Slander: Hitchens did not consider converting to Christianity on his deathbed

I didn’t think this post would be necessary, as there’s been a lot of good writing about it, but I want to set the record straight. It concerns Alex Taunton’s new book in which he claims Christopher was considering a deathbed conversion to Christianity. The article below from  Patheos, is a good one and includes a comment from Christopher’s wife, Carol Blue. But first my thoughts:

It is unfortunate that Larry Alex Taunton, in his new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, is claiming that Christopher was considering a deathbed conversion. This is not true as this post, and the article in Patheos will show.  So why did he write it?  It could be that Mr. Taunton wishes it were true, and is projecting.  More likely however, is that the author has a vested interest in claiming a conversion. The organization Mr Taunton founded and is the Executive Director for, The Fixed Point Foundation, states “Our mission is to defend and proclaim the Gospel in the secular marketplace”.  This is not someone who can be objective. Is it coincidence that his claims would also fulfill the mission of his organization? And of course, book sales.

How do we know his claims are not true?  First, Hitchens, on more than one occasion,   warned us that the faithful may try to claim this for him, as they have done throughout history in the case of other non-believers (always, conveniently when the person /victim can not refute the claims).  Second, we know what Hitchens was thinking right up until his death, as he was of sound mind and wrote about his thoughts. These were collected for the book “Mortality“.There is not only, no proclamation of a conversion, but there is not even a whiff of uncertainty in his writing, something I suspect we would find if he was at all unsure of his positions. And third, this article from Patheos discusses the matter and provides a quote from Carol Blue, Christopher’s wife:
REPRINTED FROM PATHEOS

Christopher Hitchens Didn’t “Contemplate Conversion” on His Deathbed
April 20, 2016 by Hemant Mehta

A new book by Larry Alex Taunton, called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, suggests that Hitchens was “contemplating conversion” near the end of his life, though he never actually made that leap:

“I discovered Christopher is not defined by his atheism,” Taunton said. “Atheism is a negative and you can’t build a philosophy around a negative. Christopher was searching for a unifying system of thought. They’re accusing me of saying he converted. I make no such claim. It’s not my claim that Christopher converted, it’s that Christopher was contemplating conversion. I think I substantiate it in the book.“

That’s quite a claim — especially considering that the evidence we’ve seen from Christian media sources suggests that the substantiation boils down to nothing more than “Hitchens was friends with some Christian apologists.”
Who would you trust more? Christian apologists who have everything to gain by spreading a lie that can’t be refuted by the man himself… or his wife, Carol Blue, who was at his side when he died?

When he revealed his sorry physical state, discussion raged over whether he would have a death-bed conversion and embrace religion for solace or salvation.
That never happened, said Ms. Blue.
“He lived by his principles until the end. To be honest, the subject of God didn’t come up.”

Hitchens also addressed the topic during an interview with Anderson Cooper not long before his death:

COOPER: In a moment of doubt… there might be a moment when you want to hedge your bets.
HITCHENS: If that comes, it will be when I am very ill; when I am half demented, either by drugs or by pain. I won’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on, because these things happen and the faithful love to spread these rumors. I can’t say that the entity, that by then wouldn’t be me, wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing. But I can tell you that… not when I’m lucid, no. I can be quite sure of that.
COOPER: So if there is some story that on your deathbed–
HITCHENS: –Don’t believe it.

One commenter on a Christian website noted, “If Christopher Hitchens had a deathbed conversion it is because he asked for a priest and converted the priest to atheism.”
That’s clever, but Hitchens actually took it a step further. Among the final thoughts recorded in his book Mortality was this brutal gem:
If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist does.
Damn. He wasn’t thinking about becoming a Christian in his final days. He was thinking about the best ways to roast them.
There’s no evidence whatsoever that the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything ever believed God might be great and religion ain’t as bad as I thought.
If you want to give Taunton the benefit of the doubt, it’s that Hitchens spoke about religion so frequently that his conversations about faith led even people close to him to believe he took it seriously.
But that’s being too generous to Taunton, who appears to be cashing in on his friendship with Hitchens by invoking the old Christian trope that assumes decent people who didn’t accept Christ during their lives must surely have accepted Him at the last possible moment.
Hitchens was a lot of things, but shy about his opinions wasn’t one of them. If he had converted, even at the end of his life, he would’ve been shouting about it from the rooftops of the hospital. He would’ve found a way to make sure the world knew about it.
He sure as hell wouldn’t have used Taunton as an intermediary.
***Update***: Kimberly Winston of Religion News Service has some strong reactions to this controversy from people who knew Hitchens well:
Steve Wasserman, who was Hitchens’ friend for 30 years, co-executor of his estate and with Hitchens’ family, at his death, called the book’s claims “petty” and “appalling” when they were read to him.
“I am not in the position to dispute the what Taunton says were private conversations,” he said by phone from New Haven, Conn., where he is executive editor-at-large for Yale University Press. “But I really think it is a shabby business. It reveals a lack of respect. This is not a way to debate Christopher Hitchens’ beliefs — to report unverifiable conversations, which amazingly contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.”

And Michael Shermer, an atheist and founder of Skeptic magazine, who read the book’s manuscript and liked its description of the friendship between the two men — enough to give it a favorable jacket blurb — said Taunton’s claims of Hitchens’ flirtation with conversion were “exaggerated.”

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Yes, Christopher was once a child

 

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Peter (left) and Christopher Hitchens

It’s hard sometimes to imagine that this man of great mind, wit and humor, who could be quite fierce in a debate, was once an innocent little child. These pictures are from a 2011 Daily Mail article written by Christopher’s brother, Peter. He is a journalist living in London and he generously made time to meet with when I was visiting last June.  I wrote about the experience in a posting, Meeting the Other Hitch.

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The Brothers Hitchens

 

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Me and Peter in London after patronizing the local Starbucks (June 2015). See posting

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HITCH!

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Happy Birthday Hitch!

Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England and he died on December 15, 2011, in Houston, Texas.  He would have been 67 years old today. If you are a drinker, it would be most appropriate to toast him with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black.

New Book: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

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Tomorrow, April 12th, one day before Christopher’s birthday,marks the release of a new book about the man, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist“. I just saw an interview with the author, Larry Alex Taunton, on Hardball with Chris Matthews. Taunton is an author, columnist, contributor to The Atlantic, and the Executive Director of the Fixed Point Foundation, a non-profit which  is dedicated to the public defense of the Christian faith. He was also a good friend of Hitch and they made two road trips together subsequent to Hitch’s grim diagnosis. In the Matthews interview, Taunton described driving through a national park with Hitch (who was enjoying a glass of Johnnie Walker Black) discussing the bible. The picture above is a screenshot used in the interview. Taunton indicated to Chris Matthews that he thought Christopher was exploring his faith in the time they spent together. I don’t know what he means by that, but I’m looking forward to reading the book.

 

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Hitchens to the Rescue (at least on Ann Coulter)

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Recently irritated by a stance taken by Ann Coulter,  I searched the web to see if she and Hitch ever crossed paths. The occasion for my irritation was her appearance on TV last week where she defended Donald Trump’s campaign manager, who was arrested for assaulting a female reporter at a rally. I thought she bulldozed over both the weak host and a guest who was brought on to provide the opposing view. It was one of those times where I wished Hitchens was the opponent, as he would have, I imagined, really stuck it to her with a scathing argument. With a quick search I found that he had not only met Ms. Coulter, but had reviewed one of  her books, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” for The Liberal. Hitchens did not disappoint with his review:

 

Reprinted from The Liberal

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TRY sipping this single sentence and then rolling it around your tongue and palate for a while:

If Hitler hadn’t turned against their beloved Stalin, liberals would have stuck by him, too.

Well, I am being paid to parse and ponder that statement and I don’t understand it, either. Does it intend to say that liberals loved Hitler but drew the line at his invasion of the Soviet Union? Should it, rather, be interpreted as meaning that liberals were in love with Stalin but jumped ship when he was attacked by Hitler? It is remarkable to find so much intellectual and syntactical chaos in an assertion that contains no more than fifteen words.

But then, I have the distinct feeling that people do not buy Ann Coulter’s creed-screeds and speed-reads in order to enhance their knowledge of history or their command of syllogism. She has emerged as a persona because she has mastered the politics of resentment, and because she can combine the ideology of Human Events (the obscure ‘Joe McCarthy was right’ magazine) with the demand of the chat-show bookers for a tall blonde with a very rapid delivery on a wide range of subjects. The cover of this book – which follows the success of its forerunners Treason and Slander: titles that require little elucidation – shows her in a low-cut black dress with a prominent crucifix dangling over a modest cleavage. The needs of showbiz notwithstanding, I cannot fathom the reason for this slight come-hitherishness. Miss Coulter is not married and ought therefore, by her own loudly-proclaimed standards, to be a virgin and to remain so until further notice.

I used to know her slightly during the days when we both believed, for different reasons, that Bill Clinton was unfit to be President. I well remember her shock and anguish when Paula Jones, whose lawsuit had initiated the impeachment meltdown, posed in the buff for an inexpensive men’s magazine. I took the view that even a bad girl has the right not to be crudely importuned by her politician boss, but Miss Coulter seemed deeply and genuinely shocked: she had believed all along that Paula was a fragrant young thing, quite innocent of the vile nature of the male animal; and it is this innocence of her own, I think, for which she attempts to compensate by adopting a tough-guy (yes, I do mean to say ‘guy’) manner.

Here is another instance of the sheer incoherence that results from a mixture of feigned rage and low sarcasm:

If liberals are on Red Alert with one born-again Christian in the cabinet of a Christian president, imagine how they would react if there were five. Between 25 and 45 percent of the population calls itself “born-again” or “evangelical” Christian. Jews make up less than 2 per cent of the nation’s population, and yet Clinton had five in his cabinet. He appointed two to the Supreme Court. Now guess which administration is called a neoconservative conspiracy? Whether Jews or Christians, liberals are always on a witch hunt against people who appear to believe in God.

Again, and quite aside from its junk statistics (that space “between 25 and 45 per cent” appears to involve quite a margin of error) and its junk statistical comparisons (does Coulter really want me to name all the Jews who serve on President Bush’s foreign-policy team?), this passage seems to license the ultra-left and ultra-right innuendo that the terms ‘neoconservative’ and ‘Jew’ are interchangeable. The intellectual disgrace of this is self-evident, and so is its vulgar ignorance: say what you will about Leo Strauss, he did not even “appear” to believe in any deity. More noticeable, though, is the way that the abject confusion, with its resounding non sequitur of a concluding sentence, impels her to the negation of her own supposed “argument”. These are the pitfalls that are set by spite and by haste, and Coulter topples leggily into them every time.

Since her books always pull enough of a crowd to put them on the bestseller list, the editors and fact-checkers at her publishing house evidently go on vacation when the manuscripts float in. For all her show of biblical learning, she does not know the meaning of the word “shibboleth”, for example. She attacks those who seek “the removal of ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance”, when the case is that the Pledge should be restored to its original form, which did not include those two words. Are not conservatives supposed to manifest great respect for ‘original intent’? And then there’s the crass choice of words:

If Democrats ever dared speak coherently about what they believe, the American people would lynch them.

Leave aside the fact that most of what Coulter adduces is taken straight from the very mouths of Democrats who are coming right out with it, and notice the clumsy elision that interchanges “liberal”, “Democrat” and “Left”(and skip over the unironic use of the word “coherently”), the term to avoid here would have been “lynch”. Never to be employed flippantly, this expression has a real-time and real-life significance, which was felt very onerously in quite recent memory. Its disappearance, and the abolition of what went with it, is admittedly not due to “Democrats”, who ran Dixie as a private fief for far too long, but does redound very much to the credit of those American liberals and – even worse! – leftists who provided most of the energy of the Civil Rights movement. The umbrella group in this campaign was even called the ‘Southern Christian Leadership Conference’, not that this prevented many secularists and atheists from participating in it. Finally, I think we can safely say that Dr Martin Luther King “appeared” to believe in god. So, slice it as you will, Coulter finds herself inventing new ways in which to be wrong.

As it goes on, the book begins to seem more like typing than writing, and its demonstration of the relationship between poor language and crude ideas becomes more overt:

Assuming you aren’t a fetus, the Left’s most dangerous belief is their adoration of violent criminals.

Well, as I try to teach my students, if you write that “as a young man, my grandmother used to read to me”, you slightly insult your grandmother by stating that she used to be a young man. It’s not that hard to make the assumption Coulter demands here – that you are neither the Left nor a fetus – but the dangler is complemented in the same sentence by an inability to associate a singular Left with its supposed adoration of violent criminals. Some right-wingers has a marked tendency to make this mistake.

Shall I be fair? Coulter was trained as a lawyer, and she does have an understanding of the rules of evidence. There is one quite strong passage where she exposes, with some forensic wit, the bogus claims made by the conceited Joseph Wilson about his dealings with Niger. Just for once, she mostly lets the record speak for itself, and thus allows the indictment of those liberals who fell for Wilson to occur, as it were, naturally. With the help of some (generously acknowledged) right-wing clippings-services and quote-providers, she has no difficulty in highlighting various jaw-dropping remarks made by feminists, ‘pro-choice’ types, Hollywood narcissists and the more Malthusian ‘environmentalist’ faction. She re-opens the case of Willie Horton, the exploitation of whose story has become a fetish among liberals, and forces the reader to reconsider. If it matters, I am with her on the tepid climate of moral and political relativism which, while it wants all children to do equally well at exam time, also regards the United States as no worse than the Taliban and thus, by an unspoken logic, as no better. But a polemic against this mentality cannot really be written by a McCarthyite.

The closing chapters are lifted from the brief submitted by the absurdly-named ‘intelligent design’ school to a recent trial in the town of Dover, Pennsylvania. Not so long ago, when the voice of liberalism was muted, the ‘Creationists’ – to give them their correct name – sought to forbid the teaching of evolution. Now that they no longer feel confident enough to impose themselves in this manner, they have fallen back on a spurious ‘equal time’ plea, whining that pseudo-science should be taught, in the name of ‘fairness’, alongside the real thing. In the Pennsylvania case, as in other recent trials in Ohio and Kansas, not only were the Creationist members of the school board thrown out by voters, but it was decided by the courts that the proposed teaching of ‘intelligent design’ was (a) a violation of the United States Constitution; and (b) a fraudulent waste of time for both teachers and judges. (By the way, it seems to me that these outcomes ought to alter the picture, beloved by so many European liberals, of the United States as a wasteland of fundamentalist knuckle-draggers). Coulter, the super-patriot and flag-waver, is a true reactionary in that she yearns for the time when the keyword of her title, as in ‘Godless Communism’, was a mantra for the simple-minded. In a world where the true enemies of civilization are much, much more godly than the blonde goddess of the hard Right, Coulter is reduced to a blitzing of soft civilian targets – one redeemed only by its built-in tendency to fall so wide of the mark.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.