What does it mean to state with confidence that you know someone’s disposition at death, especially if he is an avowed and public atheist? This question occurs to me because I have recently read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton, published in 2016. The title is slightly misleading – Hitchens was not a man of faith in any formal sense – but it is qualified by the subtitle: “The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist”. That Hitchens had a “restless soul” is not in doubt when one reads this slim memoir.
Taunton met Hitchens, who died of cancer in 2011, in 2008. He is an evangelical Christian from Alabama, director of Fixed Point Foundation, dedicated to the public defence of the Christian faith. Their friendship sounds unlikely, given Hitchens’ famed hostility to religious faith, but the reader has no reason to doubt the genuine respect and liking the two men felt for each other, related in this straightforward account of two road trips they took together after Hitchens’ diagnosis.
It is very tempting for a person much in the eye of the media to live and act according to their perceived public persona – in Hitchens’ case, as someone consistently at enmity with faith. Such a persona, abetted by resolutely secular friends, can hide the human being behind it. In unguarded private moments, so different from his public, guarded ones, Hitchens admitted to one of Taunton’s sons that he longed “for a higher love.” He was also very drawn to the language of the King James Bible that he had encountered at school; a man for whom the effective employment of words were his trade, he implicitly recognised its depth, its power and its richness.
Taunton also refers to Hitchens’ changed political position after 9/11. His Left-wing assumptions, common to his circle of friends and to western culture in general, were shaken. Unlike his Left-wing friends, he was too honest and perceptive to explain away the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre as the result of economic poverty or western colonial imperialism. He told Taunton “Man is unquestionably evil” – a conclusion, as Hitchens knew, that had theological implications.
Hitchens was also, unusually for someone with his public profile, pro-life. He abhorred the views of the Australian academic Peter Singer, who has advocated infanticide, remarking “There is something in me that is not prepared to equate a child with a piglet.”
On his road trips with Taunton, the two men read and debated chapters from St John’s Gospel: Hitchens sometimes ironical and challenging, but also listening, querying and pondering. Taunton characterises him as “a searcher”, able to admit that the Christian belief in life after death “is not without appeal to a dying man” – though the author is clear that Hitchens demonstrated no dramatic deathbed conversion.
What does this memoir tell us? That people are much more complex than the stances and soundbites that bring them celebrity; and that when they face a diagnosis such as Hitchens received, and are forced to contemplate “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”, they can no longer be easily claimed in order to bolster the comfortable assumptions of the living.