Prayers for an Atheist

The last act of Christopher Hitchens’ life, his terminal illness, provided Hitchens with perhaps his greatest opportunity to make his case for atheism and against religion. He would face the end happy in his certainty that there was no god, and his very comfort in facing death with no prospect of an afterlife made many of us think and rethink the biggest questions of our existence. Not a bad legacy at all for a man who wanted nothing more than to generate thought. We should all be so lucky.

That Hitchens died slowly also provided believers with a chance to show a spectrum of religious thought. Sadly, a good many made Hitchens’ case for him by hoping or praying that Hitchens’ looming mortality would finally win him over. As he incisively put it:

[I]t seems to me a bit crass to be trying to talk to people about conversion when you know they are ill. The whole idea of hovering over a sick person who is worried and perhaps in discomfort and saying now is the time to reconsider strikes me as opportunist at the very best. 

Hitchens did, however, express appreciation for the many people who told him they were praying for his recovery. He called these gestures “a kindness” and a show of solidarity, but he pointed out he was certain the prayers did no good. On this last point, both Hitchens and his intercessors got it right and wrong at the same time. Indeed, the prayers had no effect on Hitchens’ health, and he died. Moreover, is praying for a given outcome even consistent with faith? Many certainly think so, but I don’t  believe in what I call transactional prayer, in which one asks for something and treats the outcome as a response from god. I’m not making a theological argument, because I’m ignorant of theology, but an argument about what I believe faith and god and prayer are about: love, compassion, wonder, and the ability to feel them. Roger Ebert did a nice job of summing it up for me in his review of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

I’ll go further: acceptance of “what will be” is a prerequisite for prayer of the kind that Ebert describes. I don’t know if the people who prayed for Hitchens, and who pray for him now, really expected to change the course of his disease. I did not. I left it at compassion, of feeling for him. For those of us who still feel awe, who seek and cherish the ineffable, who seek love and compassion, this approach may help  bring us into communion with our atheist brothers and sisters. As brilliant as Hitchens was, he was never going to win over a person who has felt a greater reality than this one, and no religious person was going to persuade Hitchens of the intangible. So why try, when in the end no one gets the answer until they die? Until we die, the one thing I see common to the major religions and ethical systems is a call to embrace our lack of control over the world, over the future, and in doing so free ourselves to love. To the extent that we can answer that call, atheists and believers could have precious little left to fight over. 

  1. I suppose if you’re convinced of the truth of your religion and think that belief is the difference between eternal bliss and either fiery torment (or at best annihilation), it can be reasonable and even loving to make a big effort to convert dying atheists, however crass it appears. But if you believe in the power of prayer, it’s surely more sensitive and no less effective to just pray for the guy.

    Mind you, I’d agree with you that transactional prayer doesn’t make much sense. I can see prayer as a sort of meditation leading to a realignment of your priorities, but not as a supernatural wishlist, which seems a very strange way of running things for all sorts of reasons. There’s probably a whole blog post in that.

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