Scrambling for high ground on both sides of the deathbed

[Eds. note: This is a blog post by James Patterson.]

While sifting through “the new pollution” — that 24/7 media environment, which some Geez staffers believe we need to disconnect from — I came across the recent story of Christopher Hitchens treatment for cancer and the prospect of death bed conversion debate that has ensued from it.

In predictable fashion, the originating post (Catholic Herald – UK) uses their electronic pulpit to cast a few venomous sneers the way of the “Scourge of God,” balancing it out with the morally safe ‘but-he-has-my-prayers’ escape clause.

The swipes are of an amusing variety, discussing the luxury and banality what must be Hitchens’ life – cigarettes, booze, and his undying devotion to marketing atheism as an oppositional entity to theism. The post presents some saving graces from Hitchens’ life, particularly on the social justice front, but comes across as just a spit-shine for the Attila the Hun comparisons.

Clearly, the retrospective of Hitchens’ present life contrasted with the prospect of his death gives the opportunity to pass a little holy judgment by the faithful.

The ensuing discussion, better described as a gloves-off fist fight, erupted on the validity of deathbed conversions versus how many atheists go to the grave confidently.

The debate seems trivial in my mind and probably to most, so the bigger question to me is: Was it right to post this commentary? The clear outcome was antagonism and the continuation of the dog and pony show that has besieged the two camps.

It is hard to watch the dialogue between the atheist and religious communities in contemporary society. Both sides, to an extent, act like Frankenstein and his monster – baiting and tearing apart senselessly. This blog post continues the tradition.

Even from my vantage-point, an atheist working in the realm of faith (certainly an anomaly) I get it from both sides. The unbelievers are perplexed by my engagement with the community and why I would do it, while conversations within the faith community clearly develop barriers once I ‘out’ myself.

The dialogue is based firmly on the strength of how we prototypically frame one another through stereotyping. To the Christian, the atheist may be the one tearing down the sanctity they believe — in some cases we’re crudely categorized as having a grudge with the church because one may have had some childhood issue with the church they weren’t able to forgive ( I received that one recently from a christian editor who knew nothing of my disbelief in god).

To atheists, the idea of faith often results in a sneering and combative condemnation of the destruction the church has caused or opposition tactics that take an equally “child-like” approach to the reasoning behind faith.

I’ll admit it’s difficult getting a grasp on the faith industry itself when you don’t believe in their foundational underpinning and motivations, but I wouldn’t try doing it if there weren’t some redeeming qualities to it. Even a devote atheist would find it hard to deny the formative effect religion had on our modern civilization’s beginnings. But the conversations have to progress past the accusation and judgment stage on both sides.

Perhaps focusing on aspects and debates that foster connectivity — like healthy communities, sustainable living, giving, fairness, developing alternatives and innovations to make this life a better place — would be a good start to bridging that gap. It certainly is something people on both sides of the fence currently do and the results at least could have some actions associated with them. – James Patterson

- Ask the atheist at

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