I once watched Christopher Hitchens chastised for smoking by one of the unbearably priggish visitors at the Hay book festival (a place that should check for sticks up people's bums the way other venues check for booze in knapsacks.) He was lolling in a chair onstage, a tub of Scotch by his side. He responded, magnificently if ungrammatically, "If anyone doesn't like it, they can kiss my ass."
So I wonder what he would really like to say to those who have chosen Sept. 20 as Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day. Perhaps if he were in rude health, and not suffering through treatments for esophageal cancer, he would have a pithy response that could not be printed in a family newspaper or repeated in front of any but the very worst children. You can be sure that the world's most famous atheist (or perhaps he and Richard Dawkins would like to mud-wrestle for this honour) would rather you spend Sept. 20 doing anything more useful than praying for him: buying ice cream, getting drunk, getting lucky, taking the kids for a walk, reading a book.
"I don't mean to be churlish about any kind intentions," Hitchens writes in October's Vanity Fair, in the second of his elegant meditations on cancer, "but when Sept. 20 comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better."
Hitchens's plea comes in response to a very strange phenomenon: All over the Internet, the faithful - who seem to come in two sizes, "Burn in hell, vile heathen" and "He can still find God's grace" - are setting up little cyber shrines to pray for this great contrarian. It's a wonderful moral puzzle: For whom are they really praying? And to whom? (The great pretender, Hitchens would say.)
How you feel about Hitchens's predicament - he is suffering from the same cancer that killed his father, at a much younger age - seems to depend on where you fall on the vengeful/merciful spectrum. On one website, an anonymous commentator, who clearly roots for the Old Testament team, offers this: "By the way - burn in hell." A more measured response comes from a blogger at Gospel.com: "Prayer isn't a job that we do just for those we think 'deserve' it -we're commanded to pray. It's a privilege to pray." Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic provocateur, has said, "I will pray for him, in part to piss him off," and that's at least useful: The ill hate being patronized.
You can see where the fire started. First there was Hitchens's denunciation of Mother Teresa. Then, his 2007 polemic God Is Not Great (the title of which, Salman Rushdie suggested, was one word too long) arrived as a red flag to believers. "Religion poisons everything," Hitchens wrote, and if that weren't enough, he wrote it in italics, and if that weren't enough, the book went on to become a huge bestseller.
So why would Hitchens, the atheist son of a non-practising Baptist father and a self-denying Jewish mother, care whether people pray for him or not? Well, for one thing, such praying continues the proselytizing mission at the core of organized religions - everyone has to join the piety picnic, and eat the fried chicken, or all the fun is ruined. (Atheists, on the other hand, just want to be left alone. You don't see atheists running around trying to convert people away from God on their deathbeds.) Worse, there's a nasty pong of smugness about it: We know better than you, and you'd better recant before you're dead.
We've been promised by Hitchens that he won't undergo a deathbed conversion; and that if there's ever a rumour that he did, we should discount this "hucksterish choice."
The awful truth is that the spectre of death already hung over his wonderful memoir, Hitch-22. Maybe he'd been mentally adding up all those smokes and Scotches, but the book begins with him being erroneously described as "the late Christopher Hitchens" in a magazine. In a crystalline image, he wrote that he was not afraid of death, but was hopelessly distressed at the thought of the newspaper being delivered the day after he'd be gone - that the miraculous world would continue without him. Perhaps people who love the world that much are liberated from worry about what comes after.
Earlier this year, Hitchens and Dawkins, the Hope and Crosby of unbelievers, set out to see if there was a legal principle they could use to arrest Pope Benedict for crimes against humanity when he came to Britain. It was a genius bit of attention-getting, a publicity stunt with rage at its heart, and not much more than that.
The Pope comes to England and Scotland in a couple of weeks on the first papal state visit to Britain. (Popes have been before, but never in such an official capacity.) After 500 years, there's a lot of dust to sweep under the carpet. I hope Hitchens is among the protesters when the Pontiff with the red shoes arrives in England, but I'm very worried he may not be. And when Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury bow their heads at the tomb of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, I hope they save their prayers for those who want and need them, and don't bother with someone who knows they're wasting their breath.