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Think Through Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Deathbed Conversion’


In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Lawrence Krauss bemoaned the common habit among some conservative Christians of conjuring up fanciful deathbed conversion narratives about prominent non-Christians. He specifically mentions the well-known tale of evangelist Elizabeth Cotton, who made up such a story about Charles Darwin. She claimed that he told her from his deathbed that he wished to “recant the doctrine of evolution in exchange for Christian salvation.”

Krauss’s odd phrasing aside, he points to a problem that really does exist in pockets of conservative Christianity. In addition to the stories of Darwin, other conservative Christians have made up similar tales about other prominent enemies of the faith—Voltaire and Thomas Paine, most notably. Making up a conversion story about a famous person is obviously a horrible thing to do. At its root it is lying about a person’s views of God, which is horrifying enough, but it also implies a certain distressing insecurity in the believer. Krauss is right to condemn this sort of thing.

What is curious about Krauss’s piece, however, is how he framed the criticism: He begins the essay by referencing a recent book by prominent evangelical apologist Larry Taunton called “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens,” in which the author describes his relationship with Hitchens and the famous atheist’s odd relationship to faith in his final years. Unfortunately, it seems Krauss did not read beyond the title page of Taunton’s book. Indeed, if he had he would’ve found the following excerpt written by Taunton in the book’s final chapter:

In 1882, British naturalist Charles Darwin died. By all accounts from that time, he remained firm in his theory of evolution by natural selection to his dying breath. Then in 1915, evangelist Elizabeth Cotton–known to history as Lady Hope of Carriden–claimed that Darwin had repudiated his theories and converted on his deathbed. Christians quickly seized upon this story, popularized it, and for decades it was repeated. Indeed, I have heard it alleged many times. There is, however, a problem with this narrative: It probably never happened.

Taunton goes on to say more:

Perhaps Lady Hope thought she was rendering the Christian faith a service (she wasn’t). Maybe she really believed her tale. Regardless of her motivation, that she would do it at all is indicative of how much she feared Darwin’s influence and how little faith she truly had in her God. It seems that she, and many Christians after her, needed Darwin’s conversion to validate their faith. So they tugged and toiled to drag his body to the Christian side of the field.

If this sounds like it attacks the very thing Krauss laments in his article, that is because it is. So we come to the obnoxious and kind of hilarious irony in Krauss’s essay: In lamenting the fact that a unique evangelical neurosis causes us to make up fanciful tales that are not true, he clearly demonstrated the secular version of the same sort of error. If evangelicals crave validation from social elites that will legitimize their faith (and they do), it is perhaps equally true that many social elites crave proof that evangelicals really are the sort of semi-literate rubes that we are so often made out to be in shows like “The West Wing.”

Taunton’s Evidence Is Sound and Easily Verified

Evangelicals want social elites to respect them. The social elites want evangelicals to be as dumb as they suspect they are. Indeed, if it turns out that we really are a bunch of know-nothing fundamentalists, then perhaps the scorn with which we are so often treated can be justified. But when a person comes along who proves that tale false, which Taunton clearly does in his exemplary book (which we reviewed at Mere Orthodoxy), they simply don’t know what to do.

Far from manufacturing some made up conversion narrative about his friend, Taunton quite explicitly says there is no evidence for a deathbed conversion. Rather, he says Hitchens struggled with specific doubts that, in his later years, drove him to develop friends with a number of prominent evangelicals. He makes no grandiose claims anywhere in the book but, instead, tells a deeply ambiguous story of one lifelong skeptic asking difficult questions as he sees death approaching.

To prove his tale, Taunton does not rely only on subjective memories that cannot be proven. Rather, he cites comments Hitchens made in public arenas, such as a compliment he paid Taunton in an interview with local media before a public debate in Montana, and referencing the fact that Hitchens read the Gospel of John with Taunton in the car on one of their road trips. These claims Taunton makes are based on public comments Hitchens made. You can click the provided links to see the proof for yourself. These recollections of Taunton’s are not the imaginative and unprovable fancies of a manipulative evangelist making up a story to appease the insecure evangelical masses.

What’s more, Taunton is not the only one to have these memories of Hitchens. In a review for Books & Culture, Doug Wilson, another evangelical to travel with Hitchens, said he had many similar interactions with him. Indeed, in the documentary made about his travels with Wilson, Hitchens says if he had the chance to convert the last theist so that there’d be no more religion in the world when he was done, he would not do it. After relaying the story to Wilson, Hitchens laughingly says that Richard Dawkins was appalled and said (in a hectoring and screeching tone, no doubt), “What, do you mean you wouldn’t do it?”

Such a story doesn’t remotely make Hitchens a theist, of course. But it does make him a more intriguing and ambiguous case than a shill like Dawkins—which is the only thing Taunton’s book claims of Hitchens anyway.

Both Sides’ Faithful Chew Up Deserters

Two narratives collide whenever a story like this one is told. The first is the sometimes desperate grasping after credibility that marks so much of evangelicalism. Krauss and other critics have rightly criticized Christians for dishonesty and deception on this point.

But there is a second narrative in play: The viciousness of the reaction from skeptics when one of their own converts is often more than a match for the enthusiasm of the faithful. Virginia Woolf’s response to T.S. Eliot’s conversion was particularly nasty: “I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”

For this reason, you don’t need to read Taunton’s comments on Hitchens’ character in the harsh and negative light that David Frum has suggested in his review. Frum seems to take Taunton’s portrayal of Hitchens as a devastating indictment of Hitchens’ character, as an accusation that the man’s courage and commitment to truth was a charade, that when he came to the question of faith he was dissuaded from converting not by conviction, but by cowardice.

Frum also makes the rather odd claim that Taunton offers no firm evidence of his claims, an attack I have rebutted above. That said, if you isolate portions of the book, as Frum has in his review, it’s easy to portray Taunton as a deeply dishonest opportunist looking to cash in on the very narrative he elsewhere in the book decries. But there’s a second way of reading Taunton’s portrayal of Hitchens’ complex relationship with faith late in his life.

People Are Complicated—Remember?

Anyone familiar with conversion literature, or who has walked the road of conversion themselves, knows well how difficult and challenging that path can be. One need only read Augustine’s “Confessions” or, for a more contemporary take, something like Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy” to recognize the challenge of not only changing your beliefs about life’s most fundamental questions, but also the particular challenge of converting to Christianity and, with it, accepting the lordship of Christ, recognizing that you are no longer your own. It is a hard enough road, even if one is not a world-famous infidel who has made a great deal of money attacking faith of all kinds.

To put it simply, one can accept the basic plausibility of Taunton’s tale (and Taunton is more cautious in his claims than Frum suggests) and still retain a belief in Hitchens as a man possessed of deep wells of courage and an indefatigable commitment to truth. You can hold the two together for the simple reason that people are complicated, conversions (or flirtations with faith) are complicated, and both resist the sort of weaponizing of the human soul that both sides of the debate so often embrace.

Hitchens was a courageous man committed to the truth. Taunton’s book doesn’t suggest otherwise. The only thing Taunton’s book adds to the record is that Hitchens’ late-in-life friendships with evangelicals like Taunton and Wilson suggests a more ambiguous relationship to faith than his on-stage persona does. Believing that doesn’t require you to think awful things of Hitchens; it only requires that you not be Lady Hope—or Virginia Woolf.