An Unlikely Witness: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by Larry Alex Taunton. Nashville: Nelson, 2016, xvi + 201 pages, $24.99.

It is unthinkable that one of the most outspoken public intellectual atheists should praise a conservative Evangelical Christian, but that is just what Christopher Hitchens did. The subject of that praise has given us a remarkable account of his unusual friendship with the late Christopher Hitchens. Larry Taunton begins his book with a quote from Blaise Pascal which nicely sums up Taunton’s interaction with Hitchens, “Men despise religion; they hate it, and fear it is true.”

Taunton skillfully applies the Proverbs we often think of as mutually exclusive: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Prov. 26:4–5). There are times when these two different ways of interacting with unbelief apply singly to a particular person, but Taunton uses both in his conversations with Hitchens.

The antagonism that the new atheists, like Hitchens, often evoke is predictable, but actually it ought to humble us Christians to befriend those who share their desperate negation. Taunton can help show us the way.

Taunton describes the surprise ending of Hitchens’s life.

Between 1964—the year that he, as a fifteen-year-old-boy, declared himself an atheist—and September 11, 2001—a date that changed America and, if his biography is to be believed, Christopher Hitchens—his mind was fixed. One need only name the social or political issue of this period and he was there to take up the liberal cause with other standard bearers of the Left. Could there be any real suspense regarding what his position would be on, say, Vietnam or the presidency of Ronald Reagan? Not in the least. Hence, a Christopher Hitchens biography would be largely predictable.

Except for the ending. (5)

Chapter 1, “The Making of an Atheist” is an illuminating portrait fulfilling part of the author’s intended purpose, “My objective is not to recount his life, but to give some account for his soul” (7). Reminding the reader of Paul’s assessment of fallen humanity, “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). “Hitchens was seeking liberation in all of its manifestations—chiefly sexual and political—and atheism became a means of achieving it” (15).

Chapter 2 describes the intellectual weapons Hitchens marshaled as a would-be champion of his cause. “Voracious reading was undertaken for the sake of gaining new weapons to defend opinions he already held, rather than challenge and mature them” (19–20). He read wisely but not deeply because his chief aim was to excel in debate, a talent he honed in the Oxford Union Society while attending Balliol College (21–23).

The danger here—and Christopher fell wholeheartedly into its snares—was developing a love of words insofar as they were weapons for attack and defense of his position, rather than loving words insofar as they lead to truth. (23)

All of his thinking and debating presupposed the antithesis of Christianity: there is no God (25).

Taunton soon learned the difference between the public and the private Hitchens. In Chapter 3, “Two Books,” he describes the “public Christopher” as “the confident, bombastic, circuit-riding atheist-pugilist” (29). But underneath the surface was an appreciation for the aesthetic aspects of Christianity. He loved the King James Version of the Bible (32–33).

It was no small thorn in Hitchens’s side that his younger brother Peter became a Christian (48). A journalist and author, Peter “openly denounced his atheism” and wrote a book about it, The Rage against God (52).[1] The subtitle in US editions is: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. While they strongly disagreed, they maintained a cordial relationship.

September 11, 2001, proved to be a milestone in Christopher’s life. The title of his reflection on the event in Slate ten years later tells it all, “Simply Evil” (68). This turned his sympathies to “the forces of law and order” (68). He was appalled at the response of “the intellectual class” of which he considered himself so vital a part:

[They] seemed determined at least to minimize the gravity of what had occurred, or to translate it into innocuous terms (poverty is the cause of political violence) that would leave their worldview undisturbed. (68)

His worldview would do a 180, at least politically. In 2007 Hitchens became an American citizen (74). “Christopher wanted a real fight with a real enemy: 9/11 gave him both, and made him an American patriot” (75).

Hitchens’s political shift put him in contact with Christians. His

friendships with “Christian conservatives” formed after his publication of god Is Not Great[2] would in fact bring about a deeper change, a change made possible by the shock of 9/11, one that moved him beyond any comfortable stopping point. (80)

This lead to Hitchens’s challenge to debate Christians “anytime and anywhere” (82).

Chapter 8 enters Hitchens’s encounter with true Christianity, which held out many surprises for him. “What started as a vain attempt to bring God’s kingdom crashing down became a means for his surreptitious investigation of hidden spiritual questions” (84). The third major shock of his life, after 9/11 and Peter’s conversion, was his discovery of intelligent and compassionate Christians. They just did not fit the atheist stereotype (86–87). Hitchens would later declare,

I much prefer this sincerity [Evangelical] to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing. (88).

After debating Al Sharpton, Hitchens concluded, “Total huckster. I’m convinced he is an atheist” (88). So he hated not Evangelicals but intellectual frauds.

Now enter Taunton, who first met Hitchens at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2008. Although Taunton doesn’t say this bluntly, there was a strong element of intellectual fraud in Hitchens. His performance in debate was more important than the substance of arguments. But there was more.

Christopher was not the atheist ideologue I had supposed him to be from reading god Is Not Great and listening to his lectures and debates. An ideologue will adhere to his given dogma, no matter what…. I had just discovered, however, that this man, one of atheism’s high priests was, in fact, a heretic. (104)

Taunton waited for about a year before he had developed a friendship with Hitchens that enabled him to challenge some of his atheistic assumptions. Importantly it was some of Taunton’s practices, like adopting a Ukrainian girl, Sasha, with “fetal alcohol syndrome, HIV, rickets, and significant emotional and neurological disorders” that moved Hitchens to discuss the reasons for Taunton’s faith (107–8). Hitchens often issued a challenge to Christians: name a Christian ethical statement or practice that could not be affirmed or performed by a non-believer (107). Hitchens had no answer for Sasha. “Hitchens found this kind of Christianity, the sort that took the Bible’s mandate to care for others, deeply seductive” (108).

The genuineness and intelligence of Taunton’s faith eventually lead to Hitchens accepting a challenge to take a trip and study the gospel of John (120). “Atheist Christopher Hitchens, spectacles perched on his nose, was reading the Bible aloud on the front seat of my car” (122). Taunton recognizes that in his long discussions with Hitchens he is battling an agenda—the agenda of unbelief. Milton memorably sums up this Van Tilian point, “Who overcomes by force, hath overcome but half his foe” (125). Two strengths in Taunton’s approach to witness are his desire to let the Bible speak and his constant prayer for Hitchens. His conversations summarized in the chapter titled “The Shenandoah” are instructive and moving.

Taunton’s last debate with Hitchens demonstrates what a difference was made by Taunton’s patient witness in Hitchens's life. When the moderator asked Hitchens what he thought of Taunton, an Evangelical Christian, Taunton braced himself for the public answer, which was often quite different form the private sentiment. Hitchens said, “If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do” (150). Of course, over the years Hitchens had become a pariah among the new atheists. But he never backed down on his appreciation for the genuine article he had discovered in Taunton.

I will not tell my readers the conclusion. That would spoil the suspense. Read it for yourself. It is well worth the time.


[1] Peter Hitchens, The Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

[2] Christopher Hitchens, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette, 2007).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, December 2016.

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Ordained Servant: December 2016

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Geerhardus Vos: Professor at the Theological School in Grand Rapids

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