The New York Times has reported that Christopher Hitchens has cancer. According to a column in last Sunday's edition, Hitchens himself is telling friends that he is dying and that, at most, he might live for five more years if he responds well to treatment. The Times also stated that many people are hoping that he will convert before he dies.
Hitchens is a brilliant provocateur who is a favorite of television interviewers because he can be counted on to say something different. He gained a lot of attention during the Iraq war because he was a political liberal who supported the invasion. He received even more notoriety when he authored one of the recent books espousing atheism and denouncing religion--God is Not Great.
I hope that Hitchens will respond well to his cancer treatment and will go on to live without any re-occurence of his cancer. But I refuse to join those who are calling for him to convert.
Those who want Hitchens to convert must view his possible conversion as some kind of victory for the faith. They envision headlines, "Atheist Converts to Belief in God." However, if his conversion would be such a victory, then his atheistic belief must be seen as a serious threat to the faith. It is not, especially the petulant, emotionalistic kind of atheism espoused by Hitchens. In his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart exposes the historical ignorance and shoddy logic of popular atheists like Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. About these popular atheists, Hart says, "...the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief. The best we can now hope for are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor...." So then, it would be a mistake to consider the arguments of Christopher Hitchens and others like him as being some kind of serious threat to theism or Christian faith. Of course, there will always be a market for their ideas, but arguments bristling with gaps of logic and burdened by the authors' emotionalism probably make more people aware of the weakness of the atheist point of view and wary of the emotional landscape where atheism resides.
The main reason I would not join those who are calling for Hitchens to convert is that such an attitude by believers only confirms the deepest convictions of atheists and agnostics about religion and believers. The unbelievers think that religion is based upon fear and other irrational human emotions, and they expect believers to count on the fear of death or hell to bring around someone like Hitchens, who could not be persuaded by reason and the witness of exemplary Christian living. I do not think that believers should try to manipulate others into believing by exploiting their moment of vulnerability as an opportunity for conversion. The Christian appeal should always be based on freedom--the free choice of the human person to respond to the love of God freely offered in the creation of the world and the incarnation of God's Word in Jesus Christ. As St. Irenaeus often emphasized, God works by persuasion. Any conversion which is not based upon being freely persuaded, but upon something like personal desperation, cannot be a conversion in any serious Christian sense.
At any rate, deathbed conversions should not be something Christians exalt. To do so is to treat the Christian faith as little more than a hope for individual life after death. The Christian faith should not be so reduced and distorted. The Christian faith is a full account of reality which shows us both the rationality of the world and the mysteries which transcend human reason. It is a way of living one's whole life from conception to death with dignity, meaning, and joy even in the midst of suffering. It is a hope, not merely for persons, but for the vindication of the kingdom of God in human history and the transformation of the whole creation. And, the hope for persons is not some preservation of one's ego but a transformation of the self in the light of the divine presence and purpose. The Christian faith is not for somebody on their deathbed. It a way for us to live our whole lives and to create a culture which brings out the best in human nature by shaping a society by the knowledge of God's good revelation.
That said, I would be happy for Christopher Hitchens if he did begin to move toward faith in God or become a believer, like his younger brother with whom he has debated in public. I would assume that such a move would require immense changes; if it did not, then I doubt it would be a true conversion. My perception is that most atheists are atheists because of some emotional sensibility or need, and that their intellectual arguments are proposed as a way of helping them to be resigned at the top of their minds to the doubts they have already felt at the bottom of their hearts, or as a way of lashing out at ideas which have either hurt them or disappointed them in their lives. I am not trying to denigrate atheists by making this point. I think some of them are reacting against horrible theological teaching they received as children. I think others have been affected by serious traumas in their youth. Still others have an emotional sensibility, such as an empathy with people who suffer, and they have not known how to identify God as the source of their empathy rather than as the cause of the suffering. All I am saying is that when we either believe or disbelieve, we do so with the whole of our being, not just with our intellect. And, if we convert from unbelief to faith it is not merely a matter of greater intellectual understanding or humility, although these are required for belief, but it is a matter of letting one's spirit be open to receive a Presence whose reality we have thought to be logically inconsistent with our own perceptions of evil in the world, but who is engaged in the transformation of an unfinished world and whose goodness is the hope of every person and all of creation. As a Christian, I pray that Christopher Hitchens would become able to open his spirit to this Presence. If this were to occur, I would hope that it would not be a public matter and certainly not a public spectacle. If it became a public spectacle, then whatever personal healing he would have experienced so far would be interrupted by the kind of circus which is commonplace in today's mass media. Besides, I would want us to be spared loud-mouth believers on television shouting, " I told you so." Christianity does not need hucksters any more than it does not need to fear atheists.