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Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2010

Brotherly love

Religion | Christopher and Peter Hitchens have a conversation about God, death, and faith-based initiatives

WASHINGTON-Christopher Hitchens was between doctor appointments for treatment of his life-threatening esophageal cancer when he sat down to a conversation Tuesday about God with his younger brother Peter Hitchens, who had flown in from Oxford, England.

Christopher, a well-known atheist, debuted his memoir Hitch-22 this year. Peter released his own memoir this year too: The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Despite their fierce disagreements about God, the two seem to have a warm relationship. As moderator Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, read a passage of Peter's book about their reconciliation after a debate in Grand Rapids, Mich., Christopher clapped under the table.

Then the brothers went back and forth in a room with 25 journalists at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Michael Gerson, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush (who founded the White House Faith-Based Office), sat across the room as Christopher said, "Those that think 'faith-based' is the prefix to something positive have a lot of argument in front of them."

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Bald now and more gaunt than before his treatment began, Christopher is as nimble as ever in his arguments and dry asides. He told me afterward that he never grows tired of these conversations: "It's a big topic." But he did seem to be tired of the question about all the people praying for him and whether the experience has budged his atheism. When one reporter asked about it, he said, "Well, you have the floor and you're insisting, in spite of my reluctance."

"I do resent . . . the idea that it would in some way be assumed that now that you may be terrified or miserable or depressed, surely now would be a good time to abandon the principles of a lifetime," he continued. "I've already thought about them a great deal, thanks all the same."

Peter concurred: "I think it would be quite grotesque to imagine that someone would have to get cancer to see the merits of religion. It's an absurd idea."

Pete Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center asked Christopher a question he said he had never been asked before: what contribution had Christopher seen from Christianity?

"In my life, the reminder of the great ephemerality of human power-and existence," he said. "That's always with me."

But as for the gospel-Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world-he said: "Nothing could persuade me that that's true or moral. It's white noise."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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