Brog, Hitchens, Foxholes


At the Huffington Post, David Brog, the Jewish director of Christians United for Israel, uses the news of Christopher Hitchens’ cancer to attack Hitchens for attacking belief.

This is how David begins:

When I heard the sad news that Christopher Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, I did what I typically do upon learning of someone’s illness: I said a silent prayer for his recovery. Call it habit, hope, or faith — but this is what I do. While I could not disagree more with this fierce critic of the Judeo-Christian tradition, I also recognize that Hitchens is not a bad man. He’s never employed or condoned violence in furtherance of his atheism. I can wish for him physical health and personal happiness even while I fight with everything I’ve got against what he stands for. Our hearts should be big enough to rise above the petty.

But Brog’s implied generosity involves granting Hitchens something the writer does not need or want: What use has an atheist for prayers?

In fact, Brog seems out to settle scores:

I doubt we’ll ever hear Hitchens apologize for blaming almost every evil in human history on those with whom he disagrees: Christians, Jews, and other assorted faithful. Hitchens is fierce and downright ugly in his attacks on religion and the religious. He and the generation of new atheists he lead don’t just disagree; they demonize and dehumanize.

At The Atlantic, Hitchens’ colleagues Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg have also grappled with the news of their friend’s illness and their disagreements with him about God, and have framed it with affection for the erudition Hitchens brings to the other side of the debate.

Which is not to say Brog is wrong and they are right, that Hitchens is always erudite and that he never throws bombs; but which approach is more appropriate in marking a man’s struggle with a deadly disease?

David also wants to make a broader point about belief and good works:

As Professor Charles Marsh has observed, "It is unlikely that anyone has ever read Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra or Jacques Derrida’s Disseminations and opened a soup kitchen." The same could be said for anything ever written by Christopher Hitchens. I’m not asking that Hitchens or his fellow travelers give up the café life for the front lines of the struggle for humanity. I’m not on those front lines either. I simply ask that he have the decency to respect those who are there as well as the beliefs that inspired them to go.

I’ve been to those front lines, and even lost friends to them. Some of these folks were believers, some were not.

What I’ve learned, is that it’s not so much that foxholes lack atheists, it’s that the urgency of the mission renders divine contemplation a little ridiculous under the circumstances. The people I knew who risked everything to bring relief and light to the planet’s darker corners were there to save lives, and I don’t remember anyone asking anyone else whether prayer was needed or appropriate.

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