The Right Kind of Atheist

Books, albums, and movies rarely make me weep, but my eyes were wet when I came to the final pages of the new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist (2016).

Partly this is due to my longtime professional respect for Hitchens, the brilliant journalist and essayist, and partly because the book itself is a well-narrated journey of two friends, Hitchens the atheist, Larry Taunton the author and Christian, as they developed their friendship with one another in the years leading up to Hitchens’s death by esophageal cancer in 2011 at the age of 62.

One man seems to be the right kind of atheist; the other man seems to be the right kind of Christian; both of them bonded by a mutual respect.

Hitchens, a man of principled conviction and logic, despised the notion of substitutionary atonement, boldly declared god Is Not Great, and yet he was honest enough to face the unanswered questions of his atheism, such as how do you define evil and goodness without a god to substantiate universal morality. Taunton, a Christian by biblical conviction, is a man bound to Scripture, earnest with the gospel, and honest and kind in his dealings with others.

Hitchens was the bigger riddle, his life split down the middle into two books — the brash, confident atheist out to expose the irrelevance of god. That was the public book. But privately he was attracted to Christians, ready to admit challenges to the consistency of his own atheism, intrigued by the Bible and seeking out debates, it seems, out of a desire to be convinced of the Bible’s truthfulness.

A Road Trip of Faith

The main narrative thrust of the book rides on the image of Taunton and Hitchens on a road trip from DC to Birmingham for a series of debates, and along the way walking through the Gospel of John together. Taunton at the wheel, offering commentary and application. Hitchens, by this point too ill to fly commercial jets, in the passenger seat with a glass of whiskey pinched between his knees, a cigarette in his right hand and a Bible open on his lap, reading the text of John aloud in his rich British accent.

The image holds the story together as much as it pushes back false assumptions about the atheist. No, Hitchens did not hate Christians, what he hated were hypocritical Christians — anyone who argued for Christianity but who was not, themselves, personally convinced of the authority of Scripture in their own lives. These are the “advocates” he would most ruthlessly abuse on debate stages.

This hostility emerges in a number of blunt incidents retold by Taunton.

Christopher and I were joined for lunch by a man who, though not religious, had published a book attacking the New Atheism. When Hitchens decided to step outside for a quick cigarette, this author followed him. When Christopher returned, I could see he was intensely angry.

“Keep an eye on that one,” he said, nodding in the direction of our lunch companion. “He’s not what you think.”

The man went pale with embarrassment. Christopher would later tell me that while outside, this fellow had confided to him that he didn’t really believe what he had written, but was just taking the money of those who did. He was, he essentially said, on Christopher’s side of the ideological aisle.

If he expected a friendly slap on the back and the gentle elbow of a man on the inside of a joke, he did not get it. Hitchens was enraged and offended on my behalf. From his perspective, the man was a fraud. (112)

Hitchens’s harshest words of all are saved for a national figure you’d recognize (but I won’t spoil it here).

Hitchens Was His Own Man

Hitchens didn’t need anyone to be on his side or to elbow him with an inside joke. He was a quest for a rational explanation for the world. He was a man seeking principles, naturally ducking and dodging the script of the New Atheists.

In a 2006 appearance on [Bill] Maher’s Real Time, Maher wrongly assumed that because he and Hitchens were both atheists and vociferous critics of religion that the two would be ideological soul mates. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that Hitchens is, for Maher, something of a hero. Christopher promptly dispels any such notions of solidarity when Maher infers that George W. Bush’s religious beliefs were no less nutty than those of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When Maher’s anti-Bush audience applauds this remark, Hitchens comes off the turnbuckle like a professional wrestler: “Your audience, which will apparently clap at anything, is frivolous” [then speaks and gestures obscenely to the booing audience]. . . .

“I’ve been on the Jon Stewart show, I’ve been on your show, I’ve seen you make about five George Bush I.Q. jokes per night. There’s no one I know who can’t do it. You know what I think? This is now the joke that stupid people laugh at. It’s a joke that any dumb person can laugh at because they think they are smarter than the President.” (72–73)

Maher’s crowd would “boo and moo,” and Hitchens would taunt them back. The people Hitchens would flip off on national television and the people he would embrace as personal friends was always hard to predict.

Perplexing to his followers, Hitchens would justify President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he would become something of an American patriot (especially after 9/11), and he would strongly advocate for the lives of the unborn. He was his own man. He was a genuine atheist, if I can put it that way.

The Epilogue of Hitchens’ Life

And that brings me back to why this book stands out. When I say Taunton is the right kind of Christian, and Hitchens is the right kind of atheist, to make this book work, it’s because each of them illuminate their impostors.

Taunton stands opposite the so-called liberal Christian who is willing to debate on behalf of Christianity because stage time, visibility, and book sales are on the line, not because Scripture has taken hold of his genuine convictions. Hitchens despised such a “Christian,” and saw through it for what it was: a coward’s atheism.

On the other hand, Hitchens stands over and against the brash, triumphalist atheists who boldly preach against the god of their reckoning, cannot admit to tensions or unanswered perplexities, and then walks off a stage to be enveloped and reinforced by his fans and peers of similar ideologies.

Of course the book is ultimately the story of a famous atheist. And in the end, Taunton wisely refuses to speculate on which of Hitchens’s books was the real Christopher Hitchens that won out on his deathbed. Was he the staunch atheist, a champion of faithlessness who fearlessly walked off the precipice of death into the darkness of nothingness? Or did his life end with a deathbed conversion? We won’t know in this life.

But for my money, the immediate takeaway from this book is Taunton. This is a story not about the uncertain faith of Christopher Hitchens but the stable faith of Larry Taunton, of his willingness to enter the rough and tumble world of apologetics, to embrace the relational risks, to be the kind of apologist whose arguments do not end on a stage but that spill over into private, who wins hearts and wins reverence when the spotlight is off because he unquestionably stands confident in the sufficiency of God’s word for all of life, expressed in genuine self-sacrifice, private kindness, concern for others, adoption of the most vulnerable, standing for the unborn, seeking racial reconciliation.

It is a story we need to hear over and over again. The true power of Christian apologetics is not so much on display on the debate stage, the true power of our faith is found in the consistency of our daily lives before the the watching eyes of doubters all around us, who keep asking themselves: Is Christianity a myth, a publicity ruse, or does it have the legit life of God breathing in it? The right kind of atheist is asking this question all the time, and watching us to find out.