“The Faith of Christopher Hitchens”

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Christopher Hitchens and Larry Taunton seem unlikely candidates for friendship. Hitchens was a writer and avowed atheist. Taunton is the founder of the Birmingham-based Fixed Point Foundation, an evangelical Christian organization that has sponsored debates with prominent atheists. It’s through this work the two met and became friends. Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in 2011.

Larry Taunton recently wrote a book called “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist” He spoke to WBHM’s Andrew Yeager.

Larry Taunton is founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham.
Larry Taunton is founder and executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham.

Interview highlights

On meeting Christopher Hitchens for the first time at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2007:

“I just know he’s going to hate me and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like him either. [Then] comes the knock at the door. I open it. And he spills forth into my room as though we’re continuing a conversation we’d had earlier and he said, this was the news of the day at the moment, ‘The British Army has effectively capitulated at Basra and the Archbishop of Canterbury is calling for the adoption of Sharia law. Whatever happened to a Church of England that actually believed in something?’

“And I said, ‘Christopher, you sound like a man who is nostalgic for a Church of England that actually believed the Bible.’ And in that moment, he had been looking out the window with his back to me and he wheeled and he smiled with a kind of touche sort of look and said, ‘Perhaps I do.’

“From that moment on I thought this is going to be an interesting relationship.”

 

On describing Hitchens as having “two books:”

“He spoke of himself this way as a man of two books. And it’s a metaphor, not a metaphor he invented, but it’s a metaphor he used…[He said] we’re all divided selves to some extent but it’s particularly in my case. And the metaphor two books is a reference to a kind of fraudulent bookkeeping that there’s, you know, Enron’s public accounts, the books everyone sees. Then there are the ones they don’t that tell the actual balance. And this is what Christopher meant: that there was a public manifestation of himself and a private manifestation of himself.

“I discovered the public manifestation of Christopher was everything was everything people thought that he was. He was, at least until 9/11, he was the leftist, sympathetic Marxist, fire-breathing atheist. But something went off in Christopher after 9/11…He broke with the left at a political level and said, look, I can no longer go along the knee-jerk, leftist position that America deserved 9/11 and is responsible for all the evil things in the world.

“…Then [with the publication of ‘god is Not Great’ in 2007] he told his publicist, he told his publisher, I want to debate people of every religious stripe…Most of all it was Evangelicals who tilted against him. And so the first time in his life Christopher was interacting with Evangelicals and he discovered that they weren’t all the caricature of them had portrayed them to be.

“He would give you the impression that he had equal distain for all religions. That’s just sheer nonsense…Christopher was making distinctions off stage that he wasn’t making on it.”

 

Christopher Hitchens (left) with Larry Taunton near Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park in October 2015. It was one of two road trips they took before Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in December 2011.
Christopher Hitchens (left) with Larry Taunton near Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park in October 2010. It was one of two road trips they took before Hitchens died of esophageal cancer in December 2011.

On the two road trips Taunton took with Hitchens:

“I had challenged him…to a Bible study. And I had because Christopher would, you know, after a debate or after an event or before one or whatever, we would be debating, talking. And Christopher is saying all these things about the Bible and I say, ‘Christopher, you’re always saying these things so confidently and as somebody who knows the Bible, I can tell that you don’t. I think you’ve cherry-picked it…I challenge you to a study of the Bible.

“…So here we are driving from his home in D.C. to mine here in Birmingham…Christopher is sitting in the front seat of my car. He has his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose, Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch squeezed between his knees and he’s reading aloud from the Gospel of John.

“…And I was somewhat anxious because…state troopers were everywhere and I thought, you talk about open container! We have mixed drinks and so forth in here and enough Johnnie Walker in the back for a battalion. I don’t know how many Bible studies you’ve attended where scotch was served, but this was my first, and it was highly entertaining.”

 

On Hitchens remaining an atheist to his death:

“The whole of my claim in this book is that Christopher was a man of two books, that off stage he was very different and that after his diagnosis with esophageal cancer, a diagnosis that he knew to be a death sentence, Christopher was reevaluating his religious options. Greek Orthodox, no. He was never going to consider that. Roman Catholicism, no. Judaism, perhaps. He was deeply affected late in his life by the discovery that he was Jewish on his mother’s side, something his mother kept secret the entirety of her life.

“But Protestantism and Evangelicalism had a kind of appeal to Christopher and he was exploring it. But I think the problem for him was that Christopher had created a kind of prison for himself. If your reputation is built on, just as mine is in the other direction, if your reputation is built on atheism and you have spent so much of your life in discussions like this one and on television and so forth railing against faith, it’s pretty hard to backtrack from that to admit that perhaps you’re wrong.”

 

Hear an extended interview with Larry Taunton:

Andrew Yeager

Andrew Yeager

Host/Reporter