New Yorker: Krauss on Hitchens’s “deathbed conversion”

In the online New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss debunks Larry Alex Taunton’s well-battered book on Christopher Hitchens’s supposed deathbed leanings toward Christianity. Krauss’s piece, “The fantasy of the deathbed conversion,” distinguishes itself from other debunkings in two ways: it doesn’t link to (or even mention the name of) Taunton’s egregious book, and it also discusses the general issue of purported but false deathbed conversions. (Darwin, of course, was subject to these rumors, as was Oscar Wilde).

Why, asks Krauss, are these conversions so important to Christians? The answer he suggests, which I think is correct, is that Christians are secretly fearful that God might not really exist, or that even if He does, their faith is simply the wrong one. If you’ve chosen Jesus over Mohammad, Allah will make you fry for eternity. The more people you gather into your flock, the more confidence you have that you’re right.

And why convert to Christianity rather than one of the thousands of other faiths on this planet? Good question.

At the end, though, I think Krauss goes a wee bit amiss:

In this regard, the saddest thing about these imagined deathbed conversions is that, even if they were real, they could hardly be seen as victories for Christ. They are stories in which the final pain of a fatal disease, or the fear of imminent death and eternal punishment, is identified as the factor necessary for otherwise rational people to believe in the supernatural.

If mental torture is required to effect a conversion, what does that say about the reliability of the fundamental premises of Christianity to begin with? Evangelicals would be better advised to concentrate on converting the living. Converting the deceased suggests only that they can’t convince those who can argue back. They should let the dead rest in peace.

I don’t think that evangelical Christians would have a serious problem with conversion being done under threat of torture. That, after all, is the very basis for accepting Jesus, and it’s a staple of Catholic dogma, as refined over the centuries by theologians like Augustine and Aquinas. The notion of Hell as a retributive punishment, a payback for a bad life and the mistake of having made the wrong “choice,” is alive and well to this day. And that idea says very little about the “reliability” of the premises of Christianity, at least compared to the lack of real evidence for either God or a divine Christ.

Finally, neither Taunton nor the Darwin-converters really tried to convert the dead; they simply lied about their conversion. It is, as Krauss notes, the Mormons who really try to convert people post mortem. There are some, like atheist Anthony Flew, who are rumored to have really converted to Christianity at the end (this is arguable, however).  What we see is not so much a refutation of Christianity but the equally depressing fact that believers, perhaps worried about their own beliefs, are willing to lie to buttress their faith.

By the way, if you want to hear a nice 28-minute BBC interview of Krauss by physicist Jim Al-Khalili, go here. It’s mostly about physics but also covers atheism.

h/t: Dom

57 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    sub

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      ditto

  2. Kevin
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Insecurity. That’s the mark.

    Religionists can not bare to have their foundation rotted, and nothing rots the base more than acceptance, denial, or worse, ambivalence at the precipice of the undiscovered country.

    • Draken
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      I feel no urgency to see religionists bare their foundation, thank you.

      • Kevin
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        Oops, bears are always bare, aren’t they? 🙂

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

          I have a mental image of a hairy bear cavorting around wearing a tutu.
          And when I think of some of the gay slang I’ve heard … I am not going to Google for images to match those terms.

          • friendlypig
            Posted June 8, 2016 at 4:21 am | Permalink

            I take it this is Desmond Tutu, the now retired Anglican Bishop from South Africa?

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted June 8, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

              Excuse me, I must FOOOF my braincell.

      • darrelle
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Especially if it’s rotted. Yuck!

      • Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

        Well, some foundations are quite nice when bared, I must say.

  3. Linda Calhoun
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    “I don’t think that evangelical Christians would have a serious problem with conversion being done under threat of torture.”

    I have been, for a while now, pondering the question of compliance vs. sincerity.

    What does it say about the faithful when they would choose compliance over sincerity? What does it say about their faith?

    My cynical opinion is that people who choose compliance over sincerity do it out of insecurity. When you have to be surrounded by people who appear to agree with you, whether they actually do or not, you don’t really have much faith in the correctness of your beliefs. L

  4. Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    It’s all economics. There is a demand out there in the religious community for repented atheists. For some reason this reaffirms their silly belief. Where there is a demand, there will be a supply, real or, in this case, fabricated.

    • yiamcross
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I think foancial economics too. They need to keep the faithful faithful and pull in new recruits or who will pay for their big mansions, wxpensive clothes and other more dibious benefits. Nothing like the story of a major league sinner like hitchens to butress up the crumbling walls of faith for a little linger. Oh, and if you can sell some books along the way….

  5. Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I think I see what you mean about being “a wee bit amiss” but it doesn’t really amount to much. Krauss says “Evangelicals would be better advised to concentrate on converting the living” but that’s actually what they try to do with their lies about conversions.

    I’d say you and he are essentially on the same page.

    • Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      Yes. The deathbed conversion story is meant to persuade others that when things get real, theism is the right choice.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. I don’t have a problem with what Krauss wrote either – in fact it’s pretty much how I would express it.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:05 am | Permalink

        Same here.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    “Christianity … a social virus with interesting literary overtones.”

    Ka-BOOM!

    Krauss attributes that sentiment to Hitchens in his New Yorker piece. It is not only accurate; it’s also the type of mordant remark Hitch might have made himself.

  7. darrelle
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    The deathbed conversion lies are merely one of the many behaviors that have evolved or been developed over the centuries by religions to keep the flock strong in numbers and loyalty. At the base of it all are human tribal behaviors. What is so disheartening about religions like Christianity, Islam and most other major religions, is that they have evolved to utilize those tribal human behaviors that are so often an impediment to modern societies.

    Many people will say that that isn’t true for most religious people. That they are just in it for the community and don’t pay much attention to the rest of it. But it is true. I see it in my neighbors. Hell, I see it in my family.

  8. tubby
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    There’s a frailness to their beliefs, where it has a hard enough time when it has to deal with a community of mixed faiths. Being confronted with someone, anyone, who not only loudly rejected their shared myth not because they held on to another myth but because they rejected their entire premise makes them incredibly uncomfortable. How can anyone face the pain of terminal disease and the fear of their imminent death, not to mention the threat of eternal punishment for wrong belief, without the same crutch they rely on? Some of them conclude that he couldn’t, and so somehow must have realized he needed teh jesus. And then all is right in their world again- their myth is again unchallenged because of the story that the infidel saw the light at the end.

  9. Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I think another reason theists love deathbed conversions is that they support their idea that atheism can be dismissed as juvenile rebellion. When faced with the gravity of her own mortality, the atheist will finally grow out of her contrarian phase. It’s a version of the “no atheists in foxholes” gambit.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

      Maybe we should all take the opportunity here to state that any reports of a deathbed conversion would be a lie. Not that anyone would actually care or be interested in my case, but perhaps numbers might tell a story.

  10. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on “deathbed conversion” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathbed_conversion )
    has already listed Hitchens under the section “Spurious deathbed conversions” along with Charles Darwin and Antonio Gramsci.
    An examination of the History page for the article shows this material was added April 21st (with more added on the 30th). The book was announced a few days earlier. I first learned about it in the New York Times on May 13th. Someone was on the ball.

    Oscar Wilde certainly had adopted his own idiosyncratic version of Christianity a few years before his death (evident from reading “De Profundis”) and expressed a real fascination with Catholicism, but the actual last-days formal conversion to Roman Catholicism still remains unsubstantiated.

  11. Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    the nonsense of death bed conversions is akin to groups trying to claim every admirable humane person to their ranks. Christians particularly love to claim that anyone and everyone “really” is a Christian down deep.

    The whole process is dishonest. Unfortunately, not just theists do this. The need for some people to make Captain American gay or bi, is just another example of this.

    • Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Or to insist that certain Founding Fathers were atheists (not accusing anyone here of that, just something I’ve seen too often in comment threads on other sites).

      • Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        “Other sites”, of course, meaning Reddit.

      • Posted June 8, 2016 at 5:59 am | Permalink

        I’ve never seen that at all, and I do mean never. I have seen it mentioned that some of them were Deists, something entirely different. do you have any examples?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      It seems that a lot of people want the writers to establish that Captain America is gay or bi, but a lot of people want to think that Captain Kirk and Mister Spock were gay on the basis of dubious interpretations of certain existing elements of the TV series. Two slightly different phenomenon.

      Richard Dawkins has declared he thinks Barack Obama is “really” an atheist, which is also IMO a problem.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        “It seems that a lot of people want the writers to establish that Captain America is gay or bi,”

        Sort of thing that happens all the time with obsessive fans. Captain America (or any fictional hero) is created by and hence the property of the writers, and they can do whatever they like with him. As an occasional fan of some TV series (not Captain America as it happens) I usually resent some fans trying to pressure the writers to conform to their wishes.

        cr

      • Posted June 8, 2016 at 6:00 am | Permalink

        It can be a problem if there is no evidence to support the claim.

  12. DrBrydon
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    To quote the ever-quotable Homer Simpson:

    And what if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making god madder and madder.

    While I think there is definitely a strain in religion that finds comfort in people who share the same beliefs, I think the death-bed thing is a little different. I think it’s the hope that there really isn’t anything to atheism, and, at the push of pike, atheists will crack, and demonstrate that you can’t really “turn your back” on god. After all, we’re just “angry at god,” and what better time to make amends than when you are dying.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      Messed up my blockquote tag. D’oh.

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Just the mere fact that many Christians are abscessed with the conversion of a few atheists to the religion of their choice and would lie and make up tales on this — well, it shows a lack of confidence in their belief without evidence. It is good to know that most of the conversions are the other way round and not made on a death bed but while alert and clear thinking.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      Abscessed actually sort of works okay there. Auto-correct run amok?

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        It was the devil’s handiwork.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

          And a damned fine example of it too!

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Regarding famous alleged deathbed conversions, the claim regarding Hitchens comes up as empty as that made about Darwin.

    Oscar Wilde, however, is a different kettle of caviar. Although there is little to support the claim regarding his conversion to Catholicism, the second half of Wilde’s prison opus, De Profundis (as well as his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”) reveal that Wilde did undergo a late-life spiritual awakening, as well as adopt (no surprise here) an overtly Christ-sized martyr complex.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:13 am | Permalink

      As JonLynnHarvey says at #10 above.

      I’m grateful to both of you because I did not know this.

  15. Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that evangelical Christians would have a serious problem with conversion being done under threat of torture. That, after all, is the very basis for accepting Jesus, and it’s a staple of Catholic dogma, as refined over the centuries by theologians like Augustine and Aquinas.

    And let’s be fair to the religious: if they’re sincere in their beliefs, it kind of makes sense. The idea is horrible and perverse, but the people in the pews didn’t invent it. If I were dying, and an Evangelical Christian stood by and honestly believed I was bound for eternal torture, but didn’t bother to lift a finger to save me, what would that say about them? I’d much rather not be bothered on my death-bed, but that’s because the premises are bad, not the behaviours.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      I disagree. Sincerity in itself is no excuse. (Who could be more sincere than a suicide bomber?)
      The sincerity of my convictions does not entitle me to impose them on you, ever. I can try and persuade you – when you’re in a normal state – but not when you’re vulnerable.

      cr

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:14 am | Permalink

        Totally agree.

    • Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      What do you mean the people in the pews didn’t invent it? Is Taunton a high-ranking muckety-muck in some xian denomination? No; starting deathbed conversion stories is absolutely something people in the pews can do.

  16. Rob
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Deathbed conversions are standard Christian mythology.

  17. Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    “The more people you gather into your flock, the more confidence you have that you’re right”

    Right on the money.

  18. Stonyground
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    The linked article mentions the survey that was commissioned by the Dawkins Foundation after the UK 2011 census. It was fairly obvious already, that most of the people who identified as Christians on the census form were really nothing of the sort. The RDF survey provided concrete evidence that that is indeed the case. A conversation that I had with my father in law after the 2001 census went like this:

    SG: What did you put as your religion on the census?
    FIL: I put Christian.
    SG: So, if I do something bad, how does some guy being brutally tortured to death two thousand years ago make it OK?
    FIL: Well it doesn’t that’s completely absurd.
    SG: That is one of the cornerstones of Christian belief, if you don’t believe that then you aren’t a Christian.
    FIL: I see being a Christian as treating other people the way that you would have them treat you.
    SG: If you believe that but not the other stuff that makes you a humanist rather than a Christian.

    • Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

      Argh. Precisely. How to change this?

      • Stonyground
        Posted June 8, 2016 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        I don’t think there is any need to. In the UK at least, it is a generational thing. His daughter doesn’t think this way. My mother is a Christian, I’m not. Our daughter was brought up without religion.

  19. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    …or that even if He does, their faith is simply the wrong one.

    If we really want to underline the point that should read:

    …or that even if He/She/It/They does/do/did, their faith is simply the wrong one.

    I’m not a great believer in Politically Correct Speech but talking about a single male god is halfway to accepting that such a thing is real.

  20. Doug
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Even when deathbed conversions are real, they could be seen as an example of “a drowning man grasping at straws,” like a person with terminal cancer trying some quack medicine. Same thing with “no atheists in fox holes.” Why Christians think that they prove anything is beyond me.

  21. Lyman Baker
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Re: Christianity’s & Islam’s reliance on Hell as a conversion tactic. Let’s be clear these preachers have no problem with terrorism. They practice it themselves. And they posit an all-poweful being as imposing torture for an eternity — not out of defensive fear (being all-poweful, it has no grounds for fear) but simply out of displeasure. With such an imaginary guide in mind, no wonder mere humans feel authorized to waterboard someone over and over. We should adopt the practice of calling these “well-meaning” servants of our eternal welfare as what they are: terrorists.

  22. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that evangelical Christians would have a serious problem with conversion being done under threat of torture.

    Well, since the Inquisitions – of various stripes, brands and denominations – have long used torture to extract conversions and/or recantation of heresy.
    Just to spread the calumny into a wide range of corners where it should go, for some reason I recently came across the name of some guy who was tortured to death by “pressing” during the Salem Witch Trials which were ostensibly the Puritan Founding Fathers destroying the un-believers in their midst. It wasn’t just Catholics who had Inquisitions, though other people called them different things such as “Daesh”.
    (For evenness of smiting the monotheists, can anyone remind me the name of the Jewish torture organisations – I have zero doubt that they existed. Probbly … “Sons of Samuel”, or something like that? “Maccabees,” perhaps? And no doubt there are Hindu variants active in India as we speak. Scientology has “Sea Org” to terrorise the wavering back into compliance)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      I think you have to make a distinction between degrees of nastiness here. They’re all nasty. But arguably [some of] ISIS or the Inquisition are/were far worse than Guantanamo or Scientology, for instance.

      But I agree with you they should all be roundly condemned.

      cr

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

        The nastiness of Guantanamo didn’t (to any large degree) have it’s roots directly in religion. Unless you’ve heard something I havent. (Obviously, there are religious elements to the whole Wahabbism-Western conflict, but the political elements seem more important to me.)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted June 8, 2016 at 12:36 am | Permalink

          Okay, I wasn’t limiting myself to religiously motivated nastiness there. You were, but I’d missed that point.

          cr

  23. Alpha Neil
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    To me, the biggest revelation in all of this is that Taunton payed to go on a road trip with Hitchens. I’m kicking myself for not thinking of that. I’d have payed an embarrassing amount of money to roam around the American West with Christopher Hitchens.

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 9, 2016 at 1:18 am | Permalink

      Somehow that fact had eluded me, too.


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