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The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: unfortunately a sad spectacle

December 6, 2016

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens was launched earlier this year amid a storm of controversy. Author Larry Taunton had written what to some was “a beautifully written” book. Yet others decried the book, angry that the author suggest that Hitchens’ flirted with conversion – and others (seemingly misinformed) thought that Taunton proposed that Hitchens did convert.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of all this. I know the author, Larry Taunton, and I quite like Larry. We agree on many things and I even helped promote and support a Fixed Point Foundation event. Before reading the book I trusted Larry and defended the book to some critics. But in order to defend the book with more credibility, I needed to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens for myself. So I obtained a copy.

Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed. The book was not nearly as ‘beautifully written’ as I had anticipated or hoped. The book indeed could have been useful, beautiful and inspiring – Larry and Christopher did have some exchanges and a relationship worthy of further exploration and documentation. Yet unfortunately I found the book disappointing, irritating and even at times cringe-worthy. It was something of a sad spectacle when it could have been so much more.

A betrayal of a friendship

The most penetrating and accurate review of Taunton’s book was by David Frum, published in The Atlantic.

David neatly summed up many of my feelings about the book. His headline was apt: the betrayal of the faith of Christopher Hitchens.

Frum rightly points out Taunton’s persistent contempt of Hitchens, which at times felt cringe-worthy. I found the openness by which Taunton insulted his ‘friend’ (and Hitchens’ friends) surprising. He suggested that Hitchens celebrated, “misanthropy, vanity, and excesses of every kind”, he possessed “feelings of inflated self-importance”, his reading was “wide but not deep”, he was “an actor, a bluffer”, and he was an aspiring intellectual “snob”. One wonders what admirable qualities Taunton saw in his “friend” at all which made him worth befriending?

I felt embarrassed at times wondering how other friends and family closer to Hitchens would take these sweeping and savage character assessments from a man who spent relatively little time with Hitchens and knew him for only a comparatively fleeting moment. It seemed as though Taunton wrote with little consultation or consideration of the family of the now deceased Hitchens.

Another irritating feature of Taunton’s work (as Frum also points out) is, in stark contrast to how he characterises Hitchens, Taunton gives himself an ‘efflorescence of compliments’.

For example, Taunton shared where he and Hitchens usually met – in expensive restaurants. According to Taunton, Hitchens “disliked cheap restaurants and cheap liquor” (p.118). Taunton claims that he never ate so well when he was with Hitchens and adds a self compliment: “of course, I always paid for it, too”.

Amidst this Taunton ensures to share details about his own TV appearances, debates, books, and speaking engagements.

Taunton paints himself as a morally superior, caring, generous, brilliant Christian apologist and Hitchens as a rude, inconsistent, selfish, greedy, wavering drunk. There may be some truth to the differences in the characters of the two men, but it’s hard at times not to feel that Taunton’s work is bereft of the humility embodied by the leader Taunton follows. Perhaps some of the character aspersions directed at Hitchens could also be applied to the author himself?

It seems that Taunton was trying to write the book not so much about Hitchens, but as an apologetic for the Christian faith, using his relationship with Hitchens as a case study. This explains the constant attempts at diminishing Hitchens’ character and credibility, whilst Taunton incorporates a series of apologetic arguments and points to demonstrate his own credentials and to create a rounder intellectual defence against the edifice of Hitchens’ position.

Perhaps I have an overly idealised concept of friendship – but I do feel that in writing the book that he did and characterising Hitchens the way he did, Taunton has tragically betrayed the genuine and warm relationship he had.

Hitchens’ “Faith”: A good conspiracy theory, but was it genuine?

The heart of the book is about the so called ‘faith’ of Christopher Hitchens. It does seem strange to entitle a book about the ‘faith’ of a man the author makes clear never actually converted. What exactly Hitchens’ faith was is never really explained.

Taunton also sets up Hitchens’ ‘faith’ via a form of conspiracy theory by portraying Hitchens as an inconsistent hypocrite – one who presented a different persona in private and public – which renders counter argument almost impossible.

There is little doubt Taunton and Hitchens had fascinating conversations about religion and their Bible study on John 1 was intriguing and inspiring. Yet drawing the conclusions that Taunton did even with the evidence Taunton presented simply did not follow.

Taunton claims Hitchens had doubts, he was “weighing the cost of conversion” (p.164) and Christopher “was thinking deeply” on the Christian faith. (p.160) Yet even with what Taunton had written about their conversations, I didn’t get that impression that this was what Hitchens was doing at all. Indeed most of Taunton’s claims and conclusions are based on speculation ‘from a certain point of view’. As Frum acknowledges, Taunton “mistakes curiosity with assent”.

Furthermore, suggesting that the reason Hitchens’ failed to convert was lack of courage was somewhat insulting.

I was intrigued why Taunton never referred to Hitchens last book, Mortality. Taunton doesn’t engage with that it at all. Indeed, if Hitchens had doubts and was considering converting, then surely there would be at least some trace of these thoughts in that work? Yet instead Mortality is classic Hitchens – he maintains a persistent and passionate invective against religion. This book reveals no signs of wavering or ‘weighing the cost of conversion’ at all.

The ‘faith’ of Christopher Hitchens? He demonstrated no ‘faith’,

Hitchens said and did some surprising things

With this said, Hitchens did say and do some surprising things:  

He freely admitted to the evil of humanity (in contrast to some of his atheist friends).

His warm and friendly discussion of the Gospel of John with Larry. His admission that the offer of Jesus was ‘not without appeal to a dying man’ (p.169).

These are certainly somewhat surprising, but they do not indicate a wavering in his strident atheism. Indeed it appears that Taunton has misinterpreted Hitchens comment at the conclusion of their first Bible study that “God is not lacking for an able advocate in you, Larry” (p.132). Taunton appears to believe that Hitchens thought him genuinely persuasive and convincing. Yet it more likely appears that Hitchens’ comment was a playful dismissal of Taunton’s attempts at converting him. Wouldn’t this be more consistent with Hitchens’ character as an affable, friendly thoughtful well-read public intellectual?

A much better book: ‘The friendship of Christopher Hitchens’

These surprising actions and statements could have formed the basis of a better (albeit shorter) book. There is no question that Taunton and Hitchens had some kind of warm friendship. Yes, it’s an unlikely friendship in many ways and a better book would have explored this friendship and demonstrated that people of radically opposing viewpoints could still enjoy a civil discussion. It could have explored how one of the most famous atheists explored the Gospel of John and Bible study was not beneath or beyond anyone. Yet it tried to do more, claim more and unfortunately by doing so, actually says far less.

A sad spectacle

On page 148 Taunton recounts a story which I couldn’t help feeling was ironic. Taunton shares an episode after the two debated in Billings, Montana.

After a quick cigarette on the sidewalk near the backstage door, he went back inside to meet his fans and sign their books. There was something sad about it all. I had the unsettling feeling that these weren’t people who cared about him in the least. Instead, they seemed like a bunch of groupies who wanted to have their photo taken with a famous but dying man, so that one day they could show it to their buddies and say, ‘I knew him before he died’. It was a sad spectacle. (p.148)

It’s hard not to see Taunton’s own book in the same vein. Whilst they certainly had a genuine friendship, it’s hard not to think that Taunton has been an opportunist. He’s been given a genuine relationship with Hitchens. But it’s hard not to see how he’s exploited these trips for greatest gain to raise his own profile as a defender of the Christian faith and a publishing opportunity. An opportunity for Taunton to flaunt that ‘I knew him before he died’.

I like Larry, I have a lot of time for Larry, I’ve even watched a football game (Australian style) with Larry, but I really didn’t enjoy this book. It could have been so much better, so much more enjoyable, but unfortunately I felt in the end it was a slightly sad spectacle.

From → Comment, New atheism

One Comment
  1. ptolemyauletes permalink

    I think the worst part about a book like this is that it shows the desperation on the part of the religious. If Christopher Hitchens actually HAD converted to Christianity, or any other religion, on his death bed, it would have been an utterly meaningless act in any objective sense. To the religious mindset this would be yet another indication of the greatness of their religion, that even a man as steadfastly opposed to religion as Hitchens was gave in to the ‘inevitable’ on his deathbed. This is a claim of sheer desperation. Hitchens himself, asked this question many times as he was approaching the end of his life, made it clear that any such conversion could only be the result of a mind addled by the decay of cancer. What mattered about Hitchens’ contribution to the intellectual sphere were his ideas, and the arguments he put forward. What would not have mattered would have been any such deathbed conversion, which would prove nothing other than that people do strange, uncharacteristic, things when confronted with death, or when their minds are weakening due to illness. No such conversion ever took place, and if it had, it would not have altered in any way the strength of the arguments Hitchens made throughout his life, and any attempts to claim otherwise would have only revealed how pathetic the person making the claim was.

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