Francis Collins prays for Hitchens

September 26, 2010 • 11:47 am

I really wish Collins had kept this to himself: over at The Washington Post’s “On Faith” site, Francis Collins explains why he is “Praying for my friend Christopher Hitchens”.  It’s nice enough, as far as it goes, but Collins explains–as Hitchens already has–that “as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis”, and that gives him an edge in sussing out new treatments for Hitchens’s cancer.

Yes, it’s great of Collins to go to bat for a famous atheist. But why the public pronouncement in the Washington Post?  It’s almost as if Collins wants people to see what a fine fellow he is.  Such acts of magnanimity and generosity are best kept private, especially if they’ve already been reported by the recipient.  It’s okay for Hitchens to write about it, since he’s documenting his treatment, but it’s best for the benefactor to remain silent.

But there’s another reason for the piece:  Collins likes to use any excuse to do a little Jebus-touting:

Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He [Hitchens] knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention – as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.

I’m not sure what this means, but I  hope Collins isn’t praying for Hitch to see the light and ask God for wisdom.

65 thoughts on “Francis Collins prays for Hitchens

  1. I hope Collins isn’t praying for Hitch to see the light and ask God for wisdom.

    Sadly, it seems there can be no doubt but that that’s exactly what Collins is praying for.

    I’ll be magnanimous and suggest that, having swallowed whole the rest of Christian nonsense, that part of his brain is too addled to understand just how offensive he’s being.

    Me? Right now I’m praying to the Invisible Pink Unicorn (may Peace be upon Her Holy Hooves) to be merciful upon Dr. Collins in light of all the good that he’s done, and limit his time in the fields of short grass and tall manure to no more than a few dozen millennia.



    1. Didn’t Jesus supposedly castigate people for being public in theor protestations of faith? Why is it that his “most devote” followers never seem to remember or care about that?

      1. That line about praying in private is in the Sermon on the Mount. The statement is equally condemning of rote recitations of the same prayers over and over again.

        And, in exactly the sort of ironic twist one would expect from the comedians who wrote the Bible, the very next paragraph introduces the “Our Father.” Matthew chapter 6, if you care to read it for yourself.

        The whole thing is hilarious like that. Jesus commands that you give no thought for the future at the same time he commands that you prepare for eternity. Turn the other cheek, but slaughter all those who oppose him. Beat swords into plowshares, but he comes not to bring peace but the sword. No more eye-for-an-eye, but gouge your your own eyes if you think of how nice it’d be to have sex with a woman.

        Really, it takes nothing to make Jesus support any position you might want him to. About the only consistency in the whole thing is that he was a zombie, and that we all should want to be zombies just like him.



          1. That reminds me of something I’d love to ask one of these “sophisticated” theologians: Has Jesus read the Bible?

            Not, of course, did the (non-existant, of course, but that’s beside the point) first century rabble rouser read the Bible, because it obviously wasn’t finished by then.

            But, rather, has the Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, the one who will judge the living and the dead: has he read the Bible?

            Put that in your non-literaist pipe and smoke it for a bit….



  2. Collins isn’t praying that Hitchens ask god for wisdom.

    He’s praying that god give it to Hitchens anyway, “without reproach.”

    Reproach? Reproach for what?

    And by the way, how do you know when you have received god given wisdom?

    Is it when your wisdom passes all human understanding?

    To give Collins the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he is praying for the wisdom to see that he’s praying to himself.

    Reminds me of a prayer I once heard that went, “Dear god, please forgive me for ever having believed in you.”


  3. It’s almost as if Collins wants people to see what a fine fellow he is.

    That’s why the “I’ll pray for you” thing is so obnoxious. It suggests that the prayer is more magnanimous than the lowly prayee.

    This plethora of “I’m praying for Hitch” pieces that have cropped up are all different ways of saying the same thing: “See how nice religious people are? We’re actually praying for someone who criticizes us!” So in that respect it’s also a tacit way of saying “Christopher Hitchens is wrong” without actually having to refute any of his arguments. These people are using Christopher and his illness to pat themselves on the back and, in doing so, hint at the idea that he is callow and hateful ( and therefore undeserving of the earnest prayers that are being raised up in his name), which he is not. It’s annoying.

    1. Indeed.

      The problem has to do with general acceptability of Christianity. Christianity, and therefore prayer, is a virtue, so for Collins to so clearly express his Christianity, he is really playing to the crowd.

      Most conspicuously, the content of his prayer, at least according to Collins himself, seems quite meaningless. Collins says that he knows prayer doesn’t lead to supernatural intervention to heal the sick (I also find this admission odd, since it was his role as a doctor dealing with sick people that lead Collins to religion).

      It would have been great had he just said that prayer won’t actually lead to helping Hitchens. It would have even been better if he had suggested real ways of helping, say by donating money to cancer research foundations, medical innovation, or by encouraging more people to become doctors. These would actually be good ways to respond. And Collins, as the director of the NIH, could and should have made this about change. This would have been a great public relations opportunity; let’s get people supporting medical research. What does Collins, with his liberal Christianity and god-of the-gaps, do? He panders to our Christian nation instead, suggesting that maybe prayer is good enough, maybe religion will actually just magically cure people. Is this guy really in charge of the NIH?

    2. I wonder who jesus will eventually side with, whose prayers jesus will make true, those praying for Hitch’s demise or those, like Collins, praying for his health?


  4. For crying out loud, folks, let the man pray. Whatever the truth is, either Collins or Hitchens will see it. Or not, but it doesn’t matter. To tell you the truth, it doesn’t bother me a bit. Neither should you be troubled.

    1. The man is entirely welcome to pray! What he’s not welcome to do is sermonize about it in the newspapers. What he’s not welcome to do is use Hitchens and use his own generous help for him to do a very public boast plus attempt at apologetics.

  5. This is the sort of thing that makes me puke. Why do some religious people have to manifest their ‘goodness’ in this way? Kindness should be private rather like charity.

  6. Jerry,

    I initially interpreted Collins’s prayer as him hoping God will reveal a way in which to treat Hitchen’s cancer.

    1. Yes I think this could be what he’s saying too, he’s asking for wisdom for himself perhaps. It’s a bit vague though obviously.

  7. any excuse to do a little Jebus-touting

    This well documented behavior is obnoxious in the context, it is using the sick and sicknesses both for ulterior motives – it is preying, not praying.

  8. Collins is praying for Hitchens in the most obnoxious way possible. It’s not enough to pray for Hitch to get better—oh, no, Collins is praying for a deathbed conversion, here.

    What a ghoul.

  9. I’ve seen it happen in my own family. A dying relative found that the flat statement that someone was going to pray for them distinctly presumptive and intrusive. Nothing was said because it was well meant – even if it was also self centred.

    I guess if Francis Collins chooses to pray for his own wisdom and acceptance that’s fine (if a little loony). But to pray for someone else, when they have asked people not to, well that’s being a bit of a dick.

  10. “as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis”

    So what if he’s “aware” of the newest developments? As the Director of the NIH he might very well be aware of early clinical trials of new last-ditch therapies for a diagnosis that carries a uniformly grim prognosis. This is cold comfort to people already suffering the disease as it is likely years away that any new and effective therapies could be expected to be available to them. Are these new therapies going to be available to Hitchens in time? Not bloody likely…It only heightens the pain to think that there might be effective treatment available in the very near future; a future not near enough.

    These comments by Collins comes across as a real stab in the back by someone posing as a friend. Coming from a medical professional, they are inexcusably irresponsible and self-serving.

  11. Collins is so funny! I’ll bet you a bottle of single malt (contact Wm. Dembski for collection) that he prayed for Craig Venter to shoot himself in the foot with his “shotgun” approach to gene sequencing!

    So, about prayer, is it stronger to pray for a single person directly so you get undiluted prayer stuff flowing? Or can you do a blanket prayer for everybody on the planet? Seems to me that if Collins was serious that he’d pray for all of us, not just old Hitch.

    Maybe prayer is like homeopathy such that a 1/7 billionth dilution is actually more powerful than pure prayer.

    I’m still skeptical, though. I mean, beauty contestants for as long as I can remember have prayed for World Peace and it doesn’t seem to be happening. Now, if Collins could only pageant-walk …

  12. A prayer is not anything more than a get well card … This published thing is head nodding, I’m righteous .. crap. It feels like cheezy pitty.

    Why not announce he is reading something like “The Portable Atheist” in his honor. Now that might help someone.

    All the comments in this thread age good!

    1. A prayer is really quite a bit less than a get-well card. At least the card takes ten minutes of effort to find and write (actually it could take an hour or two to find a good card), a few dollars/Euros, and gives the recipient something tangible.

  13. What you guys fail to understand is that all prayers are useful and all prayers are answered. It’s just that God’s answers to do specific requests can be “Yes” “No” or “Later.” That’s the beauty of the system.

    I’m sure some people who are praying for him really think they might do him some good, but the majority, without a doubt, are smugly enjoying the (oh-so-rich, right) irony of praying to God for an atheist.

  14. Pray. V. Request that the laws of the universe be annulled for a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.
    From Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

  15. “But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)”

    Dream on, mate.

    Not so much a case of praying for him so much as attempting to prey on him, methinks.

      1. Collins’ reasoning is even more dopey than people realise when taking his frozen waterfall comment into consideration.

        There is a 2 hour lecture on Youtube given by Collins in which, if I recall correctly, he spends about the first 45 minutes regaling his audience with a tale about visiting an old woman in hospital. The old woman was dying, but, according to Collins, she was unusually chirpy about her imminent demise nonetheless. Collins inquired as to her seemingly philosophical attitude in the face of death and was told that her cheerfulness was a result of her belief that she was merely leaving this world for another and was quite looking forward to meeting Jesus.

        Collins claims that he was profoundly affected by this batty old fruitcake and thought he wouldn’t mind having some of whatever she was on for himself. Bizarre.

  16. My one complaint about my fellow atheists is that so many manage to see, and feel it necessary to allege, harm in what most often are harmless, and in this case friendly, gestures. Let Mr. Hitchens himself speak to this.

    1. Well, since Collins saw fit to publicize his prayer in the Washington Post for the world to see, I would think it fitting that the world should comment on it.

      1. Perhaps, but I view Collins as simply making a public statement of solidarity with Hitchens in his fight against cancer, as many others have done, and in no need of disparagement.

        1. He is doing that, but he’s not simply doing that. He’s also making a passive-aggressive suggestion that Hitchens should ask God for wisdom, which is an implicit rejection of Hitchens’s own views and commitments. In public. In a major newspaper.

  17. Francis Collins is a nice guy. He is deluded in his beliefs, but he is not a bad person; he is not trying to convert Hitchens directly (and if he’s praying for it, it’s not like it’s going to happen!), but within this mindset this is just something that he has to do – he can’t see any other option.

    So am I suggesting that everyone cuts the man some slack? Yes and no. Sure, he has no other option, but yes, he’s engaging in a display, contra Jesus’s suggestion that he keep it under wraps.

    As for the ironic juxtaposition of the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus’s suggestion to avoid rote and broadcast, this is (IMHO) a classic of Christians not reading their bible. The LP (if we at least make a tiny unwarranted nod to the historicity of the vignette) is precisely *not* to be repeated, in Jesus’s view. He’s telling them the sorts of things to put in their prayers, but to avoid rote. An example, not a prescription. Yet it became a very tight prescription.

    But then how was Jesus to know that would happen – it’s not as if he was god or anything.

    [Hmmm – I might have to riff on this theme a bit on – hope you don’t mind the link, Jerry! I’ll give you the h/t :-)]

    1. There’s a difference between privately praying for him and writing a piece on the Washington Post, in which Collins is then specifically identified as a prominent and successful scientist and Christian, thus “proving” that science and faith can co-exist. I agree with the other commenters here. If Collins’ wishes were indeed sincere, then why this public message? Why not just send Hitchens a card, and maybe even a book and some wine, and then sit at home or in church and pray for him? It looks rather like Collins is taking advantage of this situation to promote his message of the compatibility of science and faith, only he’s hiding this message behind a veneer of concern for his friend, so we can see what a great guy he is. No, I think not. Of course I don’t know Collins personally, but as I’ve said in this thread, he could taken this opportunity to actually do some good, to reach out to people and to inspire citizens to contribute to medical research. But that’s not what he does. He offers some meaningless prayers, while showing Americans how nice he’s being to his dying atheist friend, and oh look, Collins is a scientist and Christian so you all can be like him, too!

      1. Quite.

        Collins probably is “a nice guy.” It is generous of him to help Hitchens with medical advice etc. But being “a nice guy” isn’t enough – one has to think, too. Conspicuous good intentions are not enough – you have to think about what the other person wants or needs.

        Overt Christians do that kind of forced kindness thing, which is actually not kind at all, it’s intrusive. More than once I have had Christian women accost me in public places out of nowhere to demand if I am unhappy, can they help me. When I look stunned and at a loss, they kindly explain that I look sad. I’m not making this up. They clearly think they are doing something good, something extra – monitoring their fellow humans and if they see someone lost in thought or daydreaming, they “reach out” to that person because someone thinking or daydreaming must be “sad” and it is kind and Christian to try to help her. But they’re not thinking – it doesn’t occur to them that this would be intrusive and offensive. (I explained it to them, with some energy.)

        What Collins is doing here looks like much the same kind of thing, to me. A nasty kind of self-authorized intrusion and over-riding of someone else’s wants.

  18. Matthew 6: 5 Jesus says,

    “And when you pray, you shall not be like the Pharisees. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”

    Collins must have missed this bit.

    1. Or, he’s a Pharisee? (Yes, tough for a Christian, I know.)

      All-in-all, these are some of the best comments I’ve seen in along time. Must be that Christian pomposity brings out the best in atheists! More please.

  19. But…but…but…what if he prays to the wrong lord? Couldn’t he make things worse?

    ..the religious certainty is absurd to say at least.

  20. I am as atheist as most anyone, and I agree with most secular criticisms of F. Cricket. Also I am not familiar with James 15 whatever.

    It does occur to me tho that praying for wisdom is one of the few reasonable things to pray for. Couldn’t this simply be like hoping to goodness for oneself to change for t better? And it is this very act of hoping that facilitates it coming about.

    1. …And it is this very act of hoping that facilitates it coming about.

      That, and actually going out and doing something about it.

  21. I suppose if Collins likes Hitchens he must fear for his eternal soul & want him to have more time to repent! Oh how unpleasant of god to torture souls for eternity – any civilized god would surely not do that.

  22. I think we should cut Collins some slack on this one.
    If you ignore the headline (which in the case of newspapers is often invented by the editor rather than the author of the piece) there is very little overt religion in the piece. Indeed the most explicit thing Collins says about religion is that he has seen no evidence for medical miracles (of the sort that Christians and others frequently proclaim as evidence for their God).
    What we are left with is basically someone writing about a friend that is of another ‘religion’ and pointing out the humanity of that friend. The small segment at the end where he talks of his actual reasons for praying sound more like a description of meditation or contemplation.
    Collins has come out with some silly stuff in the past but I would not put this piece in that category. In this piece he is writing about a friend. A friend who is dying. Hitchens will not survive this disease. It WILL kill him but, as in the case of everyone diagnosed with an incurable malignancy, whether he survives six months or ten years depends on whether he receives treatment that slows down the progression of the cancer. It is thanks to the work of people like Collins that the chance of such treatments being available for Hitchens Cancer is greatly increased compared to a decade or so ago. This has nothing to do with Collins religious beliefs or motivations and I cannot see anything in the piece to suggest that Collins implied otherwise.

  23. I think the phrase “holier than thou” was created with Dr. Collins in mind.

    As well as Matthew 6:6, which I wish more Xtians would follow.

  24. I predicted this very eventuality ages ago.
    The CFI has finally finished flushing itself down the fetid sewer.
    The cloaca that is shared by all all those who prostitute their members hard-won integrity.
    It started when Paul Kurtz was apparently either going senile or desperate for a job/income.
    I predict that the same change will occur with Joe Nickell.
    They, to me, are self-employed one-trick-ponies, who must either follow the dollar, or learn new tricks, in order to survive.

    I predicted this very eventuality.
    Look it up.

    1. Wrong thread.
      Damn this WordPress nonsense.
      This was supposed to be on the “CFI declares war” thread.

  25. Oh my goodness.

    First, if the best the NIH director could do is “pray for” me. I would really, rather he just gave me the numbers and not said anything else.

    But to then go on and say, “But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention – as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience.”

    Well, you’re the Director of the NIH. You have to know that the data show that NO ONE has, “seen evidence for such medical miracles…”

    To not state that is to be, by definition, intellectually dishonest.

    After that, the only medically ethically thing to do would be to either resign your post or to admit your dishonesty and post a correction.

    Which will the DNIH do? I’m betting neither. The desire to propagate a philosophical position holds a higher priority in his life than the health of the American people that he has sworn to be the most important thing in his professional life.

    If he has any integrity, Dr. Collins should resign. I’m betting he doesn’t. Shouldn’t honest people demand it?

    I doubt we will. Where does the blame lie?

  26. I hope Collins isn’t praying for Hitch to see the light and ask God for wisdom.

    Would it matter? Nothing is out there to answer.

  27. Maybe all the err..prayees are sending a collective beam of goodwill to the ailing Mr. Hitchens. Of course, that’s about as effective as praying to the sky fairy, but hey if it makes the prayee feel a bit better, why the hell not. And like the rest of their nonsense, the idea is for those that hang their hat on religidiocy is to make themselves feel better without actually doing anything.

  28. I think the worst message here is the blatant picture it paints of what’s wrong with the US’s health care system; that it all depends on who you are and who you know. Whoop-de-doo that a most comfortably well-off personality (however deservedly so) merits personal attention and expert advice on state-of-the-art treatment from the head of the NIH. Of course that’s how it works…but how must this strike the uninsured and barely insured to have it rubbed in their faces that celebs will get much better treatment than they ever will. Thanks Dr. Collins for not letting us forget that…All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others…

  29. I am pretty shocked at these comments. Is this where atheism is today? Attacking a man for expressing sympathy for a philosophical rival? Have none of you figured out that Collins didnt call the Washington Post and volunteer the comment that he was praying, but that he was probably called by a reporter, and was asked the question. Collins probably gives at least one response to the press a day, mostly on things like stem cells, research funding etc. That’s his job, to inform the public on what is going on at the NIH. And a reporter probably asked him about Hitchens.

    I was born and raised in an atheist family, but I never saw such a degree of unwarranted hostility toward a good person, simply because he doesnt hold your views on God. This makes me wonder what atheism is really all about.

    1. Atheism is about not believing in god. Atheists are humans, and as such, we have the usual mix of jerks and mellows. That is unrelated to the core disbelief.

    2. …but that he was probably called by a reporter…

      Speculate much? Here’s my speculation. 1) Reporters don’t call up subjects and ask them to submit guest editorials. 2) Collins keeps up with the WaPo given his location & job. 3) He especially follows their (frequently annoying) “On Faith” section, given his demonstrated interest in fostering the idea that science and religion are wholly compatible. 4) Thus, my most charitable speculative motive for Collins is that he saw his latest interactions with CH as the perfect opportunity to get that message out in broad circulation yet again.

      You could query WaPo as to how “Guest Voices” in “On Faith” are come by. Even if they asked him to contribute a piece, I’d bet taking the time to write it was entirely his choice…

Leave a Reply