Did Christopher Hitchens Really Keep Two Sets of Books about his Beliefs?
Recently a number of people have asked me about a newly published book entitled The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by the Christian apologist Larry Alex Taunton, who runs the Fixed Point Foundation and whom I have gotten to know through public debates and private conversations. The Religious News Service (RNS), for example, interviewed me about the book, explaining that they had never heard of the author and were wondering why I blurbed the book (a “blurb” is a short quote on the back jacket of books encouraging people to read it). Here is what I wrote (only the final sentence made it onto the book’s cover but the entire quote is on the book’s webpage):
If you really want to get to know someone intimately, go on a multi-day cross-country road trip, share fine food and expensive spirits, and have open and honest conversations about the most important issues in life. And then engage them in public debate before thousands of people on those very topics. In this engrossing narrative about his friendship with the atheist activist Christopher Hitchens, the evangelical Christian Larry Taunton shows us a side of the man very few of us knew. Apparent contradictions dissolve before Taunton’s penetrating insight into the psychology of man fiercely loyal to his friends and passionately devoted to leading a life of integrity. This book should be read by every atheist and theist passionate about the truth, and by anyone who really wants to understand Hitch, one of the greatest minds and literary geniuses of our time.
I thought the statement was a fair appraisal of the book, but now I am having second thoughts because of the reception the book has received in which many people seem to think that its author implies that Hitch had a death-bed conversion, or that he had serious doubts about his atheism, or that he was earnestly considering Christianity as a viable belief system. You can hear that theme reiterated in many of Taunton’s public interviews, especially by the hosts, and in the comments given to the RNS reporter, Kimberly Winston, by Hitch’s close friend of 30 years, Steve Wasserman, who “called the book’s claims ‘petty’ and ‘appalling’ when they were read to him,” adding: “I am not in the position to dispute what Taunton says were private conversations … but I really think it is a shabby business. It reveals a lack of respect. This is not a way to debate Christopher Hitchens’ beliefs—to report unverifiable conversations, which amazingly contradict everything Christopher Hitchens ever said or stood for.”
Hitch’s Vanity Fair editor Benjamin Schwarz, who also knew the man quite well, opined: “That Christopher had friends who were evangelicals is testimony to his intellectual tolerance and largeness of heart, not to any covert religiosity.”
In his Noachian deluge of tweets about his book Taunton gainsays these criticisms, insisting that he makes no such claim in his book. Yet, according to RNS Taunton “stood firm in the face of such criticism” and that “What I am saying is this: If Christopher Hitchens is a lock, the tumblers don’t line up with the atheist key and that upsets a lot of atheists. They want Christopher Hitchens to be defined by his atheism, and he wasn’t.” In The Faith of Christopher Hitchens Taunton employs a metaphor for Hitch that the man himself used in their conversations, which is “keeping two sets of books.” What does this expression mean? According to Taunton:
The original meaning of the phrase “keeping two sets of books” refers to a fraudulent bookkeeping method in accounting, where one set of books is public and one is private; the public book is made to appear in accordance with the law, while the private book records all the shady financial dealings behind the scene. The implication, in using this phrase in regard to himself, is that the discovery of his private set of books, would reveal that his public set of books were somehow fraudulent.
But what did Hitch mean by the idiom? Taunton interpreted it this way:
For Hitchens, “Keeping two sets of books” often meant that he had two real aspects of his personality and of his real beliefs that existed in real tension: one that he would reveal to the public and another that he revealed only to certain people.
In one example Taunton says that the phrase came up in their discussions of politics and Hitch’s apparent “contradictions.” For example, before 9/11 Hitch was adamantly anti-militaristic, but after 9/11 he defended George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Taunton: “He moved from one book to the other, from public repudiation of military defense, to public recognition of its necessity against real evil.” (p. 31). That’s not an example of dual bookkeeping, but of changing one’s mind. A duplicitous dialogue would have Hitch telling Taunton that he was privately against the Iraq war even while endorsing it publicly. That is not the case.
Taunton also says that Hitch complained about being made to “sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity” at The Leys School he attended in his youth, but he also said that “I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays.” (p. 31). Again, this isn’t fraudulent bookkeeping but simply the man’s honest appraisal of his own multilayered emotions. I can relate. When I was a Christian I found church services boring and pedantic, even while admiring the magnificent Cathedrals of Europe and the music of Bach. Even now, as an ardent atheist, whenever I’m in Europe I make it a point to visit Cathedrals and attend classical music concerts, most of which were religiously inspired. Does that mean I have two sets of books? Not at all.
I suspect what Hitch meant by “two sets of books”—public and private—is something far more quotidian: most of us say things in private to our friends and family that we would never say in public. To suggest that something more is at play in this phrase is to imply that Hitch was dishonest with the public in all those essays, reviews, articles, lectures, debates, and bestselling books—including the definitive statement of his beliefs about religion in God is Not Great and in his autobiographical narrative of how his beliefs were formed and changed (or not) in Hitch-22. It would also mean he was mendacious with his most intimate friends and family—including his brother Peter, who is a Christian (and so ought to know if his brother was wavering)—but revealed his true feelings to Taunton. This does not stand to reason, figuratively and literally. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Hitch himself.
Shortly before his death, in a videotaped interview at his home conducted by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, with the evidence of chemotherapy’s ravages on his face, Hitch reflected on the matter of whether or not he was reconsidering his religious views, or even contemplating the possibility that Christianity was true and that Jesus was the messiah. As he said, point blank and in no uncertain terms, and in front of Martin Amis, whom he had just introduced to his interlocutor as “my dearest friend”:
Now might be the time to say that in the event of anyone ever hearing or reading a rumor of such a thing, it would not have been made by me. … No one recognizable as myself would ever make such a ridiculous remark.
Goldberg then asks Hitch if he thinks anyone might try to make such a claim about him, to which he emphatically replied “No”, further reflecting:
This is a very old game that goes back to Thomas Paine and David Hume and Voltaire, in whose company I have no right to be mentioned, and even with Darwin, to circulate outright lies about deathbed conversions.
Goldberg pressed the point: “When you received your diagnosis did you have a fleeting moment of asking yourself ‘I wonder if prayer would help…I wonder if there is anything…’” at which point Hitch cut him off, unhesitatingly answering “No. I can quite safely say that.” When Goldberg lingered on topic Hitch again interrupted him:
In the same way that I can absolutely assure you that while cornered in Sarajevo thinking “jeez, I wish I hadn’t gotten into this building and how am I going to get back to the hotel?” or pounced on by fascists in Beirut or traveling far from home in Afghanistan where I thought “I can absolutely see how I might not get out of this,” the foxhole foolishness quite literally did not cross my mind.
Does this sound like a man who kept two sets of books in the double-dealing manner Taunton implies? I think not. To suggest otherwise would be calumnious.
I knew Hitch moderately well. We first met in 1997, when he came to L.A. for a film premiere of FairyTale, the story of how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got duped by two girls in the famous Cottingley Fairies fake photographs story, which Hitch was reviewing for Vanity Fair. We stayed in touch over the years and met up periodically at conferences and dinners (that often included “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative” as he affectionately called his favorite whisky). You can read my obituary of Hitch that includes a few of these stories. I would not call Hitch a close friend, but I believe I knew him well enough to suspect what was really going on here. On his road trips with Taunton Hitch was merely doing what he often did with people who differed with him—spend personal time with them in order to penetrate the public façade and see what is inside the private thoughts.
I do this myself and it’s an illuminating exercise. I’ve spent time with and gotten to know most of the leading Holocaust deniers (e.g., David Irving), creationists (e.g., Duane Gish), intelligent design advocates (e.g., Bill Dembski), 9/11 truthers, JFK conspiracies campaigners, electric universe advocates, alien abductee claimants, UFO believers, ghost hunters, Near-Death Experiencers, etc. You can learn so much more about a person’s real motives and motivated reasoning by talking to them off stage and off print than you can by limiting yourself to debating them in public and reading their published works. Particularly effective is to dine and drink with them because after a time they open up and reveal what they’re really thinking and feeling. This is not at all “keeping two sets of books” in the two-faced manner that phrase may imply to some people. It is just being friendly and respectful to better understand someone’s inner self.
I believe that is what Hitch did in general, and in particular with Taunton. Naturally, because he’s an evangelical, Taunton hopes that perhaps, possibly, maybe—just maybe—Hitch inculcated the gospel message from their discussions about the book of John (among other related topics) so that Hitch is spared eternal damnation. By definition, evangelicals evangelize, so it would be surprising if the evangelical Taunton did not himself have two sets of books, including one that hoped for Hitch’s conversion. Alas, Taunton admits at the end of the book that there was no death-bed conversion or anything close.
Taunton did not record his conversations with Hitch, but a similar “road trip” experience Hitch had with evangelical Doug Wilson was turned into a documentary film that is well worth watching. It’s called Collision and it follows Wilson and Hitch in debates, on the road, in taxis, restaurants, elevators, homes, etc. Hitch was certainly not a one-dimensional man. His motives were complex, but mostly I think he loved being engaged with people to challenge them and learn from them, and of course to stir things up and get people thinking, including himself.
That was the real Hitch.
P.S. I gave Larry Taunton a chance to clarify what, exactly, he means by the “two sets of books” phrase: public/private distinction we all make or intentional deception concealing his true beliefs from the public and his closest friends and revealing his true beliefs to Taunton. Taunton responded: “I stand by what I’ve written, Michael. A few—very few—of the hateful atheist crowd have read it, but almost none of the trolls. That is a quotation that I allowed to be used in an article.” I personally find that interpretation unbelievable. I hereby withdraw my endorsement of the book and request that my blurb be discontinued from use.