Praying for my friend Christopher Hitchens

By Francis Collins I first met Christopher Hitchens at a “salon” organized by Ben Wattenberg a few years ago. The … Continued

By Francis Collins

I first met Christopher Hitchens at a “salon” organized by Ben Wattenberg a few years ago. The evening was advertised as a wide-ranging discussion of many topics, but soon evolved into a debate between Christopher and myself about whether a rational person could also be a person of faith. As expected based on our respective public writings, Christopher took the negative position, and I took the positive. It was an energetic and entertaining opportunity for intellectual jousting, and the quickness and edginess of Christopher’s wit was on full display – as was his remarkable command of history and literature. (In fact, I suspect he knew more about the Christian Bible than many of the Christians in attendance.)

It was with dismay that I learned in June that Christopher had been diagnosed with cancer. And this was a very serious situation – esophageal cancer that has already spread to regional lymph nodes has a poor prognosis, and pursuing all avenues of intervention, even if experimental, would be highly advisable. As the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Advances are occurring with great rapidity as technologies arising from the success of the Human Genome Project are making it possible to get a comprehensive understanding of what drives malignancy. The ability to match cancer drugs to the characteristics of an individual tumor is growing rapidly. New drug targets are being discovered. New protocols for treatment of cancer, listed in, are being developed every month.

So as I have done in other situations where a friend was in trouble, I reached out to Christopher and his wife Carol Blue to offer assistance. They welcomed that possibility, and we’ve met several times since then in their apartment. That relationship has led to some interesting ideas about how to optimize his treatment. Christopher will no doubt be writing more about these in his powerful series of essays in Vanity Fair.

Some observers have expressed surprise that the atheist intellectual and the Christian physician-scientist could become friends. After all, in the current political climate in Washington, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is supposed to be your enemy. But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

On a personal level, I have been blessed by getting to know Christopher and Carol better – despite the “enfant terrible” reputation, Christopher has a warm humanity that is easy to perceive. And his willingness to be utterly open and transparent about his cancer diagnosis provides a breathtaking window into his personal integrity.

Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention – as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 – “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.

Francis Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health, the researcher behind the Human Genome Project and a Christian who explained how he reconciles science and faith in his book The Language of God.

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  • Dr_RWM

    When you have been diagnosed with cancer, don’t be afraid to put God to the test. He is up to the challenge. Check out The Cancer Cure Experiment at This is a unique approach that applies Biblical truth to medical discoveries about cancer development such as Dr. Collins and other researchers have found.

  • ramguy06820

    Surely Jesus would approve of the way Dr. Collins, a man of considerable intellect, has approached Christopher’s illness–the right thing to do whether the object of one’s prayer believes in a personal God, or is an atheist.

  • Kingofkings1

    If I were Hitchens,I wouldn’t be so sure of my opinion that there is no God. I wish he would get a life

  • Secular

    Kingofkings mind your own goddamn business, stop poking in with your garbage.

  • harveyh5

    Had Dr. Collins been born in an Arab country, in what verse of the Koran would he find solace?

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Dr. Collins,I have followed your religious career with great interest, and I am very pleased to see you writing here. I am glad you are affording Hitch the benefits of both your knowledge and your prayers.Throughout the years, I’ve found Hitch to be variously insane, intolerable, brilliant, hysterical, hateful, and hilarious. He is a professional gadfly, I’ve determined, and he may be our last. There is no one quite like him. We need him, and I very much hope he recovers.Like him, I am an atheist. All I can do is hope. And, like many others, I do hope for him.Farnaz

  • phal4875

    Both Dr. Francis Collins and Christopher Hitchens are strong proponents for their religious and non-religious beliefs. They make cogent and impassioned arguments in their books and other writings, but the certainty expressed in both “religious” directions seems to be misplaced. There is little to prove the case that Christianity is the one true religion, and there is little to prove that an intelligent, all-powerful being did not create the universe – or perhaps the multiverse. It could be that the more sensible approach is one of uncertainty. One can believe, have faith, and can hope, but one cannot be certain about these things.Agnostics are often seen as those who cannot make a stand, but that may be the only reasonable position in a universe of great unknowns.Another issue is the concept of everlasting life. Do we really want that? Watch the other passengers when you travel across the country. A six-hour flight is a near-eternity of boredom for many. Some people see any time away from computers, television sets, eating and drinking, or other normal activities as most unpleasant.A person who cannot amuse himself for a few hours when plans change is not a good candidate for a pleasant forever.

  • Quine

    With others, I am glad to see that Dr. Collins is lending his medical skills to the health issues re Christopher Hitchens. I wonder, however, if he thinks about the self hypnosis aspects of his (Dr. Collins) own prayers? I suspect it helps the parts of his brain that believe without evidence hold out against the parts of his brain that know from science that those beliefs make no logical sense. If I could, I would ask Dr. Collins about cases of so called “split brain” patients (they have had the corpus callosum cut) in which some have been shown to have a half brain that believes in the supernatural and a half that does not (see:

  • mmurray1957

    Actually Jesus would not approve:Matthew 6: 5 Jesus says,“And when you pray, you shall not be like the Pharisees. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men.”