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When death comes knocking

When news of Christopher Hitchens' esophageal cancer first hit the news, blogs, Twitter, Facebook news feeds, there was a lot of cause for concern and several requests for prayer. Then a few people paused and said, "Wait, does Christopher Hitchens even want anyone to pray for him?"

Hitchens is, of course, author of God Is Not Great, describing himself as an antitheist. He described his feelings about the state of his health in a beautifully written piece for Vanity Fair. Towards the end of the article, he references prayer groups.

Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if--as my father invariably said--I am spared.

Hitchens always seems willing to take on the tough questions of life, so it seemed fitting for Anderson Cooper of CNN to ask him all sorts of questions about about his lifestyle, hedging his bets, his hope in science, people praying for him, and whether it changes his outlook on religion.

At about 5 minutes in, Cooper jumps in when Hitchens talks about bargaining with things, saying that even people who don't believe might try to hedge their bets with God. Cooper asks who Hitchens is bargaining with, whether it's a higher power. No, Hitchens says, though he is willing to be a guinea pig in science for cancer treatments. Of course, Cooper wants to know about the irony of people praying for someone who doesn't believe in prayer.

Cooper: I know you know that there are people praying for you, there are prayer groups actually and you talked about that a little bit, what do you think about that, the fact that people are praying for you?

Hitchens: There are people who are praying for me to suffer and die, they have lavish websites relishing my

Cooper: Really?

Hitchens: Oh yeah. And then there are people much more numerous I must say and nicer who are praying either that I get better or that I redeem myself, that I make peace with the Almighty. That my soul gets saved even if my wretched carcass does not. And some pray for both. And in fact the 20th of September has been designated, "Everyone Pray for Hitchens Day" on one website, in case you want to mark your calendar for that. I shall not be taking part in that.

Cooper: So, you don't pray at all?

Hitchens: No, all that's meaningless to me. I don't think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation. Or anything else by the way.

Cooper: So do you tell people not to do it for you?

Hitchens: No, I say if it makes you feel better, then you have my blessing.

After talking about a study about prayer and how Hitchens feels like he might let down his secular friends if he dies, Cooper asked about his approach to death.

Cooper: It's interesting hearing you talk about it. Obviously you're an intellectual, and you seem to be dealing with it in an intellectual way. Does that make sense? You seem to be trying to look at this as rationally as possible. What about the emotional side?

Hitchens: Let's say objectively. I'm not by any means tear-proof. I haven't wept at any point yet. Maybe that's to come. But I've become moist when I think about my children, for whom its a nasty shock. Incidentally, whatever God is punishing me, according to the other prayer faction, is punishing them, too. I don't know if they think about that.

Because the question comes after asking about prayer groups, Cooper's question comes across as a bit condescending towards religious people in comparison. It's not as though people of faith lose intellectual rigor when they approach death, right? Anyway, Cooper wanted to discuss the prayer groups again. It seemed like Cooper was fishing for a more frustrating reaction, but Hitchens had already told Hugh Hewitt that he was touched by the thought.

Cooper: One more thing about the prayer group, do you appreciate the gesture?

Hitchens: Oh, yes. Often it comes from people I've debated with in the past in their churches or synagogues, people who find me a very fierce antagonist and think that in some way some bits of me are worth saving. I take that kindly, of course. I wouldn't want to be churlish about any expression of concern. But I can't keep but keep the pitying tone in my voice that anyone would think that the natural order containing as much mystery ... could be altered by incantation.

Cooper ends the interview by asking Hitchens whether he's sure he doesn't want to hedge his bets. Hitchens says that while "the faithful love to spread these rumors" that on his death bed he converts, he said he would do no such while he's lucid. If there are any rumors saying otherwise, he said, "Don't believe it."

Generally, Cooper did a nice job with the interview, asking about whether Hitchens' views have changed, how he responds to the religious responses, what it feels like to be in his situation. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic also spoke with Hitchens about similar topics, but the CNN interview flows a little more smoothly.

One angle either interviewers could have dealt with was how Hitchens approaches the idea of the afterlife. So while religious people tend to offer an another life after death (heaven, reincarnation, what have you), its raises questions about what happens when an atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious person faces death. Has his view of the afterlife changed at all since facing death much sooner then he expected?

Another question someone could ask him is whether he has communicated with his brother Peter, who recently published an American edition of The Rage Against God, a Christian counter his brother's book. Mark Opennheimer recently wrote that Peter is "obviously sad," so does his cancer change their relationship at all?

It would also be interesting to see how Hitchens compares himself with other famous atheists, such as Bertrand Russell (who once mentioned what he would ask God if he met him) or Anthony Flew (who famously became a deist before he died earlier this year).

CNN gave a decent, fairly generic interview, but I'll be curious to see if Hitchens could answer a few more probing questions in the months to come.

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