Monday 13 June 2016

Did Christopher Hitchens become Religious?

Christopher Hitchens was one of the "four horsemen" of New Atheism, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. He died in 2011 at the age of sixty-two after a battle with cancer and during his terminal eighteen months he remained as steadfast to his conviction as ever, that there is no God and he had no afterlife to look forward to, at least publicly, see: He is mourned by millions of admirers around the world. Fellow atheists like the comedian Stephen Fry and author Richard Dawkins delivered moving tributes to their late colleague and friend; Dawkins said: "He was one of the greatest orators of all time. He was a polymath, a wit, immensely knowledgeable and a valiant fighter against all tyrants including imaginary supernatural ones." However a new obituary has just emerged that is as affectionate as all the others, however it portrays the departed in a very different light and it has aroused enormous controversy and resentment from Hitchens' other fans. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens- the Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist was published in February 2016 and it is written by Larry Alex Taunton, a famous Christian journalist and broadcaster from Alabama USA. As somebody who was always enthralled by Hitchens, I was intrigued by this superficially preposterous title. I knew I had to read that book to find out. The author details his first meeting with Hitchens as a flashback from his funeral. He was expecting a fire-breathing "atheist jihadist" who would brawl with him in the hotel lobby, but instead came across a witty, funny and genial character whom he immediately warmed to. The two of them got to know each other when they were on stage as opponents during one of Hitchens' textbook public debates. They got on well and ended up spending a lot of time together, at one point driving on several day-long trip through the beautiful Yellowstone national park. As they drove they discussed the Gospel according to St John. The book begins with the author making similar observations of Hitchens' personality that many others have, indicating that the two men did know each other and were close, contradicting what many others have claimed. Indeed, some of the people invited to Hitchens' funeral were not people who liked him. Larry Taunton also had a low opinion of some of the mourners. Lawrence Krauss, whom he was appearing on the same TV programme with in 2016, see below, he describes as a "smarmy little physicist". The funeral was "a celebration of misanthropy and excesses of every kind!" the author laments. His summary of Christopher Hitchens' life is very different from Hitchens' own; he regards his friend as "self-obsessed" and "always his own favourite". Hitchens hated authority generally, a theme that recurs in the book. For Hitchens' traditional English public school education, this authority was essentially embodied in the church. He was seduced by Marxism, like many educated youths, and describes the intoxicating feeling it gave him, of being in the driving seat of history. He truly believed that he had the power to change the world. He did not believe in God or Heaven so he would create Heaven here on Earth. However he kept "two sets of books" indicating that he did have divisions within himself, a public persona and a private self; the latter he kept carefully concealed. The suicide of his mother drove him even more against religion. She took her own life in a suicide pact with the leader of a cult she had joined. He loved her and had been very close to her, but was at the same time angry with her for keeping the secret that she, and therefore her children, were Jewish. Interestingly, Christopher's brother Peter was completely different; he initially joined Christopher in Marxist activism and atheism, but then became a Christian. Today Peter Hitchens is a top palaeoconservative Christian journalist. Taunton's book has a whole chapter on the relationship between the Hitchens brothers. When 9/11 happened it changed Christopher Hitchens' life forever. His worldview was shaken from top to bottom; not least because of what he saw as the weak and distorted reaction by his comrades on the political left. This is well-documented by Hitchens himself, however Taunton believes that he began to question his antitheism as well, at least when it comes to Christianity. Perhaps this was because of the perceived threat of Islam. This is an extraordinary claim that makes no initial sense; because it was after 9/11 that Hitchens became best known as an atheo-skeptic polemicist against Christianity as much as Islam. It gave him a sense of patriotism similar to that of his father, a Royal Navy World War II veteran. It gave his life a mission. He became a fellow traveller in the ascendant neoconservative moment. He also wrote his most famous atheist book God is Not Great. If he really was "keeping two books", in the second one did he really have doubts about God's absence? Was his debate tour with evangelicals a form of projection? When he said "I'll debate you believers any time any place any where!" was this a manifestation of a conflict within his own heart? In fact a New York critic called Hitchens' book "the angriest of all the New Atheist bestsellers." but who was Christopher Hitchens really angry at? Being an ardent anti-religious disputant also allowed him covering fire when it came to his atheist friends whom he wanted to keep his new feelings secret from. According to Taunton, Hitchens had no problem with genuine Christian believers. His real antipathy was for individuals and institutions who privately reject what they profess while dispassionately continue to take money from their flock; for example Al Sharpton, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek and Russian orthodox churches. He had a similar attitude to his political opponents. Hitchens' morality was very intuitively sourced, such as the chapter in his book about pigs and his dislike of abortion. This is far more like a spiritual person than an atheist. Despite the protestations of the humanist movement, see:, atheist morality is deeply pragmatic, cold and synthetic. A good example is when an expectant mother wrote to Richard Dawkins and told him she was expecting a baby with Down's syndrome and asked his advice, Dawkins simply replied: "Terminate it and try again." Hitchens interestingly revealed to Taunton privately that he had never even read The God Delusion. One of the most moving scenes in the book is where Hitchens has a conversation with Taunton's adopted daughter. A ten year old orphan from Ukraine called Sacha. Both her parents have died, she has brain damage, is HIV positive and has lost most of her teeth. Hitchens once said that it was human suffering that convinced him that God could not possibly exist; his friend Stephen Fry said the same. Sacha was a girl who had suffered in the single the short decade of her life more than most people do in their three score years and ten. She lost her mother, father and health, yet she smiled as she greeted her adopted father's friend. She told him "God is there, and He hears us." For the first time ever, the great orator and contrarian was totally speechless. Christopher Hitchens' favourite song is Higher Love by Steve Winwood, it was played at his funeral; but never before had he realized that such a love existed. There were many more bonding events between the two men. At one point Hitchens was with some atheist friends in a pub when Taunton walked in and one of the atheists almost snarled "There's a Christian standing behind you!" Hitchens responded by saying to them: "Mr Taunton is my friend!" and walked out. When Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer Taunton was one of the first people he called. He was devastated and terrified; he begged his friend not to tell his family yet. They went on their long road trips and had the long private discussions I mentioned; also they did a live debate, see: At the end of the event Taunton was disappointed with the audience. The supporters on both sides didn't really understand the nature of the debate. They just congratulated their hero on how well he had "beat the enemy!" When they say a warm farewell they both have a feeling that they'll never meet again. Larry Taunton was informed by text message that Christopher Hitchens was dead. This message included a request to do an interview about it on Sky TV. Taunton reported that Christopher Hitchens was not an atheist extremist towards the end. Despite the harsh epithets the atheo-skeptics have leveled at Taunton, the author does not claim that Hitchens became a born again Christian. He calls Hitchens a "searcher", and of all his eulogies at his funeral, only Ian McEwan's understood that. When a man is faced with his own mortality, it does change the way we think. What Hitchens says to Taunton, according to the book, does not sound like the ravings of somebody in the delirium of dying. The book ends with Larry Taunton's speculation about his late friend's real feelings when it came to the eternal and infinite. Taunton compares this to the famous deathbed conversation between David Hume and James Boswell, see background links below. What would have happened if Christopher Hitchens had lived? Taunton also chastises the rest of the atheist community, especially Richard Dawkins, for what he sees as an appropriation of Hitchens final public appearance. They selfishly forced him into being a martyr to their cause. This thorny issue is written about professionally and rationally. See:
The reaction to the book from the atheo-skeptic community has been outrage. They have given The Faith of Christopher Hitchens some of the worst book reviews I have ever read. Nick Cohen calls the author "A particular species of creep... a true fanatic who has never learned when to seize a golden opportunity to hold his tongue.", see: Matthew D'Ancona is slightly more reasonable and says: "There is so much wrong with this book that one hardly knows where to start...", see: BBC's Newsnight programme interviewed Larry Taunton in May 2016. After Taunton's interview Lawrence Krauss appears; he's another atheist and close friend of Hitchens. Krauss refused to speak to Taunton on the air and only agreed to participate if he and Taunton were broadcast separately. Both Krauss and the interviewer suggest that Taunton is lying just to get rich by flogging a few books. Richard Dawkins says similar things about Alister McGrath and his other detractors. It's interesting that atheo-skeptics make these assumptions so glibly and thoughtlessly. When Dawkins wrote The God Delusion everybody declares that he "wanted to educate the world!". So, anybody who writes a book supporting atheo-skepticism apparently has equally noble motives. If you write a book disagreeing with atheo-skepticism then you're just an insincere literary grave-robber trying to make yourself a few quid. This preconception is invariable and never scrutinized. Dawkins has said about McGrath: "Alister McGrath has now published two books with my name in the title... a professor of theology is building a career riding on my back? It is tempting to quote Yeats: 'Was there ever dog that praised his fleas?'." This is a narrow-minded, cynical and intellectually dishonest. Prof. McGrath has written some books disagreeing with Dawkins, books which even when all put together have sold far less than The God Delusion. Does Dawkins think there's a law against that? What does Prof. Dawkins consider a legitimate medium of criticism of his works, may I ask? Krauss begins with this same rhetoric. He also pointed out how disgusted Hitchens' widow Carol Blue was about the book. As I explain in the background links below, people are continuously using rhetoric in a debate and substituting it for a logical argument without even understanding the difference. Dawkins and Krauss are as ignorant as all the others regarding that. Krauss also denies that Taunton and Hitchens were even friends. According to him, Hitchens only ever saw Taunton on paid assignments and that he last saw Hitchens over a year before he died. This doesn't accord with the tone of the dialogue in the book, nor with all the recorded facts. Christopher Hitchens was famous for being very polite and friendly with people in a personal setting, even after he'd just eviscerated them on stage in front of the TV cameras. He was also very academically curious about religion. He loved robust conversation and had many close friends who had different views to himself. Did Taunton mistake his civility and curiosity for a conversion? See: Another YouTuber also indulges himself at the start of his "point-by-point breakdown" of an interview with Larry Taunton on a Christian radio show saying: "There's something almost physically sickening about the idea of a religious opportunist publishing a book... Listen to these hyenas laughing it up!" He does make a crucial point though; Hitchens himself warned people in advance that if rumours came out after his death about a religious conversion at the last minute then they should not believe it. These were either lies or that his brain had become addled by his death throes, see: Taunton scolded him for that afterwards; and, as I said above, his discourse with Taunton sounds perfectly compos mentis to me. However, why didn't Hitchens reveal his emergent religious beliefs to his wife? (There are a lot of MBA statements in this video too): I doubt whether Lawrence Krauss or "TheWeekInDoubt" have read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. They have probably just read a synopsis and invented without knowing what the rest of it says. Nobody is immune to emotional revulsion when faced with their iconoclasts. Hitchens was regarded as a hero for atheists all over the world, especially in the USA where public atheism can still relegate you to a social underclass. The notion that their mentor was not as ideologically pure as they always believed could be so unpalatable as to cause instinctive distaste. The fact that Hitchens has passed on makes the perceived slander even worse, speaking ill of the dead. However Taunton's book treats the subject respectfully and kindly. There's no doubt the author loved Hitchens and wants to portray him approvingly. The scene in which the two of them take a long drive and have a deep theological discussion also sounds very authentic with a genuine rapport. The sad and obvious fact is that Taunton's assessment of Christopher Hitchens' beliefs is unfalsifiable. Only one man can confirm or deny whether the book is true or false, and he is no longer with us. This does not justify the atheo-skeptics' dismissal of it, nor their personal public derision of Larry Taunton, as I explain above. They are lashing out at somebody because he's saying something they don't like. Based on Hitchens' words alone, I would never have considered him a candidate for being born again... but I didn't know him personally. When it comes to the opposing worlds of atheism and religious belief, both sides recruit converts from the other. Derren Brown, Julia Sweeney and Matt Dillahunty are all former Christian believers who became prominent atheists. They are lavished with praise by the Dawkinsian clique. Yet they pass plenty of people on the road driving the opposite way, for whom there is considerably less approval. The aforementioned Alister McGrath for example. The best known of these ex-atheists is CS Lewis. As a young man, Lewis once wrote: "The general impression is that other religions are a mere farrago of nonsense, but our own is true. My impression is that all religion is utterly false... The day I dropped my faith was a day of greatest relief." He also talks of his prayers in the trenches where he fought in the Great War and how he felt stupid, like he was talking to nobody. Yet in 1929 he began attending the services at his Oxford college chapel and his writings leave no doubt he was undergoing a very profound spiritual awakening. He went on to be the world's foremost Christian apologist. If CS Lewis can change his mind about God, anybody can. Why shouldn't Christopher Hitchens? It's a shame we will never know, not only if Larry Taunton was right about Hitchens, but what Hitchens would have said and done next if he had lived. One thing is for sure, and Taunton makes this point in the book, the atheo-skeptic community would not have taken kindly to such a high-profile defection. Christopher Hitchens would have found yet another group of people from which to be denounced as a pariah... But has that ever stopped him before?


Laurence said...

An excellent piece Ben, beautifully researched and flowing in style. Your adroit introduction of CS Lewis towards the end of the piece brought to mind the unparalleled 'Screwtape Letters' and the uncanny ability of the atheo-skeptic elite's utterances to mimic those of Lewis's diabolical propagandist. Keep up the good work.

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Laurence. Glad you liked this. I worked hard on it :-)