Poor Larry Alex Taunton has been beaten to death for his dumb book on Christopher Hitchens’s supposed late-life interest in becoming a Christian; and I won’t belabor the man after this post. But several readers called my attention to a new drubbing of Taunton by Nick Cohen in the Guardian: “Deathbed conversion? Never. Christopher Hitchens was defiant to the last.” (Taunton, of course, is a Christian, trying to claim an atheist for his own.) It’s worth reading Cohen because, well, it’s always worth reading Cohen, and, as usual, his piece is unusually perceptive. Plus he wrote to Hitchens’s son for comment.
First, Cohen recounts some of the slurs the tawdry Taunton levels against Hitchens and his friends:
The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist is the work of a true fanatic, who has never learned when to seize a golden opportunity to hold his tongue. Recounting a memorial for Hitchens in New York, for instance, Larry Alex Taunton has to say how much he hates the event and the mourners. “The funeral, like the man himself, was largely a celebration of misanthropy, vanity and excess of every kind,” he intones.
Taunton says that Hitchens was his “friend”, but he marks his true friends and allies against a godly checklist and finds them wanting. The defender of the Christian faith spies Lawrence Krauss and cannot restrain himself from calling him “the smarmy little physicist Lawrence Krauss” (the professor is not only a renowned theoretical physicist but has also made the scientific case against the existence of a god or gods, ergo Taunton must jeer). Stephen Fry is not just an actor and writer but a “homosexual activist”. And Salman Rushdie becomes “the serial blasphemer Salman Rushdie”.
That last jibe gives you Taunton’s measure. Somewhat notoriously, Rushdie and his translators were targeted by the Ayatollah Khomeini for satirising the founding myths of Islam. In a choice between the atheist Rushdie and clerical murderers, Taunton, the Christian, instinctively decides to excuse the taboos of a deadly strain of Islam. Better to have a murderous faith, it appears, than no faith at all.
Cohen in fact wrote to Hitchens’s son Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, asking him about this issue (and adding that he needn’t reply if the matter was too painful). The son replied; Cohen says this:
I put the book aside last week. There seemed no need to write about Taunton, as Matthew d’Ancona and Padraig Reidy had already taken him to pieces with admirable vigour. But then Alexander Hitchens wrote back about that “bloody book”.
On the deathbed conversion – I spent my father’s final weeks and days at his bedside and watched him draw his final breath and die, and can assure you that there was no hint of any sort of conversion (as I’m sure you have already guessed). In fact, we barely spoke about religion at all except for joint expressions of frustration at the god botherers who made the rounds in the ICU and other units where dying people could be preyed upon by vulturous Christians.
I want to print what he said because lies on the web can last for ever and need to be countered. Indeed, they have always needed to be countered. In the 19th century, American believers claimed Tom Paine had died “howling and terrified”, recanting his assaults on organised religion and the reliability of the Bible.
After the New York Observer repeated the canard one too many times, the atheist Robert Ingersoll made a large bet that it could not justify the claim. He forced the editor to run a retraction headed “Thomas Paine died a blaspheming Infidel” when he won.
A thank-you from Hitchens’s son:
Taunton, of course, now claims that Hitchens was only “flirting” with the notion of Christianity, but if you read the book, you see that the claim goes beyond this. What you actually read is Hitchens expressing interest in the Gospels, as someone would who wanted to learn about religion. Taunton then turns this intellectual interest into a spiritual search, and, as we know, all the evidence is against that.
Cohen, who is a treasure for rationalists—or should be—has written the ultimate takedown of Taunton, for he goes beyond simply his execrable book. The peroration:
One of the charges against Christopher Hitchens that has stuck is that he was a member a new breed of “militant” atheists that besmirched the genteel world of modern western culture. Hardly anyone who threw around the term worried about the moral equivalence they were drawing between men and women, who used only the power of language, and a wave of genuinely militant religion that crushed lives, sexually enslaved women and made medieval prejudices modern. Nor did they reflect that “faith-based” political action, from the Rushdie affair via 9/11 to Islamic State, placed a moral duty on atheists to adopt a more robust mode of argument.
I am delighted to say that Taunton’s sole achievement is to show us that, in death, Hitchens provided a further reason for militant rejection of religion: its creepiness.
One can’t show this cartoon too often; be sure to put it on your Facebook page!