November 2016

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.  By Larry Alex Taunton. Thomas Nelson. 201 pages. $24.99.

I have to admit to the guilty pleasure of being a Christopher Hitchens fan — guilty because I recognize that he had an abiding hatred of the Catholic Church, and pleasure because he was always an interesting writer. His range was broad, tackling everything from fellow authors to foreign policy, animal rights, and everything in between. When I read that he was dying from esophageal cancer, entering into the “kingdom of the sick,” as Susan Sontag would have it, I wondered if he would meet God with Bertrand Russell’s complaint: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.”

So we can wonder: Did Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), the author of god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, become a believer before his death? For now, there is no reason to think that he did. And why should we care? Well, Hitchens was a very popular and public defender of atheism, even as he disagreed with many of its proponents, like Peter Singer. It is conceivable that his words caused much damage, and if he had changed his mind, then of course everyone would want to know. A more important reason is concern for the fate of his soul. As believers we pray for the conversion of doubters. This seems to be the tack that Larry Taunton takes, but given his portrayal of Hitchens, warts and all, I am not so sure.

What is clear is that Hitchens was searching, maybe for longer than we realized. According to Taunton, who was a friend of his, Hitchens was the kind of person who kept “two books.” One comprised the public persona: a hard-drinking, verbally adept debater and writer who was often boorish, self-absorbed, and childish; the other manifested a reflective, conflicted man who was open to opposing views, even those at odds with his most firmly held prejudices. Taunton discovered this private side of Hitchens through their extended acquaintance, punctuated by two lengthy road trips. During one such trip, they read the Gospel of John as they drove from engagement to engagement. Taunton is executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, a group that “defends and proclaims the Gospel in the secular marketplace and equips others to do the same.” Hitchens appeared at some of the organization’s events, taking the side of atheism.

The Hitchens Taunton shows us was, in many ways, an entertainer. He felt an obligation to meet the expectations of his public, be they readers of his columns in Vanity Fair or The Nation or part of an audience expecting fireworks at a debate. So it might have been too much to ask that, as his doubts increased, he take pause to announce his confusion. Too much loss of face, or loss of money? Or just plain ol’ hypocrisy? I don’t think so, no matter what Taunton implies. Hitchens was a man who dared to antagonize the entire liberal establishment by calling the Clintons liars during one particularly sordid episode. He quit writing for The Nation over the issue of Iraq, and even though that stand didn’t represent a great loss of income, it most certainly angered many of his followers on the Left.

Taunton recognized in Hitchens someone who was instinctively attracted to the part of Christianity that cares for the poor and the orphaned, and who could acknowledge that the good being done in the world sprang largely from religious rather than atheistic impulses. Hitchens could also enjoy the company of those who disagreed with him profoundly, especially when they exhibited the kind of altruism of which he knew himself incapable. Still, in Hitchens’s mind, much of Christianity was like Anglicanism, a cultural relic, or with the “myth and mystery” of Catholicism, an oppressor of much of the world. When told by an adversary, “Well, it’s not about this or that denomination or what we consider Christian or not Christian…. It’s really a question of ‘what does the Bible say,’” Hitchens was brought up short.

Taunton concludes that Hitchens, from an early age, determined to do exactly as he pleased and then formulated a construct — namely, atheism — that allowed for his misdeeds. Later, repulsed by hucksters and pretenders — among whom he included Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, the Russian Orthodox clergy, and even Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) — Hitchens felt additional justification. We don’t really know how it all ended. Taunton wishes, for Hitchens’s sake, that he did come to believe, and Taunton speculates that perhaps in refusing to accept Christianity, Hitchens could avoid the deep reflection his own behavior would require. Or maybe he was cowed by the cost: “I’ll take some redemption, hold the repentance.” But Taunton admits that, despite their friendship, he too is none the wiser.

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens left me wondering less about whether Hitchens died believing in God than whether Taunton seriously misjudged his friendship with Hitchens. Certainly, shepherding Hitchens through two road trips, as demanding as that might have been, does not constitute a close friendship. A more extensive acquaintance, with Taunton acting as something of an agent, might have provided more opportunity, but it seems as likely to me that Hitchens, although quite open about some aspects of his life, might have been deeply reserved about any conversion until it was final. And maybe he was close. As Taunton notes in his book, Hitchens, when interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg, seemed to leave the door open to “a Prime Mover or a higher intelligence” but objected to the idea that “anyone speaks on that entity’s behalf,” most especially not the institutional churches. For now, we’ll just have to pray for Mr. Hitchens’s soul.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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