Here in Birmingham, there’s a writer and Christian apologist named Larry Taunton who has a new book called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. I know. Just the title itself is enough to get your blood boiling.
Taunton actually knew Hitchens personally, as the two engaged in a series of debates. And according to Taunton, this interaction produced an unlikely friendship. In a recent interview (which is definitely worth reading or listening to), Taunton said:
I discovered the public manifestation of Christopher was everything… was everything people thought that he was. He was, at least until 9/11, he was the leftist, sympathetic Marxist, fire-breathing atheist. But something went off in Christopher after 9/11… He broke with the left at a political level and said, look, I can no longer go along the knee-jerk, leftist position that America deserved 9/11 and is responsible for all the evil things in the world.
There’s definitely some truth to the claim that Hitchens’s political views concerning foreign policy underwent some major changes after 9/11. He consistently sided with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, though he never considered himself “any kind of conservative” (Anthony, The Guardian, “The Big Showdown”). Of course, his hatred of Islamic terrorism was also one of the major inspirations for his book God is not Great.
But the real problem with Taunton’s book is this:
The whole of my claim in this book is that Christopher was a man of two books, that off stage he was very different and that after his diagnosis with esophageal cancer, a diagnosis that he knew to be a death sentence, Christopher was reevaluating his religious options. Greek Orthodox, no. He was never going to consider that. Roman Catholicism, no. Judaism, perhaps. He was deeply affected late in his life by the discovery that he was Jewish on his mother’s side, something his mother kept secret the entirety of her life.
But Protestantism and Evangelicalism had a kind of appeal to Christopher and he was exploring it. But I think the problem for him was that Christopher had created a kind of prison for himself. If your reputation is built on, just as mine is in the other direction, if your reputation is built on atheism and you have spent so much of your life in discussions like this one and on television and so forth railing against faith, it’s pretty hard to backtrack from that to admit that perhaps you’re wrong.
I actually find this claim downright offensive. And it’s not because I hold Hitchens as being some paradigm of skepticism that would make him impervious to bad ideas. It’s more that this kind of claim is such a tired cliché, and it discredits the memory of someone that Taunton claims was a friend. Hitchens was unequivocal in his derision of religion. To think that he’d express doubts to a sometime debate partner rather than those closest to him seems unlikely. Furthermore, it goes against the character he had exhibited his entire life — that of someone who insists on speaking honestly about his opinions, even when they are at odds with the views of those with whom he’d normally agree.
And if those aren’t good enough reasons to doubt Taunton’s claims, we also have the testimony of Carol Blue, Hitchens’s wife. Not only did Hitchens think he would recover from the pneumonia that ultimately killed him (a symptom of his cancer), but as she said, “God never came up.” And in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Hitchens actually addressed this very scenario:
Taunton claims that his position is based on private conversations he had with Hitchens, so there will probably never be a way to prove or disprove what he says. But his claims run so counter to what those closest to Hitchens have said, and they’re so completely out of character with the man himself, that they’re simply unbelievable. Since Hitchens isn’t here to defend himself, it makes Taunton come across as incredibly opportunistic. To make such unsubstantiated claims is an insult to the memory and legacy of Christopher Hitchens.