Jews, often in response to those who want to “convert” them to another religion, have a common retort: “I was born a Jew, and I will die a Jew.” Fair enough, if one could actually be born a Jew (the long debate of what is a Jew will not be entertained here) any more than one can be born a Unitarian, a Pentecostal Free Will Baptist, or a Hinayana Buddhist.
If, however, anyone could have claimed to be born atheist, it would have been the late Christopher Hitchens. And though to say that he was “born” one is, of course, a big stretch, Hitchens nevertheless got his atheism early, honestly—and it appeared to have stuck right to the bitter end, at 62, when he died in 2011 of esophageal cancer.
On the other hand, a new book out by an evangelical friend of Hitchens’ claims that things were a bit more nuanced, at least in private, with Hitchens, one of the world’s best-known atheist apologists, and that he was more open to faith than his public persona dared let on to.
Either way, the story of Christopher Hitchens, his life, his atheism, his activism, touch on some larger issues, especially now when, in a post-cold war world, religious tensions are running higher than ever, tensions that could have some unexpected consequences in regard to religious freedom in an increasingly divided and fractious world.
The Early Years
Christopher Hitchens was born in post-World War II England, in 1949, the older of two boys. His childhood, he said, had been dominated by two themes, both political: the recent and costly defeat of the Nazis, and the evacuation and loss of the colonies England could no longer afford to maintain, which could help explain the political activism that engaged him most of his life. His father had been an officer in the Royal Navy, on board the H.M.S. Jamaica, which helped sink the German battleship Schamhorst in the Battle of the North Cape, the one event that, according to Christopher Hitchens, was about the only remarkable thing his father ever did. Christopher often referred to him, in not the most endearing manner, as “the Commander.”
He was much fonder of his mother, Yvonne. However, when Hitchens was in his 20s, his mother informed him and his brother that she was leaving their father. As if that weren’t bad enough, at the same time she also told him that she had had two abortions, one before Christopher had been born and one after his birth. Wrote Hitchens: “The one after I could bring myself to think of with equanimity, or at least some measure of equanimity, whereas the one before felt a bit too much like a close shave or a near-miss, in respect of moi.”
Perhaps this knowledge of how close he came to being aborted helped explain why Hitchens, though liberal politically, took an anti-abortion stance.
Sadly, his mother committed suicide with a lover in a hotel room in Athens, Greece. “She took an overdose of sleeping pills,” he wrote, “perhaps washed down with a mouthful or two of alcohol, while he—whose need to die must have been very great—took an overdose with booze also and, to make assurance doubly sure, slashed himself in a hot bath. I shall never be sure what depth of misery had made this outcome seem to her the sole recourse: on the hotel’s switchboard record were several attempted calls to my number in London which the operator had failed to connect. Who knows what might have changed if Yvonne could have heard my voice even in her extremity? I might have said something to cheer or even tease her: something to set against her despair and perhaps give her a momentary purchase against the death wish.”
For someone who didn’t believe in God already, something like this could, of course, only harden that sentiment.
Though he had been baptized in the Church of England as a child, it had been just a ritual, part of what was considered a good English upbringing, even if no one in the Hitchens home at that time took it seriously. His upbringing was decidedly secular, and religious faith was rarely talked about, if at all, and often with, if not outright disdain, then at least irrelevance. His father, he said, had been an agnostic, turned off to faith by the rigidity and legalism of his Church of England upbringing.
Thus, from the start Christopher Hitchens had no inclination, at least from family influences, toward faith. What sealed the atheism was his boarding school experience, where compulsory religious attendance and worship of a god you weren’t sure existed and didn’t like even if he did pushed him over the edge. The tyranny and totalitarianism of those boarding school years were, in his mind, associated with the god they attempted to cram down his throat—an association he kept through most of his adult life.
In college, prodded on by anti-Vietnam War sentiment, he moved to the left, to socialism, Communism, even for a while being a Trotskyite, joining “a small but growing post-Trotskyist Luxemburgist sect” and later writing for such papers as International Socialism—not exactly an environment to nourish theism. He eventually worked for more mundane publications, such as the Times Higher Education Supplement and ITV’s Weekend World. He moved to the United States, writing for The Nation, Vanity Fair, and the Atlantic Monthly.
And though his writings were on culture, politics, literature, he was not afraid to deal with religious issues, even writing a book against Mother Teresa called The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. In it he said that Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” Besides that, he called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud” and “a thieving fanatical Albanian dwarf.”
September 11 and Beyond
Obviously predisposed against religion for years already, Hitchens found an even bigger reason to hate it. One of the seminal events in his life occurred with the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Out of the ashes, two things changed for Hitchens. First, his break with the extreme political left and its default blame America first mode. Quitting The Nation, he said in his final article for it that the magazine seemed to believe “that John Ashcroft [then the United States Attorney General] is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” Though always a leftist, he wasn’t a narrow-minded dogmatist about it, breaking with them where he felt they needed to be broken with.
Second, if Hitchens or anyone who needed an excuse, even if not a very good one, to hate religion, the murderous Muslim fanatics who carried out the September 11 attacks handed to them on bloodstained and burned platter. Many of the “New Atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, wrote their most vitriolic anti-religion screeds after September 11, which provided the atheist faithful with all the ammunition they needed to show that religion, of any kind, was evil and detrimental to society.
“My respect for the Abrahamic religions went up in the smoke and choking dust of September 11,” said Richard Dawkins, the grand poobah of the New Atheists. “The last vestige of respect for the taboo disappeared as I watched the ‘Day of Prayer’ in Washington Cathedral, where people of mutually incompatible faiths united in homage to the very force that caused the problem in the first place: religion.”
No question: religion played a key role in the September 11 attacks. Atheists generally don’t, as a rule, fly jetliners filled with people into buildings or strap explosives on their bodies and walk into mosques and blow up themselves and others. Atheists and agnostics will, though, cram men, women, and children into gas chambers, or purposely starve to death entire populations. One doesn’t need religion to commit atrocities, though, no question, it helps. (One thinks of physicist Stephen Weinberg’s quote: “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) Never mind the fact that the vast majority of religious people, Muslims included, were not only appalled at the September 11 attacks (who knows how many religious people, Muslims included, were killed in them as well?), but would have never sanctioned them to begin with. That didn’t matter. What mattered was that these attacks were done by religious people; ergo, all religion is bad. End of discussion.
Hence, the following few gems from Christopher Hitchens in regard to religious faith.
“By trying to adjust to the findings that it once tried so viciously to ban and repress, religion has only succeeded in restating the same questions that undermined it in earlier epochs. What kind of designer or creator is so wasteful and capricious and approximate? What kind of designer or creator is so cruel and indifferent? And—most of all—what kind of designer or creator only chooses to ‘reveal’ himself to semi-stupefied peasants in desert regions?”
“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus, who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.”
“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
These are views that, until his dying day, Christopher Hitchens never, at least publicly, wavered from.
The Restless Soul of the
World’s Most Notorious Atheist
Thus, how remarkable is the new book, released in 2016, called The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by a Christian friend of Hitchens’ named Larry Taunton, the founder and director of the Fixed Point Foundation, “a nonprofit dedicated to the public defense of the Christian faith.” Taunton—who helped arrange some of the debates that Christopher Hitchens loved to partake in (and was quite good at, too), and who even himself had publicly debated Hitchens—befriended him as well.
Taunton never claimed that Hitchens had a deathbed confession or the like. That would be too easy of a claim to make about a man no longer around to refute it. In fact, in the book he quotes Hitchens as saying that if something like a deathbed confession were to come out of his mouth, “it would not have been made by me. The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain.” Taunton also quoted Hitchens’ wife, with him when he died, as saying that he never said anything about God during those last hours.
“I,” wrote Taunton, “believe her.”
Taunton’s claims for Hitchens were, instead, much more nuanced. Despite the outward and public bombast against faith, even calling the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) the “axis of evil,” Hitchens in private was much less dogmatic than how he appeared before playing to the crowds, whose enthusiasm for him was also a source of his bread and butter. Nevertheless . . .
“My private conversations with him,” Taunton wrote, “revealed a man who was weighing the cost of conversion. His atheist friends and colleagues, sensing his flirtations with Christianity and fearing his all-out desertion to the hated enemy, rushed to keep him in the fold. To reassure them, Christopher . . . was more bombastic than ever. But the rhetoric was concealing the fact that even while he was railing against God from the rostrum, he was secretly negotiating with Him.”
Taunton had done some traveling with Hitchens, by car, often going to debates that he had arranged for Hitchens. He talked about one trip during which he and Hitchens studied together, in the car, the book of John. Larry Taunton did not say that Hitchens believed what they read; he said only that Hitchens seemed to have enjoyed the time that they spent doing it. Taunton was certain that Hitchens had been seriously and painfully struggling with questions about faith and God, much more than his public persona would have ever let on, and certainly more than his hateful bombast against faith revealed. No doubt, the reality that his esophageal cancer would soon kill him certainly would get even Christopher Hitchens to rethink a few things.
Of course, in the end, only the God Christopher Hitchens professed not to believe in (whatever doubts he might have harbored about his nonbelief) will make the final call on Christopher Hitchens’ life. Until then, however, his endless tirades of anti-religious vitriol, especially against Muslims, available on YouTube and in his writings—which include his bestselling book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—will be Christopher’s more immediate legacy.
And it’s not one to be proud of, either. In an increasingly fractious world, especially along religious lines, page after page, video after video, of his anti-religious rhetoric—some fair, some ludicrous—can make matters only worse. The divide not only between religions, but also between secular and the religious, will continue to be made wider by the written and verbal legacy left in his wake. Little, if anything, he said or wrote is geared toward looking for common ground, or toward points of reconciliation. That was not, it seems, his motive. For the public Hitchens—the only Hitchens the world knows—religious faith, whatever the faith, is bad, and will lead only to more violence, discord, and hatred, which is why it must be fought against (whatever that entails). The private Hitchens, the one expressing doubts, has hardly made a dent in the discussion.
Christopher Hitchens will be remembered, not for the internal struggle that, according to Taunton, he was having, but for the loud, articulate bombast against the very thing that, it seems, was starting to cause him to reconsider all the loud and articulate bombast. Unfortunately, now that he’s gone, only the loud articulate bombast remains, and we are left to deal with the results.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.