Christopher Hitchens has mellowed, but his idea of Christianity is still grossly distorted

Dr Francis Collins, who pioneered Hitchens's cancer treatment, is mentioned in the Pope's new book (AP Photo/J Scott Applewhite)

If this sounds like a question from the radio programme Round Britain Quiz, I’m sorry. It has just struck me so I will formulate it anyway: what do Pope Benedict, the scientist Francis Collins and Christopher Hitchens have in common? Answer: His Holiness mentions Collins on page 193 of his book Jesus of Nazareth (that’s as far as I’ve got; it’s very dense so I’m having to read it slowly); Collins is the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; and it is his research which has pioneered the experimental treatment that Hitchens is receiving for his throat cancer. Interestingly, Hitchens, as well as naturally hoping that this treatment will efficiently target the site of his tumour, has become good friends with Collins and has publicly debated religion with him.

The Holy Father, as is generally known, is a Catholic; Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian, and author of The Language of God: A Scientist presents Evidence for Belief; and Hitchens, in case you didn’t know it, is a devout atheist. “Devout” is probably the wrong word but “keen” or “committed” don’t quite convey his evangelical brand of atheism. Some Christians hope that if the experiment, involving Hitchens’s DNA, is effective and he is cured, he will undergo a change of heart. But conversion doesn’t work so straightforwardly; you have to be open to grace at some level and, judging from his public pronouncements, Hitchens has slammed this particular door shut. Yet who am I to judge him? As Carson McCullers once wrote, the heart is a lonely hunter.

What is obvious, though, is that in Hitchens’s case, it is not a question of Christianity having been tried and found wanting: it has simply never been tried – or understood. In an interview with Mick Brown in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph magazine he says he has never yearned for faith, adding: “There isn’t the evidence and I don’t see why anyone would want it to be true. A permanent, invigilated, regulated dictatorship which you are told is for your own good – I can’t think of anything worse.” If that is not the most grotesque distortion of Christianity in short compass, I don’t know what is.

And why does Pope Benedict mention Francis Collins? Because “in the magnificent mathematics of creation, which today we can read in the human genetic code, we recognise the language of God”. It was this “language” that converted Collins himself (although it has not yet converted the scientist Richard Dawkins). The Pope tells us why: “But unfortunately not the whole language. The functional truth about man has been discovered. But the truth about man himself – who he is, where he comes from, what he should do, what is right, what is wrong – this… cannot be read in the same way. Hand in hand with growing knowledge of functional truth there seems to be an increasing blindness towards ‘truth’ itself – towards the question of our real identity and purpose.”

It hardly needs to be pointed out how this applies to Hitchens’s mindset. Still, he has mellowed. He suspects that Collins is praying for him and doesn’t mind, although he thinks it a waste of time. I have blogged before about Hitchens and prayer. He still needs it.