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.
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?