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A few readers of my Prayers for Christopher Hitchens made the astounding charges that praying for him, and for his conversion as well as his deliverance from cancer — which are both forms of healing — is uncharitable or presumptuous. Among the realities these respondents missed is the fact that a Christian might be drawn to pray for Hitchens not because he’s a prominent atheist but because he is a certain kind of atheist.

Readers who admire Hitchens, as I do, will find of interest his New York Times review of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (requires registration). It begins:

Belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and belief in the virtue of his teachings are not at all the same thing. Writing to John Adams in 1813, having taken his razor blade to the books of the New Testament and removed all “the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests,” Thomas Jefferson said the 46-page residue contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Ernest Renan, in his pathbreaking “Life of Jesus” in 1863, also repudiated the idea that Jesus was the son of God while affirming the beauty of his teachings.

In rather striking contrast, C. S. Lewis maintained in his classic statement “Mere Christianity”: “That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”

As an admirer of Jefferson and Renan and a strong nonadmirer of Lewis, I am bound to say that Lewis is more honest here. Absent a direct line to the Almighty and a conviction that the last days are upon us, how is it “moral” to teach people to abandon their families, give up on thrift and husbandry and take to the stony roads? How is it moral to claim a monopoly on access to heaven, or to threaten waverers with everlasting fire, let alone to condemn fig trees and persuade devils to infest the bodies of pigs? Such a person if not divine would be a sorcerer and a ­fanatic.

That’s the Hitchens who attracts Christians’ prayers: no Jeffersonian/Renanian avoidance of the question, no Dawkinsian/Harrisian generalizations that treat the questions as irrelevant,  but a clear and pungent description of the real question. We will think his answer is quite wrong, and be unwilling to make excuses for his being wrong, but that kind of engaged atheism does draw the interest, respect, and even affection of  people who are engaged in the same questions but on the other side.

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