By Adi Chowdhury
I have yet to select an appropriate term for the amalgamation of feelings I experienced upon being first presented this book and rummaged curiously through its pages.
A book about the iconic atheist Christopher Hitchens, by a Christian evangelist Larry Taunton? Bearing the cryptic title “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens”? What’s the author playing at here? Claiming that Hitchens, the ruthless debater-activist who planted himself with unwavering resolution in his anti-theism, was an undercover Christian? Is that what Taunton was insinuating? If so, I was prepared to laugh in the face of such tomfoolery.
(It would later turn out that my hasty conclusion was just that: hasty and naive. Taunton does not, actually, claim that Hitchens was a secret Christian. But at the same time, other misplaced, misleading, and plain baseless claims litter the pages of the book, as I shall argue. )
My sister had brought this book for me from the United States to Bangladesh, and I recall with clarity that the first aspect of the book that struck me was the cover. My eyes met with those of Christopher Hitchens , and I felt moved by the daunting erudition reflected in his narrowed, dynamic eyes, chiseling his gaunt expression. His gaze appeared lowered slightly, darkened by profound troubles wrenching at him from the inside. A light blond stubble, flecked by strands of white, embellished his wrinkled, hard-set jaw. His dark crimson lips remained tightly clasped shut in an almost disapproving manner. He donned his usual attire of a black suit over a light blue shirt, unbuttoned near his neck, resembling (in the words of the author Taunton himself) “a gigolo past his prime.”
Gigolo or not, Hitchens’s own signature style of attire, behavior, argumentation, and writing is unforgettable and iconic. Sporting an aura of confidence and resolution, his stern and father sullen nature is remarkable. His writing style–that I read in God Is Not Great–bears a unique mark as well. Consistently well-articulated and erudite, his composed essays fail to diminish in eloquence.
As is true of all humans, Hitchens–despite his naturally intellectual and authoritative demeanor–had committed himself to some ideas that would prove to be a blunder. For example, he professed his support of the invasion of Iraq, a regrettable sentiment, and managed to flip off an entire audience of a televised talk show. Some of his points on Islam can be dismissed as inaccurate; perhaps, as Hitchens himself notes, some debates with Muslims (instead of Christians, his typical opponents in a debate) would have enriched his understanding of the religion.
But let us return to the book, rather than my musings on Hitchens.
I found myself in a rather complicated position: intrigued by the prospect of digging into Hitchens’s deeper and more secretive life that lurked behind the layers of learned erudition and enigmatic demeanor, yet simultaneously skeptical of the authenticity of claims made by the author. Perhaps a Christian evangelical wouldn’t exactly be a massive fan of a strident anti-theist…
But, as a lifelong student of an evangelical school and a close friend of followers of various religions, I maintained with certainty that not all theists blatantly disregarded and despised atheists. There was a myriad of theists harboring respect for heretics and found no hindrance in the path towards forming heartfelt bonds with them, as I know from experience. Additionally, a brisk online search yielded that Christopher Hitchens apparently had no beef with author Larry Taunton; in fact, they appeared to be well-acquainted pals. Hitchens had this to say about Taunton:
“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.”
My suspicion subsided, and I got to reading the book. I had a rather un-busy day and managed to finish the short book within a few hours. As my eyes imbibed the last word, my hands shut the book and placed it beside me on my sofa, and my mind reclined and reflected on what I had just read, only one genuine sentiment could be found.
I liked it.
I am genuinely fond of the book. Taunton, overall, did not slander Hitchens’s name and did not squander the pages dissecting and demolishing atheism. He did not nastily crusade against Hitchens and condemn him to an eternity in Hellfire.
In fact, the author relayed a wonderfully candid and insightful account of what composed Hitchens’s life and thoughts behind all the fame and glory. Taunton takes us behind the scenes and offers us a look at the remarkable and unexpected aspects of Hitchens’s recalcitrant and defiant existence. We are whisked away from the ostentatious and sinister scholar that comprises Hitchens’s public image; we are grasped by the hand and guided away from the popular debates, lectures, speeches, essays, books, quotes, YouTube videos, and daunting wallpapers of Hitchens.
Our gaze is shifted eloquently and gently to the side of Hitchens that the media doesn’t cast a light on: the majestically nuanced mindset Hitchens crusaded for, the troubles that plagued him, the careful and silent analysis Hitchens made of whatever he saw and whomever he met, the disturbed relationship with his brother, the brooding and bullied childhood spent in his boarding school days, the fascination with debate and politics that defined his career, the phone call Hitchens made after discovering he has cancer.
The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is a kind of book I’d enjoy reading during a long train ride. Casting my mind into the book and reeling in the elegant account of the eventful life of Christopher Hitchens. Imbibing the flowing accounts of Hitchen’s slowly evolving friendship with the author. Chuckling at the earnest descriptions of Hitchens’s drunken encounters and behind-the-scenes remarks about his peers, allies, and foes. Relishing in every word as Hitchens harshly lambastes a man for faking his anti-atheist activism simply to earn money and swindle readers. Curiously engaging myself in the described conversations between Hitchens and Taunton as they discussed and debated the merits and fine points of the Bible. Momentarily glancing up every now and then to gaze out the window and immerse myself in the sight of the hills rolling by, reflecting on what I had just read.
The central concept of the book, around which Taunton tantalizingly dances yet never directly stakes claim on, is that Hitchens was considering Christianity on the eve of his death. As Christopher Hitchens, the strident pundit and behemoth of anti-theism, lay stricken with esophageal cancer, he took tentative steps away from his atheism and feebly raised his gaze to to the prospect of accepting Jesus as his Lord and Savior. At least, that’s the storyline according to Taunton. (And probably only according to him, since no other account or evidence attests to Christopher’s deathbed doubts.)
This central theme is intrinsically fallacious, even in the light of the “evidence” Taunton offers to justify his claim. The author recounts a long car ride he and Christopher went on, during which they read and reviewed the Bible together. Christopher had, according to this account, frequently asked questions about Biblical literature, the context of God’s actions, the fine points of the Gospel of John, and the violent tribalism suffusing the Old Testament. Taunton claims to have addressed each of Christopher’s points with relentless patience and politeness, clearing away his concerns about the Word of the Christian God. The author seems to present this experience as “Exhibit A” of Christopher’s interest in leaving atheism and taking feeble steps into the realm of Christianity.
Here lies the heart of the error. Taunton mistakes interest in learning about Christianity as interest in converting to Christianity. The distinction between the two are very significant and very necessary to make.
I have no doubt that Christopher did indeed have vigorous interest in Christianity. As someone who has made religion an integral component of his life’s work, he would naturally feel compelled to attain and assimilate as much as he could about it. I would have no qualms with studying religions I don’t subscribe to (which is all of them); in fact, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to examine the essence of religious faith is depth, and develop my comprehension of the fine points of theological doctrine.
Alongside this, the author presents a menagerie of remarks scattered throughout the book, showcasing his ostensible prejudice and naivety. Taunton describes the actor Stephen Fry as “a homosexual activist”, a strangely derogatory reference to Fry’s devotion to crusading for LGBT rights. In another circumstance, the writer Salman Rushdie is labeled “a serial blasphemer”, a description that could be feasibly mistaken for a good-natured, amusing allusion to Rushdie’s history with Islamic clergymen seeking his blood on the charge of blasphemy. However, it is altogether believable that Taunton didn’t mean this remark as a joke, but rather as a crude blow to Rushdie’s work suffused with his anti-atheist sentiment. Alongside these wholly unnecessary comments are a string of intellectually dishonest claims about how atheism, “followed to its logical conclusion,” espouses a world ravaged with strife and criminality, rather than the moral goodness found at the heart of Christianity. Taunton expresses no reluctance to voice his opinion that, when under the influence of atheism, a man’s worldview dictates that rape, murder, and deplorable moral character are all permissible–a claim unsubstantiated with elaboration and evidence, and suffused apparently with vehement sentiment and antagonization of disbelief.
(Taunton fails to admit that belief in the Bible, “followed to its logical conclusion,” makes the execution of homosexuals and blasphemers permissible. Perhaps he has a knack for turning a blind eye to glaring double standards.)
Additionally, some comments by Taunton can only be deemed, for lack of a better word, ignorant. He relays a story in which he was debating Dr. Michael Shermer, a notable secular humanist, science historian, and editor of Skeptic Magazine. Taunton recalls with glee how they were discussing the existence of God, when Taunton’s adopted, orphaned daughter comes up to Dr. Shermer and remarks how the pains in her life had actually contributed to her belief in a loving God, rather than suppress it. Dr. Shermer does not respond, and instead falls silent.
To my amusement, Taunton recalls this story with glee and pride in his words. He seems to think that his adopted daughter had refuted Dr. Shermer’s atheistic claims and defeated him in battle, given Dr. Shermer’s silence. I genuinely felt myself cringe as I read this. Taunton seems to have blatantly missed the glaring obviousness of the fact that no one is rude and heartless enough to argue with an eight-year-old girl who believes in God to numb the pain of the loss of her parents. Dr. Shermer remains silent because he’s not cruel enough to debate the existence of God with a young, orphaned girl in pain, not because he’s stumped and defeated by her claims. I wouldn’t debate the existence of God with someone who would be depressed and heartbroken if she found out that her parents don’t go to a divine paradise after death. That’s simply atrocious, unnecessary, and will inflict pain upon someone already suffering.
So, that wraps up my take on The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. Larry Taunton brings us a book that offers insight into the personal, behind-the-curtains scenes of Christopher’s life, but nothing more. The book fails to deliver on its central premise, but attempts to compensate for it through witty and thought-provoking anecdotes that peer into the life of The Hitch.
Taunton will disappoint readers hoping for evidence that Christopher Hitchens considered leaving his atheism on the eve of his death, because there is none. The author’s remarks, suffused with homophobia, naivety, and misunderstanding of atheism and atheists, will dissuade any skeptical-minded humanist from admiring Larry Taunton. However, the book does not fail to pull back the curtains and shed some light on the truly restless soul of the enigma that is Christopher Hitchens.