An unlikely friendship with Christopher Hitchens
Q&A | Christian author and apologist Larry Taunton remembers his relationship with the well-known atheist
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 6/01/16, 10:50 am
Christian apologist Larry Taunton struck up an unlikely friendship with atheist Christopher Hitchens in the last years of Hitchens’ life. The public persona of Hitchens was one of combative animosity toward Christianity and many Christians. Taunton debated Hitchens, studied scripture with him, and even went on two road trips with him. Taunton’s new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, is a moving account of their friendship.
There’s a misconception that your book chronicles the deathbed conversion of Christopher Hitchens, which it does not. How did the rumor start, and does it upset you that this thing has kind of taken a life of its own? I’m not very excited about some of the rumors that have been spread about this book by atheists, who, it seems to me, almost want me to have claimed the deathbed conversion and are perhaps disappointed to discover that I don’t claim it because it gives them an opportunity to discredit me. …
A woman who herself is not particularly religious and writes for atheist blogs and publications and so forth had interviewed me and gave the book a very dark kind of narrative. She had focused on parts of the book where I had said Christopher Hitchens, in my opinion, in our Bible studies together as we’re driving through the Shenandoah Valley … was contemplating conversion. Somehow, that morphed into “Christopher Hitchens was contemplating it on his deathbed,” to “not only did he contemplate it, but he did convert on his deathbed.” Then there was a Religion News Service headline that said, “New controversial book claims Christopher Hitchens converted on his deathbed.”
You’ve told me you’re not happy about it because, in part, it’s just false and you’re a lover of truth. It’s just not true.
You had a bad accident a few months ago. You were severely injured. A little more than six months ago, I had finished the manuscript, just handed in the manuscript of this book. I’m an avid cyclist. I was hit by a car head-on in Birmingham, Ala. I was going through a green light. A car failed to yield, turned right into me. Obviously, the driver did not see me. According to witnesses—I have no recollection of the accident itself—I ricocheted off the windshield, collapsing the roof of the car and the windshield of the car. The car itself had to be towed.
It knocked me some 30 or so feet into the air, broke my neck in three places, my back in four places, my shoulder in two places, my hand, every single rib on the right side of my body, collapsed a lung, skull fracture, which I’m still dealing with and trying to recover from, and a lot of other stuff that was messed up. I spent a fair amount of time in intensive care. My nurses did not think I would survive that. I did, so I’m able to be here in New York City and talking to you. …
I had a lot of time to think on suffering because I suffered horribly. I’ve watched my wife or my mother many times making a graham cracker crust. You put that graham cracker in a Ziploc bag and you crack it up with the handle of a knife. That’s the way my body felt. I just felt crushed, crushed. I was in so much pain, Warren, I simply couldn’t move my head. I couldn’t even lift my head off the pillow. I would ask people to come and lift my head and just rub the back of my head just a little bit to get the blood flowing. I was just in that much pain.
The problem of evil and suffering is a difficult one, even for Christians. Even when I debated Christopher Hitchens, there are topics when you go on stage to debate that you’re kind of thinking, “I hope they don’t bring this up.” … I always felt like I could give a competent response to the problem of suffering, but you have to bear in mind that the critics of the Christian faith see suffering as the headshot on Christianity. How can you reconcile this belief that God is real, God is good, God is sovereign, and God allows suffering? There’s a tension between His goodness and His sovereignty and allowing suffering. Those just simply can’t go together. That’s what critics will say. …
I don’t think this is a problem in Africa or Asia or Russia. I don’t think that Christians [there] have the same kind of problem on this topic that we do. They readily accept suffering as a part of our lot in this life. I think in the West, we struggle with it in particular because we are an epicurean society. … The American dream is you spend the first 20-some-odd years of your life getting an education, a good education. Why? So you can get a good job. Why? So that you can spend the next 40-some-odd years of your life accumulating wealth. Why? So you can live comfortably and die as comfortably as possible.
If you try to understand the God of the Bible through an epicurean lens, you will understand nothing of His purposes. If, however, and I always say that a discussion on suffering isn’t complete unless you quote a Russian—
Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Like Solzhenitsyn. He said that the meaning of earthly existence lies not as we’ve grown used to thinking, that is, in prospering, but in the development of the soul. I think God’s purposes are about the development of the soul, and when you understand that, you begin to understand why he allows what he allows.
I’d like to focus on your relationship with Christopher Hitchens and a couple of defining moments in his life. One of those moments was 9/11. How did it change him? Christopher Hitchens [was] British-born, Oxford-educated. At the age of 15, he burned his Bible, declared himself an atheist, and between ’64 and 2001, you name the leftist cause, you can predict what position he would take. There couldn’t be any real doubt what his view would be of the Vietnam War or the presidency of Ronald Reagan, not at all. But in 2001, Sept. 11 set something off deep inside Christopher.
He leapt sides of the eternal conflict between left and right and he began attacking those on the left who took the standard knee-jerk reaction that the United States got what it deserved on 9/11 and that America is responsible for all the evil in the world. Christopher said that he could no longer go along with that narrative and that he was taking the side of the soldiers and the cops, to put it the way he did in an article called “Simply Evil.” I believe it was in Slate magazine. Christopher made a lot of enemies on the left as a result of that. That he changed sides was almost an unforgivable sin.
Then in 2007, he wrote God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, his New York Times bestseller. You could almost feel the collective sigh of those on the left, “Ah, this is the Christopher Hitchens we know and love.”
He stepped back from the brink, but he also began a spiritual journey. Part of his promotion for that book was to issue a challenge to people of every religious stripe that he would debate them. It wasn’t Muslims who came out in force to debate him or Hindus or Buddhists—very few Jews. It was mostly evangelical Christians who debated him. I was one of them. So Christopher found himself in the company of these people and discovered that in many cases, he liked them.
You took a couple of road trips with him, and he gave you a shot at making the case for the gospel. I challenged Christopher to a Bible study. This was after some debate somewhere, and we’re sitting in a restaurant and the debate just continued offstage into the restaurant. I don’t recall exactly what he was saying, but he was saying something outrageous, I thought, about the Bible and about Christianity. I said, “You know, Christopher, you haven’t even read it. I don’t believe you actually know the Bible. I think you’ve cherry-picked it and I think you’ve read books about it. I think you’ve read those passages on Old Testament violence and things like that, but I don’t think you’ve ever tried to actually understand the narrative. As such, I challenge you to a mutual Bible study. We’ll look at it together.” … Christopher, to his credit, took me up on the challenge.
You did that Bible study on a road trip from Washington, D.C., to Birmingham, Ala. I wanted to leave at 6 [a.m.] and Christopher ... We left, I think, around 10 [a.m.], maybe a little later, and he wanted to stop and have picnics along the way, which was funny.
He also kept a flask, right? He didn’t have a flask. He just had a glass. We loaded up enough Scotch for a battalion. Here we are, it’s Labor Day. We’re driving through the Shenandoah Valley. He has his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He has a Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch squeezed between his knees. … I’m driving, he’s reading aloud from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God.” Beautiful, that English baritone. I’d stop him occasionally, and I’d say, “Okay, let’s discuss that bit before we move on. What do you think that means?” We would go back and forth like this for hours. … What started out as my mission oddly started to feel like it was our mission. Christopher, it seemed to me, was determined that I would have my opportunity to make my case for eternity, for the truth of the gospel. We discussed it for hours on end, and he asked thoughtful questions. I did my best to answer them.
You say Christopher had a difficult relationship with his father and that that affected his relationship with Christianity. Of course, I can only speculate the degree to which that influenced him, but research like Paul Vitz’s work and in our own research at the Fixed Point Foundation in interviewing over the course of a year a number of college-age atheists, what you discovered is almost none of them—in fact, I think of those that we interviewed, only one had what might be characterized as a healthy relationship with their father and where their father led spiritually. Most of the time, in all but one case, the fathers were not particularly dedicated spiritual leaders in their home, and this was true for Christopher Hitchens.
You quote an interesting statistic about when a mother converts to Christianity. I don’t remember the exact number. When a mother converts, roughly 20 percent of the time the children do, too. When a father converts to Christianity, roughly 90 percent of the time the children do, too. It’s a rare instance that a father is a dedicated spiritual leader in his home that his children don’t also believe. In Christopher’s case, Christopher grew up inhaling deeply from the air of an Anglican church, an Anglican England, but it was largely ceremonial, wedded to the state, and had very little to do with the Bible or Jesus Christ. Christopher, I think, began to suspect his own father’s Christianity looked suspiciously like atheism.
Peter, Christopher’s younger brother, who is a well-known journalist and Christian in the U.K., told me that from occasional muttered remarks from his father, he gathered his father was an agnostic. They never heard his mother voice any religious opinions at all. Christopher was baptized in the Anglican church because it’s what English families did. It seems to me that Christopher rebelled against this because it was fraudulent, and Christopher wanted to be sincerely something. The Christianity that he was exposed to seemed to be very insincere.
Reading this book, I’d like to conclude that the relationship you had with Christoper was one of true affection and Christopher was capable of deep friendship. Martin Amis, who was Christopher’s best friend, certainly in that inner circle—and I make no claims of having been in that inner circle—but he said if you were to nail down Christopher Hitchens on an ideology, it would be friendship. That gets at the heart of my story. This title, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, isn’t meant to suggest that Christopher Hitchens had religious faith. Rather, I want to reclaim that word, “faith.” It’s always asserted it’s only religious people who have faith. Skeptics, atheists, they don’t have faith.
Of course they do. We’re all betting on something. We’re all gambling on something. Now that faith might be in Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or it might be in Cruz or Trump, in the stock market, or in Jesus Christ. We’re all putting our faith, our hope, in something. Christopher, if he’s a box you’re trying to unlock, the atheist key doesn’t work. The tumblers simply don’t line up. What is the key to unlocking him? Friendship, was a part of Christopher Hitchens’ faith.
Do you miss him? I do. I enjoyed my interactions with Christopher. My, how we could use him now because a Christian or no, Christopher would have a great deal to say about what is happening, things that he more or less predicted, with ISIS and so forth. Christopher would be appalled—not surprised, I don’t think, but appalled by how Western leaders continue to close their eyes to the dangers of Islam. I think we could certainly use his pen and his voice now.
Listen to Warren Smith’s complete conversation with Larry Taunton on Listening In.