By Jonathon Van Maren
Christopher Hitchens would probably be pleased to know that nearly a decade after his death, people have not stopped talking about him. Beyond the endless speculation as to what the Hitch might have had to say about President Donald Trump (back in 2000 he wrote that Trump had “worked out how to cover 90 percent of his skull with 30 percent of his hair”), he was recently the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary “Remembering Christopher Hitchens,” and the filmmaker who followed Hitchens for the 2009 documentary Collision has been releasing short vignettes of behind-the-scenes footage featuring Hitchens’ debates and interactions with Rev. Douglas Wilson of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho.
The revealing glimpses of Hitchens having jovial conversations with Wilson, whom Christopher’s brother Peter once referred to as a “purveyor of weapons-grade Calvinism,” reminded me of a 2016 book on a little-known aspect of the resolutely godless intellectual’s life: His close friendships with many evangelical Christians. The Christian author Larry Taunton’s 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 seem to contradict Hitchens’ public declarations of contempt for all Christians.
“You are my enemy,” Hitchens once said evenly to a Christian radio host. And indeed, when Hitchens was moving in for the rhetorical kill, he rejoiced in savaging his opponents—he told Taunton that in debate, he always first decided whether he was going to destroy the argument or the man. Indeed, Martin Amis wrote of his best friend Christopher that “we grant that hatred is a stimulant, but it shouldn’t become an intoxicant.” At times, that hatred seemed viscerally genuine. A journalist friend of mine once told me that she’d been 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’d downed half a bottle of whisky by early afternoon, she recalled, and was so belligerent and angry when discussing Christianity that she quickly became uncomfortable and desperately wanted to leave.
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 the two men could not have been more different: Taunton is an evangelical from the deep South, and Hitchens was a famously crude and bohemian 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 noted that the tall tales of Christopher 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 rather like 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 never came up during his last days, and so we must leave it at that. But yet, Taunton does say that Hitchens used his debating tours after the release of his ant-religious 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 God’s existence suddenly became more than a matter of rhetorical debate, these 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 and 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, the disease that would eventually kill him on December 15, 2011, was a “game changer for Christopher, as it would be for anyone,” Taunton told me by phone. “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, suddenly 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 he was diagnosed with cancer—from his home in DC to my home in Birmingham, Alabama, a 751-mile drive in one day, thirteen hours, 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 reading 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 friendships with Taunton, Wilson, and the evangelical scientist Francis Collins (whom he called one of the “greatest living Americans”), certainly indicate 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, would be another example—Christopher’s widow Carol kindly suggested that he read Philippians 4:8 at the memorial service, the same passage Christopher had once 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 throughout his book that he is not making that claim. “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. Ravaged by both disease and the treatments designed to fight it, shrunken was the only way to describe him, a still-living Ghost of the Hitch. He was envious, he said sadly to the riotous adulation of the crowd, 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.
I phoned Rev. Douglas Wilson, who toured with Christopher Hitchens and even co-authored a book (Is Christianity Good for the World?) with him to ask him what he thought of Taunton’s memoir. 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.” (Peter says as much in his own magnificent memoir, The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith.) When I asked Wilson if he’d had similar conversations to Taunton’s, he affirmed that he had: “Yes, 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 was generally no monkeyshines when it was just the two of us in a private setting. The show was not going on.”
Wilson agrees with Taunton that it was not Christians in general that Hitchens hated, it was hypocrites—those who didn’t believe actually it. Hitchens suspected that Al Sharpton was as much of an atheist as he was, for example, and once told Taunton prior to a debate with a religious huckster that Taunton was on his side for a change. “Christopher was quite capable of respecting Christians,” Wilson told me. “It was not I have contempt for you all. If you really believed it and were willing to defend 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. People were going to say what’s going on over there. It [would] cause a commotion. 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.”
Hitchens’ hatred for religious hypocrites had attracted attention before. Murray Kempton, in his review of Christopher’s book condemning Mother Theresa 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.”
So what, I asked Wilson, are we to make of Taunton’s claim that Hitchens considered Christianity seriously? “When people are considering [Christianity], they go through three stages,” Wilson replied. “The first is they announce: 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? And 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 by doing something like that. 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, where Hitchens is chatting with Wilson about the Christian apologetics he and his atheist brethren find the most challenging. He then 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.