LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And now for a competition of sorts between two brothers. The journalist Christopher Hitchens is one of the world's most famous atheists. His brother Peter insists a civilized world must believe in God. The brothers have publicly argued over faith for years. But now Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with cancer. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Christopher Hitchens wears a white straw hat. His head, completely bald from chemotherapy treatments, gets cold. He's tired. He's thin. He's off his food. But he's still pugnacious when asked if having cancer has changed his view of religion or God.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Author, Journalist): If anything, my contempt for the false consolation of religion has increased since I became aware that I really don't have very long to live.

HAGERTY: Since Hitchens' cancer diagnosis in June, he's received thousands of letters and emails, some from believers asserting he's getting what he deserves, more from people saying they're praying for his recovery. Hitchens says he's been overwhelmed by the outpouring. But he's annoyed that some writers hope he'll have a last minute conversion to Christianity.

Mr. HITCHENS: Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin. Nothing could persuade me that that was true or moral. It's white noise to me.

HAGERTY: His brother Peter is equally blunt.

Mr. PETER HITCHENS (Columnist, Author): There is actually no absolute right and wrong if there is no God.

HAGERTY: The two spoke yesterday at an event hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Now, Peter once held his older brother's views. He burned his Bible when he was a teenager in boarding school. But by his late 20s he felt drawn back to his Anglican faith. He says his work as a journalist in Somalia and the former Soviet Union persuaded him that civilization without religious morality devolves into brutality. Moral behavior, he says, requires more than higher reasoning. It requires God.

Mr. P. HITCHENS: It seems to me to be very, very hard to come up with an atheistic explanation of conscience any more than you could have a compass without a magnetic north. And if the magnetic north kept shifting, then it would be very difficult to steer your boat or your plane across the Atlantic.

HAGERTY: Christopher Hitchens dismisses that argument, pointing out that much of the world's evil is committed in the name of religion.

Mr. C. HITCHENS: If I was to say to someone, now, can you name me please a hideous moral act undertaken or an immoral remark made by someone because of their faith, you've already thought of one. Now you've thought of another one. And you'll keep on thinking of them.

HAGERTY: But Peter says arguments like that overlook all the good religion has done. Now, for years the Hitchens brothers have fought over God with barely concealed disdain. But yesterday, the tone was different. Peter Hitchens says he doesn't see the point of getting angry anymore.

Mr. P. HITCHENS: He has been my opponent for most of my life. I certainly have, in the past, been angry with him. But I would say that that is over.

HAGERTY: For his part, Christopher Hitchens praised his brother's work and laughed at his jokes. As for facing death, he suspects that you have the same emotions whether you believe in God or not.

Mr. C. HITCHENS: People say, cancer picked the wrong foe in you. You can beat this if anyone can, lots of that kind of thing. And it has actually does have the effect of slightly giving me the blues, because I don't want to let people down. The psychological makeup of this is roughly the same whether you assume a supernatural dimension or not.

HAGERTY: But Christopher Hitchens' bout with cancer is remarkable in one respect. He's chosen to confront the biggest questions about God, life and death in the most public of ways.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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