UPDATE: Because people have suggested that I wrote this entire piece without having read any of Taunton’s book, let me add that I read the six pages about Hitchens given on the Times site, and, after writing it, have read substantial sections of the book that someone sent me. I am now well versed in what Taunton said, and I stand 100% by what I wrote below. The man was clearly intending to suggest that Hitchens, toward the end of his life, was softening on Christianity, and was keeping “two sets of books”. (There is in fact a chapter called “Two Books”). An excerpt from that chapter:
These divisions—or some might say “contradictions”—necessitated a keeping of “two books”—a phrase Hitchens would use quite often to describe various aspects of himself, his beliefs, and his relationships with other people. The original meaning of the phrase “keeping two sets of books” refers to a fraudulent bookkeeping method in accounting, where one set of books is public and one is private; the public book is made to appear in accordance with the law, while the private book records all the shady financial dealings behind the scenes.
The implication, in using this phrase in regard to himself [“keeping two books], is that the discovery of his private set of books would reveal that his public set of books were somehow fraudulent. The public and private Christophers did not match. To know what was really going on, one must see the private books—or so the phrase would imply (and Christopher was notably meticulous in regard to precision in words).
The reader already knows where I am going. As I’ve already noted, my private dealings with Christopher revealed a much different man than the public Christopher, the confident, bombastic, circuit-riding atheist-pugilist. While I do not quite want to say that the public Christopher was a sham—perhaps an occasional actor might be a better description—he said and did things in my company that would lead one to conclude that this public manifestation of Christopher Hitchens was not the real one.
And that chapter opens with this quote:
“God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
—SHAKESPEARE’S HAMLET, ACT III, SCENE 1”
There’s no doubt, then, that Taunton claims that the Hitchens we saw and knew was not the real one—that only he knew the real Hitchens.
That’s malarkey, as of course it leaves out Hitchens’s editors, friends, colleagues, and wife, all of whom saw his private side, and none of whom agree with Taunton’s fairy tale.
Stories of deathbed conversions are always dubious, especially when they are recounted by the faithful, lack corroborating evidence, and involve a famous nonbeliever. Such was the case of Charles Darwin, an agnostic subject to widespread (and false) conversion stories. Creationists still propagate the lie that Darwin embraced God on his deathbed.
And such is now the case with the late Christopher Hitchens.
A “friend” of Hitchens, one Larry Alex Taunton, is profiting from rumors—rumors he revived—that Hitchens might have been turning to God after learning he had terminal cancer. Taunton is the founder of the Fixed Point Foundation, whose website states this:
The mission of Fixed Point Foundation is to defend and proclaim the Gospel in the secular marketplace and equip others to do the same. To that end, Larry Alex Taunton and the Fixed Point team have sponsored debates and symposia on topics ranging from atheism and Islam to gay marriage and the relationship between science and religion – bridging the sacred and the secular.
On April 12, Taunton released a book called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Famous Atheist. Taunton clearly intended this book to imply that, at the end, Hitchens was getting soft on religion, and may have been embracing it. Here’s the Amazon summary:
Hitchens was a man of many contradictions: a Marxist in youth who longed for acceptance among the social elites; a peacenik who revered the military; a champion of the Left who was nonetheless pro-life, pro-war-on-terror, and after 9/11 something of a neocon; and while he railed against God on stage, he maintained meaningful—though largely hidden from public view—friendships with evangelical Christians like Francis Collins, Douglas Wilson, and the author Larry Alex Taunton.
In The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, Taunton offers a very personal perspective of one of our most interesting and most misunderstood public figures. Writing with genuine compassion and without compromise, Taunton traces Hitchens’s spiritual and intellectual development from his decision as a teenager to reject belief in God to his rise to prominence as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism. While Hitchens was, in the minds of many Christians, Public Enemy Number One, away from the lights and the cameras a warm friendship flourished between Hitchens and the author; a friendship that culminated in not one, but two lengthy road trips where, after Hitchens’s diagnosis of esophageal cancer, they studied the Bible together. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens gives us a candid glimpse into the inner life of this intriguing, sometimes maddening, and unexpectedly vulnerable man.
I haven’t read it (except for the six pages given by the Times [see update above: I’ve now read a lot more]), but I’ve corresponded with several people who have, and have read the reviews (both on Amazon and in the press), and my impression was verified. Taunton is apparently cagey about his intent, but reviewers and others have clearly read his book as showing that Hitchens was, at the end of his life, coming around to religion. The book’s title, too, clearly implies that the man had a “faith.” Well maybe he did, but it was in rationality, not religious malarkey.
One of the pieces about Taunton’s book was written by Mark Oppenheimer in Friday’s New York Times. Note the title, and click on the screenshot to go to the piece:
(Note too that Oppenheimer has previously gone after New Atheism.) That article describes how Taunton drove around with Hitchens in the fall of 2010 (Hitchens died on December 15, 2011), all the while discussing the Bible. You can read an excerpt here, and it doesn’t at all suggest that Hitchens was becoming religious.
The Times describes the book further:
Based principally on these conversations, Mr. Taunton concluded that Mr. Hitchens was seeking — and that he was, at least, open to — the possibility that Christianity was true. Perhaps, Mr. Taunton writes, Mr. Hitchens “used his position as a journalist as a kind of professional cover for a very personal inquiry” into the faith.
Several Christian magazines have trumpeted Mr. Taunton’s work. In the Christian journal Books & Culture, Douglas Wilson wrote that “fewer things are sadder than the death of a defiant atheist,” yet Mr. Taunton’s “simply outstanding” book offers just enough hope for Hitchens’s salvation to make it useful for the church. “Ministers will be strengthened and evangelists encouraged,” he wrote.
Secular publications have been kind, too, with Publishers Weekly noting Mr. Taunton’s “smooth and accessible prose.”
But in an article by the Religion News Service last month, friends of Mr. Hitchens took exception with the book’s conclusions.
Steve Wasserman, a literary agent and editor, and an executor of Mr. Hitchens’s estate, described the book as “a shabby business” in which “unverifiable conversations” are made to “contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.”
Here’s a quote from the Books & Culture review, which also takes Taunton’s book as showing Hitchens’s increasing sympathy for religion:
No one is saved because we think it would be grand if they were. Good wishes and pious guesses cannot cleanse what only the blood of Christ can cleanse—and the blood of Christ does nothing for the unrepentant. But from my interactions with Christopher, I did know that it was quite possible I had an attentive audience. From Larry Taunton’s book I have received the additional encouragement of knowing that the audience was clearly more attentive than I knew.
And from a piece by Kimberly Winston in Religion News Service (click on the headline to go to the piece):
Before his death at 62, Christopher Hitchens, the uber-atheist and best-selling author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” considered becoming a Christian.
That is the provocative claim of “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” a controversial new book winning both applause and scorn while underscoring, again, the divide between believers and atheists that Hitchens’ own life and work often displayed.
. . . Taunton writes that during the same time period, “Christopher had doubts … and those doubts led him to seek out Christians and contemplate, among other things, religious conversion.”
“At the end of his life, Christopher’s searches had brought him willingly, if secretly, to the altar,” Taunton writes at the end of the book. “Precisely what he did there, no one knows.”
After noting that some of Hitchens’s friends and colleagues poo-pooed this notion, Taunton defended himself:
Reached by phone at his home in Birmingham, Ala., Taunton stood firm in the face of such criticism. Asked about the fairness of publishing such claims about Hitchens after his death, he said: “The things that I relate, I think by and large I substantiate. What I am saying is this: If Christopher Hitchens is a lock, the tumblers don’t line up with the atheist key and that upsets a lot of atheists. They want Christopher Hitchens to be defined by his atheism, and he wasn’t.”
Well, pardon my French, but that’s pure bullshit. Who is claiming that Hitchens was defined by his atheism? And what does that even mean? Certainly Hitchens was a famous atheist, and was admired by many of us for his passionate defense of nonbelief, but that didn’t define him. He was a complex man, and other things that “defined” him were his liberal politics, his love of the Kurds, his hatred of dictatorship, his penchant for books, wine, and Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, as well as his many friendships and his belief in rationality. As for Taunton “substantiating” his claims, read the Times excerpt. Even if it’s genuine (and, of course, Taunton’s conversations with Hitch weren’t taped), it doesn’t show Hitchens drawing closer to Christianity. It shows him discussing the precepts of the faith. And, without a tape, how did Taunton remember so accurately what Hitchens said?
I was also surprised that one of the people who endorsed the book was Michael Shermer, whose words are on the Amazon page:
“If you really want to get to know someone intimately, go on a multi-day cross-country road trip, share fine food and expensive spirits, and have open and honest conversations about the most important issues in life. And then engage them in public debate before thousands of people on those very topics. In this engrossing narrative about his friendship with the atheist activist Christopher Hitchens, the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton shows us a side of the man very few of us knew. Apparent contradictions dissolve before Taunton’s penetrating insight into the psychology of man fiercely loyal to his friends and passionately devoted to leading a life of integrity. This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth, and by anyone who really wants to understand Hitch, one of the greatest minds and literary geniuses of our time.” – Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of The Moral Arc.
More about Shermer in a minute. First, though, Taunton’s revelations will surprise those who closely followed Hitchens’s bout with cancer up to the end, watching interviews like those below and reading his book Mortality, which has no mention of impending conversion. Here, for instance, are two interviews he gave during his cancer treatment. (Hitchens never said explicitly that he had a terminal illness, but he surely knew it, for stage 4 esophageal cancer—which has metastasized—has about a 0% survival rate.)
First, Hitchens’s interview with Anderson Cooper. The part transcribed below, when he talks about circling vultures like Taunton, begins at 7:58:
Cooper: Even when you’re alone, and no one else is watching, there might be a moment when you want to hedge your bets.
Hitchens: If that comes it’ll be when I’m very ill; when I’m half demented by drugs or by pain. I won’t have control over what I say — I mention this in case you ever hear a rumour later on — because these things happen, and the faithful love to spread these rumours. They want this deathbed conversion [mumbles]. I can’t say the entity that by then wouldn’t be me wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that, not while I’m lucid. No, I can be quite sure of that.
Cooper: So if there is some story that on your deathbed. . .?
Hitchens: Don’t believe it; don’t credit it.
Note that he predicted vultures like Taunton.
Here’s Hitchens’s interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. where the discussion of vultures begins at 2:45:
Finally, there are Hitchens’s last words. Even when he was in extremis, he said nothing about religion. Instead, he mentioned “capitalism” and “downfall.”
Why did Shermer endorse the book? As he says in a post on The Moral Arc: “The real Christopher Hitchens,” at the time Shermer thought his endorsement was a fair appraisal, but changed his mind in light of a) the reaction of the public to the book, which clearly showed that it was intended to be, and taken as, a “deathbed Christianity tome”; and b) Taunton’s subsequent statements defending his position that Hitchens was contemplating becoming religious.
Shermer, who knew Hitchens, was especially incensed by Taunton’s claim that Hitchens “kept two sets of books”, a reference to a duplicitous accounting practice, and one that implies similar duplicity on Hitchens’s part. As Taunton said, “[Hitchens] had two real aspects of his personality and of his real beliefs that existed in real tension: one that he would reveal to the public and another that he revealed only to certain people.”
I don’t believe that for a minute, as it goes against all existing data, and by “data” I mean the public record of his talks, what Hitchens wrote, and the testimony of Hitchens’s close friends. Yes, you can claim that in all of these cases Hitchens was lying, but I’ll credit the public record any day over the hearsay reportage of Taunton, a man dedicated to spreading Christianity.
In his article, Shermer explains Hitchens’s engagement with religion, and then formally withdraws his endorsement of the book:
On his road trips with Taunton Hitch was merely doing what he often did with people who differed with him—spend personal time with them in order to penetrate the public façade and see what is inside the private thoughts.
. . . You can learn so much more about a person’s real motives and motivated reasoning by talking to them off stage and off print than you can by limiting yourself to debating them in public and reading their published works. Particularly effective is to dine and drink with them because after a time they open up and reveal what they’re really thinking and feeling. This is not at all “keeping two sets of books” in the two-faced manner that phrase may imply to some people. It is just being friendly and respectful to better understand someone’s inner self.
I believe that is what Hitch did in general, and in particular with Taunton. Naturally, because he’s an evangelical, Taunton hopes that perhaps, possibly, maybe—just maybe—Hitch inculcated the gospel message from their discussions about the book of John (among other related topics) so that Hitch is spared eternal damnation.
Shermer’s last bit:
P.S. I gave Larry Taunton a chance to clarify what, exactly, he means by the “two sets of books” phrase: public/private distinction we all make or intentional deception concealing his true beliefs from the public and his closest friends and revealing his true beliefs to Taunton. Taunton responded: “I stand by what I’ve written, Michael. A few—very few—of the hateful atheist crowd have read it, but almost none of the trolls. That is a quotation that I allowed to be used in an article.” I personally find that interpretation unbelievable. I hereby withdraw my endorsement of the book and request that my blurb be discontinued from use.
In the Times piece, Taunton backs off a bit, claiming, as do all authors in such cases, that he was misunderstood:
In an interview, Mr. Taunton said that his rather modest claims were being misunderstood.
“I wasn’t at his deathbed,” Mr. Taunton, 48, said. “I think on that first road trip Christopher was contemplating conversion. Do I think he had a conversion? No.” By the second road trip, he said, the moment seemed to have passed.
While The Christian Post declared that, according to the book, Mr. Hitchens “was contemplating conversion to evangelical Christianity,” Mr. Taunton said that was wrong: Even if Mr. Hitchens had come to some sort of belief, it is not clear what he would have believed in. Jesus Christ? An indescribable higher power? The Jews’ God (late in life, Mr. Hitchens learned his mother, and thus he, was Jewish)?
“Contemplating conversion and being close to Christ are two very different things,” Mr. Taunton said.
Well, there’s no evidence save Taunton’s wishful thinking that Hitchens was even contemplating conversion. And a book about Hitchens’s curiosity about religion certainly wouldn’t have sold at all. Further, if Hitchens didn’t accept God, why did Taunton call his book “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens“? I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and realized full well that his narrative would be taken by Christians as a sign that Hitchens was Seeing the Light. Christians just love stories about deathbed conversions of atheists, and Taunton played into that, all the while saying that he didn’t really intend that. I call duplicity.
Shermer agrees, and sent me this in an email, which I quote with permission:
Taunton is very slippery. If you suggest that he said anything strong in the way of Hitch converting, or leaning toward converting, he denies, dissembles and says “read the book.” But when you suggest that the “two books” metaphor means nothing more than public/private split we all have, Taunton replies that, no, Hitch was seriously considering Christianity. That’s why I pressed him for clarification and the most I could get back was “I stand by what I wrote.” Then he launches into the metaphor about the lock tumblers not lining up for Hitch as defining himself solely by his atheism. Different topic. Of course Hitch didn’t define himself by his atheism. He was political more than anything, but that’s a diversion from what I was asking! I think Taunton is the one with two books.
Now you may say that I’m writing so much about this because I’m an offended atheist trying to defend my “hero” against the possibility that he might have contemplated religion. Nope; not for a second. I’m writing this post because I’m 100% convinced that, after attaining maturity, Hitchens never thought about accepting God. Let Taunton or others who make such claims give us real evidence, not just undocumented statements about Hitchens’s interest in religious doctrine.
I’m also writing this to defend a man who cannot defend himself. Were he still here, and read Taunton’s screed and his post-book waffling, Hitchens would tell us in no uncertain terms that he does not credit superstition and entertained no thoughts of accepting God. And I’m writing to decry someone who knows that this ghoulish book will be read by believers as a triumph for Christianity. Taunton is simply a vulture, feeding and profiting on the death of a man who can’t respond.
I suppose I should close now because I’ve said all I wanted to say for myself… In the meantime we have the same job we always had, to say, as thinking people and as humans, that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution that says that if you will just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you will simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours. We have to begin by repudiating all such claims – grand rabbis, chief ayatollahs, infallible popes, the peddlers of mutant quasi-political worship, the dear leader, great leader, we have no need of any of this. And looking at them and their record I realise it is they who are the grand imposters, and my own imposture this evening was mild by comparison.
Are those the words of a man keeping two sets of books?
Taunton, in fact, is the one who has given up his freedom of inquiry, embraced the Supreme Leader, and found his world of idiotic bliss. And Christians are enriching him for draping his own faith as a shroud over Hitchens.