Nick Cohen on Hitchens’s “conversion”

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!



  1. GBJames
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 8:41 am | Permalink


  2. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Re the cartoon, I’d like to be a more militant atheist but these days I rarely seem to find an excuse to imbibe.

    Good article by Nick Cohen btw.


    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      There’s a similar cartoon with the atheist typing away on a computer – it’s my preferred version.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        Of course, I had to go find it. Is this research? 😉

        The cartoon is from which, unfortunately, is not working today.

        Googling, I found this cartoon on Oatmeal, which also explains the origin of the idea, and gives another link to the atheist cartoons site which also is not working.

        All of which reminds me of this meme, which can serve as a pendent to the first cartoon.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted June 5, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

          Of course it’s research! I remember this one. It’s good, though not the one I’m thinking of. I think I’ve got a copy of the one I mean, but it’s almost 4am here, winter, I’m in bed, and it’s on another computer so I’m not motivated to have a look right now. 🙂 I’ll check in a few hours whether I have a copy and get back to you if I have.

    • Dave
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      “find an excuse to imbibe”

      Sorry, I’m confused, what?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 5, 2016 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

        Are you confused by the meaning, or just suggesting one never needs an excuse for a drink? 😉

        Sadly, as regards wine, women and song, I can’t seem to manage much these days. (You really don’t wanna hear me trying to sing). Same with sex and drugs, and the rock’n’roll ain’t what it used to be either.

        I’m trying to grow old disgracefully but it’s an uphill battle.


        • darrelle
          Posted June 6, 2016 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          “(You really don’t wanna hear me trying to sing).”

          That’s what the drinking is for!

          I recently went on vacation with some friends, including a couple from England that we don’t get to see very often. Apparently singing is still a common thing in English culture. Every night at the urging of our English friends, we sang. Usually at about the time everyone was 2/3 toasted. It sounded great! At the time. I’d hate to hear a recording of it and have those memories destroyed.

  3. Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Thank you Jerry, for going to the trouble of making a public counterpoint to the odious and crass efforts of the opportunistic religious to devalue the reputation of Hitchens. It would have been easy to let it slide and I’m grateful for your work on our [atheists] behalf.

  4. mordacious1
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Only a fool would think that Christopher would convert on his deathbed. Unfortunately, that’s part and parcel of being a christian.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Ah, ah, ah!
      We all know the mantra : “Correlation is not (in and of itself) evidence for causation.” Stop playing sofa-rugby in that minefield!
      Though this particular correlation is strong. Tempting one to the sin. Resist! Be strong!

      • mordacious1
        Posted June 5, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink


  5. colnago80
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Poor Larry Alex Taunton

    No sympathy needed for Taunton who is currently crying all the way to the bank.

  6. Posted June 5, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    “Unfortunately, that’s part and parcel of being a christian.”

    When a Muslim does something outrageous in the name of Islam, there are usually Muslims speaking out against it. Has anyone come across a Christian bashing Taunton for the shame he is bringing on Christendom? (I am too lazy to search myself.)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Well yes. For example, when I read Cohen’s piece last night, the most recent comment was from someone who said in effect (from memory) “While I don’t share Hitchens’ atheism, it seems fairly certain that he kept his convictions to the end, and one should respect that. Taunton’s book does nobody any good”. Or words to that effect, it was much better put than that. Unfortunately I can’t find it now, it has disappeared under a mountain of off-topic trolls from both sides.


  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Poor Larry Alex Taunton has been beaten to death for his dumb book

    In an ideal situation, you beat them to within an inch of their life, then let the recover before starting again. That way everyone gets more satisfaction.
    It’s the same logic behind why drum robots have never taken off with heavy metal bands. Any fatalities are accidents.

  8. jimroberts
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink


  9. Jeffrey Shallit
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I’d be willing to bet that a lot of what Taunton claims in his book about Hitchens simply did not happen, or happened differently than he claims. The long history of religious activists behaving this way makes me extremely suspicious.

  10. Posted June 5, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    It befuddles me as to why Taunton did not understand classically educated Hitchens’
    interest in the James section of one of Western Civilization’s most important tomes? Everyone should have read the Bible, no matter how much we find major parts of it disgusting.
    We need to know how/when it was put together and by whom and how modified throughout history to meet the needs of certain cultures. Any list of books a well-educated person is supposed to have read would include this work.

    Perhaps Taunton didn’t think that Hitchens was just being polite in discussing with him one of the few subjects Taunton supposedly knew about. Hitchens could have talked about enumerable topics, as we know.

    From Wikipedia re Salman Rushdie’s book, “Satanic Verses”:

    “The title refers to a legend of the Prophet Mohammad, when a few verses were supposedly spoken by him as part of the Qur’an, and then withdrawn on the grounds that the devil had sent them to deceive Mohammad into thinking they came from God. These “Satanic Verses” are found in verses eighteen to twenty-two in suraht An-Najim of the Qur’an,[14] and by accounts from Tabari, but is seldom mentioned in the first biography of Mohammad by Ibn Ishaq. The verses also appear in other accounts of the prophet’s life. They permitted prayer to three pre-Islamic Meccan goddesses: Al-lāt, Uzza, and Manāt—a violation of monotheism.”

    Similar kinds of criticisms of the Bible could be made regarding the bad behavior of Moses, Abraham, Lot, Saul, Solomon, David, etc. Cherry-picking.

    • ploubere
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I try to have passing familiarity with the bible; but as Jerry has at one time pointed out, it is mostly just tedious and boring. There are so many more interesting and intelligent books to read.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 5, 2016 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

        Heartily seconded. I got enough Bible in Sunday School. I have a bookshelf full of books, some of which I haven’t had time to read, and all of which – even most of the pulp-fiction sci-fi short stories – are better written, more coherent, and often more credible than the Bible. And much more interesting.

        I’m not going to read [any more of] the Bible. I’m probably not going to read the Koran, the Talmud, Mein Kampf, Das Kapital or the Book of Mormon either, though logic suggests I should acquire a nodding acquaintance with all of those (and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) before I bother with any more Bibble.


  11. Posted June 5, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Alas, it seems to matter little. The faithful just want to believe. Any small hint, any perceived weakness in the opposition, and may it be a alleged last-minute-convert is good enough for them to cling to their cherished beliefs. I am sure they will not really accept that Hitchens was not interested in their Celestial Dictator. There is the quirk among true believers where they won’t properly “update” their knowledge, when they sense the direction isn’t liked. And they are so interested in Hitchens views, because they are authoritarians proper, who think Hitchens, or Darwin before him, were like High Priests — if they recant, their “truths” would somehow vanish, too; as if there was no truth or reality independent of the believer.

  12. Filippo
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    ‘Taunton cannot restrain himself from calling him [Lawrence Krauss] “the smarmy little physicist”. . . . ‘

    Reminds me of that apotheosis of Lincolnesque strenuous manual labor, Theodore Roosevelt, who called Thomas Paine “that filthy little atheist.”

    By what per cent taller would Krauss have to be that it would never occur to Taunton to comment on his height? Is he going to pray for supernatural help to rescue Krauss from this supposed malady? Will Taunton cheerily submit to a similar scrutiny of his own physiognomy?

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    These are really cheap shots.

    Fry is both a homosexual and an activist, but given that a great deal of his activism has little to do with gay rights, it is just not appropriate to call him a “homosexual activist”. In addition to advocating for gay/LGBT causes, Fry has been active in supporting humanism, “Jews for Justice for Palestinians”, and been involved with Prince Charles’ “Princes Trust” which helps disadvantaged young people.

    I wasn’t aware that Rushdie was a “serial” blasphemer. He stirred up such a mess with The Satanic Verses, he has done little comparable since other than sticking to his guns in the original controversy.

    • colnago80
      Posted June 5, 2016 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

      I freely admit to not being very knowledgeable about Mr. Fry. However, his association with the so called “Jews for Justice for Palestinians” does not provide me with much confidence in his political agenda. A little research on this nefarious organization shows it to be a clone of the odious BDS movement which is dedicated to the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel in the Middle East.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted June 5, 2016 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        It’s not a question of whether this is a good or bad cause.

        IF(??) “homosexual activist” is ever appropriate AT ALL (but see below why it NEVER is really), it should be used as a term for those whose main and dominant political activism is in the area of gay rights, not for someone who is both homosexual and an activist in a wide and diverse array of causes like Fry.
        Otherwise, it’s sorta like the phrase “Jewish Communist”, as if that were worse than any other Communist.

        In general, people in favor of gay rights usually refer to “LGBT activists”, while only the anti-gay right wing uses the phrase “homosexual activist”. That’s why Wikipedia has a article on “List of LGBT rights activists” and Conservapedia has an article on “homosexual agenda”. Huffington Post writes articles about “LGBT activists”. Family Research Council complains about “pro-homosexual activists”, etc.

        The Wikipedia article “List of LGBT rights activists” interestingly does NOT mention Stephen Fry (while including his fellow thespian Ian MacKellan) mainly (I assume) because most of the entries (with a few exceptions) have been people MOST visible MAINLY in the area of gay rights activism, which is untrue of Fry.

        • Linn
          Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:47 am | Permalink

          I agree with you. I also think that using the term homosexual activists is an attempt to make it seem like the only persons caring about lgbt rights are homosexuals themselves.

          It’s like using the term black activists on the people protesting against south African apartheid or female activist on the people protesting against treatment of women in Muslim countries.

          Their aim is to marginalise their opponent.
          Such people often ask in discussion whether their opponent is gay, as if it’s unfathomable to them that someone can support lgbt rights without being gay.

  14. Scott Draper
    Posted June 5, 2016 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    “That last jibe gives you Taunton’s measure.”

    Yes, yes it does.

  15. Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:28 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on aspiblog and commented:
    Please read this great piece in full, taking note of the wonderful cartoon at the end of it!

  16. Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink


  17. Curtis
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Since the smoking gun for determining that acts of terrorism are motivated by religious ideology and not a hidden agenda is the terrorists public declarations on the matter, shouldn’t we be willing to accept this author’s public declarations on his intentions and motivations for writing this book? Or do we apply a different test to Islamic terrorists than we do to other people?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:40 am | Permalink

      No. We should treat all public declarations with scepticism – and ask ‘what do they have to gain’? In the case of most terrorists their stated motives can probably be taken at face value (why would they lie about it?) – this is not necessarily the same thing as ascribing reasons for their proliferation. In the case of Taunton, I don’t know what he’s claimed, but I see no reason to give him the benefit of any doubt if there’s an obvious motive for him to falsify his intentions.


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