“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.” ~ Christopher Hitchens
At the time of his death, Christopher Hitchens was the most notorious atheist in the world. And yet, all was not as it seemed. “Nobody is not a divided self, of course,” he once told an interviewer, “but I think it’s rather strong in my case.” Hitchens was a man of many contradictions: a Marxist in youth who longed for acceptance among the social elites; a peacenik who revered the military; a champion of the Left who was nonetheless pro-life, pro-war-on-terror, and after 9/11 something of a neocon; and while he railed against God on stage, he maintained meaningful—though largely hidden from public view—friendships with evangelical Christians like Francis Collins, Douglas Wilson, and the author Larry Alex Taunton.
In The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, Taunton offers a very personal perspective of one of our most interesting and most misunderstood public figures. Writing with genuine compassion and without compromise, Taunton traces Hitchens’s spiritual and intellectual development from his decision as a teenager to reject belief in God to his rise to prominence as one of the so-called “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism. While Hitchens was, in the minds of many Christians, Public Enemy Number One, away from the lights and the cameras a warm friendship flourished between Hitchens and the author; a friendship that culminated in not one, but two lengthy road trips where, after Hitchens’s diagnosis of esophageal cancer, they studied the Bible together. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens gives us a candid glimpse into the inner life of this intriguing, sometimes maddening, and unexpectedly vulnerable man.
“This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth.”
Michael Shermer, publisher, Skeptic magazine
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The Faith of Christopher Hitchens
The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist
By Larry Alex Taunton
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Larry Alex Taunton
All rights reserved.
A Requiem for Unbelief
The late left-polemicist Christopher Hitchens, who died aged 62 in December , would be amused by the memorial arrangements made on his behalf by Vanity Fair magazine, for which he wrote. Hoi polloi are excluded from the strictly-event, at Cooper Union school in New York, on April 20 . Organisers feared the carefully-occasion would be over-by unglamorous Hitchens followers.
— Daily Mail
It was a day perfectly suited to a wedding. The sun shone brightly in Manhattan's East Village as people enjoyed brunch conversation at fashionable sidewalk cafes or ambled along with their dogs beneath the leafy trees of a nearby park. Others, more purposeful, strode by with the look of people who knew exactly where they were going. Weaving in and out of it all were bicyclists and joggers who could be seen in greater numbers than in the chilly, gray days preceding this one. Everything about this moment pulsated with life.
The occasion, however, was death.
My son, Michael, who was then in his first year at Yale Law School, had traveled the eighty miles or so from New Haven to meet me. Together we finished our coffee and watched as a line formed outside of the Great Hall of The Cooper Union. Nothing about these people suggested that death was the reason for their gathering. The crowd, growing steadily in number, chatted affably, invariably asking one other, "So how did you know Hitch?"
Joining the queue, I looked for familiar faces. Seeing none, I asked a bespectacled white-man to confirm that we were at the right place.
"Yes, this is it." He looked around. "Hitch would choose this."
Cooper Union, a small college for "the Advancement of Science and Art," was indeed Christopher's kind of place. In addition to being sufficiently pretentious — presidents and public intellectuals have given addresses there — founder of the college, philanthropist Peter Cooper, had been a Unitarian. In other words, Peter Cooper was more or less an atheist.
The conversation meandered and, running out of things to say, I defaulted to the same question as everyone else: "What was your connection to Christopher?"
"Like Hitch, I'm a journalist. Our paths crossed a lot over the last thirty years, though less so these days, since I now live on the West Coast. Truth is, I didn't like him very much." He laughed and looked around to see if anyone had heard him. He leaned in conspiratorially, whispering, "I just came to see the celebrities." He smiled again.
I nodded, but couldn't help recoiling a bit. I didn't like it. A man was dead and another man had traveled across the country to sample the food and take selfies with the stars.
The doors to the Great Hall finally opened, and attractive young ladies in black dresses checked the names of those filing in against those on their clipboards. The invitation list included the glamorous, the literati, and the intellectual elite. Many were Oxonians and Cantabrigians of Christopher's generation, people who knew the words to "L'Internationale" and believed them. As people milled about looking for the perfect seat, sixties' songs of protest filled the hall, invoking memories of an era many in this select group remembered as the best of times.
Seeing Christopher's daughter standing in the back, I fought the crowd and moved in her general direction. Then a student at Columbia University, Antonia is a sweet and wholesome-girl who might easily blend in with a Southern churchgoing crowd of similar age. The irony of that was never lost on me.
"I haven't seen you since I made crêpes with Nutella for you and my dad," she cheerfully recalled, embracing me.
"And strawberries," I added, trying to keep the mood light.
Now some four months after her father's passing, she seemed to be in as good a spirit as one could expect. She received my condolences graciously and then broke off to greet others. Watching her, I remembered the death of my own father, a man not so different from Christopher Hitchens, and how terribly confusing that felt. Leaving her to fulfill her social duty, I turned and looked for Michael, who was now seated.
To call it "The Great Hall" is a misnomer. It is a windowless basement whose ceiling is supported by large columns that obscure one's view of the stage at several angles. The mood of the occasion was one of summoning the presence of Christopher Hitchens in the aura of a secular spirituality. As the auditorium filled, photographs of Christopher scrolled on three screens. If there was a theme to the images, the music, the event, it was rebellion. The photographs often depicted a young Christopher protesting Vietnam, getting arrested, or generally fighting the establishment — of which are essentially the same thing. But there were hints of something else.
"Recognize that?" Michael asked, indicating the song then playing.
"Yeah. It's Steve Winwood's 'Higher Love.' It doesn't fit with the other songs."
"Oh, but it does," he said with a knowing smile. "Hitchens once told me that it was his favorite song. He said, 'I know, I know, young Taunton, I admit it has evangelical overtones. But I do long for a higher love.'"
"When did he tell you that?"
"When we went to Little Bighorn Battlefield together. Don't you remember? You couldn't go."
Before I could reply, eulogists, thirty in all, began taking the stage as "Higher Love" gave way to Eric Clapton's "Knocking on Heaven's Door." It was an unusual assemblage: the lovely actress Olivia Wilde and the smarmy little physicist Lawrence Krauss; essayist and serial blasphemer Salman Rushdie and scientist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins; and actor/activist Sean Penn and biographer Douglas Brinkley — that was not all. Playwright Tom Stoppard, novelist Ian McEwan, poet James Fenton, actor and homosexual activist Stephen Fry, UK journalist (and brother of the deceased) Peter Hitchens — were all there, too.
The funeral, like the man himself, was largely a celebration of misanthropy, vanity, and excesses of every kind. One by one, participants approached the lectern and read from one of Christopher's many writings. Each speaker was given three minutes. Predictably, Sean Penn read from a column on Vietnam; filmmaker Leslie Cockburn chose a piece on the insanity of Ronald Reagan; publisher Cary Goldstein shared Christopher's intemperate views on drinking; and Stephen Fry extolled the joys of (homosexual) anal sex and so on.
Some read with the solemnity one expects on these occasions. Others, more conflicted perhaps, attempted something of an intellectual postmortem. Twice eulogists, in a tone suggesting embarrassment on their dead hero's behalf, referred to Hitch's "curious pro-stance" on Iraq. An inconsistency in their minds and a disappointment to most in the audience, Christopher was soon forgiven, however, as readings on the courage of atheism and the beauty of science reminded them of the Hitch they loved and understood. A further inconsistency was Christopher's friendships with evangelicals like Francis Collins and me. Numerous times they spoke of Hitch as "a contradiction." Nods and whispers from the audience indicated agreement. Were these readings meant to honor the man for whom they would make a place in the pantheon of secular heroes? Or were they meant to reassure the living that in death he was who they psychologically needed him to be?
Whatever their intentions, the ceremony made it all too clear that Christopher Hitchens's life would make for a lousy biography. Biographies, at least the good ones, contain some element of surprise, some unexpected wrinkle in the story line. One can find little that satisfies this criterion for most of Christopher's life.
Between 1964 — the year that he, as a fifteen-boy, declared himself an atheist — September 11, 2001 — a date that changed America and, if his autobiography is to be believed, Christopher Hitchens — mind was fixed. One need only name the social or political issue of this period and he was there to take up the liberal cause with other standard bearers of the Left. Could there be any real suspense regarding what his position would be on, say, Vietnam or the presidency of Ronald Reagan? Not in the least. Hence, a Christopher Hitchens biography would be largely predictable.
Except for the ending.
Of the many things said of Christopher Hitchens at the extraordinary occasion that was his funeral, the words of Ian McEwan got nearer to the heart of the matter than any there spoken: "All atheists can't live for long just being against something, they have to speak for what makes life worth living. And in a couple of conversations I had with Hitch, I felt that this was stirring in his mind."
Indeed, it was.
"Our freedom is built on what others do not know of our existences," wrote the late Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Of no one could this be more truly said than of Christopher Hitchens. This was, after all, a man who spoke of "keeping two sets of books" for two very real aspects of his personality and beliefs, both held concurrently and in deep contradiction; a book for each of his existences — public, the other private.
"Why do you think I don't believe?" Christopher asked me shortly after his diagnosis with the disease that he then knew would kill him. His tone was marked by a sincerity that wasn't typical of the man. Not on this subject anyway. A lifetime of rebellion against God had brought him to a moment where he was staring into the depths of eternity, teetering on the edge of belief.
"Do you really want to know?" I replied, warning him that he might not like my answer.
You see, in one manifestation of himself, Christopher Hitchens was everything the people in this room thought him to be: a radical Leftist, sympathetic Marxist, and militant atheist. But in another, more carefully guarded and secret book, Christopher Hitchens was something altogether different. And therein lies the remarkable plot twist in the tale that is Christopher Hitchens's life.CHAPTER 2
The Making of an Atheist
"You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins have you never had the courage to commit."
— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
As I indicated in the prologue, this book is not a biography of Christopher Hitchens. My objective is not to recount his life, but to give some account for his soul. That said, a brief summary and interpretation of Christopher's life up to the time that I first met him might be helpful not only to those who don't know much about him, but also for those who think they do.
Unfortunately, our primary source for the life of Christopher Hitchens is ... Christopher Hitchens. "Every autobiographer must secretly believe he has triumphed in life," wrote playwright Arthur Miller. Christopher Hitchens believed he had indeed triumphed, and his memoir, Hitch22, is his unabashed statement that he no longer wished to keep it a secret. Probably not since St. Augustine, however, has an autobiographer written with a superabundance of honesty. The autobiographical narrator simply cannot be trusted. Obama invented a girlfriend in his memoir; James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was exposed as a total fabrication; and NBC News anchor Brian Williams falsely claimed that he was on a military helicopter when it took enemy fire. "The heart is deceitful above all things," declared the prophet. It certainly is. We cannot help but magnify our achievements while minimizing our failures. With that in mind, we begin our review of Christopher Hitchens's life.
* * *
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949, the first son of Eric Ernest and Yvonne Jean Hitchens. His father was from a decidedly Protestant (Calvinist Baptist) middle-family. In socially stratified Britain, Eric nonetheless managed to advance the family's fortunes through a solid career in the Royal Navy, eventually attaining the rank of commander. The pinnacle of Eric's career came when he participated in the sinking of a German battle cruiser, the Scharnhorst, the anniversary of which was celebrated annually in the Hitchens home.
Christopher's mother's social background is more complicated. Though Yvonne was descended from people of some means, the family fell on hard times, necessitating that she and her sister be farmed out to sympathetic relatives. She never forgot this humiliation. Acutely aware of social expectations, Yvonne often pretended to be what she was not. So much so, that it was only after her death that Christopher learned that she was of Jewish ancestry, a fact she kept secret the whole of her life. In 1951, Yvonne gave birth to another son, Peter, thus completing the Hitchens family.
According to Christopher, his parents both envied and admired the rich, a trait that was certainly passed down to him. They were, by all accounts, very different from one another. Politically, Eric was a Tory when Yvonne was a Liberal; he was boring and dutiful, while she, some twelve years his junior, was lively and adventurous; and he was quiet and disengaged where she was socially ambitious. Eric once observed that his time in the navy was "the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing." Judging from events that were yet in the distant future, Yvonne agreed with this assessment. As may be expected, their marriage was not a happy one. Hitchens's assessment of his parents' relationship was bluntly pragmatic: "I've wondered all my life why my parents married."
Christopher thought his early family life was generally very bleak and tension-filled. His parents had him baptized in the Church of England, but it seems that neither Eric nor Yvonne possessed any real religious convictions. "I've no idea whether my mother had any religious views or not," Christopher's brother, Peter, told me. "We never discussed it at home. As far as I could gather from occasional muttered remarks, my father was a sort of agnostic who had a lot of very strict Calvinism rammed down his throat when he was a child and he was reacting against it." Rather than a Christian sacramental act, Christopher's baptism seems to have been part of what his parents considered a good English upbringing. Thus began his introduction to religion: never committed, seldom deep, and always on the margins.
There is no doubt that Yvonne was the bright spot in Christopher's early life and, according to his memoir anyway, the feeling was mutual. Christopher, at least, was certain that he was his mother's favorite, and liked to say so. Taking it upon herself to advance her son's social and career prospects, she declared, "If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it." Peter doubts the authenticity of Christopher's somewhat self-promotional assertion on these points: "My parents never showed the slightest favoritism." Be it imagined or not, that Christopher remembers his relationship with his mother in this light is revealing. One detects in many of his writings an inflated sense of self-Whether it's insinuating that Margaret Thatcher was sexually attracted to him or incessantly talking about "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day," Christopher was always Christopher's favorite, whatever his mother's feelings about him.
The Hitchenses were not wealthy, but they made the requisite sacrifices to provide their boys with a proper education. Following the pattern of the English middle class upward, Christopher was sent off to boarding school at age eight. His description of this period is hardly the stuff of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Winston Churchill, who attended similar English boarding schools three-of a century earlier, wrote no more favorably of them: "But now a much worse peril began to threaten. I was to go to school ... Much that I had heard about school had made a distinctly disagreeable impression on my mind, an impression, I may add, thoroughly borne out by the actual experience."
Hitchens would spend five years at Mount House School, outside of Tavistock in West Devon. It was not the worst of the prep schools, but it introduced Christopher to the well-triple debasement of "Beating, Bullying, and Buggery [i.e., homosexuality]." According to Hitchens, he there encountered an authoritarian regime that was arbitrary and capricious. He describes thrashings and threats, sudden thundering accusations and sweating inquisitions, and a heavy air of suspicion that hung over young boys who were made to feel continually guilty and condemned whether they were innocent or not, or even aware of having committed any crime.
Hitchens's characterization of daily life at Mount House is bleak:
"I wore corduroy shorts in all weathers ... slept in a dormitory with open windows, began every day with a cold bath ... wolfed lumpy porridge for breakfast, attended compulsory divine service every morning and evening, and kept a diary in which — a special code — recorded the number of times when I was left alone with a grown-man, who was perhaps four times my weight and five times my age, and bent over to be thrashed with a cane."
Excerpted from The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton. Copyright © 2016 Larry Alex Taunton. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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Table of Contents
A Requiem for Unbelief, 1,
The Making of an Atheist, 7,
Intellectual Weapons, 18,
Two Books, 28,
Honor Thy Father, 39,
September 11th, 67,
The Atheist Heretic, 93,
3:10 to Yuma, 112,
The Shenandoah, 118,
The Last Debate, 136,
The Abyss, 161,
Epilogue: The Struggle for the Body of Christopher Hitchens, 170,
About the Author, 201,