Deathbed conversion? Never. Christopher Hitchens was provocative all the way | Nick Cohen
OOnly a particular kind of creep could persuade me to write to a friend’s son and ask him to describe the agonies of his beloved father. I typed that he should say “I’d rather not talk about it” if he wanted to, then emailed Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens.
I sat down feeling dirty and not expecting an answer. I would not have troubled Alexander if seriously rated journalists Time and the BBC promoted a bizarre and wicked book’s claim that Christopher Hitchens was “on the edge of belief” as he lay dying of oesophageal cancer.
The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist is the work of a true fanatic, who never knew how to seize a golden opportunity to shut up. Recounting a memorial for Hitchens in New York, for example, Larry Alex Taunton has to say how much he hates the event and the mourners. “The burial, like the man himself, was largely a celebration of misanthropy, vanity and excesses of all kinds,” he intones.
Taunton says Hitchens was his “friend”, but he marks his true friends and allies against a godly checklist and finds them insufficient. The defender of the Christian faith spies on Lawrence Krauss and can’t help but call him “the cheeky little physicist Lawrence Krauss” (the professor is not only a renowned theoretical physicist but has also scientifically argued against the existence of a god or gods, ergo Taunton must be scoffing). Stephen Fry is not just an actor and writer but a “gay activist”. And Salman Rushdie becomes “the serial blasphemer Salman Rushdie”.
This last jibe gives you Taunton’s measurement. Notoriously enough, Rushdie and his translators were targeted by Ayatollah Khomeini for satirizing the founding myths of Islam. In a choice between the atheist Rushdie and the clerical murderers, Taunton the Christian instinctively decides to excuse the taboos of a deadly strain of Islam. Better to have murderous faith, it seems, than no faith at all.
The true fanatic, in religion as in politics, judges the world by a standard. Taunton dismisses Hitchens’ prodigious learning as superficial because it did not lead him to the gospel. In a section that is tasteless even by its low standards, it ridicules Christopher’s father, Eric, as a weak man, because his failure to discipline his children “contributed to his son’s disbelief”. The book ends with the construction of an anticlimax.
Like the smartest spin-docs, Taunton gets the Time and others to suggest that the man he debated and traveled with experienced a deathbed conversion without actually saying he did. Christopher looked “into the depths of eternity”, allegedly. He tipped to the edge of faith but did not, even in Taunton’s account, succumb. The naive reader suspects that, had he lived longer, Hitchens would have turned into a holy scroll.
Good taste never worried Hitchens. When someone accused him of speaking ill of the dead, however, he smiled sweetly and said he had said the same thing when they were alive. As I finished the work of Christopher’s ‘friend’ I thought that pious grave robbers never follow his lead and go public while their targets are alive because they don’t want to hear from them publicly refute.
I put the book aside last week. It seemed unnecessary to write about Taunton, since Matthew d’Ancona and Padraig Reidy had already torn it to pieces with admirable vigor. But then Alexander Hitchens responded about this “bloody book”.
During the conversion on his deathbed – I spent my father’s last weeks and days at his bedside and watched him take his last breath and die, and I can assure you that he never there was no trace of any conversion whatsoever (as I’m sure you’ve already guessed). In fact, we barely talked about religion, except for common expressions of frustration with the God-disturbers who made the rounds in intensive care and other units where the dying could be preyed upon by vulgar Christians.
I want to print what he said because lies on the web can go on forever and need to be countered. Indeed, they have always needed to be countered. In the 19th century, American believers claimed that Tom Paine died “screaming and terrified”, recanting his attacks on organized religion and the reliability of the Bible.
After the New York Observer Repeated the canard one too many times, atheist Robert Ingersoll made a big bet that he couldn’t substantiate the claim. He forced the publisher to publish a retraction titled “Thomas Paine is dead an infidel blasphemer” when he won. Charles Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, had to go to similar lengths to stop the lie that her father on his deathbed had regretted his theory of evolution gaining credibility.
One of the charges against Christopher Hitchens is that he was part of a new breed of “militant” atheists who sullied the genteel world of modern Western culture. Almost everyone who coined the term worried about the moral equivalence they were establishing between men and women, who only used the power of language, and a wave of truly militant religion that crushed lives, sexually enslaved women and modernized medieval prejudices. Nor did they reflect that “faith-based” political action, from Rushdie to 9/11 to the Islamic State, imposed a moral obligation on atheists to adopt a more robust.
I’m delighted to say that Taunton’s only accomplishment is to show us that, in death, Hitchens provided an additional reason for militant rejection of religion: his creepiness.
It is natural for a religious movement to rejoice in the conversion of a declared enemy. If the reviewer is of sound mind and body, I will not oppose it. Deathbed confessions are another matter, even if they are true. It is crummy in the extreme to demand retractions from people whose minds are failing and whose bodies are twisted with pain. The deathbed is the last place we will see. This should be the last place the vultures fly to demand that we give a sober account of our beliefs.
No doubt the desire of believers to go further and to invent conversions where none existed satisfies their infantile need for magical outcomes. But when they tell lies about the corpses of Paine, Darwin and now Hitchens, they go from extremely seedy to scary: from vultures to vampires.