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Battling cancer, atheist author Christopher Hitchens skipping prayer day in his honor

Stricken with cancer and fragile from chemotherapy, author and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens sits in an armchair before an audience and waits for the only question that can come first at such a time.

"How's your health?" asks Larry Taunton, a friend who heads an Alabama-based group dedicated to defending Christianity.

"Well, I'm dying, since you asked, but so are you. I'm only doing it more rapidly," replies Hitchens, his grin faint and his voice weak and raspy. Only wisps of his dark hair remain; clothes hang on his frame.

The writer best known to believers for his 2007 book "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" has esophageal cancer, the same disease that killed his father. He is fighting it, but the 62-year-old Hitchens is realistic: At the very best, he says, his life will be shortened.

For some of his critics, it might be satisfying to see a man who has made a career of skewering organized religion switch sides near the end of his life and pray silently for help fighting a ravaging disease.

He has an opportunity: Monday has been informally proclaimed "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day."

Christopher Hitchens won't be bowing his head, even on a day set aside just for him.

"I shall not be participating," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer in June, forcing him to cancel a tour to promote his new book, "Hitch-22: A Memoir." He took time off from work as chemo treatments began but recently published the first of what is intended to be a series of essays in Vanity Fair magazine about his diagnosis.

On Sept. 7, he visited Birmingham for his first public appearance since the diagnosis, a debate against David Berlinski, author of "The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions." They argued over the implications of a purely secular society before a crowd of about 1,200 in an event sponsored by Fixed Point Foundation, the Christian apologetics group headed by Taunton.

Taunton is devoutly Christian yet has developed a fast friendship with Hitchens, who appeared at a similar debate sponsored by the organization last year. Taunton is among those praying for Hitchens, and Hitchens takes no offense.

The way the English-born Hitchens sees it, the people praying for him break down into three basic groups: those who seem genuinely glad he's suffering and dying from cancer; those who want him to become a believer in their religious faith; and those who are asking God to heal him.

Hitchens has no use for that first group. "'To hell with you' is the response to the ones who pray for me to go to hell," Hitchens told AP.

He's ruling out the idea of a deathbed change of heart: "'Thanks but no thanks' is the reply to those who want me to convert and recognize a divinity or deity."

It's that third group — people who are asking God for Hitchens' healing — that causes Hitchens to choose his words even more carefully than normal. Are those prayers OK? Are they helpful?

"I say it's fine by me, I think of it as a nice gesture. And it may well make them feel better, which is a good thing in itself," says Hitchens.

But prayers for his healing don't make him feel better.

"Well, not any more than very large numbers of very kind, thoughtful letters from nonbelievers, some of whom know me, some of whom don't, asking me to know that they are on my side," Hitchens said. "That cheers me up, yes."

Hitchens doesn't know exactly how "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day" began, other than that it's one of those things that appears on the Internet and goes viral. He declined an invitation to appear at a rabbi's prayer service in Washington that day, and he doesn't see any point in the exercise.

"I'm perfectly sure that there is nothing to be gained from it in point of my health, but perhaps I shouldn't even say that. If it would do something for my morale possibly it would do something for my health. We all know that morale is an element in recovery," he said. "But incantations, I don't think, have any effect on the material world."

The National Cancer Institute says esophageal cancer affects about 16,500 Americans each year, almost 80 percent of them men. Smoking and drinking alcohol regularly increase the risk of the disease; Hitchens does both.

The cancer that began in Hitchens' esophagus already has spread into the lymph nodes in his neck, and he fears it has reached a lung. He's visibly tired after a book signing and luncheon appearance and says he needs to rest, even though resting seems like such a waste of time when so little time may be left.

Already into his fourth round of chemotherapy, which he is receiving every three weeks, Hitchens says it's difficult to gauge his eventual legacy. He hopes to be remembered with affection by some; with passion by others; and hopefully as a good father by his three children.

As for his work, Hitchens says he would be happy to be recalled simply as one of those "who are attempting to uphold reason and science against superstition."

"I'd be proud to have my contribution at that," Hitchens said. "This is a very long, long, long story. It's humanity's oldest argument. If I played a small part in keeping it going that would be enough for me."

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