Unrepentant despite the ongoing ravages of esophageal cancer and the chemotherapy that is supposed to keep it at bay, atheist and controversialist Christopher Hitchens is vowing to "continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until it's hello darkness my old friend."
One of the delusions he targets in his regular column
in the latest edition of Vanity Fair magazine is the notion that the cancer is divine retribution for his irreligious spoutings, and in particular a punishment aimed at his voice, which has for years been the famously plummy medium for many of his heresies.
His throat, the high-living Hitchens notes with characteristic drollery, "is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed."
And he issues a "prebuttal" to assure both his foes and his many fans (some of them believers) that even if his voice survives to his deathbed, they shouldn't believe any reports of a last-minute change of heart.
"As a terrified, half-aware imbecile," Hitchens writes, "I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be 'me.' (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumors or fabrications.)"
As he often does, Hitchens picks out the cartoonish views of one of the uglier believers to comment on his illness in order to set up his deconstruction of faith.
He quotes one anonymous believer as commenting: "He's going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he's sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire."
Hitchens coolly analyzes the scorching condemnations of such religionists and lists the rational objections to them, most of which would in fact be shared by any thoughtful Christian, or at least those humble enough not to be "so damn sure that he can know the mind of god," as Hitchens puts it.
"Second," he continues, "would this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? Third, why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former 'lifestyle' would suggest that I got. Fourth, why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: it's an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers."
"If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random."
All good questions, and ones people of faith have also been asking for eons.
Indeed, in the latter half of his column, Hitchens wrestles with typical honesty with the more vexing questions of mortal illness, and with the touching assurances of the many better angels who have offered their sustaining prayers -- as PoliticsDaily recounted here
-- and with the equally wishful support he has received from his fellow unbelievers.
"If anyone can beat this, you can," one atheist wrote him. "Cancer has no chance against someone like you," said another.
All very flattering, as Hitchens notes. But not particularly realistic, and even something of a burden.
"On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect. If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down," he writes.
And if he survives, there is this prospect: "[W]hat if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating."
Christopher Hitchens is already a "man in the fire," as Reynolds Price, also afflicted by cancer, called his book-length letter to a dying friend.
Praying to send him to burn in Hell seems redundant, as well as profoundly un-Christian. But praying loudly for him to convert or be cured, or making claims for the efficacy of such intercessions, "can seem a bit smug, or even Pharisaical," as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote
-- and not what Jesus would do