Deathbed Conversion? Christopher Hitchens Died A Blaspheming Atheist
The great author and polemicist Christopher Hitchens bowed out too soon in 2011 after succumbing to oesophageal cancer. There’s always the temptation to write ‘after losing a long battle with cancer’, but as Hitch himself said:
‘You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure’
Hitchens felt it was more accurate to describe the experience as one of being battled by cancer, rather than the other way around:
‘Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water’
False reports of deathbed conversions (usually to Christianity) are nothing new. They aim to invalidate the important work of the named individual – who has usually popularised or pioneered a set of ideas which throws the credibility of the church into question.
The hope is that by claiming this godless blasphemer had recanted their heresy during their final hours, they can convince people that their anti-theistic diatribes were insincere and in turn – false. It’s also remarkably convenient for the accuser that their target is no longer around to counter their claims.
Of course, even if someone does ‘convert’ on their deathbed, all it says to me is that people can behave irrationally when afraid. It’s more of a celestial ad hominem than an argument for the divine.
The fact that Christopher Hitches can now join the false deathbed conversion club with the likes of Charles Darwin and Thomas Paine is a testament to the impact his work has had on the intellectual landscape. I suppose it’s only really a surprise that the first dishonest opportunist took so long to strike.
The first strike comes by way of Larry Alex Taunton’s book The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, released 5 years after Hitchens’s death.
Taunton describes himself as a ‘friend’ of Christopher Hitchens which is a claim almost as dubious as the book’s main charge. Luckily, Jerry Coyne has done a fantastic job of wiping that particular toilet seat in a piece titled ‘A vulture spreads the false rumor that Hitchens accepted God at the end’.
Indeed, what particularly struck me about the late hours of Christopher Hitchens’s career was how focussed and lucid he appeared to be during the latter stages of his illness. I think his debate with former Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of his finest for example.
You can also see a visibly frail Hitchens during his last ever public appearance at the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention. It’s clear that while his body is weakening, his mind remained as alert as ever.
Hitchens was well aware that he would receive the deathbed conversion treatment and had spoken about it a number of times saying “it goes on all the time. It’s a nasty little history”. On the question that he may convert in his dying moments? “Well fuck that is what I say!” adding: “and will say if it’s my last breath”.
In today’s Guardian, the excellent Nick Cohen has also done a fantastic job of taking apart the claims of Taunton’s new book. Frustrated with seemingly respectable publications promoting the falsehoods contained within it, Cohen (reluctantly) reached out to Christopher Hitchens’s son Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, who had this to say:
On the deathbed conversion – I spent my father’s final weeks and days at his bedside and watched him draw his final breath and die, and can assure you that there was no hint of any sort of conversion (as I’m sure you have already guessed). In fact, we barely spoke about religion at all except for joint expressions of frustration at the god botherers who made the rounds in the ICU and other units where dying people could be preyed upon by vulturous Christians.
Nick Cohen makes a great point on the importance of countering lies when he explains his decision to reach out to Alex:
I want to print what he [Alex] said because lies on the web can last for ever and need to be countered. Indeed, they have always needed to be countered. In the 19th century, American believers claimed Tom Paine had died “howling and terrified”, recanting his assaults on organised religion and the reliability of the Bible.
After the New York Observer repeated the canard one too many times, the atheist Robert Ingersoll made a large bet that it could not justify the claim. He forced the editor to run a retraction headed “Thomas Paine died a blaspheming Infidel” when he won. Charles Darwin’s daughter, Henrietta Litchfield, had to go to similar trouble to stop the lie that her father on his deathbed had regretted his theory of evolution gaining credence.
I like to reread Christopher Hitchens’s final book ‘Mortality’ every once in a while. It’s only short, and despite its themes (death, cancer), it’s a surprisingly uplifting and amusing read.
Chapter 8 is a collection of ‘fragmentary jottings’ which were ‘left unfinished at the time of the author’s death’. One such jotting never fails to make me chuckle:
“If i convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does”
If you want to learn more about the life and work of Christopher Hitchens, I recommend watching ‘The Hitch’ – a brilliantly made online indie documentary.
Christopher Hitchens was sharp, stoic and godless to the end. I miss him, a lot.