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Christopher Hitchens: Disbelief—but Not as We Know It by Jonathon Van Maren

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Christopher Hitchens: Disbelief—but Not as We Know It

On December 15, 2021, many in the world of punditry marked the ten-year anniversary of the passing of polemicist Christopher Hitchens with columns wondering what could have been. There has been endless speculation over the past decade over what the Hitch might have said about this or that; BBC Radio 4 put out the documentary “Remembering Christopher Hitchens” in 2019; an unauthorized biography that has attracted the ire of Hitchens’ widow will apparently be published this year. Most of the recent tributes to Hitchens were the same tired tropes about what a contrarian he was; only Ross Douthat’s scathing offering avoids hagiography. 

Douthat pointed out that Hitchens’ two great causes—the spread of democracy in the Middle East by the American military and the idea that the decline of Christianity would “radically improve late-modern civilization” were, in hindsight: “two of the wrongest ideas of the early-to-mid 2000s. And not all that many people held to both of them at once, which means that Hitchens effectively achieved what you might call the reverse Orwell: Being so boldly independent of ideological faction that you get more important things terribly wrong than the more ordinary sort of scribbler.” The “reverse Orwell”—devastating.

As many have noted, Hitchens’ fame in part stemmed from the fact that his eclectic beliefs gave everyone something to love as well as to hate. He was a staunch man of the Left, but also opposed abortion, noting once that he disagreed with Margaret Thatcher’s vote to legalize it. He defended the pro-life position in debates; he described the violence of abortion in graphic and explicit terms (feticide must always “break some bones and rupture some organs”); one of his former students at Berkeley told me recently that Hitchens “highly approved of my essay comparing abortion and slavery for his class on Orwell and other social journalists.” (Orwell, incidentally, was also strongly anti-abortion.) 

Hitchens’ vaunted hatred for Christians was also not quite what it seemed. “You are my enemy,” he once bluntly told a Christian radio host—and when moving in for the rhetorical kill in debates with the faithful, he clearly relished savaging his opponents. At times, his anti-theism—indeed, hatred for God—seemed viscerally genuine. A journalist friend of mine told me that she was introduced to Hitchens at his Washington, D.C. apartment some years ago to discuss religion. She was a recent convert to Catholicism, and a secular friend wanted her to meet him. He downed half a bottle of whisky by early afternoon, and was so belligerent and angry when discussing Christianity that she quickly became uncomfortable and wanted to leave.

But Hitchens also counted many Christians among his close friends. The Christian author Larry Taunton’s 2016 memoir of his friendship with Hitchens, which he told me was a “spiritual biography,” attracted outrage from many Hitchens sycophants before they even made it past the title: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Famous Atheist. The founder of a Christian apologetics organization specializing in debate, Taunton not only debated Hitchens, but actually took several road trips with him—and these experiences make up the body of his fascinating account. They also contradict Hitchens’ public declarations of contempt for all Christians.

But it was precisely these declarations of hatred for the faithful that won Hitchens so many devoted disciples, and it is because Taunton’s short tome proves that Hitchens was “keeping two sets of books” on that score that it triggered such vitriol from the atheist community. “Christopher and I immediately got on with one another, we liked each other,” Taunton told me. That despite the fact that Taunton is an evangelical from the deep South, and Hitchens was a famously crude hedonist who lived the raconteur writer’s lifestyle to the hilt. He drank hard—the teetotalling Taunton recalls having to help Hitchens to bed after the consumption of an enormous amount of whisky and notes that the tales of Hitchens being impervious to the effects of liquor were obviously false. And yet it was Hitchens who suggested that he and Taunton travel together—and even told a TV interviewer that “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.”

Taunton’s title proved to be waving a red cape in front of the atheist bull, despite the fact that he never once claims Hitchens had a deathbed conversion—Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue said the subject of God never came up during his last days, and so we must leave it at that. Even so, Taunton does say that Hitchens used his debating tours after the release of his screed god is Not Great to engage with Christians in a manner that began to make his anti-theist friends very nervous indeed. 

After Christopher’s cancer diagnosis, when the question of God’s existence suddenly became more pressing, discussions with his Christian friends took a more serious and urgent tone. As they studied the Bible together one afternoon driving through the Shenandoah, Taunton relates, Hitchens suddenly stopped reading and began quoting John 11: 25-26 from memory:

“It’s a great verse,” I add, sensing we have reached a defining moment.

“Yes, Dickens thought so,” [Hitchens] says, and then, taking his reading glasses off, he turns to me and asks: “Do you ‘believest thou this,’ Larry Taunton?” His sarcasm is evident, but it lacks its customary force.

“I do. But you already knew that I did. The question is, ‘Do you believest thou this,’ Christopher Hitchens?”

As if searching for a clever riposte, he hesitates and speaks with unexpected transparency: “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”

The diagnosis of stage four esophageal cancer, which would eventually kill him on December 15, 2011, was a “game changer for Christopher, as it would be for anyone,” Taunton told me.

Christopher knew that his cancer was a death sentence. He was staring eternity in the face. It changed the tenor of the conversations with Christopher. Suddenly it wasn’t just intellectual banter. You had this sense of urgency with him. Christopher was thinking deeply on the question of whether or not the biblical claim that there was a God and that He stands to judge us in the next life for our actions in this one was true. Christopher and I would drive after his diagnosis from his home in DC to my home in Birmingham, Alabama, a 751-mile, thirteen-hour drive, and we would study the Gospel of John together. And then a month later, we would do it again, this time through Yellowstone National Park.

These road trips were unorthodox, to be sure. “How many Bible studies have you been to where there was whisky on offer?” Taunton chuckled, recalling Hitchens’ baritone voice intoning Scripture with a tumbler of Johnny Walker Black clamped between his knees and a chain of cigarettes on the go. Does this mean that Hitchens was “evaluating, contemplating conversion to Christianity,” a modern-day Nicodemus, as Taunton put it? His friendship with Taunton and others certainly indicates that he did not believe his own oft-repeated statement that Christianity “cannot be believed by a thinking person.” His brother Peter, who is also a Christian, is another example—Christopher’s widow Carol kindly suggested that he read Philippians 4:8 at the memorial service, the same passage Christopher had read at their father’s funeral nearly twenty-five years before.

Although Taunton has been accused of posthumously claiming Hitchens for Christianity, he in fact emphasizes the opposite. “I am not saying Hitchens converted,” Taunton reiterated emphatically to me. “I am only saying he contemplated it, based on what I saw. But atheists need Hitchens as a sort of god, the man who gave them all courage and strengthened their faith by looking eternity in the face and saying I will not yield.” 

The best evidence of this was the nauseating sycophancy of Richard Dawkins (ironically, Hitchens told Taunton that he found The God Delusion unreadable) when presenting Hitchens with an atheist award at the Texas Freethought Convention during his final public appearance eight weeks before he died. Shrunken and ravaged by the disease, Hitchens was envious, he said sadly, of someone who was young, and “just starting out in this fight.” He was wildly applauded for his courage in the face of death, but he looked forlorn—with nothing, by his own admission, either to fear or look forward to. Thousands of atheists were cheering him on his way, but this was a journey he would have to make alone.

After the release of Taunton’s book, I called Rev. Douglas Wilson of Moscow, Idaho (whom Peter Hitchens once referred to as a “purveyor of weapons-grade Calvinism) to ask him what he thought of the memoir. Wilson and Christopher Hitchens did a debate tour, co-authored a book (Is Christianity Good for the World?), and co-starred in the 2009 documentary Collision on their travels together. Wilson had written that Peter Hitchens had once told him that “the reason Christopher’s city walls were so heavily armed, bristling with weaponry, was that if you ever got past those walls there were no defenses from there to the city center.” Wilson confirmed that he’d had his own conversations with Hitchens that were similar to Taunton’s.

When we were talking over a meal with nobody else there, he could talk about these things on a serious level—when there wasn’t an audience. He never opened up and said I’m seriously thinking about this myself, but there were generally no monkeyshines when it was just the two of us in a private setting. The show was not going on.

Christopher was quite capable of respecting Christians. If you really believed it and were willing to defend the challenges thrown up against it, he respected that and he liked it. I think his whole throwing out the challenge when he released his book was a way for him to come into contact with lots of believers without arousing the suspicions of his fanbase. If he started having lunch every Tuesday with the archbishop, tongues were going to wag. In this way, he could be the adversary, he could be the enfant terrible and preserve his public persona, and yet find out an awful lot about the Christian faith by interacting with Christians directly.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Wilson says that Hitchens didn’t hate Christians—he hated hypocrites. In fact, he once told Taunton prior to a debate with an opponent he considered to be a huckster that they were on the same side for a change. Hitchens’ hatred for religious hypocrites had attracted attention before. Murray Kempton, in his review of Christopher’s book condemning Mother Teresa in the New York Times Review of Books, noted that Hitchens seemed to be outraged at the Catholic missionary’s perceived hypocrisies to such an extent that he appeared offended on behalf of the God she claimed to serve:

Hitchens’s stirrings are so far from blasphemous as almost to resonate with the severities of orthodoxy. He came to scoff, but the murmurings that recurrently rise from his place in the pew unmistakably imply the man who has remained to pray. Mockeries suffuse his tones; but their charms, seduce us though they may, cannot conceal the fierce purpose of their employment, not in God’s despite but on His behalf.

As Wilson once said of Hitchens’ fiery moral denunciations during one of their debates: “Christopher would have made a very good Puritan.” Even Hitchens chuckled.

What are we to make of Taunton’s claim that Hitchens considered Christianity seriously? “When people are considering Christianity, they go through three stages,” Wilson told me.

They first say: I’ll never become a Christian. That tells you they’ve thought about it. It’s crossed their mind, and they need to assure you. The second stage is: If I became a Christian. And the third stage is: When I become a Christian. I’m never going to; If I were to; and when I do. I know just on the basis of his public pronouncements, Christopher got to stage two. There were several times in interviews after his cancer diagnosis where he was asked: Any second thoughts on the God thing?

Christopher’s answer wasn’t simply: No, no second thoughts. His answer was: Well, if you hear that Christopher Hitchens has cried out to God on his deathbed, then you can be assured that the cancer got to my brain, or the medications got to me. He was saying if this were to happen, here’s the story I want my fans to use. He was saying that because he was worried about it. There’s no reason to bring that kind of thing up unless you’re concerned you might let down the home team. He had a story prepared beforehand. I am not claiming that Christopher cried out to God. I am maintaining that Christopher himself was worried that he would.

That alone, of course, is enough to ruffle the devout unbelievers who worshiped the Hitch. I wonder if any of them have seen a particularly poignant and fascinating scene at the very end of the documentary Collision, in which Hitchens is chatting with Wilson about the Christian apologetics he and his atheist brethren find the most challenging. He wanders abruptly off-script, relating a conversation he’d had with Richard Dawkins:

At one point, I said, if I could convert everyone in the world—not convert, convince everyone—to be a non-believer, and I’d really done brilliantly and there’s only one left; one more, and then it’d be done. There’d be no more religion in the world. No more deism, no more theism. I wouldn’t do it.

And Dawkins said, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do it?”

I said, “I don’t quite know why I wouldn’t do it. And it’s not just because there’d be nothing left to argue with and no one left to argue with. It’s not just that—though it would be that. Somehow, if I could drive it out of the world, I wouldn’t.” And the incredulity with which [Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still, I’ve got to say.

Christopher Hitchens is remembered by the godless as a man who truly hated Christians and wanted to utterly destroy Christianity. In public, in front of his admirers, he maintained that position even as the grave yawned at him. But as was always the case with Christopher Hitchens, there was quite a bit more to the story.

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.


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