An atheist in the chemo ward

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I read today at Vanity Fair's web site that one of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens, will undergo chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus. Hitchens is a noted atheist. So am I. Well I'm not a noted atheist but I am an atheist.

And as any atheist will tell you, atheism gets a bad rap.

It's a dirty word, Atheism.

It's got a long association with foxholes. There may not be any atheists in foxholes, I don't know, never been in one. But foxholes don't seem as prevalent in the world as they once were, making this saying increasingly irrelevant.

Evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins notes that the lack of atheists in foxholes says nothing especially positive about religion; after all, there aren't many atheists in prison either.

I can't help but wonder just how often cancer patients who are undergoing therapy and who aren't religious are subjected to the endless promotional pressures of those religious folks determined to fulfill their earthly duties and make as many converts as they can. Fighting cancer is enough for anyone.


Christopher Hitchens has more than his share of enemies, particularly among Christians. For example, his highly critical and "hilariously mean" look at Mother Theresa in The Missionary Position made him no friends among her legion of devotees. Thus I suspect that in the coming weeks, one or two among them who despise the man will have their say. I expect a certain degree of the kind of intolerance and venom for which the faithful are sometimes known (Ann Coulter once challenged her "co-religionists" to admit that they enjoyed the idea of Richard Dawkins burning in hell). Others might say Hitchens' cancer is payback, the wrath of an angry God punishing him for his criticism. Still others will speculate on whether facing his own mortality will force a conversion out of Hitchens.

Meanwhile, some will pray for him. Or they will say they will pray for him.

Each has the right and privilege to do and say what they please.

Hitchens is a fantastic writer, he has a brilliant mind, he has an impressive body of work, much of it having nothing at all to do with religion. Yet this ABC story, and some of the comments left by readers, illustrate a ridiculous point.

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Cancer and mortality have been inextricably linked for all of human history. Perhaps that will one day change. This doesn't, by syllogism, link cancer and religion.

First and last, Hitchens is man with cancer, no more and no less. Not an atheist with cancer (though he may also be that). Fortunately, modern anticancer treatments don't discriminate between how each patient views the world.

Neither should anyone else.

By Ross Bonander

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