Two Sets of Books

Disclaimer: I submitted this to the New York Times as a response to the article that is mentioned here but I never heard back from them within their specified time frame for publishing, so instead I decided to publish on my site.

I set these words down to address a very particular topic, and a very particular person. It is with a considerable amount of disagreement that I address Larry Taunton regarding his piece entitled “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” and inform him of why his interpretations of private conversations with Hitchens are not only horrible misrepresentations of the man himself, even as lackadaisical musings, but do nothing but use as a crutch his memory and legacy to attempt to cement the supposed inherit lie that all non-religious persons adhere to, on the surface, and secretly pine for salvation in the closet, placating the ego of the pious.

Getting right to the facts, in an article in the New York Times, dated Saturday March 14th, 2016, titled “Famous Atheist’s Non-Faith Is Questioned in Friend’s Book,” an excerpt lays the foundation for Taunton’s story:

“… In September 2010, five months after Mr. Hitchens’s diagnosis of cancer, he and Hitch drove the thirteen hours from Mr. Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C. to a Fixed Point debate in Birmingham, Ala. The next month, after an event in Billings, Mont., they took a seven-hour trip to, and around, Yellowstone National Park. As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is the grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham. Based principally on these conversations, Mr. Taunton concluded that Mr. Hitchens was seeking – and that he was, at least, open to – the possibility that Christianity was true. Perhaps, Mr. Taunton writes, Mr. Hitchens “used his position as a journalist as a kind of professional cover for a very personal inquiry” into the faith.”

Later, another excerpt:

“Still, Mr. Taunton laces his book with plenty of winks toward hopeful Christians, who would be understandably glad to see the conversion of an atheist as prominent as Mr. Hitchens. He quotes John le Carre’s George Smiley, who says, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (the movie, not the book), “The fantastic is always concealing a secret doubt.” He writes that Mr. Hitchens had to keep up the front of an unquestioning atheist because it “was a matter of professional pride for him to play the part for which he had been hired.”

Again, another excerpt quoting Michael Shermer, who had originally written a highly favorable review of the book, later asked for it to be redacted on account of a growing discomfort with Taunton’s near-abuse usage of Hitchen’s phrase “keeping two sets of books”:

“But you mean his wife, his family, his books, every interview he ever gave was all deceitful, but you, you got the real story?” he said, referring to Mr. Taunton. “I don’t think so.””

One last excerpt:

“Mr. Wilson agreed that, whatever the truth about Mr. Hitchens’s dying beliefs, the intrigue makes for a good story. “Christians like the idea of saved in the nick of time,” he said. “They like the idea of a cliffhanger ending.””

Next I would like to bring to light excerpts from Christopher Hitchens himself, from his memoir “Hitch 22.” Specifically the First Trade Edition: June 2011, published by Twelve, which contains a preface authored by Christopher Hitchens dated January 20, 2011. This puts the writing of these words after the time frame which Taunton claims to have had an enlightening experience with Hitchens. The first:

“A continuous theme in Hitch-22 is the requirement, exacted by a life of repeated contradictions, to keep two sets of books. My present condition intensifies this rather than otherwise. I am forced to make simultaneous preparations to die, and to go on living. Lawyers in the morning, as I once put it, and doctors in the afternoon.”

Another:

“Another element of my memoir – the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity – has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience.”

Another:

“The cause of my life has been that of combating superstition, which among other things means confronting the dreads upon which it feeds. For some inexplicable reason, our culture regards it as normal, even creditable, for the godly to admonish those who they believe to be expiring. A whole tawdry edifice – of fabricated “deathbed conversions” and moist devotional literature – has arisen on this highly questionable assumption. Though I could have chosen to take offense (at being silkily invited to jettison my convictions when in extremis: what an insult and what a non-sequitur too) I was actually grateful for the heavy attention I received from the faithful. It gave my atheism, if you like, a new lease on life. It also help me keep open a long debate to which I am proud to have contributed a little.”

Another:

“The irruption of death into my life has enabled me to express a trifle more concretely my contempt for the false consolation of religion, and belief in the centrality of science and reason.”

And finally:

“I wasn’t born to do any of the things I set down here, but I was born to die and this coda must be my attempt to assimilate the narrative to its conclusion.”

A very critical note that Taunton and Wilson (who was referenced briefly in the excerpts above) miss, at this juncture it would have to be inferred that it was blatantly ignored, was that Hitchens, much like the literary titans he surrounded himself with, was pursuant first and foremost toward the passion for literature. Littered throughout “Hitch 22,” and from various recorded speaking engagements, one has very little difficulty in determining this fact. It is not uncommon for an intellectual to be thirsty for knowledge – a thirsty reader will read, a thirsty writer will write, a thirsty painter will paint, etc… Nietzsche lays down this point better than most, while also laying the groundwork for the integrity of the intellectual in “On the Genealogy of Morals”: “… For nothing else befits a philosopher. We have no right to any isolated act whatsoever: to make isolated errors and to discover isolated truths are equally forbidden us. Rather, our thoughts, our values, our yeses and noes and ifs and whethers grow out of us with the same necessity with which a tree bears its fruits – all related and connected to one another and evidence of a single will, a single health, a single earth, a single sun.” This singularity is not a darling toward self-serving pious folks, as you’d have an incredibly hard time pouring over Nietzsche’s work the baptismal waters (the same person who declared himself to be the anti-Christ), but instead a reference to the insatiable thirst for an intellectual to seek knowledge, and that knowledge has no boundaries, and further that an intellectual has a responsibility to knowledge to not be isolated in its pursuit. A headline quote from the same New York Times article reads “An impious author who might have been exploring faith before he died.” – the absurdity oozing from the pores of the words here is astonishing, especially when in the context of Hitchens. – As if making inquiries into faiths, the texts behind them, and the people who are supposed to adhere to them, automatically implies that one is on the steps toward submission and salvation – please. A turn of this sort plays heavily on the intellectual’s due diligence of knowing about what it is they wish to discuss, something of which is the foundation for any serious intellectual. It is not uncommon for an atheist to read the multiple revisions of the Bible, or any other religious text, or study the principles of the religions around the world. This does not make them an active or even impending member of those religions.

As mentioned in the excerpts above, Hitchens makes reference to the “two sets of books” metaphor quite often. Not just from the quotations above, this use can be seen in his other book “god Is Not Great” and in various other recorded speaking events. Michael Shermer above requested that his positive review of Tounton’s book be redacted due to the latter having overused the dualist metaphor to an alarming degree. So what does Hitchens mean when he uses this? Yet two more excerpts from “Hitch 22”, both regarding his time at a school called Camdean:

“… We were all of us compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity as well, and nature was sometimes enlisted as illustrating god’s design, but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays. In fact, as you have perhaps guessed, I was getting an early training in the idea that life meant keeping two separate and distinct sets of books. If my parents knew what really went on at the school, I used to think (not being the first little boy to imagine that my main job was that of protecting parental innocence), they would faint from the shock. So I would be staunch and defend them from the knowledge.”

Second:

“Again come the two sets of books: I would escape to the library and lose myself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and “Sapper” and G.A. Hentry and Percy Westerman, and acquaint myself with imperial and military values just as, unknown to me in the England of the late 1950s that lay outside the school’s boundary, these were going straight out of style. Meanwhile and on the other side of the ledger, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really part of the hierarchy of cruelty, either as bully or victim.”

The meaning alone can be discerned from the first but the use of the second is to help ease along what is meant here.

Knowing that he had a distinct distaste for religion, especially a noted one for Christianity, and early on, Hitchens proceeds to say that he in fact did enjoy engaging in singing, reading, and learning. Saying it that way isn’t some coy subtraction of words in an effort to obviously remove them from the equation. It is instead used to point out that when considering the context, one taking part in activities with others, is indeed a reflection of human nature – the very real and truly inert need to be social, surrounded by others, accepted, and to reciprocate these things. The other children around him were doing the same exact things, as if it were all normal; these actions do not require qualification of the numinous to be dignified – a common misconception. The “two sets of books” metaphor holds more closely to the duality, introduced and contained within societies, enjoined on its constituents which in turn makes manifestly clear to the agent that innate desires and the results of them will nearly consistently be in conflict with the scaffolding prescribed to you. Not only does it have intimate ties with who and what we are as humans, which is not a shadow of an arrogant or indifferent god, but also to the attempts to reconcile those differences in accordance with the will to exhibit the love, friendship, and solidarity that is so important. It is not, as the pious would like to have it, and according so dotingly to Mr. Wilson, a good story that plays toward the Christian end-of-life ideal of repentance at the last moment for the dissenters.

Taunton’s assertions that Hitchens was only playing as an atheist because he was “hired” to be is as disingenuous and dishonest to a “friend” as one can be, as there is absolutely no way possible that one could ever entertain the thought that Hitchens had a last glimmer of faith and struggled with himself as to the object of commitment.

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2 thoughts on “Two Sets of Books

  1. It’s really frustrating to see people praising Taunton’s book. So many Christians calling it ‘heart-warming’ and such. Whatever they believe, you would think a consciencious reader would see it for the disingenuous series of back-handed insults that it is.

    1. Agreed. There is no way one can even entertain such a thought. Interestingly, one would have to think that Hitchens would have thought that something like this would happen posthumously; A descent of the vultures only after the carcass lie dead.

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