There is a site called Christopher Hitchens Watch which, I believe, began with a good cause: it’s been around for about 5 years, and initially focused on Hitchens’ support of the war in Iraq. That was a good idea: I disagree with him on that colossal waste of lives and money, and his views are fair game. But these kinds of sites that focus on single individuals can fall victim to obsession, too, and demonize everything about their target, and that’s unfortunate. It undermines the legitimate complaints when they fuss over the petty, and even worse, when even a little generosity gets characterized as a crime.
The watch site doesn’t like this comment from a Hitchens interview, but I think he’s actually responding in an entirely appropriate way. He’s got cancer; people are wasting their time praying for him. What does Hitchens think of that?
I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts … I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought.
Prayer does absolutely nothing, but most of the people doing it mean well and are seriously hoping for the best for him. Strangers who have no part in his treatment aren’t doing less because they’re on their knees babbling to the sky (although they are promoting such useless nonsense as acceptable), so it neither picks his pocket nor breaks his leg for someone else to believe. It’s when belief infiltrates professional practice or public policy that it becomes an evil to be uncompromisingly opposed.
It’s a tough line to draw. One doesn’t want to be an enabler of stupid expressions of faith, but at the same time, one shouldn’t discourage kind intent. Hitchens is in a situation where he’s going to have to walk that line a lot.