Hitchens: A Look at a Skeptic
Christopher Hitchens (a.k.a. “Hitch”) was a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking writer and public speaker with an acerbic wit. As an iconoclast, he seemed to relish taking positions that others found shocking. Hitch, over the course of his life, migrated from Trotskyite leftism to a rogue supporter of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. If he was notorious on the Left for this post-9/11 apostasy, he was no less so on the Right for his strident atheism. Hitch became infamous as one of the “New Atheists” alongside Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, and the author of god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. (“God” with a lowercase “g,” if you please!)
Among the “four horsemen of the counter-apocalypse,” the grandiose name that he (jokingly?) bestowed upon this infidel quartet, Hitch was, to his credit, least given to the exaltation of the physical sciences. “There is … no special reason to credit ‘science’ as the father or godfather of all reason,” he wrote in the introduction to The Portable Atheist, a tome that turns out to be far more atheistic than portable. He was not so much attracted to a reductionist picture of the world, as repelled by the perceived repugnance of theism:
… who wishes that there was a permanent, unalterable celestial despotism that subjected us to continual surveillance, and could convict us of thought crime, and who regarded us as its private property even after we died? How happy we ought to be that there exists not a shred of respectable evidence to support such a horrible hypothesis. (The Portable Atheist, p. xxii)
Hitchens maintained this stance toward religion, officially at least, until his death of esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011, an outcome which he could see coming. “I suffer from stage four esophageal cancer,” he noted in the prologue of his bestselling memoir, Hitch-22, grimly adding, “There is no stage five.” Larry Taunton, one of Hitchens’s many Christian sparring partners in the years before his demise, and one of several to have developed a friendship with him, claims in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens that Hitch was much more divided in his stance toward religion than he acknowledged during their debates. Taunton boldly speculates that if Hitch had lived a few more years, he may have undergone a religious conversion.
Some dismiss the book as a cynical attempt to posthumously convert the famous atheist now that he can no longer speak for himself. Writing in the New Yorker, physicist Lawrence Krauss, another former friend of Hitchens who is himself a vocal atheist, dismisses Taunton’s claim as “absurd” and accuses Taunton of misinterpreting Hitchens’s civility—and perhaps intentionally so, with the aim of validating his own faith. A spate of one-star reviews of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens on Amazon.com echoes these allegations. One begins with: “Well, first off, is it possible to believe an evangelical christian? I don't think so.”
But, as Jake Meador at The Federalist, points out, there is little indication that Krauss has read the book. The title of Krauss’s article, “The Fantasy of the Deathbed Conversion,” and his discussion of false reports of deathbed conversions, suggest misleadingly that Taunton claims to have heard Hitchens’s deathbed conversion. True, Taunton probably overstates his case when he describes Hitchens as “teetering on belief” near the end, but that is not necessarily indicative of bad faith on Taunton’s part. From a Christian perspective, his interpretation is a charitable one. We have to take Taunton at his word when he recounts conversations the two had alone, but he makes no outlandish reports and uses corroborating sources, including the words of Hitchens himself, whenever possible.
Why should any readership care what, precisely, Hitch thought? Because, in the course of trying to answer this question, Taunton explores relationships that transcend ideological boundaries. This comes up not only with Taunton’s detailing of his own nascent friendship with Hitchens, but also in his sensitive discussion of Christopher Hitchens’s fraught relationship with his younger brother, Peter Hitchens. The younger Hitchens, who did eventually convert to Anglicanism, is a formidable writer in his own right as a columnist for Daily Mail, the conservative British tabloid. Quite understandably, Peter has at times found it difficult to be his brother’s brother.
Taunton’s discussion of Hitchens’s formative years sheds light on how people come to confidently embrace (and stubbornly maintain) worldviews in the face of intelligent disagreement. The upshot is that experience, interpretation, emotion, and character traits (not all of which are flattering) exert more influence over our beliefs than we like to admit. This is no less true of atheists like Hitch than his theist interlocutors. We are all susceptible to the illusion that the Light of Reason beams Truth directly into our cerebral cortexes, while the beliefs of others gurgle up noxiously from the primordial depths of their brain stems.
Two things seem to have fixed the broad contours of Hitch’s worldview from early on: his boarding school experiences and his unequal relationship with his parents. Boarding school, with its corporal punishment, arbitrary rules, and mandatory religiosity (or at least the mandatory spectacle of religiosity), cemented in Hitchens’s mind the connection between religion and tyranny. In Hitch-22 he claims, rather immodestly, to have come to understand totalitarianism at the age of ten. Taunton, sensing arrogance, pointedly queries whether even Hannah Arendt, author of Totalitarianism, could have reached her conclusions at that age.
Hitch was drawn to his flamboyant mother (whom he called by her first name, Yvonne) and eschewed his boring, conservative father (named Eric, but called “the Commander” by Christopher for his World War II naval service). His admiration for Yvonne did not abate even after her free spirit led to infidelity and tragedy. When Hitch was in his mid-twenties, Yvonne left his father for a lover (whom Hitchens briefly met and even, apparently, expressed approval of). In an Athens hotel, the couple carried out a suicide pact. Hitchens would recall the incident with jagged emotion for the rest of his life. Conspicuously absent from his public recollections, however, are blame, or even much criticism, for Yvonne’s reprehensible behavior, and affection for “the Commander” who bore the indignity in stoic silence.
Taunton revealingly explores Hitchens’s relationship with “the Commander” in a chapter called “Honor Thy Father.” Hitchens’s failure to respect his staid father, other than for his sinking of a Nazi warship, the Scharnhorst, before his birth, and his instinctual gravitation to his devil-may-care mother, goes some distance toward explaining why Hitchens developed the political and moral proclivities that he did. Or perhaps his innate rebelliousness is a third variable that explains both his asymmetric relationship with his parents and his social attitudes. In any event, only at the end of his life would Hitch begin to value the steady, if unexciting, virtues of his father (of which Peter is, by Hitch’s admission, the better exemplar).
The book’s weak point is Taunton’s philosophically shaky discussion of atheism. Taunton asserts that “ruthless adherence to atheism’s logic” leads to the conclusion that “morality itself is a mere illusion.” Shortly after he equates atheism with nihilism, Taunton shows the screenshot of a tweet from atheist Richard Dawkins asserting that there is a duty to have an abortion in some cases. Taunton implies that this, too, is the product of “atheism’s logic,” although it’s plainly inconsistent with the claim that atheism implies no duties whatever. Does atheism’s “ruthless logic” lead to moral inconsistencies? If so, Taunton doesn’t explain how. Nor does Taunton clearly address what may have given Hitchens confidence both in his atheism and his moralism: if as an atheist he could believe in an uncreated material order, could he not also believe in an uncreated moral order?
This criticism notwithstanding, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is far more subtle and restrained than the harsh, and sometimes unfair, reviews of it suggest. It’s bound to be a thought-provoking read for skeptics and believers alike. As a Hitch fan, I found Taunton’s recountings of his interactions with Hitchens especially rewarding. Reading the book felt, in these moments, like an unexpected visit from an old friend.
Spencer Case, a philosophy doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, contributes to National Review and other outlets. He is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a 2015 Publius fellow, and a 2012-2013 Egypt Fulbright student grantee.
Posted: January 15, 2017
Did you see this one?
The Bookman goes back to school