September 20th was “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day”. The writer and well-known atheist has cancer of the esophagus, and several of his friends in the clergy enlisted their congregations to pray for him. Hitch was understandably indifferent to the idea — “unless it makes you feel better” — but I was surprised to see a religious leader suggest that praying for Hitchens may actually be “hateful”:

As Mr. Hitchens’ beliefs regarding God and religion are more than common knowledge, perhaps abstaining from doing that which is hateful to him is the best way for anyone who calls him- or herself a “person of faith” to uphold this biblical proscription.

Mr. Hitchens, who is the consummate gentleman, has been mostly tolerant of the array of religious groups who have organized this day of prayer despite his firm objections. Yet it seems quite intolerant, disrespectful, and contrary to religious practice to pray for a man who has stated firmly and clearly that he wants no such thing.

Sometimes being a person of faith — being a person in general — means putting the needs of another before one’s own. Christopher Hitchens neither wants nor needs our prayers. This is hateful to him. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

I don’t know anything about Rabbi Krause, but I feel safe saying that when we speak of “prayer”, we are talking about totally different things.

She seems to think of prayer as just another physical act, and that its efficacy to the one prayed for doesn’t extend beyond the feelings of comfort in knowing that someone is praying for him.

I think her last statement is most interesting. We should certainly put the needs of others before our own, but which needs? If you traffic only in felt needs, then it would be unnecessary, perhaps even wrong to pray for Chris Hitchens. If you don’t recognize any higher needs, this is where the story ends.

But when you recognize those higher needs — the need for salvation, faith, identification with Christ — it becomes pretty difficult to think it would be “contrary to religious practice” to pray for someone, even if he was opposed to it.

So, is it loving or hateful to pray for an atheist who doesn’t want your prayer?


  1. If a friend, or even a stranger, is about jump off a bridge, is it loving or hateful to stop him and try to get him help so that he will see that suicide is not an answer to life’s difficulties?

  2. This one is tougher than most people think, I think. On the one hand, for someone who is an avowed atheist and is completely closed off to the gospel, there is nothing other than God’s own power that can soften that heart and make the person open to the message of Christ. And in such a case I would advocate ‘prayer without ceasing’ that God would accomplish that in their life.

    On the other hand, in this situation, the organized ‘Pray for Hitchens’ day almost seems more like a slap in the face to him. It’s almost as if the people organizing this are saying to him, “Well, we know you’re an atheist, so we’ll show you! We’ll pray it up in hopes that God will heal you and we’ll be proven right.”

    It just seems like the motivation for this prayer event is maybe a little skewed, like maybe it’s not so much about Hitchen’s cancer or atheism, and maybe more about him being proven wrong.

    1. That’s a good point. If the motivation is for his healing and salvation, then it’s a good thing, but if it’s just so he’ll be proven wrong, I think it would be better to stay away.

      In this case, based on Hitchens’ own writing, I think many of the organizers are personal friends of his.

  3. I was at Liberty in the 80’s when noted atheist Antony Flew was brought in for a debate. Like Hitchens he was a gentleman but very hostile toward faith. Nonetheless, the Liberty profs formed a friendship with him and prayed for him, as did many others. I do not know his actual position when he died, but prior to his death he renounced atheism in favor of, at the very least, deism. My obligation to pray for someone is not bound by their desires but by my responsibilities to a Higher Power (even if the other person denies that Power). Of course, whether an organized prayer day is the best response is another question entirely.

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