Book Review: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens
The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist
by Larry Alex Taunton
Nelson Books, 2016
Larry Alex Taunton, the Founder and Executive Director of the Christian advocacy group Fixed Point Foundation, was a friend and debating opponent of famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, who died of throat cancer in 2011. Hitchens’ book god Is Not Great was a huge bestseller from the instant of its appearance, its serial condemnation of all organized religion capitalizing on the wave of “New Atheism” then sweeping the United States. The book solidified Hitchens’ status as a star of the lecture circuit, and when he embarked on what he unctuously referred to as his “little book tour,” he debated one religious apologist after another, usually using showmanship and bombast to mop the floor with opponents who’d mistakenly shown up in order to debate religion.
Taunton, an accomplished public speaker himself, fared better than most of these opponents when he debated Hitchens in 2010. The two men had spent a good deal of time together and become friends, and Taunton’s evocation of that friendship is at the heart of his new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, in which Taunton discusses many aspects of Hitchens’ public life – and one stunning assertion about his private life:
On the more public aspects, Christopher turned his characteristic zeal to political positions unconscionable to the Left, the worst being his support of Bush and his public and patriotic embrace of American citizenship. On the more private, Christopher was wading into Christian waters, getting more than his feet wet.
Unbelievably, this is the core revelation of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: that the most famous and outspoken atheist since Robert Ingersoll was contemplating or even experiencing a conversion into the arms of the Christianity he’d spent all of his adult life mocking. “His reflexive political Leftism was discarded, we know, as a result of the shock of 9/11,” Taunton writes. “But his reflexive atheism was showing significant cracks in it, despite Christopher’s public poses.”
It’s an invasive, utterly appalling performance. “I knew that at this moment he was a man in turmoil,” Taunton writes. “Deeply conflicted, it was as if he really wanted to believe, but just couldn’t do it.” This is what Taunton senses; this is his intuitive summary of conversations he had with Hitchens that were neither witnessed, recorded, nor ever alluded to by the other person who allegedly had them. One of the people in these alleged conversations was a professional evangelical Christian. The other was a vigorously strident atheist. The atheist then died, and the evangelical is now claiming the atheist was turning to Christianity at the end. Had the evangelical died instead, it’s unthinkable that the atheist would now be claiming the evangelical had been flirting with abandoning the faith. The difference is entirely a matter of character and agenda.
According to Taunton’s invariably self-serving recollections, Hitchens at one point said, “God is not lacking for an able advocate in you, Larry.” And according to The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, all those famous public debate drubbings Hitchens delivered to well-meaning but outgunned Christians on his book tour were delivered by somebody who was covertly one step away from picking up a hymnal:
My private conversations with him revealed a man who was weighing the cost of conversion. His atheist friends and colleagues, sensing his flirtations with Christianity and fearing his all-out desertion to that hated enemy, rushed to keep him in the fold. To reassure them, Christopher, for his part, was more bombastic than ever. But the rhetoric was concealing the fact that even while he was railing against God from the rostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him.
It’s mighty depressing that a revolting little toadstool of a book like this exists at all. It’s depressing that Taunton’s editors at HarperCollins didn’t insist it undergo radical transformation from an exercise in cowardly backstabbing into something actually worthwhile. Taunton can write; a book of his reminiscences of Hitchens – minus the blinding light on the road to Damascus – would have been interesting to read. So it’s depressing too that Taunton himself didn’t decide to write that book, that he either didn’t see the lazy, predictable slander of his present work or didn’t care about it.
Nevertheless, here the book is, a slim 190-pages having the effrontery and guile to claim Christopher Hitchens had a protracted version of a deathbed confession – not to Judaism or Shintoism or any of the thousands of other fantasy-cults mankind has invented but rather, to Taunton’s own faith, the very kind of conversion Hitchens himself coolly predicted the faithful would claim he’d experienced as his end drew near. That such a last-minute conversion never happened nor began to happen need hardly be said at this late date. The book is an act of ideological betrayal, done once its victim could no longer scorn it. But it’s also something worse, because it’s the betrayal of a friend. Taunton’s own Christianity has given the world a useful term for such a personal betrayal: the Judas kiss.