Anthony Flew, Apologetics, atheism, Charles Darwin, Christianity, Christopher Hitchens, Death, Faith, Larry Alex Taunton
I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t the fate of prominent atheists to end up with Christian apologists for spokesmen. Okay, I don’t literally believe in fate (either), but let’s just say the pattern is starting to look a little too common.
Yesterday, I came across this charming little tweet from professional bigot, Matt Barber.
Barber’s link connects us to an article discussing an account of Hitchens’s personal life, as related in The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton. Who is Taunton? He is one of the Christian apologists whom Hitchens debated in his later years. According to Taunton, the two had become close friends in those years, close enough for him to be present throughout much of Hitchens’s struggle with terminal cancer. According to Taunton, Hitchens gave serious thought to converting in those years. Taunton doesn’t say that Hitchens did convert, but he spends virtually the entire book exploring the possibility that Hitchens might have. The author of the article in Barber’s link, Al Perretta, contributes his own 2 cents by telling us that Hitchens own preemptive remarks about the possibility of a deathbed conversion indicate just how much he was thinking about it. If Taunton is content to imply the possibility, Perretta wants to make damned sure we get the hint. And then of course, we have the likes of Matt Barber who sees in the whole thing an opportunity to taunt unbelievers.
It’s a bit like a game of telephone. What Hitchens actually said and thought in private moments before his death we will never know, but we do get to see how Taunton’s account of it takes on ever more polemic significance as others proceed to recount the story. Honestly, I don’t doubt that Taunton and Hitchens were close friends, but I do think Taunton serves his friend poorly by using him in this manner. Damned poorly! Taunton may think his efforts restrained, even respectful, but he has made Hitchens into a commodity of sorts, a chip those in his own camp will now use shamelessly to promote their own views. Whatever respect Taunton may think he has paid Hitchens in writing this, it’s fairly gone by the time we get to the likes of Barber. I somehow doubt Barber will prove to be unusual.
The story is hardly without precedent!
I remember when Anthony Flew changed his views on the existence of God. As an active participant in Christian Forums, I lost track of the number of times someone came into the open debate forums to announce Flew’s ‘conversion’. More than a few would-be apologists really seemed to think this odd sort of authority argument would (or should have) swayed a number of unbelievers. A popular atheist had changed his mind. Shouldn’t we do the same?
The full story in Flew’s case would prove far more complicated than the conversion narrative continually promoted by Christian apologists. It doesn’t appear that Flew ever came to believe in the God of Abraham, though he did seem to adopt a Deist position on the existence of God, but this distinction was often lost in the words of sundry believers proclaiming the miracle of Flew’s conversion. Questions remain to this day about just how much some of Flew’s final work, There is a God, really is the work of Flew and how much of it is really the work of Christian apologists. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that something was wrong in Flew’s very public change of position. Flew, a lifelong atheist thus spent his final days voiced, as it were by Christian apologists, his final position on the existence of God communicated by others, many of whom were all to happy to treat Flew’s newfound Deism as a victory for Christianity itself.
Had the Anthony Flew whose writings we all knew become a Christian, he certainly would have made a far more eloquent Christian than his latter-day friends made him out to be.
This sort of response may seem harsh, even disrespectful, but Flew’s final days certainly produced a number of red flags. We don’t normally learn the views of professional philosophers from their long-time debate opponents, and a professional philosopher writes his own material. For reasons which may or may not be understandable, this did not happen in There is a God, and it isn’t entirely clear that he understood the full contents of that work. Whether or not Flew was clear about what he was doing in those final days, most of us will never know. That many in the Christian community were all-too happy to milk Flew’s shift of position for all it was worth and more is plain to see. Flew’s “conversion” left us all with more of a scandal to ponder than a novel argument on the age-old topic.
As with many public debates, I often found the terms of this one rather oddly skewed. I have often wondered if it is really appropriate to call the mere decision to believe in God a ‘conversion’. When people convert to a faith, they do a lot more than simply change their mind about the truth of a claim. They say prayers. They go to church. The embrace doctrines. They nest, as it were, in their new worldview. For his part, Flew seems simply to have decided that a God of some sort was an essential part of any explanation for the world as we know it. Yet, Christians still proclaim the truth of Flew’s conversion, seemingly immune to the fact that he didn’t end up in their camp either.
…and of course there is always Lady Hope!
My first exposure to this story came in some college classroom, a history class I believe. We were discussing Charles Darwin when someone interjected the comment that he had recanted toward the end of his life. The comment hadn’t been at all relevant to the discussion, and the instructor simply didn’t bite. So, we were back on topic in no time, and I found myself wondering what little story I had missed.
That little story was the story of Elizabeth Cotton, or ‘Lady Hope’ as she was called. She claimed to have spoken to Darwin near the end of his life wherein she found him reading Hebrews. Darwin expressed regrets about his scientific publications according to Cotton and discussed plans for holding a congregation in his summer house. If her account is true, then Cotton appears to be the only person to whom Darwin expressed these views. He didn’t tell them to his wife, a devout believer who might well have been quite relieved to hear of his newfound faith. Neither did he communicate them to any of his children or colleagues. But he did communicate these views to Elizabeth Cotton, according to Cotton anyway, and this fact was interesting enough to earn her a little bit of fame among Christian speakers near the end of the 19th century.
So, you see this latest bit about Hitchens is hardly without precedent. It seems that when unbelievers become believers, Christian apologists are often the first to know. Hell, sometimes they are the last to know as well. And sometimes they are the only ones to know at all.
I gather the rest of us are supposed to take their account on faith.
So, how does Taunton pay his respects to his former friend? Consider the quotes he uses to open the earliest chapters of his book:
“Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear that it is true.” – Blaise Pascal.
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins have you never had the courage to commit.” – Oscar Wilde.
“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” – C.S. Lewis
“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.” Shakespeare.
…you get the idea.
These are the pithy little one liners that Taunton uses to frame each of his opening chapters. Yes, the point of each quote is every bit as obvious as it may seem.You might expect a book about a deceased friend to use quotations illustrating something admirable about him, even to outline qualities one might find worthy of praise. Taunton is of course using these quotes to take Hitchens apart.
In “A Requiem for Unbelief,” Taunton relates his personal history with Hitchens and explains his decision to write the book. He describes Hitchens’s life as one of rebellion against God (thus establishing from the beginning a narrative that refuses to take Hitchens’s atheism seriously). Taunton also describes Hitchen?” With this remarkably disrespectful tribute to an old friend, it is no surprise that Taunton would lead the chapter with a quote suggesting that people such as Hitchens must know deep down that he is wrong.
The notion that atheists really believe in God after all is a pretty common theme among Christian apologists. Taunton clearly means to use Hitchens’s life to provide an example of this, an anecdote to show us what so many apologists take for granted, that deep down the most strident atheist is really a frustrated believer of some sort. Thus, Taunton transforms Hitchens’s life into contemptuous dismissal of the very views Hitchens proclaimed throughout that very life. Hitchens didn’t really mean what he said, so Taunton would have us believe, and no-one knows this better than Taunton.
Next Taunton proceeds to tell us that Hitchens’s atheism is rooted in youthful rebellion (hence the line about courage to commit sin) and goes on to explain that Hitchens’s love of learning was little more than an effort to improve his skills in verbal sparring (hence the suggestion that an education was wasted on him). He then borrows from Hitchens’s own allusion to ‘keeping two books’, so to speak, to set aside virtually everything Hitchens ever said in public. Taunton extends this metaphor to suggest quite simply that Hitchens’s public atheism was a false front and that he held other thoughts in private. Who would know those private thoughts?
Taunton, of course!
Taunton’s friendship with Hitchens thus becomes an interesting authority claim, a basis from which to shred everything Hitchens told us about his own life and thought.
…and if your getting a little ill at this point, then I’m right there with you.
This is not the sort of book one writes about a friend. It isn’t even the sort of book one writes about a respected opponent. It is the sort of book one writes about an individual one has already dismissed. It is also the sort of book one writes about a bit of personal capital, an investment ripe for returns. In these opening chapters, Taunton sheds sleight on Hitchens character at every turn. The exercise is as crass as it is dishonest.
Toward the middle of the book Taunton’s narrative softens, but why shouldn’t it? He has already dismissed everything Hitchens ever fought for with a few condescending narrative themes. Having established the sad truth about Hitchens’s personal motivations, Taunton can afford to be more subtle in the later chapters. Following 9-11, Taunton wants us to believe Hitchens embarked on a long trajectory toward faith in God. He began to struggle with moral principles and to explore scripture. This, Taunton seems to suggest was the root of their friendship, and the basis for their many private conversations about Christianity.
Taunton recounts many of these discussions in extravagant detail. One could perhaps wonder how he remembers those details so vividly, but I’m more interested in the transition from argument to story-line. The conversations with Hitchens that Taunton describes are full of disputation, point and counter-point. They are discussions in which two men contest with each other over what is and what isn’t true. But of course, these arguments come to us within the larger frame of a story told by Taunton himself. Not surprisingly, the course of each argument flows nicely into the story-line Taunton has chosen to provide us. It is a story-line that resolves each of the disputes quite unsurprisingly in Taunton’s favor.
Taunton’s single-minded handling of the issue is hardly subtle. He consistently gives himself the final word and of course Hitchens concedes a number of things to Taunton, but only in these private conversations. Hitchens accepts arguments without rejoinder, at least in the chapters of Taunton’s book, and he takes correction without rebuke. The final chapters of this work are a record of debates clearly dominated by Taunton, at least according to Taunton himself. And of course each of these arguments provides another step in the story of Hitchens’s transformation toward a believing Christian. Taunton stops short of claiming the transformation actually occurred, though he wants us to believe it may well have, that Hitchens might have made it to the one true faith as Taunton understands it. Hell, Taunton even assures us that Hitchens would never have converted to Catholicism. If he converted, Taunton would have us believe, it must have been to the right kind of Christianity.
If Hitchens never said anything about his conversion, what are we to make of that? Perhaps it means he didn’t convert at all, but perhaps, the story-line here seems to suggest, it is because he can’t. Hitchens was too committed to his own public personae, or so Taunton would have us believe. he couldn’t afford to tell us if he really believed in God after all. He was already too invested in a godless public personae. So, Hitchens couldn’t tell us how he really felt.
What are we to expect of a man who kept two books?
One of the more striking features of Taunton’s narrative is the pe-emptive arguments he lays out in the course of the book. Hitchens lack of an explicit statement of faith is easily explained by his allusions to keeping two-books of his own life. Will atheists object to this account? Well of course, but that is just because we are fighting over Hitchens body, as Taunton describes the issue. Atheists skeptical of claims that Hitchens either embraced Christianity or came damned close to it are just too busy keeping score. It’s hard to imagine a more blatant example of projection than that, but it seems to be par for the course in this book.
Taunton seems to regard his friendship with Hitchens as unimaginable in the eyes of many, especially in the eyes of unbelievers. That he also takes Hitchens’s willingness to become friends with a Christian to be evidence of interest in conversion suggests that if anyone has trouble wrapping his mind around such a friendship it is Taunton himself.
It seems clear enough that Taunton doesn’t really take the possibility of a meaningful life as an atheist seriously. We can’t even tell a child from a piglet, as he suggests. Our worldview denies the possibility of meaningful moral scruples, according to Taunton. So, if he encounters an unbeliever with a profound sense of moral values – if Taunton allows himself to see this in such a person – it can only mean one thing, that that atheist isn’t really an atheist after all. He is a Christian waiting to get out. Short of an actual conversion, this is the best Hitchens could ever be to Taunton. And so Taunton’s own inability to imagine his own friendship becomes proof positive that his friend’s character must really be as Taunton would make of it.
Hitchens, it would seem, wasn’t really an unbeliever, and the only people who know it are the Christians whose faith he denounced publicly throughout his entire life. All in all, it’s a pretty shameless production. Once again, we find an unbeliever really does believe in God after all, or very nearly so. The trouble is that he only told a believer about all of this, at least according to the believer.
Taunton may think this is a novel story.
I think it’s a rather tiresome cliché.