Hitchens and Ebert on Atheism and Dying

Christopher Hitchens' column this month in Vanity Fair reflects the best of the writer's intellect and prose.  Upon learning of his cancer diagnosis, Hitch writes: "My father had died, and very switftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79.  I am 61.  In whatever kind of 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist."

Hitchens dismisses the metaphor of "battling" cancer, instead "You feel swamped with passivity and impotence dissolving like a sugar plump in water."

In an interview with Anderson Cooper (video below), Hitchens discusses approaching death as an atheist.  Film critic Rogert Ebert, who has also endured cancer, at his blog has this to say about Hitchens' interview:

The militant atheist mentioned to Cooper "the astonishing number of prayer groups" that were supporting him. He noted there were also groups praying for him to suffer and die. And other groups praying that he be redeemed, "so my soul gets saved even if my wretched carcass does not."

"So you don't pray at all?" Cooper said. "No, that's all meaningless to me. I don't think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation." There was a catch in his voice, and the slightest hint of tears. That was the moment -- not the cancer or the dying -- that got to me. Prayer groups also prayed for me, and I was grateful and moved. It isn't the sad people in movies who make me cry, it's the good ones.

Hitchens added that if there should be reports of his deathbed conversion, they would be reports of a man "irrational and babbling with pain." As long as he retains his thinking ability, he said, there will be no conversion to belief in God. This is what I expected him to say. Deathbed conversions have always seemed to me like a Hail Mary Pass, proving nothing about religion and much about desperation.

As an atheist, I have voiced my disagreement with Hitchens' style and approach to religion and faith. I thought his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything set about to paint a fundamentalist straw man out of religion, both as faith and as an institution, mostly taking on easy targets involving literal interpretations of scripture. However, much of his other writing and commentary I admire and find often to be brilliant, including his recent column at Vanity Fair.

Here's what Roger Ebert has to say on the topic:

I've read his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I believe religion in its many forms has been the greatest single inspiration for man's inhumanity to man, but I would not agree it poisons everything. Those rare people who practice in their lives the underlying principles of their religions are most often good for themselves and others. Those who use religion as a means toward thought control and rigid conformity are twisted and deranged. Anyone who would use religion as their reason to cause unhappiness to another is guilty of a great sin. These sins are committed first against their children. They have learned nothing from their faiths. The extremists of both Christianity and Islam, for example, follow lives of violent repudiation of the beliefs of their own religions...

...to the larger question of whether God exists, I would agree with Hitchens that we can't rule out the possibility of some indefinable first mover, although I'm sure he doesn't mean mover as a being but as a force. To hope we can learn how the universe came about is admirable; one might as well call that hope by any name. Whatever one calls it, it's by definition outside the reach not only of our knowledge, but of knowledge itself.

Perhaps I am wrong about the impact of Hitchens and other New Atheist commentators. Perhaps the reaction to their cartoonish critiques of religion do have an element of value, motivating lower brow commentators like Roger Ebert--who reach a mainstream of Americans--to think, reflect, and express their personal ideas and arguments about faith and non-belief. Perhaps within this space exists the opportunity to elevate attention to what it means to live life without religion and by a set of secular values.

What do readers think?  Does Hitchens' bomb throwing plant foundations around which the rest of us can begin to reason, reflect, and express our own ideas and arguments?

Update: I have edited the post to more accurately reflect the religious beliefs of Roger Ebert who I infer from his commentary on Hitchens is an agnostic.


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