On December 15, 2011, Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer. Some remember him as a man of the left who, after 9/11, converted to a kind of neoconservatism; others remember him as an atheist provocateur and serial blasphemer. For me, Christopher Hitchens was much more than either of these things. He was, as he put it, my “debate partner” and friend. This relationship, largely hidden from view, was a surprise to no one more than me. I am, after all, an Evangelical Christian. Even so, after his diagnosis of cancer in 2010, it was my privilege to take two lengthy road trips with the celebrated atheist. The first was from his home in Washington, D.C., to mine in Birmingham, Alabama. The second was through Yellowstone National Park. In both instances, we studied the Bible together and discussed the Great Questions. This relationship is the subject of my recent book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.
The book received ample praise, with Booklist calling it “loving” and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews hailing it as “beautiful.” The Gospel Coalition declared it “an instant classic” and recently named it a 2016 Book of the Year winner. At the same time, however, the book evoked fierce denunciations by a number of the so-called New Atheists. They seized upon the title as proof that I claim Hitchens made some sort of last-minute conversion. As any reader of the book can tell you, this is not so. I say as much in the opening paragraph. But just in case the reader missed it, in the final chapter I emphasize that it is unlikely that Hitchens became a Christian. The subtitle makes it clear that I believe that Christopher was, in fact, an atheist, albeit a restless one.
That was not enough for the atheist critics of my book. University of Chicago biologist and professional atheist Jerry Coyne published a review on his whyevolutionistrue.com website titled “A vulture spreads the false rumor that Hitchens accepted God at the end.” The false rumor comes from Coyne himself, since my book says nothing of the kind. When those who had actually read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens accused Coyne of not reading it, he posted this update: “Because people have suggested that I wrote this entire piece without having read any of Taunton’s book, I read the six pages about Hitchens given on the [New York] Times site, and, after writing it, have read substantial sections of the book that someone sent to me.” Six pages? So much for the scientific method.
Coyne was not alone. I was invited to appear on BBC’s Newsnight along with atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss. Newsnight’s host, James O’Brien, hostile from the start, said that I didn’t really know Hitchens but was just “trying to flog a few books off the back” of his reputation. Didn’t know him? I had never claimed to be a part of Christopher’s inner circle, but our acquaintance was much more than slight. “[Christopher] spoke very warmly, publicly, of our friendship,” I told him. “This is on film, James. I’m not inventing anything here.”
Unmoved, O’Brien teamed up with Professor Krauss, who pressed the same point, claiming that I was simply exploiting the dying atheist. “He’s trying to make money off of Christopher’s name,” he said. “Christopher was paid to spend time with this man.” He went on to pronounce authoritatively about a relationship of which he knew nothing and about conversations of which he was not a part.
But Krauss was not finished. He subsequently published an article in the New Yorker titled “The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion”: “[Taunton’s book] is just the latest in a long line of similar claims about famous atheist conversions.” Not only does my book state exactly the opposite—“the Christian faith did not need Hitchens’s public conversion anymore than it needed Darwin’s”—but the entire last chapter was written in anticipation of silly charges like Krauss’s. Fantasy conversion, indeed. An atheist fantasy about what he imagined I said in a book that he—and the fact-checkers at the New Yorker—never read.
Before it was published, I shared the manuscript of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens with the atheist author Michael Shermer. Shermer is editor of Skeptic magazine and a columnist at Scientific American. According to Shermer, he was, in his youth, a fundamentalist Christian, but abandoned the faith in his twenties and became an atheist. He is now a leading figure in questioning religious claims. I sent the draft to him because he had expressed interest in the book and I thought him trustworthy.
One cannot accuse him of not reading the book. He did and offered this gracious assessment: “You’re a very elegant and powerful writer, Larry. I very much enjoyed reading much of this manuscript. I hope the book does well. It deserves to.” He then wrote a strong endorsement: “This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth, and by anyone who really wants to understand Hitch.”
After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.
This brings us back to Michael Shermer. Taking fire from other atheists for his support of the book, he started backpedaling. Then, to my astonishment, he not only withdrew his endorsement, but also reversed course and condemned the book on the grounds that in using the metaphor of “keeping two sets of books,” I had presented Christopher as duplicitous. “I personally find this interpretation [of Hitchens] unbelievable,” Shermer commented.
Never mind about reading my book, had these people read Christopher Hitchens’s book? The “two books” metaphor was not mine, but one Hitchens used often in his memoir in reference to himself. “A continuous theme in Hitch-22,” he wrote in the preface to the paperback edition, “is the requirement, exacted by a life of repeated contradictions, to keep two sets of books.” As he explains, in his intellectual life he learned “what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time.” So integral to his character did Christopher think this to be that he told NPR he had considered titling the memoir Both Sides Now. That I should be pilloried for drawing attention to this trait that was peculiar to his nature is curious. It is, after all, the least original part of my book. Others had long noted and written extensively about Hitchens’s predilection for having it both ways. Yet now we were being subjected to expressions of shock and horror that Christopher was what he said he was: contradictory.
The Atlantic’s David Frum was an outlier to these attacks. He read the book. Twice, he claims. Having done so, he set out to undermine any notion of a friendship between Christopher and me and to soothe the atheist masses terrified by the thought of their hero fraternizing with the enemy. I was “friendly” with Christopher, Frum says, but not actually a friend. Hitchens, for his part, was merely exhibiting his “graciousness and friendliness to Christian interlocutors.” Frum’s piece represents the worst kind of writing insofar as he began with a conclusion and worked backward from it, discarding all evidence that contradicted his thesis. David Horowitz, who knew Hitchens for some forty years, wrote in response: “Frum’s review of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is such a dishonest, mean-spirited piece that it is hard to know where to begin—perhaps with Frum’s failure to report Taunton’s closing statement in the book that he doesn’t think that Christopher converted.”
Horowitz returned to the metaphor of two books of accounts. He observed that Hitchens “made friends and formed alliances with people whom one assumed would be his enemies, and that he concealed sides of himself to one set of friends lest he expose his betrayals. I loved Christopher but I would not dream of caricaturing him as Frum has—as an icon of integrity and consistency.”
So why all the hysteria among atheist elites over this little book? Writing for The Times (of London), columnist Melanie Phillips rightly identified the touched nerve:
The assumption is not only that Hitchens couldn’t possibly have been open to religious leanings, but that such a claim mustn’t even be made because atheism itself cannot be challenged. There is a word for such forbidden thinking. It is heresy. Atheism is the secular faith and the irony is that it’s these secularists who are behaving like fanatics.
Anyone can become a hostage to his own persona. Of no one is this truer than public figures. Families, friends, colleagues, and fans demand strict conformities of many kinds. It was precisely for this reason that Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night. With friends like the atheist ideologues cited above, what room did Christopher Hitchens really have to maneuver had he ever wanted to entertain thoughts forbidden by atheist dogma? He was a born heretic, but our present-day professional atheists have orthodoxies of their own, and they enforce them ruthlessly. Do you begin to glimpse his problem?
Douglas Wilson, who had a relationship with Christopher similar to my own, understood my purpose in writing the book:
Taunton describes Hitch, not as converting on his deathbed, but rather as simply carving out a space for himself to think about the subject [of faith] without having to deal with the howls of outraged fans. He makes no claims about the ultimate decision Hitch made, but simply maintains that in private Hitchens did not give the subject the back of his hand. That is quite true—Taunton is exactly right.
Wilson is exactly right. And therein lies my great offense: I describe Christopher Hitchens, who remains a kind of deity for many atheists, as human, which is, of course, no more than what atheists have been saying about the Christian God for centuries. That Christopher’s life followed a remarkably similar arc to his brother Peter’s—atheism, communism, a return to a kind of conservatism—is obvious to any whose reason has not been compromised by their ideological commitments. But where Peter repudiated his atheism and became a Christian, Christopher preferred half-measures. As a consequence, I believe that he ultimately put his faith in a late-in-life patriotism and in friendship. My private conversations with him aside, the public record demonstrates that this thesis has more than a little merit. Yet Christopher’s associates demand his absolute adherence to the party line, even in death.
Six months before the book’s release, I suffered a nearly fatal cycling accident. My bicycle exploded against the grill of an oncoming automobile; my body sailed over the hood, slammed into the windshield, collapsing both it and the roof, and then ricocheted some thirty feet before landing on the pavement. Finding me unresponsive, an onlooker began chest compressions. He was then relieved by an off-duty EMT and a physician who worked to keep me alive until emergency personnel arrived on the scene.
My neck and back were broken in nineteen places; my jaw was shattered along with every rib on the right side of my body. In all, some thirty-nine bones were broken. I suffered a skull fracture, a punctured lung, and massive internal hemorrhaging. Some of my medical team would later say that they did not expect me to survive.
Pain is now a permanent feature of my life. I can say with no small measure of authority that suffering and the specter of death have a way of focusing us, like nothing else, on the Great Questions. Pain is lonely, and it is in those lonely, bleak hours of the night that one thinks on these things. Like a game of poker with eternal consequences, we get a chance to consider whether we want to stand pat on our current set of beliefs or discard them and draw again. Staring into the abyss, one wants to be sure that he has wagered rightly in the Pascalian scheme of things.
The critics above would have us believe that Christopher Hitchens didn’t, for even a moment of his bleak hours, reconsider his atheism. I think he did—and that, by the way, is the whole of my thesis. I defer to witnesses on the question of what he did or didn’t do on his deathbed. I wasn’t there. But I can say from personal experience with the man—and from my own brush with death—that for anyone to assert that he didn’t do some hard thinking on the God question is nonsense. We now know from Mother Teresa’s journals that even she had doubts about God’s presence. Does this make her any less of a Christian? No. But it does make her more human and a great deal more accessible. Christopher Hitchens, a secular saint as some would have him, was no less human. Indeed, knowing what I now know about pain and the prospect of death and how it reorients us, I would have revised this aspect of the book, underscoring it rather than softening it. However, Providence—and a Ford—did not allow it.
The absurdly ill-informed reviews of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens reveal the fragile nature of so many atheists’—so many leading atheists’—unbelief. The controversy has never been about the book. Not really. As we have seen, I assert no deathbed conversion, and that which I do assert is based primarily on the public record. No, ultimately, professional atheists like Jerry Coyne, Michael Shermer, and Lawrence Krauss are more concerned about the living than the dead. It is about who these people need Christopher Hitchens to be—not for him, but for them. Because if Christopher Hitchens, with all of his gifts and repeated assurances that there was nothing to be feared beyond the veil, had doubts, what does that mean for those who are without these advantages mysteriously bestowed by natural selection? Where are they to find hope? whyevolutionistrue.com? Christopher knew that he was, as he put it, “the repository of other people’s hope.” One wonders, however, if he knew the degree to which this was—and is—true.
Larry Alex Taunton is a cultural commentator, a freelance writer, and the author of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist and The Grace Effect.