A day for a man who does not want one.
Now, given his role as an outspoken atheist, and given his current situation, some folks decided to make September 20th a day on which everyone should pray for Hitchens- a decisions Hitchens himself has remarked upon. In the end, he concluded as follows:
I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.
So, why am I brining this up? Well, because a good friend of mine recently posed a public question, asking how atheists and theists feels about the "pray for Hitchens," day? My friend also expressed hope that this was a day on which atheists and theists could come together in acknowledgement of a common sense of finality and frailty. And, given the invitation, I will respond as best I am able, with the caveat that I am speaking only for myself. Hitchens has already spoken, and he's about the only authority on the day that should be required.
First of all, there is an extent to which I find the gesture touching. There is a segment of the theistic population who are genuinely praying out of generosity and kindness. These people represent the best of theism in general- compassion, kindness, and openness of spirit- and help to reinforce my belief that atheism and theism do not have to be mortal enemies.
Second, however, is my tired understanding that not all of those offering to pray are doing so out of generosity. For many, it is more vindictive and passive aggressive. And I know that because, you see, in order to pray for someone you do not have to tell them that you are praying for them, and to express your sympathy, you do not have to use the language of prayer. As an atheist I, too, have been told by others that they are praying for me, but if they were not to tell me, their prayers would be just as heartfelt and just as effective. Thus, I know that they are telling me for some other reason. Indeed, telling me about the prayers is little more than a subtle condemnation of my beliefs- a way to tell me I'm wrong, while cloaking oneself in the illusion of generosity. I do not mean to imply that all such people who announce their intentions to pray are acting out of such condescension, but rather that those who do are not as hidden from sight as they seem to believe. And so, this day is wearying to me because so many of the prayers are simply an excuse for the religious to feel righteous at the expense of a man who is dealing with cancer.
Third, times such as these are, at best, surreal for an atheist. Being told that someone is praying for you is disconcerting because we atheists simply do not believe that prayers are effective, and by and large we'd probably prefer you do something less silly with your time. I suspect, though I can't say for sure, that upon being told someone is praying for me, I feel much the same way a Christian would feel if told that someone was going to sacrifice a chicken for him or her. Perhaps you appreciate the sentiment, but you really wish that they wouldn't.
And finally, there is the question of whether this is a chance for atheists and theists to come together in recognition of our common destination. Leaving aside the fact that one of the attractions of religion is that it denies the finality of that common destination, there is the issue that this moment of togetherness is being proposed in a religious mode. Our currency refers to god, our pledge of allegiance refers to god, getting elected virtually requires public proclamations of religious faith, and a lack thereof exposes one to little but suspicion and dislike. And yes, when one of my fellow atheists is dying, we are supposed to come together with theists by participating in their rituals? I think it more appropriate that the beliefs of the person whom we are coming together around dictate the mode of togetherness. But then, that is perhaps just me.
I am deeply sorry to know of Mr. Hitchens' disease, I hope very much that the power of modern science and medicine can save him or, at the least, ease his ending, and I am grateful for all those who are praying for him out of a genuine sense of compassion.
But, like Hitchens, I hope it makes them feel better, because it otherwise is unlikely to prove helpful.