The Ugly Slandering of Christopher Hitchens

“Hitchens secretly loved my Jesus,” is the overarching message that Larry Taunton tells himself but shows absolutely no evidence for in “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.”  The radical, religious fundamentalist slanders the late atheist writer and thinker, Christopher Hitchens, in a short, badly argued book, designed not to illuminate, but rather to make yet another religious huckster a lot of money.  In the book, Taunton wholesale invents an inner life and struggle of the superior author, creating a straw man so flimsy Hitchens himself could have blown it down with a single puff of cigarette smoke.

As an atheist myself, I’m not nearly as well read as Hitchens, but even I have heard every one of the shallow arguments presented in the book many times over.  The author isn’t even an effective or interesting advocate for his faith.  He’s trite and lazy, lobbing the sort of silly claptrap Hitchens spent a lifetime refuting. The central conceit of the book is that the author’s arguments were so “persuasive” that Hitchens began to warm to Jesus.  It would be laughable, except that it’s utterly disrespectful to the deceased man and his life’s work.

It could be ignored or laughed at, except that the book isn’t just a mediocre hit job on Hitchens himself.  It’s filled with subtle jabs, outright insults and fiery damnation aimed at the usual fundamentalist boogeymen—atheists, gays and liberals.  Aside from insulting Hitchens, Taunton creates something much more sinister.  He denies the rights of all atheists, agnostic and freethinkers—every single one of us—to exist. 

Of course the claims of deathbed conversion are untrue and the book has been rightly hammered by thinking people in evenhanded reviews.  Hitchens himself warned us that religious hucksters would crawl out of the woodwork and make outlandish claims of deathbed conversions.

Christian fundamentalists, who defend the most awful books and hideous movies, have rushed to applaud the work.  In the self-sustaining, fact-free world of religious infotainment, books that glorify Christianity and demean everyone else are automatically “great.”  Yet, I do want to address one criticism made that “atheists haven’t read the book.  I, despite tremendous personal suffering to rival Job, read every word.

The entire premise of the book is that Taunton was “friends” with Hitchens.  The two shared a couple of long car rides, en route to debates on religion.  They had a few conversations and shared some banter on the Gospel of John, but Taunton parlays these interactions into some deep (and if you’ll pardon me) Biblical knowledge of Hitchens internal life.  Every word from the first page to the epilogue is a celebration that Taunton once rubbed against greatness by mere accident.  In his sad, closeted life, Taunton managed to have a meaningful interaction with someone far greater than himself, and I don’t mean Jesus.  The judgmental accusations and deliberate misstatements that make up the work are only window dressing to distract from so much self-aggrandizing hokum.

Aside from telling us how cool he is, Taunton spends most of the book immersed in the worst type of armchair psychobabble.  This is a normal habit of Christian fundamentalists, as they delve into what’s so wrong with so many of us. In this case, we revisit Hitchens’ childhood to try and understand how this well-educated, thoughtful man became an atheist, as if atheism is a disease.  Taunton goes into great detail on Hitchens sexual experimentation at boarding school, outright stating that “homosexual acts” damaged Hitchens irreversibly.  Taunton finds any excuse to spit out the word “homosexuality” as if it were curse.

The dime-store Sigmund Freud examines Hitchens’ relationship with his father through decades of haze and Hitchens’ own autobiography.  “[Hitchens’ father]’s chief deficiency as a father was his excessive tolerance of a son who did not honor him as a son should honor his father,” Taunton claims.  Healthy humans all need to be dominated by some stern, angry father figure, according to the most offensive of patriarchal Christians, and Taunton does not disappoint.

I felt a recurring sadness from the work as Taunton constantly used Hitchens personal decency against him.  Hitchens professed a respect for the literary value of the King James Bible.  Hitchens also loved the architecture and the history of churches.  It’s no secret that Hitchens was often respectful to the same people he battled over religion.

Taunton also attacked Hitchens for one of his greatest rhetorical strengths.  Hitchens was always reconsidering his opinions in light of evidence.  He embraced complexity and prided himself on being a contrarian.  Like so many people who can only see black and white, Taunton cannot accept thoughtful meditation and reason.

This book and the unfair, unfounded attacks it contains are personal for me, because I, like so many atheists, exhibit similar manners as Hitchens did in life.  I don’t walk down the street screaming at people in their Sunday clothes, because I’m otherwise an okay fellow, just like so many “militant” atheists.  Just because an atheist is nice to you doesn’t mean that he or she loves your Jesus.

Hitchens vast writings, public speeches, personal conduct and most profound beliefs were atheist, and he was a strong voice for reason and kindness.  His very existence is a threat so powerful that religious people can only fight him by rewriting history and only after Hitchens cannot fight back.

Between the lines of the book, you can see cold fear as the driver in Taunton’s narrative.  He could never beat Hitchens nor could he explain Hitchens away, so Taunton waited until Hitchens was good and dead to manufacture a religious narrative that Taunton could both understand and sell.  Fundamentalist Christians are always afraid to engage thoughtful secularists.  They prefer to attack maligned minorities, like gay people or minority faiths, the powerless and those who can’t fight back.  Because of this self-aggrandizing book, we now that the most cowardly fundamentalist Christians will even slander the dead.

 

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