I am currently in Atlanta for the ACCS conference — and what a great time that is — but it turns out that John Lennox was also in town for another conference just a stone’s throw away, and through a fortuitous set of circumstances, we wound up seated next to each other at dinner last night.
Keith and Kristyn Getty were also here for the ACCS conference, and were also at the dinner, and Kristyn happens to be John Lennox’s niece. Nate was seated across the table, and he was one of the producers of Collision, and Louis Markos was also across the way. As you might imagine, the discussion was lively. The talk turned naturally to Christopher Hitchens, and “atheists that we have debated.”
We also spent some time talking about Larry Taunton’s book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which (you may have heard) has received a barrage of criticism from astute non-readers of it. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so.” This would be the kind of review that claimed that Taunton claimed a deathbed conversion for Hitch, when he did nothing of the kind. In any case, when it came out I reviewed Taunton’s book for Books & Culture, which, if you missed it, you can find here.
But there is more than one way to be unfair to a book. There were other reviews, like David Frum’s in The Atlantic, where his take on Taunton was simply snarky and uncharitable, as though he were nothing more than a social climber, using the bodies of deceased atheists.
But Lennox debated Hitchens, as have I, as did Larry Taunton. We all debated the same man, the man described in Taunton’s book.
In any case, last night we spent a good bit of time talking about a bunch of atheist debates, and our discussion was merry. There are incompetent atheists, who are scarcely worth the powder. There are humorless atheists like Dawkins who maintain that man has no soul and tries to conduct himself as living proof of that proposition. And there are lively and clever atheists — like Hitch — who were quite formidable in debate.
But being formidable in debate is not the same thing as having solid arguments. Hitchens was clever and very quick, and you had to keep your eye on him every minute. He was the master of the non sequitur, but not the kind of non sequitur that made audiences go, “Whoa, he’s evading the topic under discussion.” It would be the kind of non sequitur which, when delivered in that accent of his, makes audiences look at you like you were, kind of rumpled, just taken out of the doofus locker. He was also a master of supercilious browbeating and bluster.
He was also clever enough to know what he was doing. Frum took Taunton to task for noticing things that anyone not actively a Hitch-idolater should and would have noticed about him. Frum represented Taunton as casting Hitchens as some kind of a coward, when we in the Approved Circles all know he was a Man of Courage. This is nothing but hagiography for atheists. This is just the Eulogistic Lie Royale.
Now Hitch was a courageous contrarian, depending on the enemy. But when your adversary is the Hound of Heaven, courage does not really enter into it. Defiant courage in the face of the Ancient of Days, the one before whom Heaven and earth flee away, does not deserve the name courage.
And Hitch was, as I have mentioned, very clever, which means that he was not prepared to go to the wall for something he had not thought through. Taunton describes Hitch, not as converting on his death bed, but rather as simply carving out a space for himself to think about the subject without having to deal with the howls of outraged fans. He makes no claims about the ultimate decision Hitch made, but simply maintains that in private Hitchens did not give the subject the back of his hand. That is quite true — Taunton is exactly right.
For those not disposed to take my word for it, or Lennox’s, or Taunton’s, let me appeal to the public record.
Non-believers go through three reluctant stages as they are thinking about the prospect or possibility of converting to Christianity. The first stage is, “You are wasting your time on me. I’ll never convert.” That tells you that they have at least thought about it. The idea has crossed their mind.
The second stage is, “If I converted, . . .” The sentence could be completed with any number of things — “would I have to give up beer?” or “I wouldn’t be that kind of Christian,” or “I would want to be a missionary.”
The third stage is, “When I become a Christian . . .”
In his public discussions of this subject, after his diagnosis of cancer, Hitch was manifestly a bit past stage 2. He said in various ways, on different occasions, that if he cried out on his death bed, this would mean the cancer had got to his brain, or the medications had really messed him up. The Christopher Hitchens everyone knew would already be dead.
Notice that he did not say that if he converted on his death bed, “you can be assured that some pious evangelical nurse is telling lies about me.” On this subject, Hitchens did not resort to an ad hominem. He spoke the way he did because he was clearly nervous about letting his team down. He thought it was a distinct possibility that he might do something like that, and so he was giving his atheist supporters an accounting of it beforehand.
I indicated this in my review of Taunton’s book, and it has been implicit here. But let me finish by making it explicit. Taunton’s book is an honest accounting of an atheist’s struggle with himself, and it is an account written by an honest and insightful man. He fudges no answers on behalf of Christian sensibilities, but being — like Hitch — a man of courage, he fudges no questions on behalf of atheist sensibilities either.
If you haven’t yet, I urge you to get and read the book.