I just read David Frum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “Betraying The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.” The article provides a scathing review of the Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s new book: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Frum’s takedown of Taunton is so devastating that I will let the aforementioned article speak for itself. (Frum is a well-known conservative political commentator and former speechwriter for American President George W. Bush.)
Taunton’s book claims that Hitchens was considering converting to Christianity at the end of his life. (Taunton’s outrageous claim provides evidence for the idea that people generally believe what they want to believe despite all evidence to the contrary.) He bases this astonishing claim on his interpretation of a few conversations he had with Hitchens. Not only is this evidence anecdotal, but it contradicts Hitchens’ very public and forceful claims to the contrary. At the end of his life Hitchens could not have been more direct in rejecting the idea of a deathbed conversion as the videos below show.
Viewing any of the above videos should put Taunton’s nonsense to rest. As for Hitchens’ views of religion in general, they are set out clearly in his magnum opus: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The idea that Hitchens would reject his lifelong views at the end of his life is preposterous. Taunton may wish that Hitchens had converted in order to make Taunton feel good about his own irrational beliefs, but wishing does not make it so.
Of course religious stories about the deathbed conversions of atheists and agnostics are legendary. Thomas Paine, atheist and a prominent figure in the American revolution, was said to have had such a conversion. End of life conversions stories have also been told about the great philosopher David Hume and the contemporary philosopher Antony Flew. The most famous deathbed conversion story is that of Charles Darwin, but even the religious site Answers in Genesis acknowledges that this story isn’t true.
All of these conversion stories express the sentiment of the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The idea is that in times of extreme stress or when facing death people are more likely to believe in, or hope for, divine help. But there are problems with the aphorism. First, the aphorism isn’t true, for clearly many people die as atheists. Second, even if the aphorism were true and foxholes were populated exclusively by theists, that says nothing whatsoever about whether theism is true. Moreover, if true the aphorism really reveals that the source of religion is fear. And that doesn’t reflect well on religion, although it has made it a very profitable endeavor.
The reasons that motivate the religious to believe in deathbed conversions are obvious. Some believers just can’t accept that others are reject the gods; some find atheism threatening because it causes believers self-doubt; and others hate that they can’t force heathens to agree with them. But whatever the reasons, believers often find comfort by telling themselves that atheists convert at the end of their life.
But this is all so pathetic. Even if Darwin, Hume or Hitchens converted at the end of their lives—which they didn’t—so what? This would have no bearing on the truth of theism. Apollo, Zeus, Allah or Yahweh either exist or they don’t. If theists are really confident about their beliefs, why would they care that others convert? Are believers so insecure in their beliefs that they must invent stories about other people agreeing with them? Surely these deathbed conversion stories appeal to believers because believers have doubts.
But perhaps the deepest reason these false deathbed conversion stories resonate with believers is that they help believers repress what to them is a terrifying idea—that most of what passes for their cherished belief is just superstitious nonsense.