It was Larry Alex Taunton’s show, but the Babcock Theater stage was dominated Thursday night by the man who wasn’t there: Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens, a noted author, journalist and enemy of religion, is the subject of Taunton’s new book, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.” The book won’t be officially released until April 12, but Taunton previewed the book before about 75 people in the theater where he and Hitchens debated in 2010.
That debate, he said, helped cement an unlikely friendship between the unapologetic atheist and the devoted Christian. Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation, which attempts to bring Christian and secular viewpoints together, said that Hitchens was increasingly drawn to Christianity toward the end of his life, which was cut short by esophageal cancer on Dec. 15, 2011.
“He was trying on Christianity,” Taunton said. “He was thinking about it.”
Hitchens grew up in England, where at age 15 he burned a Bible and proclaimed himself a Trotskyite. He went on to a prominent career as a writer and journalist who was known for his debating skills and for frequent TV appearance on news shows.
He wrote book-length attacks on Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger, whom he considered a war criminal. He was equally critical of Ronald Reagan and Michael Moore, and he alienated liberal readers with his support of George W. Bush and his invasion of Iraq.
Hitchens often referred to himself as an “antitheist,” meaning not just that he rejected belief in God but also that believing in God had bad consequences. His 2007 book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” laid out his religious beliefs, or lack of them.
He was by numerous accounts, including his own, a heavy smoker and drinker, but he also read widely and seemed to remember everything he read. His formidable debating skills not only drew on vast learning and sharp wit but also on his willingness to sink to whatever level the debate seemed to require.
In a contentious appearance on the Fox News show “Hannity and Colmes” following the death of evangelist Jerry Falwell, Hitchens memorably concluded by saying, “If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.”
Hitchens also knew how to impress American audiences with his English accent and how to appear to be speaking extemporaneously when he actually was repeating the same jokes and canned phrases over and over again, Taunton said.
“Christopher was a consummate showman,” Taunton said, adding, “Christopher very cleverly crafted his own public image.”
The two met in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Hitchens was debating John Lennox, an Oxford professor who studied under C.S. Lewis and who is, Taunton said, “the C.S. Lewis of our time.”
Taunton and Hitchens quickly became friends, and Taunton called Hitchens in 2010 after seeing on television that he had been removed from an airplane because of difficulty breathing.
Hitchens told him, even before he told his own family, that he had just been diagnosed with a form of cancer that killed 95 percent of its victims within five years.
“Larry, it’s a death sentence,” Hitchens said. When Taunton said he would pray for Hitchens, he replied, “I know you mean that, and I am grateful.”
Despite his illness, Hitchens was determined to keep his commitment to appear in a Birmingham, Ala., debate with agnostic David Berlinski, moderated by Taunton.
“From a Christian perspective, there could be no winner in that debate,” Taunton said.
Hitchens asked for a ride to the debate, and together Taunton and Hitchens drove 750 miles, from Hitchens’ home in Washington, D.C., through the Shenandoah Valley to Alabama. Hitchens had packed enough liquor for a battalion, Taunton said, and along the way, Hitchens sat with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black between his knees as the two discussed the Gospel of John.
At one point, Hitchens said that his daughter was angry at him.
“She’s very angry with me because she feels that I have killed myself,” he said. “And of course she’s right. I have deprived her of a father.”
After the Alabama debate, Hitchens said he wanted to debate Taunton, but he was concerned that his remaining time was too short to arrange the logistics. Fortunately, Taunton knew Brian Mattson, a graduate of Montana State University Billings who hosts the “Dead Reckoning” web video series, and he was able to arrange the debate in Billings. Together, they made the trip to Montana.
Hitchens once told Taunton that he took a three-step approach to debate: know the opponent, know the opponent’s argument, then decide whether to destroy the opponent or the argument.
When Taunton replied that Hitchens had never tried to destroy him, Hitchens said, “That’s because you believe it.” But he said he considered the Rev. Al Sharpton, an activist and TV personality, a total huckster with no real faith.
“You ask me whom I seek to destroy in a debate,” Hitchens said. “That’s a good start.”
On the trip to Billings, Taunton said, they stopped at a convenience store that offered an extension to cigarettes that removed tar and nicotine.
“Oh, I wish I’d known,” Hitchens said. They both laughed, but Taunton used that anecdote in the Billings debate, and told Thursday night’s audience, “I am afraid that my friend will tumble into eternity and say, ‘I wish I’d known.’”
Not long after his cancer was diagnosed, Hitchens said on the Charlie Rose TV show that the disease would not change his position on religion.
“If I convert,” he said, “it means that the cancer has gone to my brain.”
But Taunton asserted that Hitchens was not always what he seemed to be in public life. He understood and expected that Taunton would try to convert him to Christianity.
“Christopher was determined that I would pursue his soul,” Taunton said. Taunton said he told Hitchens that his cancer was a sign of God’s mercy, “a shot across your bow” to turn to religion. At the end, Taunton said, “He was flirting with conversion to Christianity.”
Taunton said that he missed Hitchens both as a friend and as an ally against false religions and political nonsense. Did Hitchens, he asked, ever finally come around to Christianity?
“You have to read the book,” he said.
With that, he concluded his remarks and began signing copies of his new book. For even the biggest skeptics in the audience, it was hard not to hope that Hitchens was out there somewhere in eternity, preparing to deliver his rebuttal.