered them straight away… its the sort of debating style we need more of in America. Its good to have someone who is put to question and willing not to waver this way and that and claim that the question isn’t fair.

  3. One of Hitchens’s most important contributions is his sustained re-introduction of writers (and translators) we should all know in this “very long, long, long story.” Here are two worthwhile passages that Hitchens introduced to me in two of his books:

    Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville’s unforgettable line, “Created sick—Commanded to be well.” And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail. Christians, for example, declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice that occurred thousands of years before I was born. I didn’t ask for it, and would willingly have foregone it, but there it is: I’m claimed and saved whether I wish it or not. And if I refuse the unsolicited gift? Well, there are still some vague mutterings about an eternity of torment for my ingratitude. That is somewhat worse than a Big Brother state, because there could be no hope of its eventually passing away. —Letters to a Young Contrarian [tinyurl.com/25wr8os]

    The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
    Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
     Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
    The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

    And do you think that unto such as you,
    A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew,
     God gave the secret, and denied it me?—
    Well, well, what matters it! believe that too.
    —Omar Khayyám, Rubaiyat (1048–1123), translation by Richard Le Gallienne. Quoted in The Portable Atheist [tinyurl.com/32zqgdg]

    My vote for Hitchens’s own pithy contribution to this conversation is this observation from god is not Great:

    The god of Moses would call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

  4. “One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious.”

    All we need now then is at least to make it possible for politicians – in the USA – not to be religious. Fat chance?

    1. Give it another 20 years or so.

      The fastest growing segment of the non-religious population is the young.

      It’s no wonder the churches are fighting tooth and nail against us. We’re WINNING where it counts. The minds of the young.

      1. Good luck with that – meanwhile here in the UK I think things are going the other way to some extent as we saw from all this hoo-ha over the Bishop of Rome & ‘Faith Schools’. Could that too be part of the fading of religion from everyday life? I have just started reading CP Snow’s “Two Cultures”, & I think there may well be a second branch to the struggle with the religious, & that is the struggle with the antiscience alliance who want nothing to do with the intellectual fruits of the enlightenment… It seems to me that a good deal of what WEIT covers is dealing with the religious apologists who are not materialists in the philosophical sense. Does that make sense?

  5. I haven’t actually read any of his stuff. I was an atheist long before he came on the scene. One thing he did for me was expose the truth about Mother Teresa, which I had been unaware of before he wrote about it.

  6. I propose an alternative: let’s make this be the ‘support science day’.

    Instead of spending time on something pointless, let’s make a day for thinking on what actually drives progress and improves people’s lives, and try to contribute a bit to it.

    For instance, is there any cancer research project that we could donate to that’s working on the kind Hitchens is suffering from? That actually might do him some good, and it will also help other people with the same condition.

  7. If I remember right, a study demonstrated that people who know that they are being prayed for generally fare worse than either those who aren’t prayed for or don’t know they are being prayed for. They seem to react poorly to the pressure on them to be getting better.

  8. The moment that for me will always epitomize Hitchens’ personality was when he went on Anderson Cooper the day after Jerry Falwell had died and said exactly what he thought of the man in no uncertain terms. Balls the size of beach balls, that man has.

    I normally more or less obey the adage not to speak ill of the recently deceased. And even in the case of Falwell, where I believe the media was badly in need of a counterbalance to all of the fawning tributes to a man who was, after all, a complete jerk… I still thought Hitchens’ rant was pushing the boundaries of taste.

    And that’s exactly why it will be the moment I always remember when I think about Hitchens. He is uncompromisingly dedicated to speaking what he believes to be the truth, regardless of concerns for feelings, courtesy, decorum, and plain common sense. From time to time, the world really needs someone like that.

  9. I really like Hitchens. It is regrettable that the one and only personal experience I had with him was not a positive one.
    He gave a talk at the FFRF meeting in 2007. After the talk most of the questions were about the war in Iraq. Many walked out on him. PZ blooged it.
    That said, I have come to admire him ever more since he got sick. I don’t think I’ll have his courage when I am in his current position.

    1. I try to view his unfortunate positions on the Iraq war through the lens of what I wrote in the last two sentences of comment #15. The fact that he is willing to stand by what he believes to be right, even in the face of virtually every person he trusts and respects telling him that he’s dead wrong and needs to rethink it… That’s just who Hitchens is, for better or worse.

      1. I think his “Trust me, its Torture” where he recanted his view on water boarding was what I’ll most remember him for. There is something to be said for being willing to put your money where your mouth is, and have your position change if you’re wrong.
        I disagree with him a lot on Iraq and other things, but I do take comfort in that he has not reached most of his positions without some thought, which is more than could be said for most of the people advocating war in Iraq.

        1. And all the right-wing media folks also tried water-boarding, too — except that none of them actually had the cajones to do it. Hitchens did, and he also had the courage to announce that he’d been wrong.

    2. He eventually decided he probably didn’t have the best ideas after all – people make mistakes. I was angry with him about the Iraq thing, but he said he was wrong so it’s time to move on. You certainly wouldn’t hear Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich say they were wrong – unless caught red-handed at something and soaked with cocodile tears while babbling insincerely about how sorry they are.

    1. Me too. I’ll share a bottle of vitriol with my friends, smoke a pipe-full of the best tobacco I can find, laugh and cry at our finitude.

  10. Aside from a few essays, all I’ve read of Hitchens is “God is Not Great”. That was hardly a year ago and yet I can’t remember much of the book except that I enjoyed reading it. I’ve had a lifelong dislike of superstition (unlike some, I failed to understand how christianity wasn’t just like all those other superstitions) but I’m always interested to see what other people say of superstition. It’s certainly far more interesting that the senseless platitudes offered by the majority in favor of superstition, and it’s not creepy like the thousands of superstitious rituals – cargo cults in practice if not in name.

  11. Indeed, very well said indeed, as Ophelia says.

    I’m afraid I came to Hitchens late. The first book I read (when I was still practicing as a priest) was The Missionary Position, and then nothing at all until god is not Great, by which time faith was a troubled memory. Since then, I have read other books, Love, Poverty and War, and Hitch-22, and I am working my way slowly through Unacknowledged Legislation. Besides that, I have enjoyed literally hours of debates, speeches, and interviews of Hitch available on the net. And there is still so much left out there yet to read or watch or listen to.

    Of all the “New” Atheist books, I think I like god is not Great the best. It is much more subtle and nuanced, and reaches deeper into the psyche where the reasons for being religious lie. Hitch understands what it means to be religious, and why someone might choose to be, and that makes him a very powerful adversary of religion.

    Indeed, I will not pray for him, but I can hope, can I not?, that the chemotherapy may yet give him time to contribute more insight to the human tragicomedy. I should hate to think that I had found this brilliant, knowledgeable, sensitive writer, who has brought me so much more understanding and joy, only to lose his ever new insights so soon.

    So, don’t worry, I won’t pray for you Hitch, but I’ll root for you, and hope you don’t leave us so soon. The world, more than ever, has need of such incisive voices of sanity and reason.

  12. Although I do respect Hitchens to some degree, I have to disagree with what you said here:

    (If you want to bash him for his unfortunate stance on Iraq, please go elsewhere.)

    Just because we honor a person does not mean we have to brush aside his or her faults. His opinion on Iraq and many other things was, IMO, wrong and I don’t think that I should ignore those aspects of him just because he is sick.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think Jerry meant to never bring up such areas of disagreement on WEIT. I think he just meant that this particular post/comment thread was not to be used for the airing of said disagreements. And, in fairness, bringing up Iraq would kind of be off-topic. (For the record, I think Hitch is massively wrong about Iraq, and his joining forces with the neocons in the run-up to the invasion was horrible—but, as I said, that’s off topic. Admiring a person doesn’t mean we have to admire every single stance that person ever took.)

  13. I can only think of the Goodfellas quote: “Don’t take no shit from nobody.”

    Hitchens provided an ability to nurture our intrepid voice and revolutionary “spirit” in the face of junk thought, oppression, and theopolitical tyranny.

    I could sense Dawkins picking up the torch of Hitchens during his recent protest speech and I was beyond delighted.

  14. Toward the end of the debate, Berlinski glibly dodges a very good question, which was (essentially) “Would you rather live in a Europe that was largely secular and “atheist”—as some of the Norwegian countries already are—or would you rather live in a Europe that was under the command of Wahabi Islam or Sharia law?” When Berlinski dodges (in a very smug, disingenuous way), Christopher offers to relinquish some of his own time in order for Berlinski to take another stab at the question. But Berlinski would have none of it. I thought that exchange encapsulated the whole debate rather nicely.

      1. Who knows, those Norwegians are a shifty bunch. If you take your eyes off them they shuffle around and split off into new countries all the time…

      2. I guess it depends on the historical era and how you count. Greenland and Iceland, for example, were once part of the dominion and I’d be surprised if a number of the North Sea islands weren’t in the same situation. But historical revision just isn’t my thing.

        1. Norway became a part of the Danish crown, & Iceland which had become subject to Denmark was consequently also under Danish rule until the end of the war. Not the cod war, WW2. Greenland is autonomous but a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Norway ruled Man & the Hebrides until 1266, Orkney & Shetland until 1468. Some of them I am sure would rather belong to Norway now! I lived in northern Norway for a year…

          1. Well, it’s complicated.

            Technically Iceland was in union with Denmark since the independence movement forced it 1918. (Though Denmark continued to implement its foreign policy. [Wikipedia])

            Also, Denmark was forced to cede Norway with Sweden after the Napoleonic wars. Not appreciated by the Norwegians, obviously, which fortunately could fight themselves to a stand-off union at first. (The weakened swedish army could not stand against british and russian troops, who forced the settlement.)

            Pockets of land that has been especially to’ and fro’ are Skåne (southernmost part of Sweden) which was originally danish, and Jämtland-Härjedalen (westernmost part of Sweden) which was originally norwegian (IIRC; maybe these were on and off several times). OTOH Sweden has let go of Åland (easternmost Baltic island) to Finland, which is fine geographically but not so much culturally at first.

            I think this war-weary part of the world came out fairly good all the same, not much of modern Belgium splitting tendencies.

  15. “I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

    That line chokes me up every time I read it.

    I will have some Johnny Walker Black for him tonight

  16. Hitchens taught me that a secular person can be a moral leader. Sure, he’s over the top and self-satisfied at times, but I have repeatedly been inspired by his moral clarity.

    “MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

    “Hatred, yes, I plead guilty to that. One of the many things I don’t like about Christianity is that it tells me to love my enemies. I don’t do that. And I don’t want you doing it for me, either. Go love your own enemies – don’t be loving mine! I’ll get on with the business of destroying, isolating, and combating the enemies of civilization.”

  17. I love Chrisopher Hitchens, no-one is perfect but at least his mistakes are because he is on the side of freedom from tyranny. I was against the war in Iraq from the beginning and it has gone exactly as I predicted it would, but when I listen to Christopher I am forced to question my beliefs about whether it was a good thing or not. Things are rarely as straightforward as you’d like them to be.

    On the bright side, the husband of a friend of mine was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about 6 years ago and was expected to be long dead by now. He is still with us however and in quite good health, so there is hope. He is ‘Not dead yet!’

    1. Yes, it is individual but also context sensitive. I know someone in a similar situation but different cancer. The median expected life time was ~ 7 years at the start, but the techniques on that one progressed rapidly (before and) during treatment. I think the median expected life time has doubled or tripled now.

  18. Hitchen’s stance on Iraq was not unfortunate. Removing the dictator Saddam Husein was an unalloyed good. It turned into a disaster because it was run by Idiots. If I recall correctly, Rumsfeld actually admitted that he didn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia before the invasion. No orders were ever given to make extensive plans for restoring civil society for the country. The fools in charge just figured the Iraqis would love us and everything would be alright–prob’ly they’d all start worshipin’ Jesus! Iraq was a good idea, tainted like everything else Bush touched.

  19. I started working on a Christopher Hitchens bobblehead soon after hearing the news, something to display the minime doll alongside the small collections of Hitchens I’ve acquired over the past couple of years.

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