The health of Christopher Hitchens, an outspoken atheist and critic of religion, has become a major news story.  Hitchens is in treatment for esophageal cancer and his debilitating health has caused many to ask: should one pray for an atheist? Courtney Bender, professor of religion at Columbia University, discusses the question and whether “atheists have joined a religiously plural grid as another ‘religious’ minority, taking up a place alongside the Muslims and Sikhs and Zoroastrians.” Does this provide an unwelcome niche for the atheist community?  Courtney Bender writes:

Christopher Hitchens is in treatment for esophageal cancer, and the prognosis is grim. If Hitchens were anyone other than Hitchens, this sad news would already be a footnote in last week’s news cycle. But, since he is an outspoken atheist and since the typical American response to others’ suffering is to pray for them, a public debate has popped up.

Should one pray for an atheist?

The American press is in remarkable agreement that it is appropriate to pray for an atheist. Even an atheist who has argued that intercessory prayer is not only “in bad taste” but also “immoral.”

[ . . . ]

Enter the atheist. Hitchens and others like him cogently and vociferously contend that a way of life – public or otherwise – where prayer shapes understandings of human relationships, suffering, and morality is fraudulent, immoral, and wrong. Hitchens, in other words, envisions a different kind of world altogether. One grounded on non-transcendent frameworks and ethics, one that begins with a rejection of whatever social (or divine) powers that prayer may have. Their refusal to live on the religious grid, even a “plural” religious grid, makes them a symbolic other – a godless atheist communist, in the old parlance. Sociologists note that Americans remain less tolerant of atheists than Muslims. To be nonreligious is worse than believing in the wrong religion.

[ . . . ] atheists have joined a religiously plural grid as another “religious” minority, taking up a place alongside the Muslims and Sikhs and Zoroastrians. No longer not tolerated, they have been welcomed in.

We need look no further than Obama’s inaugural vision to see this at work: “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” Secular humanists are invited to (and attend) the interfaith meetings at the White House. The military considers atheist chaplains. Pundits and journalists state that praying for an atheist is a nice, generous and innocuous thing to do. And even Hitchens comes to see the point.

But what is the consequence? Tolerance is good, to be sure. But if prayers for Hitchens herald the beginnings of a shift toward toleration of atheism, it also augurs a shift in our view of atheists – as another minority embedded in the pluralistic grid. Which raises the question: if atheists are just another kind of religious person, then are we all religious now?  The irony here might be that an increased tolerance for atheism, along with Americans’ affinity for  prayer, make Hitchens’ and other atheists’ desire to live non-religiously an ever more elusive goal. Reporters seeking to understand Americans’ religious practices and perspectives may need to factor this into new mental maps.

Read more here.