Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.