Betraying the Faith of Christopher Hitchens

Larry Taunton's new book says more about its author than about the man he claims as a friend.

A man in a plaid shirt, holding sunglasses in one hand, standing in a doorway.
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Even Christopher Hitchens’s detractors would concede him two great qualities: honesty and bravery. Hitchens spoke the truth as he understood the truth, without regard to whom he might please and whom he might offend. What Hitchens wrote of his intellectual hero, George Orwell, was the epitaph he would have wished for himself:

By his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.

Yet this is the epitaph that a new book about Hitchens seeks to deny him. Larry Taunton is an evangelical publicist and promoter who became friendly with Hitchens during the writer’s final three years of life. Earlier this spring, Taunton published a new book that alleged that Hitchens was not as committed to his atheism as Hitchens publicly insisted—that, indeed, Hitchens had approached the verge of a Christian conversion.

Taunton based this astounding claim on two conversations with Hitchens during car drives to speaking events sponsored by Taunton’s foundation. During the longer of those drives (13 hours from Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C., to Taunton’s in Birmingham, Alabama), the two men read aloud and discussed the Gospel of St. John. Taunton directed Hitchens’s attention to the Gospelist’s promise of eternal life, which Hitchens—according to Taunton—described as “not without its appeal to a dying man.”

The book has won much attention and some praise. Chris Matthews, who frequently hosted Hitchens on MSNBC, interviewed Taunton and urged all his viewers to read his “beautifully written” book. David Horowitz, who knew Hitchens over a lifetime, called it “a literary gem, which no honest reader could mistake for an ideological tract.” The religion column of the New York Times publicized Taunton’s claim in a headline: “Christopher Hitchens Was Shaky in His Atheism, New Book Suggests.”

This is bold, to put it mildly. In the months before he died, Hitchens repeatedly and emphatically warned that claims like Taunton’s would be forthcoming and should be disbelieved.

“It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people whom you don’t know, but who are unbelievers, and say: ‘Now are you going to change your mind?’ … As you know, there’s a long history of fraud about this. People claim that Darwin had a deathbed recantation. They made up lies about Thomas Paine. It goes on all the time. It’s a very nasty little history… They’ve even tried it on me, when I’ve had not the vinegar I’d like to have had, in a hospital bed. ”

But there are plenty of others! Here’s Hitchens talking to Charlie Rose, in the same vein, to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and finally here, to my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg:

I asked Mark Oppenheimer—the author of the New York Times piece—why he had not mentioned or acknowledged any of these statements by Hitchens himself in his story. He answered at some length by email, and I quote his concluding paragraphs:

I actually think the stakes of one person's late-life religious musings, or the absence thereof, are pretty low. Christians will disagree, as they believe somebody's soul is at stake; atheist activists will disagree, as Hitchens was important to their movement; and those who knew and loved Hitchens will disagree, as they have an interest in seeing their friend or relative remembered accurately. But my interest was in the debate that has surrounded the book, which was one thing that I felt I could accurately report on.

Are the stakes in this matter indeed so low? Taunton’s book does not merely claim that a famous atheist felt some attraction to religious faith. It claims—in literally so many words—that a man admired by many was in fact a hypocrite, a liar, and a coward, motivated primarily by vanity and avarice. There is no way to report accurately on that controversy without scrutiny of the truth or falsity of the underlying assertions—and it’s an important media dereliction that more than a month after the book’s publication, this scrutiny has to date been lacking.

Taunton’s arraignment of Hitchens’s character is so harsh that it demands to be quoted in full, lest anyone suspect that I somehow exaggerate:

Publicly, he had to play the part, to pose, as a confident atheist—that was the side of the debate he’d been given, the one that made him both famous and rich. Privately, however, he was entering forbidden territory …

Taunton again:

My private conversations with him revealed a man who was weighing the costs of conversion. His atheist friends and colleagues, sensing his flirtations with Christianity and fearing his all-out desertion to that hated enemy, rushed to keep him in the fold. To reassure them, Christopher, for his part, was more bombastic than ever. But the rhetoric was concealing the fact that even while he was railing about God from the rostrum, he was secretly negotiating with him. Fierce protestations of loyalty always precede a defection, and Christopher had to make them. At least he had to if he was to avoid the ridicule and ostracism he would surely suffer at the hands of the very same people who memorialized him. To cross the aisle politically was one thing. There was precedence for that. Churchill had very famously done it. But Christopher well knew that whatever criticisms and loss of friendships he had suffered then would pale in comparison to what would follow his religious conversion. Hatred of God was the central tenet of their faith, and there could be no redemption for those renouncing it.

And it is here that his courage failed him. In the end, however contrary our natures might be, there are always a few people whose approbation we desire and to whose standards we conform.

What evidence does Taunton have for this claim that Christopher Hitchens believed one thing and said another in order to make money and to avoid “ridicule and ostracism”?

What evidence that Hitchens remained an atheist only because he “weighed the costs of conversion” and preferred to conform to the standards of others?

What evidence that Hitchens “was altering his opinions, while often pretending to himself and others that he was not doing so”?

What evidence is there that Hitchens’ was “secretly negotiating with God” but that in the end “his courage failed him?”

The answer to those questions is even more breathtaking than the accusation itself—and should have been glaringly apparent to anyone who gave Taunton’s book more than the most cursory skim.

Taunton has nothing.

The book is notably lacking in quoted words or reported actions of Christopher Hitchens to support the author’s central thesis that Hitchens at the end of his life was “staring into the depths of eternity, teetering on the edge of belief.” The dozen such assertions in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens are backed by Hitchens’s unspoken thoughts, as interpreted—or guessed at—by Larry Taunton.

It’s Taunton who infers that Hitchens’s “reflexive atheism was showing significant cracks in it.”

It’s Taunton who mind-reads that Hitchens “didn’t believe everything he said about Christians and their religion.”

It’s Taunton who intuits that one of Taunton’s preachments had an effect on Christopher “so profound that I knew that something in his thinking had changed in that instant.”

From Hitchens himself, however, there is only silence in the place where the supporting quotation or anecdote should have been.

What Taunton offers in lieu of evidence are two lines of argument whose merits are … well, you decide for yourself what they are.

The first line of argument is to cite Hitchens’s graciousness and friendliness to Christian interlocutors as proof that Hitchens cannot truly have disagreed with them. In Taunton’s words, Hitchens’s “friendships with Christian conservatives … would in fact bring about a deeper change, a change … that moved him beyond any comfortable stopping point.”

The second line of argument deployed by Taunton is to construct Taunton’s own definition of logically consistent atheism—then note that Hitchens did not agree with every aspect of this Taunton-built definition—and finally conclude that Hitchens could not really be an atheist. After all, a real atheist must agree with Peter Singer that a human baby is of no greater moral significance than a piglet. Since Hitchens did not agree with Singer, Hitchens must be moving toward agreement with Taunton.

But the second argument can be—and if Hitchens were alive, surely would be—turned exactly backwards: Draw one’s own personal caricature of Christian practice, complete with Inquisitions and burnings at the stake, notice divergences between that caricature and the actual views of an actual person, and thereby conclude that the person wasn’t “really” a Christian—was in fact moving toward unbelief, despite all his or her protestations to the contrary.

As for the first argument, it mistakes curiosity for assent. The off-stage Christopher Hitchens often paid respectful attention to points of view he thought partly or wholly mistaken. That’s how he gained the understanding he used to such devastating effect on-stage. There’s a marvelously comical example of this ability of Hitchens in Taunton’s own pages, in fact the only moment of comedy there, all the funnier for being unintended.

The anecdote runs as follows: Christopher Hitchens has just finished yet another round of debate with a religious opponent. Relaxing in a restaurant after the debate, that opponent had a complaint. Hitchens had unfairly used atrocity stories to win his argument.

“I don’t doubt,” said the disgruntled opponent, “that the stories are true. I could add many more stories of my own to the ones you have told. But they are not the actions of genuine Christians.”

“You don’t consider the Orthodox Church Christian?” Hitchens responded.

At which point Taunton broke into the conversation to explain that what mattered wasn’t “what we consider Christian or not Christian. It’s really a question of ‘What does the Bible say?’”

Now comes the punchline. “At this, Hitchens sat up, totally astonished. … The idea of the Bible as sole arbiter of what distinguishes authentic Christianity from counterfeit versions of it, a concept as old as Christianity itself, left him dumbfounded.”

To which any reader even cursorily familiar with the life and writing of Christopher Hitchens can only mutter a sarcastic, “I bet.” If Hitchens was “dumbfounded” (that is to say, if he didn’t say something sarcastic in reply) it was not because he was thinking: “What a brilliant rejoinder!” He was thinking, “Holey moley, they really don’t consider the Orthodox Church to be Christian!”

I interviewed Taunton early on Memorial Day morning and put the question directly to him. I asked: You’re a man who lives by the interpretive principle, “sola scriptura”: “Only scripture counts as proof.” So please provide some text, any text, from your book or from your notes to support your statements about the meaning of Christopher’s silent reactions to your arguments.

Taunton advanced the two arguments I mention above and concluded: “You can’t square several of those remarks with an atheistic worldview.”

I replied, “Sure you can. Of course you can”—and then asked again for him to show me where Hitchens said something to support the inferences Taunton drew.

“[S]ome of this of course is speculative,” Taunton replied. “I mean, every bit of biography requires some element of thoughtful speculation that is based on the evidence before us. And so I walk into things—that I saw Christopher saying, that I saw him doing, and from that I draw certain inferences.”

Perhaps the New York Times headline should have read, “Christopher Hitchens Shaky in His Atheism, Despite His Own Emphatic and Repeated Statements to the Contrary, New Book Speculates.”

Let’s concede Taunton all the ground we reasonably can. People do communicate important messages non-verbally. Could Taunton have perceived something in his hours with Christopher Hitchens that went unperceived over months and years by Hitchens’s many intimates, friends, and fans?

That possibility requires us to consider other questions: How sensitive an observer is Larry Taunton? And how reliable a narrator?

The first clue that something may be amiss with Taunton’s narration is what the author has to say about himself. It is from Taunton we learn about the supposedly close relationship between himself and Hitchens—and we learn it via the amazing efflorescence of compliments to himself that Taunton gathers in his pages.

“God is not lacking in an able advocate in you, Larry,” Hitchens reportedly remarks.

Hitchens is made to explain that while he despises religious charlatans, he admires Larry Taunton, “because you believe it.”

“Very good,” says Hitchens after reading a book of Taunton’s in typescript.

“You were quite good tonight,” Hitchens congratulates Taunton after one of their on-stage evenings.

And supremely: “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.” (That last compliment so pleased Taunton that he reproduces it twice.)

It's disquieting that Taunton acknowledges he seldom took contemporaneous notes of his conversations with Hitchens. I’m not in any way suggesting that Taunton invented Hitchens’s quotations, despite the hazards of after-the-fact reconstruction of dialogue. They sound very like the gracious things Hitchens would say to a debate-stage sparring partner and post-debate drinking companion. I only note: Those compliments to the book’s author didn’t show up in the author’s book by accident.

The abundant collection of compliments to Taunton from Hitchens forms a very striking contrast to the massive barrage of abuse that Taunton directs at his dear friend, Christopher Hitchens. I don’t enjoy retyping these. Even if I retype a great number of them, literally dozens will be left over. But fair sampling is necessary to give the true flavor of this self-described work of friendship.

“The funeral, like the man himself, was largely a celebration of misanthropy, vanity, and excesses of every kind.”

“[H]is parents both envied and admired the rich, a trait that was certainly passed down to him.”

“One detects in many of his writings an inflated sense of self-importance.”

“Christopher was always Christopher’s favorite.”

“Christopher’s wide but not deep reading … a shallow understanding of the things about which he spoke so self-confidently.”

“Christopher was, remember, an actor, bluffing his opponents into overestimating his intellectual prowess.”

The young Christopher was “an aspiring Leftwing intellectual, and a burgeoning snob.”

Actions by Hitchens that might look to another eye generous, kind, and forbearing (e.g., responding gently and only after four years’ delay to a bitter published attack on him by his brother, Peter Hitchens) are given aggressively negative constructions by Taunton. (Peter Hitchens has challenged my use of the word bitter in this context, and pointed to an earlier response to his article by his brother; see my response here.) “Were we to interpret this cynically—which is often advisable when reading Christopher Hitchens—we might conclude that this was just an attempt by Christopher to make himself look the bigger, better man.” Taunton briefly considers reading Hitchens’s soft reply to his brother’s criticisms uncynically, but then dismisses the possibility, instead concluding by calling Christopher Hitchens’s behavior “conceited and unnecessary.”

I counted only one unambiguously favorable comment about Hitchens that did not also contain a self-compliment to Taunton. When I offered this observation to Taunton, his tone turned defensive. So I asked Taunton to refute me: Provide a counter-example from his own book. When he failed to do so, I read him a few of the disparaging comments above—and that reading triggered the following:

What I’m saying is Christopher graduated from Oxford with a Third Class degree … Christopher himself didn’t claim to have been a major public intellectual. But he didn’t mind other people making that claim on his behalf. And Christopher was a really skilled orator, and the way I’m presenting Christopher is people haven’t understood that his formal training in debate equipped him, superbly, to advance an argument. Because he knew how to do it. He was extremely skilled at doing that sort of thing. And that’s why, as I say in the book, when I evaluated his debates on paper, it came out very differently than when you watched him. Because when you watched him, he was so good in terms of his rhetoric and the use of his English accent and so on. But Christopher didn’t claim to have been a scholar in the sciences. He never claimed it. Christopher didn’t claim to be a scholar on history. He didn’t claim to be a scholar on philosophy. And I think these are things that need to be pointed out, as opposed to assuming he was an expert in many of the fields he pronounced on. He wasn’t.

A few minutes later, Taunton congratulated himself for not having spoken even more harshly of Hitchens than he did.

“Did you not notice how many things I did not bring into the book?”

“Like what?”

“Well I mean the book—I don’t delve into—I mean, the only things I talk about in this book that might be deemed...”

And with that he subsided into stammers and self-interruptions and hazy insinuations.

In other words, even when challenged: “You seem unable to say something non-disparaging about the man you call your friend”—even in the course of his own attempt to demonstrate that after all he could say something non-disparaging—Taunton only produced more denigration.

You might suppose that Christopher Hitchens was an important intellectual. No, says Larry Taunton, Hitchens was merely the holder of a pitiful Third Class degree from Oxford, not a scholar of history or science or philosophy.

Was Hitchens not an eloquent and brilliant talker? No, not according to Larry Taunton—just a person who knew how to take advantage of rhetorical tricks and an English accent.

What kind of friend so harshly disparages a man whose life was tragically cut short and who cannot now speak for himself? Well, the friend retorts, I could  have said so much worse!

And all these, Hitchens’s dear friend continues, are things that “need to be pointed out” lest future generations continue under the delusion that Christopher Hitchens possessed a fine mind and a large heart.

Christopher Hitchens may not have been a systematic scholar. But his reading was wide enough to encompass a verse by another famous Oxonian, George Canning:

Give me the avowed, the erect, the manly foe,
Bold I can meet,—perhaps may turn his blow!
But of all plagues, good Heaven, thy wrath can send,
Save, save, oh save me from the candid friend!

As we neared the end of the interview, Taunton flung an accusation at me.

I think it would take great courage on your part to write favorably of this book given the relationships and affiliations you have. And I think it’s highly unlikely. And I had a feeling, going into this, that I would not get a fair shake from The Atlantic, and that seems to be the nature of the conversation.

I answered Taunton that it seemed to be a regular practice of his to insinuate cowardice in people who doubted Taunton’s narratives. When Christopher Hitchens declined to succumb to Taunton’s preaching, Taunton explained that Hitchens’s courage failed him. When Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, withdrew his blurb from The Faith of Christopher Hitchens after publication because he thought Taunton’s message deceptive, Taunton questioned Shermer’s motives to The New York Times: “Could the man look any more silly to have written a glowing endorsement only to withdraw it when he took a bit of heat from his fans?” Likewise in my case: What motive other than pleasing my “relationships and affiliations” could possibly explain my objections to the maligning of a dead man?

However, a few minutes later, Taunton did hit on a second possible reason for my objections to his methods: not only cowardice, but also vanity, a desire to show off my own connection to Hitchens: “You will see yourself as Christopher’s defender in writing this piece, and you will no doubt assert your own interactions with him.”

I hadn’t been planning on it beforehand, but after that challenge, I decided I will tell just this one story. In November, 2005, Christopher Hitchens spoke at Toronto’s Holy Blossom synagogue. I was assigned the task of moderating the evening. Hitchens took questions from the audience, then adjourned for a book-signing and more questions. The evening ended late. My wife and I then escorted an exhausted Hitchens back to the rooftop bar of his hotel. As we settled into chairs, a woman approached. She announced she was a fan, with just a few questions for Hitchens. My wife quickly realized: The woman had stalked Hitchens all the way from the synagogue, some miles away, to corner him here. Do something, my wife mutely signaled to me. I interrupted the short conversation. I told the woman who had followed us that it was wonderful that she had taken the trouble to express her admiration, but Mr. Hitchens’s work was now finished for the evening. Good night. Thoroughly enraged at me, but still adoring Christopher Hitchens, the woman turned and left. “Thank you,” Hitchens said to me. “I can never do that.”

And in truth, he couldn’t do it. For all his occasional irascibility, Christopher Hitchens was a man of profound emotional generosity, endlessly patient with readers, admirers, and celebrity-hunters. Hitchens would pause to talk to undergraduates on the curb outside his lectures, to aspiring young journalists visiting from out of town, to star-struck pedestrians who tugged his sleeve on the street. This was a superbly lovable trait, but it also rendered Hitchens vulnerable to exploitation by the many people who wanted a piece of his outsized personality for their own purposes, sometimes innocent, sometimes less so. The woman at the Park Hyatt bar was probably harmless enough. But who knows? Maybe she was working on a book.

My conversation with Larry Taunton concluded with a sorrowful reflection by the author: “I think that the forces certainly seem to be mobilizing on his”—Hitchens’s—“side of the argument much more than mine.” He, Taunton, had only hoped to show the possibility of dialogue between two people of different perspectives, and now he found himself the victim of defamation by the likes of me.

Yet I am not so optimistic that what Taunton called “Hitchens’s side of the argument”—and what I would call the documentary record—will prevail. The New York Times story about the Taunton book extended its final word to a Taunton friend: “Whatever the truth about Mr. Hitchens’s dying beliefs, the intrigue makes for a good story.” The late Christopher Hitchens insisted that the only good stories are the true ones. Despite Hitchens’s spectacular career and philosophical death, that teaching remains too often unwelcome and unheeded by the world he left behind.