I’m of two minds about things like this:
It’s a tough line to draw. One doesn’t want to be an enabler of stupid expressions of faith, but at the same time, one shouldn’t discourage kind intent. Hitchens is in a situation where he’s going to have to walk that line a lot.
Hitchens is very gracious about being told that people are praying for him to recover, perhaps surprising to those who have absorbed the message that the so-called New Atheists are intolerant, fire-breathing ideologues. But there is no uniform way to respond to something like that. Some people may be expressing sympathy and trying to impart good cheer the only way they know how. Others may be using the opportunity to flaunt their supposed magnanimity, seizing an easy chance to be seen looking gracious and caring in the eyes of others while getting in a dig at a man they already know doesn’t share their beliefs. Each individual has to judge that for themselves. Go along to get along, or attempt to gracefully demur? Nietzsche:
Sometimes to act against one’s better judgment when it comes to questions of custom, to give way in practice while keeping one’s reservations to oneself, to do as everyone else does and thus to show them consideration as it were in compensation for our deviant opinions: many tolerably free-minded people regard this not merely as unobjectionable, but as ‘honest’, ‘humane’, ‘tolerant’, ‘not being pedantic’, and whatever else those pretty words might be with which the intellectual conscience is lulled to sleep: and thus this person takes his child in for Christian baptism though he is an atheist, and that person serves in the army as all the world does, however much he may execrate hatred between nations, and a third marries his wife in church because her relatives are pious and is not ashamed to repeat vows before a priest. ‘It doesn’t really matter if people like us also do what everyone does and always has done’ – this is the thoughtless prejudice! The thoughtless error! For nothing matters more than that an already mighty, anciently established and irrationally recognized custom should be once more confirmed by a person recognized as rational: it thereby acquires in the eyes of all who come to hear of it the sanction of rationality itself! All respect to your opinions! But little deviant acts are worth more!
I’ve been told that I was in someone’s prayers before, and my response was pretty much just to smile noncommittally. They meant well. I wouldn’t take the opportunity to lecture someone about my dissonant views right there on the spot, unless I felt the sentiment was being offered in bad faith; I would just attempt to make myself clear beforehand, in a neutral setting, how I felt about such things. If they persist in doing it anyway, I would take that as a sign that it was really all about them.
When it comes to being blessed after sneezing, though, I will say “No, thank you.” If they ask why, I’ll say that since I’m not at death’s door, nor do I believe that my (nonexistent) soul has been temporarily blown out of my body where it can be snatched up by Satan, I don’t need to be blessed. No one will be offended (and they already think I’m weird anyway), so I see it as a perfect chance to mildly shock someone into seeing something in a new way, to shake up their complacency. I think we should always seek to do that.