English-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has cancer of the oesophagus. Photo / Supplied

English-American author and journalist Christopher Hitchens has cancer of the oesophagus. Photo / Supplied

Writer Christopher Hitchens has a lot on his mind right now, but he probably managed a sardonic smile at the news that a survey has found atheists know more about religion than believers.

Ever since atheism's most compelling voice was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, his fate has been a hot topic in religious circles.

As Hitchens relates in Vanity Fair, he's in the unusual position of having some believers pray for his recovery - religious websites designated September 20 'Everybody pray for Hitchens Day' - while others hail his illness as God's revenge and gleefully anticipate his death followed by an eternity of torment in hellfire.

One entrepreneur even spotted a commercial opportunity in this fearless individual confronting his mortality, and is taking bets on whether Hitchens will recant and get religion.

A spokesman for the organisation which conducted the survey speculated that atheists are well informed about religion because they tend to have had religious upbringings and reached their conclusions after careful consideration.

"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent." He didn't need to spell out the corollary: that, as the term suggests, blind faith renders knowledge redundant and actually precludes thought, particularly that which takes the form of questions.

As a young man Hitchens was a political activist of the Trotskyite persuasion. His immersion in ideology enabled him to make the connection between political and religious totalitarianism, a point of view which has performed the role of lighthouse throughout his intellectual voyage.

As he writes in his justly celebrated and learned book God is not Great: "The object of perfecting the species - which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse - is in essence a religious one."

His critics on the left interpreted his hawkishness in the War on Terror as a sell-out: former Trot mutates loathsomely in prosperous middle age into neo-conservative armchair warrior supporting American (one strike) militarism (two strikes) against the Third World (three strikes, you're out).

Apart from demonstrating that two decades after the collapse of communism there are still those on the left who are uncomfortable without a party line to follow and/or enforce, this mind-set ignores the obvious truth that Hitchens' positions are the logical consequence of his conviction that totalitarianism, whatever its guise, must be resisted.

The sneer that Hitchens sold out after a few years of rubbing shoulders with the elite in Washington DC is easily disproved. In his recent autobiography Hitch-22 he recounts his backing for an earlier military mission which was equally deplored on the left - the 1982 Falklands War.

Hitchens visited Argentina in the late 1970s. Talking to torture victims and relatives of the tens of thousands who disappeared without trace, he grasped the scale and horror of the crimes the US-backed junta had inflicted on its own people.

He quotes Jacobo Timerman, the kidnapped and tortured Argentinean journalist and author of the numbing memoir Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number, on the junta's technique of torturing family members in front of each other: "The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father's genitals, a smack on the mother's face, an obscene insult to the sister, or the sexual violation of a daughter.

Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice, collapses."

Another lefty hate figure, Margaret Thatcher, received precious little credit for bringing down this unspeakable fascist regime, whose leader General Jorge Videla was eventually convicted of selling the children of tortured rape victims held in his private prison.

Her critics preferred to deride her for acting as if the British Empire had never receded into history.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolised the end of the Cold War.

That same year saw the Ayatollah Khomeini's imposition of a fatwa or sentence of death on novelist Salman Rushdie, an event that can be seen as the start of another often subterranean war between freedom and tyranny, one that still has some distance to run.

For Hitchens this was another defining moment: "It was a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression."

Hitchens' core message about this conflict is confined to a casual footnote in which he mentions that he's often asked whether he or his family have been threatened by jihadists.

He invariably replies: "Yes, and so has everyone else in the audience, if they have paid enough attention to the relevant bin Ladenist broadcasts to notice the fact."

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  2. Tristram Shandy (New Zealand)
    02:16PM Saturday, 02 Oct 2010
    A couple of points Paul - I took a sample of that quiz and it was mainly trivia - eg "what is Ramadan?" Useful knowledge but not essential to the crux of Christianity, viz to have a loving personal relationship with one's Lord and Saviour, Christ. Especially when that trivia is about other religions. One can be a Saint and have an intimate knowledge of the Trinity without being particularly knowledgeable - how smart about religion do you think the first Twelve would have been? Or St Therese of Lisieux?
    However, this does not mean that faith must be blind - I would point everyone to "fides et ratio" by JPII on this subject - reason and faith are like two wings on a bird - both are essential.
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  3. graham p (Rotorua)
    02:17PM Saturday, 02 Oct 2010
    Atheists know more than the average churchgoer about 'religion' for the simple reason that the Atheist is constantly having to justify his impossible faith, (justify it to himself). The Atheist believes in an ever-shrinking body of anachronistic 'evidence', and is forced to maintain his sanity by attacking 'religion' at every opportunity.
    The churchgoer, on the other hand, is in the position of having his faith confirmed by nearly everything that surrounds him (or her). To boot, 'Studies' show that all children have faith in God as their default belief: it isn't until they are exposed to the theo-phobic hypotheses of evolution and uniformitarianism that their innate faith in God is shaken.
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  4. calvin (New Zealand)
    02:17PM Saturday, 02 Oct 2010
    Us, Atheists in the 21st Century know that its just not enough to believe but to prove.
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